This Day in History: George Washington’s close call at the Battle of the Clouds
On this day in 1777, George Washington’s army fights the Battle of the Clouds. Did divine intervention save the army from disaster? Some think so. Sheets of rain put a sudden end to a battle that had been going awry.
It had then been almost a week since the Battle of Brandywine (see September 11 history post). Americans had lost that battle, but they’d put up a good fight against the better-trained British army. Morale was surprisingly high!
Washington expected that another encounter with British General William Howe was looming, and he sought to place himself between the British and the American capital of Philadelphia. He also ordered that his men be supplied “immediately” with ammunition. They were to “carry their spare ammunition, in such a manner, as to avoid injury and loss.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time? The order would have unfortunate consequences, though.
For his part, Howe had been moving at a more leisurely pace in the days after Brandywine. He was solidifying his supply lines and burying his dead. Late on the 15th, the British general finally began his pursuit of the Americans. Washington learned that he was coming early the next day; he dispatched General Anthony Wayne with an advance force.
It didn’t go so well.
Wayne’s force was divided into two columns. One of these ran into some Hessians led by General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. A member of Knyphausen’s staff later wrote that the Americans were “posted on high ground covered with a cornfield and orchards.” In the meantime, the Hessians were “ducking behind the fences around the fields and woods,” taking shots at the Americans. Needless to say, Americans soon realized their disadvantage and fell back to the main American position.
The other half of Wayne’s command did not fare well, either. These forces ran into British General Charles Cornwallis and “shamefully fled at the first fire,” as Adjutant General Timothy Pickering later remembered.
As Wayne’s men retreated, the two armies began forming their lines. “It was now discovered,” Pickering later wrote in his journal, “that the ground on which the army was drawn up for battle, particularly the ground where the park of artillery was posted, was not well chosen, as not admitting a chance of saving the cannon, should there be a necessity of retreating.”
At just that moment, Americans had a stroke of wonderful luck—or perhaps it was very bad luck?
The sky seemed to burst open as sheets of torrential rain began to fall. One observer wrote of the rain that “came down so hard that in a few moments we were drenched and sank in mud up to our calves.”
Washington’s army immediately retreated.
The rain may have saved Washington from a crushing defeat. However, all the ammunition that had been so carefully distributed to Continental soldiers was completely soaked. Within a matter of minutes, “the arms were absolutely unfit for action,” according to Pickering.
Ammunition was never easy for the Continental Army to obtain. What a huge loss.
The Continental Army trudged through rain and mud for hours, finally camping at Yellow Springs during the wee hours of the morning on September 17.
The army would live to fight another day.
Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (2005)
George Washington, General Orders (Sept. 13, 1777)
George Washington, General Orders (Sept. 16, 1777)
Stephen R. Taaffe, The Philadelphia Campaign: 1777-1778 (2003)
Thomas J. McGuire, Battle of Paoli (2000)