LETTER TO FRANKLIN, IN PARIS
York Town, Pa, May 16, 1778.
Your favor of October seventh did not come to me till March. I was at camp when Captain Folger arrived with the blank packet. The private letters were, I believe, all safe. Mr. [President] Laurens forwarded yours to York Town where I afterwards received it.
The last winter has been rather barren of military events, but for your amusement I send you a little history how I have passed away part of the time.
The eleventh of September last I was preparing despatches for you when the report of cannon at Brandywine interrupted my proceeding. The event of that day you have doubtless been informed of, which, excepting the enemy keeping the ground, may be deemed a drawn battle. General Washington collected his army at Chester, and the enemy’s not moving toward him next day must be attributed to the disability they sustained and the burden of their wounded.
On the sixteenth of the same month the two armies were drawn up in order of battle near White Horse on the Lancaster road, when a mostviolent and incessant storm of rain prevented an action. Our army sustained a heavy loss in their ammunition, the cartouche boxes, especially as they were not of the most seasoned leather, being almost no proof against the almost incredible fury of the weather, which obliged General Washington to draw his army up into the country until those injuries could be repaired, and a new supply of ammunition procured. The enemy in the mean time kept on the west side of the Schuylkill. On Friday, the nineteenth, about one in the morning the first alarm of their crossing was given, and the confusion, as you may suppose, was very great.
It was a beautiful still, moonlight morning and the streets as full of men, women and children as on a market day. On the evening before I was fully persuaded that unless something was done in the city [Philadelphia] would be lost; and under that anxiety I went to Colonel Bayard, Speaker of the House of Assembly, and represented as I very particularly knew it, the situation we were in, and the probability of saving the city if proper efforts were made for that purpose.
I reasoned thus General Washington was about thirty miles up the Schuylkill with an armyproperly collected waiting for ammunition, besides which a reinforcement of 1500 men were marching from the North River to join him; and if only an appearance of defense be made in the city by throwing up works at the heads of the streets, it would make the enemy very suspicious how they threw themselves between the city and General Washington, and between two rivers, which must have been the case; for notwithstanding the knowledge which military gentlemen are supposed to have, I observe they move exceedingly cautiously on new ground, are exceedingly suspicious of villages and towns, and more perplexed at seemingly little things which they cannot clearly understand than at great ones which they are fully acquainted with. And I think it very probable that General Howe would have mistaken our necessity for a deep laid scheme and not have ventured himself in the middle of it.
But admitting that he had, he must either have brought his whole army down, or a part of it. If the whole, General Washington would have followed him, perhaps the same day, in two or three days at most, and our assistance in the city would have been material. If only a part of it, we should have been a match for them and General Washington superior to those which remained above. The chief thing was, whether the citizens would turn out to defend the city.
My proposal to Colonels Bayard and Bradford was to call them together the next morning, make them fully acquainted with the situation and the means and prospect of preserving themselves, and that the city had better voluntarily assess itself $50,000 for its defense than suffer an enemy to come into it. Colonels Bayard and Bradford were in my opinion, and as General Mifflin was then in town, I next went to him, acquainted him with our design, and mentioned likewise that if two or three thousand men could be mustered up whether we might depend on him to command them, for without some one to lead, nothing could be done.
He declined that part, not being then very well, but promised what assistance he could. A few hours after this the alarm happened. I went directly to General Mifflin but he had set off and nothing was done. I cannot help being of opinion that the city might have been saved, but perhaps it is better otherwise.
I stayed in the city till Sunday [September twenty-first], having sent my chest and everything belonging to the foreign committee to Trenton in a shallop. The enemy did not crossthe river till the Wednesday following. Hearing on the Sunday that General Washington had moved to Sunderford I set off for that place, but learning on the road that it was a mistake and that he was six or seven miles above that place, I crossed over to Southfield, and the next morning to Trenton, to see after my chest.
On the Wednesday morning I intended returning to Philadelphia, but was informed at Bristol of the enemy’s crossing the Schuylkill. At this place I met Colonel Kirkbride of Pennsburg Manor, who invited me home with him. On Friday, the twenty-sixth, a party of the enemy, about 1500, took possession of the city, and the same day an account arrived that Colonel Brown had taken 300 of the enemy at the old French lines at Ticonderoga, and destroyed all their water craft, being about 200 boats of different kinds.
On the twenty-ninth of September I set off for camp without well knowing where to find it, every day occasioning some movement. I kept pretty high up the country, and being unwilling to ask questions, not knowing what company I might be in, I was there three days before I fell in with it. The army had moved about three miles lower down that morning. The next daythey made a movement about the same distance, to the twenty-first milestone on the Skippach road - headquarters at John Wince's.
On the third of October in the morning they began to fortify the camp, as a deception; and about nine at night marched for Germantown. The number of Continental troops was between 8000 and 9000, besides militia, the rest remaining as guards for the security of camp. General Greene, whose quarters I was at, desired me to remain there till morning. The skirmishing with the pickets began SOON after. I met no person for several miles rlding, which I concluded to be a good sign; after this I met a man on horseback who told me he was going to hasten on a supply of ammunition, that the enemy were broken and retreating fast, which was true. I saw several country people with arms in their hands running across a field toward Germantown, within about five or six miles, at which I met several of the wounded on wagons, horseback, or on foot. I passed General Nash on a litter made of poles, but did not know him. I felt unwilling to ask questions lest the information should not be agreeable, and kept on.
About two miles after this I passed a promiscuous crowd of wounded and otherwise whowere halted at a house to refresh. Colonel BiddIe D.Q.M.G. was among them, who called after me, that if I went farther on that road I should be taken, for that the firing which I heard was the enemy's. I never could, and cannot now learn, and I believe no man can inform truly the cause of that day’s miscarriage.
The retreat was as extraordinary. Nobody hurried themselves. Everyone marched his own pace. The enemy kept a civil distance behind, sending every now and then a shot after us, and receiving the same from us. That part of the army which I was with collected and formed on the hill on the side of the road near White Marsh Church; the enemy came within three quarters of a mile and halted. The orders on retreat were to assemble that night on the back of Perkioming Creek, about seven miles above the camp, which had orders to move.
The army had marched the preceding night fourteen miles, and having full twenty to march back were exceedingly fatigued. They appeared to me to be only sensible of a disappointment, not a defeat, and to be more displeased at their retreating from Germantown, than anxious to get to their rendezvous. I was so lucky that night to get a little house about four miles wide of Perkioming, toward which place in the morning I heard a considerable firing, which distressed me exceedingly, knowing that our army was much harassed and not collected. However, I soon relieved myself by going to see. They were discharging their pieces, which, though necessary, prevented several parties going till next day.
I breakfasted next morning at General Washington’s quarters, who was at the same loss with every other to account for the accidents of the day. I remember his expressing his surprise, by saying, that at the time he supposed everything secure, and was about giving orders for the army to proceed down to Philadelphia; that he most unexpectedly saw apart (I think of the artillery) hastily retreating. This partial retreat was, I believe, misunderstood, and soon followed by others.
The fog was frequently thick, the troops young and unused to breaking and rallying, and our men rendered suspicious to each other, many of them being in red. A new army once disordered is difficult to manage, the attempt dangerous. To this may be added a prudence in not putting matters to too hazardous a trial the first time. Men must be taught regular fighting by practise and degrees, and tho' the expeditionfailed, it had this good effect - that they seemed to feel themselves more important after it than before, as it was the first general attack they had ever made.
I have not related the affair at Mr. Chew’s house, Germantown, as I was not there, but have seen it since. It certainly afforded the enemy time to rally - yet the matter was difficult. To have pressed on and left 500 men in the rear, might by a change of circumstances been ruinous. To attack them was a loss of time, as the house is a strong stone building, proof against any twelve pounder. General Washington sent a flag, thinking it would procure their surrender and expedite his march to Philadelphia; it was refused, and circumstances changed almost directly after.
I stayed in camp two days after the Germantown action, and lest any ill impression should get among the garrisons at Mud Island and Red Bank, and the vessels and galleys stationed there, I crossed over to the Jerseys at Trenton and went down to those places. I laid the first night on board the Champion, Continental galley, who was stationed off the mouth of the Schuylkill.
The enemy threw up a two gun battery on the point of the river’s mouth opposite the pesthouse. The next morning was a thick fog, and as soon as it cleared away, and we became visible to each other, they opened on the galley, who returned the fire. The commodore made a signal to bring the galley under the Jersey shore, as she was not a match for the battery, nor the battery a sufficient object for the galley. One shot went thro' the fore sail, which was all. At noon I went with Colonel [Christopher] Greene, who commanded at Red Bank [fort] over to Fort Mifflin [Mud Island].
The enemy opened that day two two-gun batteries, and a mortar battery, on the fort. They threw about thirty shells into it that afternoon, without doing any damage; the ground being damp and spongy, not above five or six burst; not a man was killed or wounded. I came away in the evening, laid on board the galley, and the next day came to Colonel Kirkbride’s [Bordentown, N.J.]; stayed a few days and came again into camp. An expedition was on foot the evening got there in which I went as aide de camp to General [Nathanael] Greene, having a volunteer commission for that purpose. The occasion was - a party of the enemy, about 1500, layover the Schuylkill at Grey’s Ferry. General McDougall with his division was sent to attack them; andSullivan and Greene with their divisions were to favor the enterprise by a feint on the city, down the Germantown road. They set off about nine at night, and halted at daybreak, between Germantown and the city, the advanced party at Three Miles Run.
As I knew the ground I went with two light horse to discover the enemy’s picket, but the dress of the light-horse being white made them, I thought, too visible, as it was then twilight; on which I left them with my horse, and went on foot, till I distinctly saw the picket at Mr. Dickerson’s place - which is the nearest I have been to Philadelphia since September, except once at Cooper’s Ferry, as I went to the forts. General Sullivan was at Dr. Redman’s house, and McDougall’s beginning the attack was to be the signal for moving down to the city. But the enemy either on the approach of McDougall, or on information of it, called in their party, and the expedition was frustrated. A cannonade, by far the most furious I ever heard, began down the river, soon after daylight, the first gun of which we supposed to be the signal; but was soon undeceived, there being no small arms. After waiting two hours beyond the time, we marched back; the cannon was thenless frequent, but on the road between Germantown and White Marsh we were stunned with a report as loud as a peal from a hundred cannon at once; and turning around I saw thick smoke rising like a pillar, and spreading from the top like a tree. This was the blowing up of the Augusta. I did not hear the explosion of the Berlin.
After this I returned to Colonel Kirkbride's, where I stayed about a fortnight, and set off again to camp. The day after I got there Generals Greene, Wayne, and Cadwallader, with a party of light-horse, were ordered on a reconnoitering party toward the forts. We were out four days and nights without meeting with anything material. An East Indiaman, whom the enemy had cut down so as to draw but little water, came up, without guns, while we were on foot on Carpenter’s Island, going to Province Island. Her guns were brought up in the evening in a flat, she got in the rear of the fort, where few or no guns could bear upon her, and the next morning played on it incessantly. The night following the fort was evacuated.
The obstruction the enemy met with from those forts, and the chevaux'-de-frise, was extraordinary, and had it not been that the western channel, deepened by the current, being somewhat obstructed by the chevaux-de-frise in the main river, which enabled them to bring up the light Indiaman battery, it is a doubt whether they would have succeeded at last. By that assistance they reduced the fort, and got sufficient command of the river to move some of the late sunk chevaux-de-frise. Soon after this the fort on Red Bank (which had bravely repulsed the enemy a little time before) was evacuated, the galleys ordered up to Bristol and the captains of such other armed vessels as thought they could not pass on the eastward side of Wind Mill Island, very precipitately set them on fire. As I judged from this event that the enemy would winter in Philadelphia, I began to think of preparing for York Town, which however I was willing to delay, hoping that the ice would afford opportunity for new maneuvers. But the season passed very barrenly away.
I stayed at Colonel Kirkbride’s till the latter end of January. Commodore Haslewood, who commanded the remainder of the fleet at Trenton, acquainted me with a scheme of his for burning the enemy’s shipping, which was by sending a charged boat across the river from Cooper’s Ferry, by means of a rocket fixed in its stern.
Considering the width of the river, the tide, and the variety of accidents that might change its direction, I thought the project trifling and insufficient; and proposed to him, that if he would get a boat properly charged, and take a batteau in tow, sufficient to bring three or four persons off, that I would make one with him and two other persons that might be relied on to go down on that business. One of the company, Captain Blewer of Philadelphia, seconded the proposal, but the Commodore, and, what I was more surprised at, Colonel Bradford declined it.
The burning of part of the Delaware fleet, the precipitate retreat of the rest, the little service rendered by them and the great expense they were at, make the only national blot in the proceedings of the last campaign. I felt a strong anxiety for them to recover their credit, which, among others, was one motive for my proposal.
After this I came to camp and from thence to York Town, and published the “Crisis” No. 5, to General Howe. I have begun No. 6, which I intend to address to Lord North.
I was not at camp when General Howe marched out on the twentieth of December toward White Marsh. It was a most contemptible affair, the threatenings and seeming fury heset out with, and haste and terror the army retreated with, make it laughable. I have seen several persons from Philadelphia who assure me that their coming back was a mere uproar, and plainly indicated their apprehensions of a pursuit. General Howe, in his letter to Lord Go. Germain, dated December thirteenth, represented General Washington’s camp as a strongly fortified place. There was not, Sir, a work thrown up in it till General Howe marched out, and then only here and there a breastwork. It was a temporary station. Besides which, our men begin to think works in the field of little use.
General Washington keeps his station at the Valley forge. I was there when the army first began to build huts; they appeared to me like a family of beavers; everyone busy; some carrying logs, others mud, and the rest fastening them together. The whole was raised in a few days, and is a curious collection of buildings in the true rustic order.
As to politics, I think we are now safely landed. The apprehension which Britain must be under from her neighbors must effectually prevent her sending reinforcements, could she procure them. She dare not, I think, in the present situation of affairs, trust her troops so far from home.
No commissioners are yet arrived. I think fighting is nearly over, for Britain, mad, wicked and foolish, has done her utmost. The only part for her now to act is frugality, and the only way for her to get out of debt is to lessen her Government expenses. Two millions a year is a sufficient allowance, and as much as she ought to expend exclusive of the interest of her debt. The affairs of England are approaching either to ruin or redemption. If the latter, she may bless the resistance of America.
I For my own part, I thought it very hard to have the country set on fire about my ears almost the moment I got into it; and among other pleasures I feel in having uniformly done my duty, I feel that of not having discredited your friendship and patronage.
I live in hopes of seeing and advising with you respecting the history of the American Revolution, as soon as a turn of affairs makes it safe to take a passage for Europe. Please to accept my thanks for the pamphlets, which Mr. Temple Franklin tells me he has sent. They are not yet come to hand. Mr. and Mrs. Bache are at Manheim, near Lancaster; I heard they were well afew days ago. I laid two nights at Mr. Duffield's, in the winter. Miss Nancy Clifton was there, who said the enemy had destroyed or sold a great part of your furniture. Mr. Duffield has since been taken by them and carried into the city, but is now at his own house. I just hear they have burned Colonel Kirkbride's, Mr. Horden's, and some other houses at Horden Town. Governor Johnstone (House of Commons) has written to Mr. Robert Morris informing him of commissioners coming from England. The letter is printed in the newspapers without signature, and is dated February fifth, by which you will know it.
Please, Sir, to accept this, rough and incorrect as it is, as I have [not] time to copy it fair, which was my design when I began it; besides which, paper is most exceedingly scarce.
I am, Dear Sir, your obliged and affectionate humble servant,
The Honorable Benj. Franklin, Esq.