by James Smart
British troops arrived at Chestnut Hill about 5 a.m. on the frosty, misty morning of Friday, Dec. 5, 1777. They were on their way to confront the battered, ill-equipped American army.
The British had occupied Philadelphia in September, repulsed George Washington’s attack at Germantown in October, and had spent November overpowering the Delaware River forts. Now, the British fleet could come up to the city with much-needed supplies and reinforcements. General Sir William Howe, the British commander, decided to try an assault on the stubborn colonial rebels camped at Whitemarsh.
The royal forces began assembling in the city on Dec. 4. Moved into position were 13 brass cannons and dozens of supply wagons, dray horses and cavalry horses. Forming two columns were some 10,000 soldiers: Britons, Scots, American units loyal to King George, and Germans, hired soldiers from the principalities of Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Hanau and Anspach; they were called jaegers (hunters) in units originally conscripted by Frederic the Great from the forests of his empire.
Mrs. Lydia Darragh, of Frankford, had heard some British officers discussing the planned move the day before. She hustled west, well north of the line of fortifications the British had built from Kensington and the Northern Liberties all the way to the Fair Mount on the Schuylkill. She found some American soldiers in a country tavern, the Sign of the Rising Sun, where the York Road branched off from the Germantown Road, and told what she knew. Elias Boudinout, the Continental Army’s commissioner of prisoners, galloped off to alert General Washington.
The Americans, some 11,000 strong, were settled down in Whitpain and Whitemarsh, in a rural area of Philadelphia County. (Montgomery County had not yet been created.) They had spent a month fortifying four miles of the ridge above Sandy Run, with walls and trenches extending from the Limekiln Road to the Bethlehem Road.
Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen, about 400 ace combat veterans from Virginia, with a Connecticut regiment, held the left flank of the encampment, facing Philadelphia. On the right, Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia overlooked the Bethlehem Road, supported by Count Casimir Pulaski’s dragoons (cavalry.)
In between were regiments from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Virginia, with North Carolina troops in reserve a mile or so behind the lines. Some shivering southern soldiers were still in summer uniforms. Supplies were scarce. General Washington offered a $10 prize to any soldier who produced the best substitute for shoes.
Washington’s headquarters, shared with Lafayette and other generals, were in George Emlen’s castle-like house, near where the present Pennsylvania Ave. crosses Sandy Run. Near the right flank, General Nathaniel Greene was headquartered in William West’s house. (Today, it’s called Hope Lodge.) South of the emplacements, American pickets (sentries) patrolled the Limekiln Road and the Wissahickon valley.
The British army began to move out of Philadelphia at 11 p.m. on Dec. 4. Two battalions of His Majesty’s Light Infantry led the way, slipping on the heavy frost that crunched into mud underfoot as they headed out the Germantown Road. Outnumbered American pickets fired on them as they reached the York Road. British soldiers used musketry and bayonets to force them to withdraw toward Germantown.
The king’s forces pushed on, randomly bashing in doors of houses in Germantown, awakening and harassing citizens, and setting fire to barns and a few houses. The soldiers passed the empty, windowless Cliveden mansion, damaged in the Germantown fighting in October. They filed by Judge William Allen’s mansion, Mount Airy, where the first shots of the Germantown battle had been fired, and on past farm fields and woods.
As they approached Chestnut Hill, the British officers heard alarm cannons sounding in the American encampment. They found a lookout tower American soldiers had built on the summit of Chestnut Hill and burned it down, along with a couple of barns.
The American forces advanced into action. General James Irvine swung his 600-man Pennsylvania Militia unit around from the right of the American camp, moved down the Wissahickon and approached Chestnut Hill. General James Potter’s 1,000 Pennsylvania militiamen, with a 200-man Connecticut regiment, protected Irvine’s flank by heading to the old church near the Germantown Road at Barren Hill.
British light infantry spread out and moved down the hill, forcing the Americans back, with bloodshed on both sides, and capturing several Americans including General Irvine, who had been knocked from his horse with a shot that took off three of his fingers.
After some evening cannon dueling, the two armies relaxed. The British set up camp across about three miles of Chestnut Hill’s north slope, building huts and big fires as the temperature slid toward freezing. The Americans lit up more fires than necessary, to give the impression that their numbers were greater. Men of both armies noted the beautiful sight of miles of campfires across the summits of the opposing ridges.
The next night, at 2 a.m., Howe pulled most of his troops back to Germantown and out the Abington Road (now Washington Lane) to Jenkintown. Last to leave were the German jaegers and the Queen’s Rangers, a green-coated all-American unit of the British army. As they went, the rear guard set fire to the villages of Cresheim, near the stream of that name, and Beggarstown, down the hill from Mount Pleasant toward Germantown.
After a stop at Jenkintown, the main column marched to Abington, swung left close to Edge Hill, and camped there overnight. In the morning, Howe formed three divisions. His idea was to encircle the Americans’ left flank
Washington and his staff reacted. Morgan’s Rifles, with some Maryland Militia, covered the left, while a brigade of Pennsylvania militia, under Generals James Webb and James Potter, with a Connecticut regiment, headed out the Limekiln Road toward Edge Hill.
Howe assembled an advancing line that met the Americans suddenly in the Edge Hill woods. There was brisk fighting. British infantry with bayonets and jaegers with their short hunting swords drove the outnumbered Americans back to their fortifications.
The British troops trudged back through Chestnut Hill and Germantown, rounding up horses, cows and other loot on the way, and stopping off to burn down the Rising Sun Tavern. They settled in for a comfortable winter in the city. George Washington’s ragged warriors moved across the Schuylkill to freeze and starve for a while near an old iron forge the British had burned down in September, known as the Valley Forge.
James Smart of Mt. Airy is a local historian and former long-time columnist for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin.