Fort Mifflin's Stubborn Stand
The autumn of 1777 marked a turning point in the American Revolution,
with the surrender of 5,800 British soldiers at Saratoga. At the time,
however, the significance of that event was not apparent, counterbalanced
as it was by the British occupation of Philadelphia and a series of defeats
for General George Washington's Continental Army. A critical factor in
Washington's survival thereafter was the stubborn resistance offered by
the American defenders of Fort Mifflin during a 40 day siege.
Located on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, Fort Mifflin, with the help of Fort Mercer on New Jersey side, successfully delayed Admiral Lord Richard Howe's 250 ship fleet in October 1777. The fort's defenders prevented the British fleet's supplies from reaching the army commanded by the admiral's brother, General Sir William Howe, and bought time for Washington's ragged Continental Army to move in to winter quarters at Valley Forge.
Up river from Fort Mifflin was the courageous but feeble Pennsylvania Navy, composed of a 28-gun frigate, four smaller ships, 13 armed row galleys, two floating cannon batteries and some fire ships loaded with gunpowder and dry brush, designed to set enemy ships ablaze if they could get close enough. Those were the puny defenses to oppose the fleet of an empire that sang boastfully about ruling the waves.
Meanwhile the land war was raging. The British invaders marched north, defeated the American forces at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th and swaggered into Philadelphia. Both armies knew that it was imperative for the British to clear the Delaware River of Fort Mifflin before cold weather set in.
On October 7th, John Montresor led a party of British engineers to Province Island, the swampy mainland area opposite Fort Mifflin. His mission was to select the artillery locations for the destruction of Fort Mifflin. The commander of Fort Mifflin, Lt. Col. Samuel Smith of Maryland, notified the tiny Pennsylvania Navy, which dispatched two eight-oar galleys armed with small cannons to chase the Redcoats away.
Although under fire, the British managed to get their first cannon in place during the night. Constant skirmishing followed over the next week as the British forces surrounded the little fort with cannons and mortars. On October 10th, the Redcoats emplaced an 8-inch mortar and an 8-inch cannon just across the back channel from Fort Mifflin, only 500 yards from the fort's wood and earth walls. The American militiamen cut dikes beside a nearby creek and flooded the meadows in which the British were entrenched.
At daybreak on the 11th, the British battery began a murderous fire. Fort Mifflin's guns were not in the right position to reply, and the timber walls on the landward side were inadequate, since the fort was designed as a river defense. At 9:30 am., Colonel Smith sent 180 men across the channel. They captured the battery, along with two British officers and 50 men. The British later returned with a new officer, recaptured the battery and rescued all but nine prisoners.
An American bayonet attack on October 12th failed, but Fort Mifflin's garrison managed to move two 8-pound and two 18-pound cannons into position to bombard the British emplacement. Despite aggressive American resistance, within the next few days the British had 32 heavy guns, two howitzers and three mortars trained on Fort Mifflin from land and floating batteries.
Across the Delaware River, Fort Mercer was held by 400 Continental soldiers from Rhode Island. A French engineer took a look at the site and decided that the Americans had erected fortifications that were too elaborate for their small force to hold. He had the troops build an interior wall that cut Fort Mercer nearly in half. While all the walls were still patrolled, the north section was otherwise abandoned.
Meanwhile, the British were preparing to attack Fort Mercer. The Hessian mercenaries serving the British were still embarrassed at being surprised when Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 and routed them at Trenton. colonel Carl von Donop begged for the privilege of attacking Fort Mercer, telling one of Howe's aides, "Tell your general that the Germans are not afraid to face death." To his own officers, he boasted, "Either the fort will soon be called Fort Donop, or I shall have fallen."
On October 22nd, a force of 2,000 Hessians surrounded Fort Mercer. At 4pm. a Hessian officer under a white flag approached the wall and addressed the defenders, haughtily demanding, "The King of England commands his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms...." The long, arrogant recitation, observed a French colonel, "only served to irritate the garrison." Colonel Christopher Greene, in command of Fort Mercer, replied to the Hessians, "We'll see King George damned first!"
Drums and bugles signaled an assault, and Donop's men advanced in two columns, one surging over the northern wall. Encountering little resistance, the Hessians began waving their hats and shouting, "Vittoria"-- until they saw the inner wall, bristling with American muskets. The second column of Hessian troops struck from the southern end and reached the fort wall only to discover they needed scaling ladders. Colonel Greene ordered his men, "Aim at their belts!" referring to the Hessians' white belts that were worn over the shoulders and crossed near the heart. Both Hessian columns were devastated by the defenders' musketry. "It may well be doubted," wrote British historian George Treveylan, "whether so few men in so small a space of time had ever delivered a deadlier fire."
Nearly every Hessian officer was killed. The troops pulled back in disarray. Colonel Donop was struck in the groin by a musket ball and was carried into a nearby farmhouse where he died. The Hessians suffered 180 killed and 200 wounded, while the Americans lost 14 men killed and 23 wounded during the fight at Fort Mercer.
Two British warships managed to bully their way through the river obstructions to support the Fort Mercer action, but they ran aground. At dawn on October 23, the Fort Mifflin cannoneers saw the 64-gun Augusta, named for King George's mother, lying stranded 1,000 yards away. Heating cannonballs in hastily built charcoal fires, the gunners lobbed red-hot iron into Augusta until a ball struck the powder magazine. She blew up in an explosion that was heard for 50 miles. The other ship, the 18-gun sloop Merlin, was set ablaze and abandoned by her crew. Under fire, Americans in small boats retrieved an 18-pound cannon and a 24-pound cannon from the burning Augusta and brought them to Fort Mifflin.
That proved to be the last victorious moment for the defenders of Fort Mifflin. The British attacks continued, while cold wind and constant rain took their toll. On November 7th, only 115 out of 320 Americans in the fort were well enough to stand their posts.
On November 10th, the British began incessantly bombarding Fort Mifflin from land and water. Portions of the fort's walls came tumbling down every day. At night, the exhausted defenders rebuilt what they could. A cannonball literally brought the roof down on Colonel Smith. He was carried from the fort, and on November 12th, Major Simeon Thayer of Rhode Island was given command. Washington ordered the fort "held to the last extremity."
In charge of damage control and the perpetual rebuilding efforts was Major Francois Louis Tesseidre de Fleury, a young French engineer who had been stationed at the fort since October 14. He used every scrap of wreckage and even the ever present mud to patch the bombarded works. "I have closed the breaches made in our palisades with planks, centry-boxes, rafters, and strengthened the whole with earth," he reported, adding desperately, "It is impossible with watery mud alone to make works capable of resisting the enemy's 32-pounders."
In the darkness of the rain swept night of November 13th, the entire force at Fort Mifflin was removed to New Jersey in small boats and replaced by 450 men, ill-equipped but in better health, from the 4th and 8th Connecticut regiments and the Virginia Artillery. Joseph Plumb Martin, a 17-year-old private from Connecticut, later wrote in his memoirs: "In the cold month of November, without provisions, without spare clothing, not a scrap of either shoes or stockings to my feet or legs, and in this condition to endure a siege in such a place as Fort Mifflin was appalling to the highest degree." He found the fort to be a morass where British shells would splatter into the mud "and sink so low that their report could not be heard when they burst, and I could only feel a tremulous motion of the earth at the time." Martin also recalled that when Fort Mifflin ran out of 32-pound cannonballs, the officers offered a half pint of rum as a reward to any soldier who could retrieve an incoming British 32-pound ball. "I have seen from 20 to 50 men standing on the parade waiting with impatience the coming of the shot," young Martin wrote, "which would often be seized before its motion had fully ceased." The cannonballs fired by the British, however, more often brought death and injury--not rum. "I saw five artillerists belonging to one gun crew cut down by a single shot," Martin wrote, "and I saw men who were stooping to be protected by the works, but not stooping low enough, split like fish to be broiled." Each day, cannonballs battered the fort's walls and flimsy barracks. Each night, the Americans shored up the damage.
