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The People's WarOriginal Voices of the American Revolution
By Noel Rae
Lyons PressCopyright © 2011 Noel Rae
All right reserved.
The God of Battle
To go back now to the dark days of early December, 1776, when the depleted American army has sought safety by crossing to the south side of the Delaware River. Congress has already packed up and fled to Baltimore; soldiers whose time is out are making their way home on foot along the wintry roads; the florid Sir William Howe and his mistress, Mrs. Loring, are looking forward to a bright social season in New York; Lord Cornwallis is about to embark for a long leave in England; Washington is mulling over plans to reverse the tide of defeat; and the civilians in the area are leading lives burdened with danger and anxiety.
One of these was Margaret Morris, a middle-aged Quaker widow with four children, very little money but a large house on the banks of the river in Burlington, a town that changed hands several times during that winter. To make ends meet Margaret ran a shop and also practiced some medicine, her father having been a doctor. Her journal, "parts of it written in a serious, others in a waggish mood,” was composed "after the family were abed, and I sat up to keep guard over my fences, etc, while the soldiers were next door, for fear they should pull them down [for firewood].” Sometimes the soldiers were redcoats, sometimes Hessians, and sometimes they were the crews of American gunboats, called galleys or gondolas, which sailed up and down the Delaware, blazing away at any house they thought might hold enemy troops.
"December 12, 1776. This morning a galley, with a great many men and a number of troops, came ashore at our wharf. I ordered the children to keep within doors, and went myself down to the shore, and asked what they were going to do. They said to fire the town if the [British] Regulars entered. I told them I hoped they would not set fire to my house. 'Which is your house, and who are you?’ I told them I was a widow, with only children in the house, and they called to others and bid them mark that house, there was a widow and children and no men in it. 'But,’ said they, 'it is a mercy we did not fire on it last night, thinking there were Hessians or Tories in it. But a hair of your head shall not be hurt by us.’ See how Providence looks on us! Then they offered to move my valuable goods over the river, but I pointed to the children at the door, and said, 'See, there is all my treasure. Those children are mine.’”
But while it was true that there were no Hessians in the house Margaret was in fact sheltering a Tory, the Rev. Jonathan Odell, a well-known pamphleteer and old family friend. A small secret chamber the "auger hole” had been contrived in the attic, its entry hidden behind some removable shelves. In case of need, warning to hide would be given by ringing a bell in the attic that was activated by wires that ran down to a bell-pull just inside the front door.
Four days later, while several American gunboats were moored in the river near her house, there was "a very terrible account” that thousands of Hessians were coming into the town "& now actually to be seen on Gallows Hill. My incautious Son catch’d up a Spy Glass & was running to the Mill to look at them. I told him it would be liable to misconstruction, but he prevail’d on me to let him gratify his curiosity, & he went, but return’d much dissatisfy’d, for no troops could he see. As he came back poor Dick [another son] took the glass & resting it against a tree, took a view of the fleet both of these was observ’d by the people on board, who suspected it was an Enemy that was watching their Motions They mann’d a boat & sent her on Shore a loud knocking at my door brought me to it I was a little flutter’d & kept locking and unlocking it that I might get my ruffled face a little compos’d. At last I open’d it, & half a dozen Men all Arm’d demanded the keys of the empty House [next door] I asked what they wanted there, they said to search for a D -d Tory who had been spying at them from the Mill the name of a Tory so near my own door seriously alarm’d me for a poor refugee [Dr. Odell] dignify’d by that Name had claim’d the shelter of my roof & was at that very time conceal’d, like a thief, in an Auger hole I rung the bell violently, the signal agreed on, if they came to Search & when I thought he had crept into the hole I put on a very simple look & cry’d out, 'Bless me! I hope you are not Hessians! Say, good men, are you the Hessians?’ 'Do we look like Hessians?’ ask’d one of them rudely. 'Indeed, I don’t know.’ 'Did you never see a Hessian?’ 'No, never in my life, but they are Men, and you are Men, and may be Hessians for anything I know but I’ll go with you into Colonel Coxe’s house, tho’ indeed it was my Son at the Mill, he is but a Boy and meant no harm, he wanted to see the Troops.’ So I march’d at the head of them, open’d the door, & search’d every place but we could not find the Tory. Strange! Where could he be? We return’d, they greatly disappointed, I pleas’d to think my house was not Suspected The Captain, a smart little fellow named Shippen, said he wish’d he could see the Spy GlassSD [her sister, Sarah Dillwyn] produced it & very civilly desir’d his acceptance of it, which I was sorry for, as I often amus’d myself in looking thro’ it. They left us & search’d the two next houses but no Tory could they find.
