The Philadelphia Campaign – August to November 1777
On 23 July a fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, conveying an army of fifteen thousand men led by his brother, General Sir William Howe, set sail from Sandy Hook, New York. Their aim was to capture the American rebel capital of Philadelphia which housed the Continental Congress, and in so doing dampen the colonists enthusiasm and confidence following a good winter and thereby drive the war towards a conclusion. Commodore William Hotham was left behind in command of the navy at New York where he supported an army of eight thousand men under Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton.
On 31 July the fleet of some two hundred and sixty-seven sail, including five 64’s, one 50 gun-ship and six frigates, arrived off the entrance to the Delaware River where they made a rendezvous with the Roebuck 44 which had been long stationed there. Her captain, the experienced Andrew Snape Hamond, was emphatic that the river was not navigable beyond a series of defences that had been thrown up by the Americans. After a conference with his brother Sir William, Lord Howe was prevailed upon to take his fleet further round to the Chesapeake, a voyage that because of ill and contrary winds would take another two weeks. The Liverpool was left in the stead of the Roebuck off the Delaware, as Captain Hamond would be required to pilot the fleet up the Chesapeake.
It was not until 15 August that the fleet came to anchor within the Chesapeake Capes, on the next day it stood up the bay, by the 22nd it was at anchor between the Sassafras and Elk Rivers, and on the 23rd the Howe brothers agreed upon a landing place at the Head of the Elk in Maryland. Thus by the time the army began preparing to disembark it had already endured a punishing five week sea-voyage, and it was almost as distant from Philadelphia as it had been at New York. The troops had been afflicted by thunderstorms, sea-sickness and finally an oppressive heat which in the close muddy waters of Chesapeake Bay left the men-of-war and transports becalmed in the unhealthiest of foetid atmospheres. As only three weeks forage had been embarked the horses had suffered even more, with many of the dead and dying being thrown overboard and the rest left as mere carrion. The only good news was that the Americans had been unable discover the British destination, for although the fleet had been sighted off the Delaware on the 31st, and two pilots had been seen to leave a local beach to join it, the Americans had not sighted it since. The New York Journal speculated correctly that its destination could be Philadelphia, but also printed the suggestions that it had sailed for Newport, Boston, New Hampshire, and even the retreat at Halifax. General Washington for his part surmised that Howe would endeavour to unite with Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne s army which was marching on New York from Canada, and he believed that the sailing of the fleet was a mere ruse. Accordingly he had kept his own army near New York.
On the morning of the 25th the shallower draught ships in the form of the Roebuck 44, Apollo 32, Sphynx 20, Vigilant 20, Senegal 14 and Swift 14, were ordered to plough their way up the muddy channels of the Elk River to cover the landing of the army. Taking as his flagship the vessel which made the furthest progress up the river, the captain of the fleet, Henry Duncan, oversaw the unopposed landing of the troops from the flat-boats. By the time darkness fell that evening the army had been placed ashore opposite the Cecil Court House, some six miles from Turkey Point, and had begun the fifty-mile march northwards to Philadelphia. General Washington, who by now had learned of the fleet s entry into Chesapeake Bay, marched his army south to defend Philadelphia and the two forces met at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September where General Howe defeated the 11,000-strong rebels and sent them in a confused retreat towards Philadelphia. Having then further weakened the enemy in a series of skirmishes and obliged the rebel Congress to flee into Pennsylvania, Howe was able to secure possession of the city by the end of the month, and amongst the shipping that he was able to detain there was the American frigate Delaware 24.
Meanwhile, on 6 September, Captain Duncan destroyed all the stores and any vessels that were no longer required at the Head of the Elk, thereby ensuring that they would not fall into rebel hands once the fleet departed. On 13 September news of the defeat of the rebel army at the Battle of the Brandywine was received, and the next day the fleet upped anchor in order to sail around to the Delaware to join Captain Hamond who had entered that river with the Pearl, Liverpool and Camilla under his orders. Progress down Chesapeake Bay was as desperate as it had been up it, and not until the 23rd was the fleet back off the Virginia Capes. Here Lord Howe left the majority of his ships under the orders of Captain Walter Griffith of the Nonsuch 64 whilst he sailed on ahead for the Delaware with the Eagle 64, Isis 50 Vigilant 20 and some transports. Due to the continuing poor weather and the sheer misfortune of a change in the winds however, he only entered the Delaware on 4 October with the rest of the fleet managing to join him two days later.
The British now began the clearance of the well-defended Delaware, initially through the efforts of the advanced squadron under the command of Captain Hamond, and then when the fleet arrived at Chester, ten miles down river from Philadelphia on 6 October, under the command of Lord Howe. Much of the American defences consisted of Benjamin Franklin’s chevaux de frise, these being solid timber structures topped by huge iron spikes that were sunk and anchored into the riverbed. On 2 October two regiments of British troops had cleared an unfinished redoubt at Billingsport which was intended to protect a double line of chevaux de frise upstream, and despite being harassed by rebel fire-rafts galleys and gunboats the Navy was now able to force a passage through the obstacle, giving passage up river to the fleet.
Next an attempt was made on Fort Mercer on the evening of 22 October, with a Hessian force being sent across the river in flatboats under the superintendence of Commander Samuel Clayton of the Strombolo to attack the fort by land, and the advanced squadron of the fleet, led by Captain Francis Reynolds of the Augusta 64, moving up river with the flood tide to bombard it from the river. Supporting Reynolds in the advanced squadron were the Roebuck 44, Pearl 32, Liverpool 28, and Merlin 14. The result was a disaster for the British, as the Hessians were driven back and their commander, Colonel Count Carl Emil Ulrichvon Donop fatally wounded, whilst the disruption to the normal channel by the obstacles in the river saw three ships drive aground during the assault. Two of them, the Augusta and the Merlin, were unable to re-float due to the adverse wind and next morning the jubilant rebels concentrated heated fire on these vessels and sent gunboats and burning rafts against them. Even so, there seemed little apprehension that the two vessels could not be saved, but as the Isis was warping through the chevaux de frise in order to come to her assistance the Augusta suddenly took fire. In no time the blaze engulfed the whole ship, her crew were ordered to abandon her, and with an explosion imminent the order was given for the other ships to withdraw and for the grounded Merlin to be fired. Shortly afterwards the Augusta exploded when the flames reached her magazine, with her casualties including the second lieutenant, the chaplain and the gunner.
Abandoning the capture of Fort Mercer for the moment, the British effected a more co-ordinated assault on Fort Mifflin, some seven miles from Philadelphia, with the heavier ships attacking from below the chevaux de fries and cannon from the Eagle and Somerset being taken ashore to supplement the land batteries erected by the Army. From 8-14 November the cannonade continued, and on the 15th the recently hired vessel Vigilant 20, Commander John Henry, with a three 24-pounder cannon battery in tow commanded by Lieutenant John Botham of the Eagle, bombarded the fort at short range from a narrow channel between the fort and the mainland that had been buoyed by the master of the fleet, John Hunter. Meanwhile the Isis navigated an eastern channel and also got within close range, as did the Roebuck, Pearl, Liverpool and galley Cornwallis from downriver and the Somerset at a greater distance. Despite the fact that they were able to throw reinforcements into the fort the Americans could not survive this prolonged assault, and having suffered numerous casualties they were obliged to evacuate and destroy the position that night. On 21 November Fort Mercer was attacked again by Lord Cornwallis whilst the Navy was able to bombard it from upriver, and a day later the Americans abandoned this fort too.
With the river now clear of obstacles all the way to Philadelphia there remained the fate of an American flotilla under the command of John Hazelwood that had been trapped to the south of the city. A number of rebel ships and galleys were able to slip up river past the city on the night of the 19th, but when another group of vessels attempted the same route the next evening they were intercepted by the prize armed ship Delaware, commanded by Lieutenant James Watt of the Roebuck. Such was the effect of this intervention that only three or four galleys escaped, and the remainder of the flotilla consisting of two xebecs, two floating batteries, and other vessels to the total of seventeen were fired and abandoned by their crews.
Lord Howe’s fleet: