THE retreat of the Americans from the battle-field at Germantown at the moment when victory seemed about to be secured to them, did not cause the Congress nor the people to blame Washington and his general officers. The fog that produced so much uncertainty in movements was the chief cause of the panic and flight; and the Congress, justly considering all things, passed a vote of thanks to the commander-in-chief for his "wise and well-considered attack," and to the "officers and soldiers of the army for their brave exertions on that occasion."
A few days after the battle, Lord Howe's fleet was anchored at the mouth of the Delaware River, and he and the general prepared to sweep that stream of all its obstruction--the chevaux-de-frise, the commanding forts at Red Bank and on Mud Island, the floating batteries, and the armed galleys. They were elated by their recent accidental victory, and did not entertain a doubt of success. The British army were at once concentrated at Philadelphia; but it was the middle of October before even a narrow channel was opened through the lower obstructions of the river. A difficult task lay before the enemy. Fort Mercer, at Red Bank, had a spirited little garrison under Colonel Christopher Greene of Rhode Island; and Fort Mifflin, on Mud Island, was in charge of Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Smith, of Maryland, with an equally spirited body of men.
To strengthen his own army, Howe ordered General Clinton to abandon the forts in the Hudson Highlands and send six thousand troops to Philadelphia. He had scarcely issued this order when the news of the surrender of Burgoyne reached the British commander-in-chief. That event filled the American camp with joy, and that of the enemy with amazement. Howe perceived that what he had to do must be done quickly; so he ordered Count Donop to take Fort Mercer by storm. The Hessian colonel, eager for renown, marched against it on the 22nd of October (1777), with about twelve hundred men--German grenadiers, infantry, riflemen, and artillery. At the edge of a wood within cannon-shot of the fort, they planted a battery of ten heavy guns; and at half-past four o'clock in the afternoon, Donop sent a summons for the instant surrender of the garrison, accompanied by a threat that, in case of resistance, no quarter would be given. Colonel Greene, the commander, with only four hundred men back of him, made an instant and defiant refusal, saying: "We ask no quarter nor will we give any." Then the besiegers opened their heavy guns; and under their fire they carried the abatis or the land side of the fort. There they encountered many pitfalls, and a heavy storm of bullets and grape-shot from a concealed battery. Equally severe was an enfilading fire from two other galleys hidden by the bushes. These fearfully slaughtered the assailants. Donop and many of his officers were killed or mortally wounded; and at twilight the invaders withdrew, after a loss of two hundred men, and were not pursued. The Congress ordered the Board of War to present an elegant sword to Colonel Greene, for his gallant defence of Fort Mercer; and some New Jersey and Pennsylvania volunteers erected a monument of blue-veined marble on the site of the fort, in 1829, to commemorate the deed. Colonel Greene was soon afterward murdered at his quarters in Westchester county, N.Y., by a band of Tories, and the sword was presented to his family.
Some British ships-of-war that came to assist in the reduction of Fort Mercer, attacked Fort Mifflin the next morning. After being severely cannonaded from the fort and the American vessels, they attempted to retreat down the river, when the Augusta, a 64-gun ship, and the frigate Merlin, grounded. The former was set on fire by red-hot shot from the American batteries, and was blown up with a part of her crew. The Merlin was set on fire and abandoned. These events inspirited the Americans; and John Adams took the occasion to help Gates in his ambitious intrigues against Washington, by saying: "Thank God the glory is not immediately due to the commander-in-chief, or idolatry and adulation would have been so excessive as to endanger our liberties."
When full knowledge of the events of Burgoyne's surrender became known, it was perceived that Gates had no use for a large army in the north. The public interest impatiently demanded that he should send a greater part of his Continental troops to assist Washington in reducing Howe to the condition of Burgoyne. But this patriotic course might thwart the ambitious schemes of the commander in the north and his friends, who seemed willing to have the sun of Washington's renown eclipsed by disaster, that Gates's more feeble orb might appear to be the brighter luminary. Washington directed Gates to forward heavy reinforcements as speedily as possible. The latter, with false pretences, held them back. Amazed at this positive disobedience, so nearly resembling the treason of Lee, the commander-in-chief sent his ever trusty aid, colonel Alexander Hamilton, to acquaint Gates, in person, with the urgent necessity of sending forward troops immediately. Gates still hesitated. The acute Hamilton plainly saw the reason, and he used such plain language toward the conspirator, that Gates, startled, sent large reinforcements down the Hudson immediately. Hamilton followed soon afterward, and was amazed to find these troops detained by General Putnam below the Highlands. At Gates's instigation, the veteran, believing he might win personal glory by the expulsion of the British from New York city, had actually advanced with his army as far down as White Plains, on the foolish errand. Acting under the advice of Governor Clinton, Hamilton spoke authoritatively in the name of Washington, and arrested the wild expedition. But these delays had frustrated the well-laid plans of Washington for capturing or expelling the whole British army. At the same time the powerful Gates faction in the Congress had caused legislation in that body which was calculated to dishonor the commander-in-chief and restrain his military operations. They forbade him to detach more than twenty-five hundred men from the Northern Army without first consulting General Gates and Governor Clinton, and so making him subservient to his inferiors in rank. The Adamses and Gerry of Massachusetts, and Marchant of Rhode Island, actually voted for a resolution forbidding Washington to detach any troops from that Department, excepting by consent of Gates and Clinton. The Congress also ordered Gates to "regain the forts and passes on the Hudson," which Washington had already deprived the British of, by pressing Howe so closely that he ordered Sir Henry Clinton, as we have observed, to abandon them and send reinforcements to the Delaware. This afforded Gates an excuse for keeping back the troops which he had sent down the Hudson. So the war was prolonged by a faction.
Howe soon made another effort to gain possession of the Delaware River. He planted five batteries, with an aggregate of thirty pieces of cannon, within five hundred yards of Fort Mifflin. A large floating battery was brought up the river; and on the 10th of November the British opened heavy guns from these, upon the fort. The siege was a fearful one, and continued six days. On the second day, Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, the commander of the fort, was wounded and taken over to Fort Mercer, when the leadership devolved first upon Colonel Russell, of Connecticut, and then upon Major Thayer of Rhode Island, who was well supported by Major Fleury, the French engineer. The garrison held out bravely under an incessant cannonade and bombardment. On the 15th, some British vessels with heavy guns, approached near enough for hand-grenades to be thrown from them into the fort. Five ships-of-war took positions to keep off the American flotilla, and to fire a broadside occasionally upon Fort Mifflin. During that day, more than a thousand shot and shell were hurled upon the works on Mud Island, from 12 to 32-pounders; and a storming party were made ready to attack the fort on the morning of the 16th. In the darkness of the preceding evening, Major Thayer sent all of the garrison, excepting forty men, to Fort Mercer, and he, with these, followed at midnight. The fort had become untenable, and was abandoned in time to save the remnant of the garrison, which had lost about two hundred and fifty men, killed or wounded. Washington's army was then encamped at Whitemarsh, in a beautiful valley, about fourteen miles from Philadelphia, where he waited, in much anxiety, for the result of the attack on Fort Mifflin.
Return to Our Country, Vol II