Saturday, December 10, 2016

Things: Cold and Stalemate at Whitemarsh

This week marked the anniversary of Whitemarsh: the last phase of the third year of the American struggle for independence. For several cold winter days, rebels and redcoats marched and counter marched as General George Washington hoped to lure the British General Howe into an end of year disaster.


General William Howe
General William Howe's Philadelphia campaign of 1777 was one of move, lose, move lose for George Washington and the Continental Army. Despite that, Howe and the British high command remained frustrated because the rebel army and its general continued to remain a force they would need to reckon with if winter quarters were to be enjoyed in peace and comfort. Despite his failed surprise attack on Germantown on 4 October, Washington remained unbeaten. He maneuvered his forces from post to post, ultimately settling in at a place called Whitemarsh, about 13 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Both Howe and Washington knew that an unbeaten American force in the field remained a psychological as well as real threat to British success. So in early December, Howe decided to make one last attempt to destroy Washington's army before the onset of winter, and began preparations for the attack on the rebel forces rumored to be in the process of moving to a new camp. But Washington's intelligence network, led by Major John Clark, became aware of British plans to surprise the Americans, possibly through a Quaker housewife Lydia Darragh. Because of the timely an accurate intelligence, regardless of the source, the Continental Army was ready.

Lydia Darragh was a Phila. nurse
and housewife said to have warned
Washington of British plans

Ready for Action

Undaunted by weeks of retreat, Washington and his men were ready for a fight. Washington was under pressure form Congress for defeats at Brandywine and Germantown and wanted to make up for them before the end of the campaign. He always envisioned a Breed's Hill style battle where his men would render British ranks asunder with massed fire from prepared positions. For their part his men would like nothing better than a chance to take out their frustrations on the lobsters.
The Americans had time to well fortify their positions so despite be cold, tired and hungry - they
were ready for action and even retribution. Washington had them defending high ground - seemingly another Breed's Hill scenario in the offing. And Howe intended to give the rebels the fight they wanted. The British were hoping for a decisive victory over the hapless rebels before winter closes in. For he too was under a cloud of sorts.

And Vindication

A British Army capitulated at Saratoga in October - an army many believed Howe was obliged to assist. Crushing Washington would be sweet vindication. Both Howe and Washington were in the shadow of the recent devastating British surrender at Saratoga. Howe  for not doing more to assist Gen. John Burgoyne, the vanquished British commander, in the hapless invasion  from Canada. Washington himself was under fire by some in Congress and the Army who questioned his leadership.

British surrender at Saratoga had
both Washington and Howe in its shadow

The Action

The British and Hessians left Philadelphia at midnight on a bitterly cold 4th of December, 14,000 strong.  Howe moved his men in two columns. One, under led by Lord Cornwallis, headed up Germantown Pike. A second column, led by Hessian General Knyphausen, marched toward the American left. Just before dawn on 5 December they arrive at Chestnut Hill where they encountered some 15,000 Americans ready for action. Trying to stir up a fight, Washington sends the Pennsylvania militia  towards Howe's left. The militia are repulsed after a short but intense fight. This begins  days of maneuvering by Howe's forces, who sought an opening in Washington's defenses with various feints and marches.The Continentals and militia are equal to the challenge. Washington's men are not surprised and manage to contain any potential breakthrough. In frustration, the British forces burn homes and farms, fanning the flames of resistance in a populace that was all but cowed by the British juggernaut. Howe launched a final effort to turn the American left flank on 7 December. He pushed forces along Edge Hill, a ridge  parallel to the American lines. But the Americans respond with militia and Virginia riflemen under Dan Morgan. The Americans are again repulsed after intense fighting, but the British withdraw. This begins a long day of sharp yet small and inconclusive skirmishes throughout the wooded ridge with no result. Frustrated at neither piercing the American defenses nor luring them into an open battle, Howe decides to withdraw. He leads his army back to Philadelphia. But Washington too is frustrated. His hope of luring Howe into a second Breed's Hill never materialized.The butcher's bill for Whitemarsh was 90 Americans killed or wounded, 60 British killed or wounded.

Howe at Whitemarsh

A Winter of Stalemate

Whitemarsh marked the end of the long and eventful campaigns of 1777. Howe and his army are secure in comfortable winter quarters in Philadelphia. A few days later, 11 December, Washington leads his army into the cold comfort of winter quarters at Valley Forge. The uneventful battle at Whitemarsh is unremarkable on its face. But in retrospect, the inconclusive series of skirmishes set the scene for the famous winter at Valley Forge that marked the birth of a professional American Army. As for Sir William Howe, his request for relief was approved and he would leave the Army the following spring.

Stalemate at Whitemarsh was last action
before George Washington leads his army to
a place called Valley Forge

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