After their October 4, 1777, defeat at the Battle of Germantown, Washington's army retreated along Skippack Pike to Pawling's Mill, beyond the Perkiomen Creek, where they remained encamped until October 8. They then marched east on Skippack Pike, turned left on Forty-Foot Road, and marched to Sumneytown Pike, where they camped on the property of Frederick Wampole near Kulpsville in Towamencin Township. While there, General Francis Nash died of wounds incurred at Germantown and was buried in the Mennonite Meeting Cemetery. On October 16, Washington's forces marched to Methacton—one group via Forty-Foot Road and Skippack Pike, the other on Sumneytown Pike and North Wales Road. On October 20, they marched down Skippack Pike to Whitpain. On November 2, Washington marched his forces—one column via Skippack Pike and the other on Morris Road and present-day Pennsylvania Avenue—to White Marsh, approximately 13 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
In early December, British commander General William Howe decided to make one last attempt to destroy Washington's army before the onset of winter, and he began preparations for the attack on the American forces who were rumored to be in the process of moving to a new camp.
Washington's intelligence network, led by Major John Clark, became aware of British plans to surprise the Americans, through a Quaker housewife Lydia Darragh. The Continental Army was ready when Howe marched out of Philadelphia, with a force of approximately 14,000 men, at midnight on December 4. The advance column, led by Lord Cornwallis, headed up Germantown Pike. A second column, led by General Knyphausen, marched toward the American left.
Gen. George Washington and his men are itching for a fight. The commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, who has heard grumbling from Congress after losing 2 major battles and the city of Philadelphia in 3 months, would like nothing better than one more dance with his British counterpart, Gen. William Howe. Washington's soldiers would like nothing better than a chance to take out their frustrations on Howe's Redcoats.
It is the first week of December. The Continental Army, encamped for the last month at Whitemarsh, 13 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is waiting for an attack that Washington's spies have assured him is coming. Dug into heavily wooded hills, the Continental troops are in an ugly mood. They are cold, hungry, and tired. And they haven't been paid since late summer. They occupy fortified high ground, a circumstance that fosters feelings of invulnerability. The night sky has convinced some American soldiers that a big battle is coming.
A bloody battle is, indeed, what Sir William Howe has in mind, as he marches nearly his entire army - about 12,000 British and German troops - out of Philadelphia late on the bitterly cold night of December 4th, leaving only 3,000 troops behind. Hoping for a decisive victory (or at least to push Washington's army back so British troops can safely venture outside the city on foraging expeditions), Howe means to make one last attack on the Continental Army before winter closes in.
Howe has had 2 strategic goals in 1777. He achieved one when his army occupied Philadelphia at the end of September. The other - destroying Washington's army - has eluded him, even though he defeated the Americans at the Brandywine in September and Germantown in October. Both Howe and Washington are operating in the shadow of the devastating British defeat in October at Saratoga, N.Y. Howe knows that he may be criticized for not doing more to assist Gen. John Burgoyne, the vanquished British commander, in Burgoyne's invasion of New York from Canada. Sir William has already offered his resignation to the ministry in London, complaining that the ministry has not given him enough manpower.
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Washington, too, is watching his back. Some in Congress and the army have begun whispering about his leadership, particularly Gen. Thomas Conway, a French citizen of Irish birth serving in the Continental Army. Conway believes that Gen. Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, should replace Washington as commander-in-chief. While Washington is irked by the criticism, he hasn't let it affect his judgment. With his customary desire to see things for himself, the general has left the comfort of his headquarters in the house of the late Quaker merchant George Emlen to scout the British defenses of Philadelphia.
Washington finds the British fortifications, running from Kensington on the Delaware River to the Upper Ferry on the Schuylkill, "much stronger than I had reason to expect for the accounting I had received." An attack on Philadelphia is out of the question. How fortunate for Washington, then, that Howe has decided to come to him. So eager is Washington to entertain Howe that he pronounces himself on December 1 "disappointed" that the British have not yet attacked.
Howe and his officers have done their best to keep the impending attack a secret, but the British preparations have not escaped the notice of sharp-eyed Philadelphians, who have passed on the information to Washington's spymasters.
After drawing 6 days' rations, the British march out of Philadelphia at midnight on Dec. 4. When they show up just outside Chestnut Hill in the predawn hours on the 5th, the Americans - about 15,000 strong, including reinforcements from Gates' army - are awake and waiting for them. Washington orders the Pennsylvania militia on his right flank forward "to skirmish with their Light, advanced parties." The fight is short and fierce; the militia commander, Gen. William Irvine, is captured, and the Pennsylvanians retreat.
The action opens 3 days of maneuvering, as Howe's troops move back and forth across the American front, keeping about a mile away, looking for an opening. Behind their lines, the Americans shadow the British feints, denying Howe any point of attack. As Howe's soldiers march and countermarch, they take out their wrath on the civilian population, burning houses as they go.
Johann Ewald, a German officer serving with the British, describes the scene on the night of the 6th as the army burns houses in the villages of Cresheim and Beggarstown: "The sight was horrible. The night was very dark. The blazing flames spread about with all swiftness and the wind blew violently. The cries of human voices of the young and old, who had seen their belongings consumed by the flames without saving anything, put everyone in a melancholy."
Even American opponents of the Revolution are aghast. Robert Morton, a teenage Quaker from Philadelphia, writes in his diary that the soldiers "committed great outrages on the inhabitants... as if the sole purpose of the expedition was to destroy and to spread ruin and desolation, to dispose the inhabitants to rebellion by despoiling their property... . "
On the 7th, Howe makes one last effort to turn the American left flank by way of Abington and Edge Hill, a ridge that runs parallel to the American lines. Washington quickly counters with Daniel Morgan's rifle corps and Maryland militia. The Americans retreat after some sharp fighting, but the British also pull back.
Small-scale fights, known collectively as the Battle of Edge Hill, go on throughout the day in the thick woods, but no full-scale battle develops. The next day, Howe - realizing he can neither outflank Washington nor draw him into the open - marches back to Philadelphia.
Washington is disappointed. "I sincerely wish, that they had made an Attack," he writes to Congress. "The Issue in all probability, from the disposition of our Troops and the strong situation of our Camp, would have been fortunate and happy."
The British are back in Philadelphia for the winter, too strong to be attacked. The Continental Army will go into its own winter quarters in a few days at Valley Forge.
The Americans suffered 90 killed or wounded, including 27 of Morgan's men, 16-17 men from the Maryland militia and Major Joseph Morris of the First New Jersey Regiment. 32 Americans were captured. British casualties were 60 killed or wounded.
Washington, frustrated at not being able to confront Howe in a more decisive action, wrote in his report to the President of Congress, "I sincerely wish, that they had made an Attack; the Issue in all probability, from the disposition of our Troops and the strong situation of our Camp, would have been fortunate and happy. At the same time I must add that reason, prudence, and every principle of policy, forbad us quitting our post to attack them. Nothing but Success would have justified the measure, and this could not be expected from their position."
On December 11, the Continental Army left White Marsh for Valley Forge. It took the soldiers eight days to make the 13-mile journey.