Home History Invasion of Philadelphia by the British

Invasion of Philadelphia by the British

by Tatiana Sandlewood
Invasion of Philadelphia by the British

The British troops Invasion of Philadelphia from that day until the next spring, when they marched into the city on September 26, 1777. Although wartime shortages quickly caused suffering for those who remained in the city, its arrival caused Loyalists to cheer and Patriots to flee. However, there were no tangible benefits from the occupation, and the British left the city in June of the following year.

After two years of fruitless conflict, the British intended to conquer New England in 1777. Instead, they chose to take over Philadelphia. The British planned to send two troops into New York state with the goal of capturing New England. The first left from Canada and was led by General John Burgoyne (1722–92). At the same time, troops under the command of General William Howe (1729–1814) would have been moving north along the Hudson River from New York City. By putting these two armies between New England and the other colonies, the British would have been able to invade and take over.

British General William Howe took Philadelphia in September 1777 and led the bombardment of Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer later that year to open a supply line to the occupied city. (Library of Congress)

Howe did not carry out this strategy, much to the amazement of his superiors. He rejected the proposal, maybe due to a personal hatred of General Burgoyne, concern over giving General George Washington (1732–99) time to reassemble his force, or uncertainty about his own capacity to carry out the Hudson River campaign. Instead, he sailed south along the coast before turning northward into Philadelphia through the Chesapeake Bay with a force of around 15,000 English and German men. He arrived in August 1777 at Head of Elk, which is around fifty miles from the city.

For a variety of reasons, Howe focused on Philadelphia. Philadelphia, of course, served as both the Continental Congress’s meeting location and the nation’s capital. Additionally, it appears that Howe wanted to enlist Washington in a conflict that would endanger the Continental Army permanently. Joseph Galloway (1731–1803), a well-known Loyalist, said that more than 75% of Americans in Philadelphia and the surrounding area were Crown Loyalists and would welcome and support the British.

The Battle of Brandywine Creek took place in

At the Battle of Brandywine Creek, Washington tried in vain to halt the British advance while carefully observing Howe’s moves (September 1777). Washington lost, and it cost him dearly—out of 11,000 soldiers, there were over 900 losses, compared to only 550 for Howe. Thousands of patriotic Philadelphians, including the Continental Congress participants, fled as the British troops drew near. Sarah Logan Fisher (1751–1766), wife of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, wrote of “wagons rattling, horses galloping, women running, children weeping, delegates flying, & altogether the greatest panic, horror, and terror that can be imagined.” Before the British arrived, rumors of looting and thievery intensified, and it has been estimated that more than 10% of Philadelphia’s properties were abandoned by their owners.

On September 26, 1777, Loyalists gathered in the streets of Philadelphia to greet Howe as he returned to the city under British rule. At the Battle of Germantown on October 5, Washington attempted to drive the British out but was unsuccessful.

This map of the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia shows three American-occupied fortifications that British naval ships attacked during the summer and fall of 1777. (Library of Congress)

Howe faced significant issues after taking over Philadelphia. There were still about 15,000 civilians present despite the fact that many Americans had gone. Another 15,000 soldiers were added to Howe’s army. However, Howe’s supply lines were insufficient. After marching through land to Philadelphia, he needed to have control of the Delaware River to secure a sufficient supply of food. However, two American forts, Fort Mercer on the New Jersey side of the river and Fort Mifflin on Mud Island, defended the Delaware. Both forts were successfully held by the Americans for over seven weeks. Philadelphia then experienced suffering due to a lack of food and other supplies. Philadelphians reported British and German soldiers taking horses, cattle, wood, food, and clothing.

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British officers quartered with the locals. Churches served as hospitals for sick and injured soldiers. American inmates at the Walnut Street Jail faced extreme misery, including hunger, cold, and mistreatment by their guards. When describing the city’s suffering in October 1777, the Quaker diarist Elizabeth Drinker (1735–1807) wrote, “If things don’t change soon, we shall be in bad affliction, everything scarce and dear, and nothing suffer’d to be brought in to us.”

