On this day in 1777, George Washington’s army engages in the Battle of Whitemarsh. Fortunately, Washington knew that the British were coming. He’d been informed of Howe’s intent through the efforts of Lydia Darragh, a Quaker spy. (See December 2 history post.)
Of course, “battle” might be a grand name for what occurred. It was more like a series of skirmishes. For several days, British General William Howe kept trying to pull the American army into a full-scale battle, but he kept failing.
Howe’s failures played to the Americans’ benefit.
The battle came just before Washington’s army began its notoriously bad winter at Valley Forge. During those weeks, the Americans were encamped at Whitemarsh, about 13 miles from Philadelphia.
But the British were in Philadelphia! Should Washington attack?
The General deliberated the possibility with his officers, but the answer came back a resounding “No!” The American army was in too sad a state to attempt an attack on Howe. Soldiers lacked basic necessities—even shoes. Moreover, as Henry Knox later wrote, it would be extremely difficult to surprise “10.000 veteran troops in a well fortified city” under such circumstances. Washington was contemplating a move to winter quarters when he received a “variety of intelligence” (including Darragh’s report), convincing him that “Genl Howe was preparing to give us a general Action.”
Washington’s soldiers were already building defensive works. Now Washington also had them light additional campfires, making it appear that the American army was even larger than it was. When Howe’s forces arrived and viewed the scene, they were surprised at the apparent strength of the American position.
On the morning of the 5th, Washington sent Brigadier General James Irvine with his Pennsylvania militia to meet an advance party led by Charles Cornwallis. One officer later wrote that a “warm Scirmish ensued for the space of twenty minutes, a few of ours behaved pritty well, killed & wounded some of the Enemy.” That skirmish did not go well for the American militia, though. Irvine was shot off his horse and taken prisoner. (He lost three fingers!) The militia retreated.
The action slowed down afterwards. Howe launched artillery fire at the American position, but he was out of range. He tried a few flanking maneuvers, but Americans were high up on a hill and could see his movements. Finally, on December 7, Howe moved troops toward the left-center of the American position. A skirmish ensued with Daniel Morgan and his riflemen. Morgan’s men hid behind trees and rocks, engaging in the backwoods fighting at which they excelled. Morgan was forced to retreat when British reinforcements arrived, but he had inflicted damage.
True, Americans lost several skirmishes during this multi-day battle, but they’d won the more important point: They had not been drawn into the large-scale battle that they couldn’t then win. On the 8th, Howe gave up. His troops were ordered to retreat to Philadelphia. The British left so quickly that American light troops, sent in pursuit, were unable to catch up! One American officer later expressed his view that the British had retreated “ingloriously.”
Soon thereafter, Washington would move his troops into Valley Forge. They had survived the third year of the war, but they needed the winter to regroup.
Benson John Lossing, The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution (1855) (volume 2)
Circular to the General Officers of the Continental Army (Dec. 3, 1777)
Council of War (Nov. 8, 1777)
General Orders (Dec. 8, 1777)
Letter from George Washington to Henry Laurens (Dec. 10, 1777)
Letter from George Washington to Henry Laurens (Dec. 1, 1777)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)