"December 27th. A letter from Gen. Read to his Brother informing him that Washington had had an engagement with the Regulars [at Trenton] on the 25th early in the Morning, taking them by surprize, kill’d fifty, & took 900 prisoners. The loss on our side not known, or if known not suffer’d to be publick. It seems this heavy loss to the Regulars was owing to the prevailing custom among the Hessians of getting drunk on the eve of that great day which brought peace on Earth & good Will to Men but oh, how unlike Christians is the Manner in which they Celebrate it! Can we call ourselves Christians while we act so Contrary to our Master’s rule he set the example which we profess to follow, & here is a recent instance that we only profess it. Instead of good will, envy & hatred seem to be the ruling passions in the breasts of thousands. This evening the 27th about 3000 of the Pennsylvania Militia, & other troops, landed in the Neck & march’d into Town with Artillery, Baggage &c, & were quarter’d on the inhabitants An Officer spent the Evening with us, & appear’d to be in high spirits, & talk’d of engaging the English as a very trifling affair Nothing so easy as to drive them over the North River &c not considering that there is a God of Battle, as well as a God of Peace, who may have given them the late advantage in order to draw them out to meet the Chastisement that is reserv’d for them.”
But where was the God of Battle now? Having just favored Washington with his turnaround victories at Trenton and Princeton, perhaps he had gone to London and was now looking over the shoulder of General Burgoyne as he, the king and Lord Germain pored over the map of north America and traced the line of march that would win the war at a stroke. Or maybe he was in New York, where Sir William Howe was desultorily working out his own plan, one that would take him south to Philadelphia, so that instead of advancing towards each other both British armies would be heading in the same direction.
Making Philadelphia his target was a change of plan for Howe, who had at first intended to campaign to the north. One reason for this change was that, like the king, he was convinced that most Americans were loyalists at heart but intimidated by the rebels. Let the king’s standard but appear at the head of the royal army, and the liberated people would flock to it particularly in Pennsylvania, where, in the words of Joseph Galloway, they would find "friends thicker than woods.” Another reason was the belief that the war could be won by occupying the enemy’s principal cities, true enough in Europe but not in America where most people lived on farms or in villages. Perhaps also, in the very back of his mind, Howe foresaw what might happen were he to advance on Albany: threatened with an attack from the rear, the American army, instead of encircling and throttling Burgoyne’s Anglo-Hessian army, would have had to break off and re-deploy. And if that happened, was it not possible that Burgoyne, no longer surrounded, would have been able to push his way through those last few miles and then burst out of the woods, bands playing, champagne corks popping, his plumed hat crowning the hero of the war? Was that what Sir William really wanted?
Finally there were the reports coming into headquarters in New York about how weak Washington’s army was, despite his recent victories. One such report was recorded by Admiral Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle: "Saturday, May 17th, 1777. Two men came in from Pennsylvania & Jersey, one of whom was on Thursday in Washington’s Lines. He says, that his whole Force does not exceed 7,000 men, the principal Part of which is at Bound-brook & Morris Town; that he is acquainted with a maid-servant in Washington’s family who has told him that she has frequently caught him in Tears about the House, and that, when he is alone, he appears constantly dejected and unhappy; that the Succors from the Southward have been but small; that the Rebels themselves think it impractical to keep Philadelphia that the Country in general is groaning under the present Tyranny and Oppression, and longing for a speedy deliverance.”
Having decided on Philadelphia, the dilatory Howe settled on the longest possible route for getting there. Instead of marching across New Jersey he embarked his troops on his brother’s ships and then, instead of sailing to the Delaware Bay, he had the fleet go all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay and then all the way up to the Head of Elk. There they disembarked and headed for Philadelphia, plundering as they went. The journey had taken nearly seven weeks but did at least succeed in perplexing Washington, who flatteringly supposed that it was part of some deep and subtle strategy "Howe’s in a manner abandoning General Burgoyne is so unaccountable a matter that till I am sure it is so, I cannot help casting my eyes continually behind me.” Washington’s intelligence service was much superior to that of the British there were no reports of maid-servants finding a dejected Sir William Howe in floods of tears but could not penetrate the logic of overall British strategy because there was no such thing.
Unlike New York, where the streets had been dug up to make trenches and redoubts erected at almost every corner, no attempt was made to fortify Philadelphia once it was known that Howe was on his way. A few radicals wanted to deprive him of the city by burning it down, the pacifist Quakers favored non-resistance and a number of patriots prepared for defense. Among these were some Germans of Reading, who had already formed what was called the Old Man’s Company. According to a Philadelphia paper, the company "consists of about eighty Germans, of the age of forty and upwards. Many of them have been in the military service in Germany. The person who, at their first assembling, led them to the field, is ninety-seven years of age; has been forty years in the service, and in seventeen pitched battles; and the drummer is eighty-four. In lieu of a cockade they wear in their hats a black crape, as expressive of their sorrow for the mournful events which have occasioned them, at their late time of life, to take arms against our brethren, in order to preserve that liberty which they left their native Country to enjoy.”
Excerpted from The People's War by Noel Rae Copyright © 2011 by Noel Rae. Excerpted by permission.
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