The forts were destroyed in November, which relieved the blockade, but prices in the city remained high and residents persisted in complaining about military theft and other crimes. Without much success, Howe made an effort to discourage such conduct. In his regular court-martial sentences, which could have included up to a thousand lashes for theft and other crimes, he offered money for information about crimes.

The British fortified the city’s defenses, watched over the American army at Valley Forge, and dispatched foragers into the countryside to look for wood and hay during the protracted fall and winter months. The thousands of soldiers in the army, however, could not be kept busy with such responsibilities. Therefore, the British also turned to a wide range of leisure pursuits. A few people passed the time by drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. Some people went in search of more elaborate amusement, throwing dinner parties and participating in amateur theater. From January to May, British officers put on performances at the Southwark Theatre on Monday nights, playing at least 14 different plays.

The Stepping Down of Howe

When Howe handed in his resignation in April of 1778, his officers made preparations for a huge party to celebrate him before he left office. This “Meschianza,” which means “medley” in Italian, started off with flatboats and galleys that were magnificently decked out in decorations and carried officers and hundreds of guests down the river. After this processsion finished, there was a tournament held in honor of the “Ladies of the Blended Rose” and the “Ladies of the Burning Mountain,” in which British officers costumed up as medieval knights competed in jousting matches. After the competition, there was a feast, followed by dancing, fireworks, and more dancing.

The participants thought the event was a tremendous success, but not all residents of Philadelphia shared their opinion. In a city that was occupied at the time, the cost of the Meschianza was astoundingly high, coming in at over three thousand guineas. At the time, the locals frequently grumbled about shortages and excessive prices. The author of the diary, Drinker, was critical of the commanders’ extravagant spending, stating that it was “insensible” of them to do so while “our land is so severely desolated, and death and bitter destruction have overtaken and impended over so many.”

Meschianza Ticket

While Howe and his army were spending the winter in Philadelphia, the tide of the war began to swing in the opposing side’s favor. Burgoyne, who lacked assistance from Howe, eventually capitulated and surrendered at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. This victory for the United States pushed the French to get into an alliance with the United States. Due to the fact that the French fleet posed a threat to British ambitions in America, the British were no longer able to afford to keep their occupation of Philadelphia, especially considering the fact that they had accomplished nothing beneficial by doing so. It was ordered that General Henry Clinton (1730–95), who had been stationed in Philadelphia, should evacuate the city and head to New York. In June of 1778, British troops evacuated Philadelphia, taking approximately three thousand loyalists with them.

The British occupation of Philadelphia and subsequent abandonment of the city led to difficult decisions for black citizens of Philadelphia, regardless of whether or not they were enslaved. In the years 1777 and 1778, it was not entirely clear which side’s triumph would be more likely to result in more freedom and rights: the Americans or the British. On the one hand, sentiments held by Quakers and abolitionists in Philadelphia had been on the rise in the ten years leading up to the conflict.

The number of free black people in the city increased as a result of masters freeing their slaves. Slaves in Philadelphia may have harbored the notion that a victory for the United States would result in additional freedoms for them or maybe the abolition of slavery altogether. A total of 35 black men served in the Second Pennsylvania Brigade of the Continental Army throughout the conflict, while others saw service on American privateers.

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On the other hand, African-American men and women in Philadelphia were among the first to learn of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation (which was issued on November 7, 1775), which offered freedom to slaves owned by Patriots who joined the British army. The word of Dunmore’s proclamation made its way to Philadelphia in less than a week, despite the fact that he was the royal governor of Virginia. During the occupation, a significant number of Africans and African Americans appear to have come to the conclusion that the British offered better opportunities than the Americans, and they worked as soldiers, guides, and workers for the British. When the British forces withdrew from the area, they took dozens of slaves with them.

There was not much benefit to the British war effort from the seizure of Philadelphia. The United States government was able to endure even if the Continental Congress was forced to flee the city. The troops of George Washington made it through the difficult winter at Valley Forge. The Loyalists and the British in Pennsylvania had strained relations, which only got worse. Worse than that, Howe had missed a significant opportunity. Because he couldn’t find Burgoyne in New York, he wasted the best chance for the British to win the battle for New England. 

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