Dawn of the 14th revealed a new British floating battery, armed with two 32-pounders, on the Schuykill River. The Mifflin garrison destroyed it with desperate cannon fire. Only 11 cannons were still operational in the fort, and the gunners were using 18-pound balls in the 32-pound cannons. Still the Americans persisted. "Our ruins will serve us as breastworks," wrote Major Fleury. "We will defend the ground inch by inch, and the enemy shall pay dearly for every step."
At 10am. on November 15th, a British bugle signaled the beginning of a lethal artillery and naval bombardment. The British forces fired 1,000 shots every 20 minutes. Iron rained down on Fort Mifflin, and the British ships penetrated the obstructions in the river. Five warships came within cannon range. The frigate Vigilant, armed with 14 24-pounders, and the sloop Fury, with 6 18-pounders, crept up the back channel to fire on the fort wall from point-blank range. The vessels were so close that Royal Marine sharpshooters in the rigging picked off American soldiers.
At 1pm. the fort ran out of ammunition. An officer lowered the flag, but a sergeant was cut in two by a cannonball while raising it again. The British bombardment ended only when darkness fell. The Americans' situation was hopeless. At midnight, boats began removing survivors to the Jersey shore. Before they left, the last 40 able-bodied men set fire to the wreckage that had once been Fort Mifflin.
Rowing cautiously through the blackness among the lurking British warships, the last American detachment plainly heard a British seaman boast, "We will give it to the damned rebels in the morning." Young Joseph Martin thought to himself, "The damned rebels will show you a trick which the devil never will; they will go off and leave you." At that moment, the burning fort flared up, revealing the Americans in their small boats. A hail of small-arms fire and cannon fire poured from the British warships. Nevertheless, only one American boat was sunk, and the soldiers were pulled from the water by their comrades; all made it safely to the New Jersey.
At dawn, the British saw the flag still flying over the smoldering ruins of Fort Mifflin. At 7:30 am., a British landing party cautiously entered the remnants of the fort. They reported finding "a great many dead bodies" and estimated American dead at 250 to 400. The number of British killed during the siege, depending on the source, was put at 7 or 13, along with 24 wounded. The Americans abandoned Fort Mercer on November 19th and burned the ships of the Pennsylvania Navy. The first British ships reached Philadelphia on the 23rd. Meanwhile, Washington's army had withdrawn toward the harsh, frigid safety of Valley Forge. Due to lack of supplies from the British fleet, the British declined to pursue Washington's army. Fort Mifflin's sacrifice had saved the American cause. Washington reported to Congress, "I am sorry to inform you that Fort Mifflin was evacuated, but only after a defense that does credit to the American arms, and will ever reflect the highest honor upon the officers and men of the garrison."
Military History Magazine
Out of these humble beginnings came a breed of men and women who carried
our Democracy down the path of time to where we stand now. They were Male,
Female, Military, Civilian, African American, Asian American, European
American, Native American, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist,
Hetero-sexual, Homo-sexual, Bi-sexual. They served in the....
War of 1812
Spanish American War
World War I
World War II
and many other places. Yet one common thing binds them, they all sacrificed the greatest gift anyone has ever been given (life) to give meaning to the second greatest gift anyone has ever received (freedom).
"Down through the ages, there is one sure-fire way to overthrow any
type of government with minimal risk to oneself. All one has to do is walk
right in and place 5 profound books in the hands of the people and walk
right back out. If one gets back out, then they are safe. Those five books
are labeled ....
1. All the Math
2. All the Sciences
3. All the Languages
4. All the Social Studies
5. All the Histories
Once the people get educated enough to learn their lot in life. They will rise up and overthrow their own government. In 1776 along comes Democracy and it states that it is the exception to this rule.
Yet nothing born out of the human race is perfect because humans themselves are not perfect. So what is Democracy's Achilles heel?
Maybe all one has to do is sit back and wait for it to grow ignorant of what it has. When it becomes ignorant enough, then simply give it a slight nudge and send it down the path to the from of government one wants. Be it communism or a dictatorship." --- LoneWolf 2000
In remembrance of those that have fallen to secure my freedom, you shall not be forgotten as long as I draw breath.