Updated: Nov 27
The River Delaware played an important role in the American struggle to regain Philadelphia from the British in 1777. The city itself had, since the fall of New York in 1776, served as the seat of the Second Continental Congress and the Nation’s Capital until it fell to the British on the 26th September 1777. Access to it was vitally important for the British, first under Lord William Howe and later under General Cornwallis.
Despite the loss of Philadelphia, and never beaten, Washington and his Continental Army fought on throughout 1777 and harassed the British where they could, before settling in for the winter at Valley Forge.
Two forts had been constructed either side of the Delaware River as far back as 1771. Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvanian side on what was then an Island (Mud Island) and Fort Mercer (named after the Brigadier General Hugh Mercer who had died at the battle of Princeton in January 1777), on the New Jersey shore at Red Banks. Both forts held the key to unhindered access to the Capital city.
The forts are clearly depicted on J. F. W. Des Barres’ beautiful 1779 Chart of the River Delaware and ‘Plan’ of the position of British ships on the 15th of November 1777 in the upper reaches of the river.
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Des Barres’ chart of Delaware River from Bombay Hook to Ridley Creek and A plan of the Delaware River from Chester to Philadelphia. 1779
An original copy of his magnificent Des Barres chart is available for viewing at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (click).
Fort Mifflin & Fort Mercer in close-up
Fort Mercer at Red Banks and Fort Mifflin on Mud Island
The ‘Plan’ (on the right hand side of Des Barres’ chart) is in fact no less to do with the position of British ships than it a survey of American defenses as drawn by Lt. John Hunter, RN.
(Click on image)
Heritage Charts A309
This beautiful chart is one of the latest in the Heritage Charts collection
Even though the British under Howe had successfully taken Philadelphia, General Washington ordered the American defenses be strengthened further down river and work started to adapt the old fort at Red Bank. This work involved reducing its size in order to make it more manageable. River defenses were also put in place in the form of underwater obstructions known as Cheveaux-de-Frise. These were of a similar construction to those put in place on the Hudson River to impede British advancement past Forts Montgomery and Clinton (see Heritage Charts A206)
A closer look at Lt. John Hunter’s original survey of river and the state of the American defenses clearly shows the thought process behind it all. The Cheveaux-de-Frise were placed so as to force the British ships through certain channels which would then put them within range of the guns from Fort Mifflin in particular. Hunter even marks in red the channels which the British ships used.
From John Hunter’s original survey of American defenses along the Delaware River. November 15th 1777.
(Click on image for an expanded view)
Intriguingly this survey was completed just three days before the British landed some 2,000 troops in New Jersey to finally take Fort Mercer and break the American strangle-hold on the river. Fort Mercer had in fact been the subject of a fierce British attack (by 1,207 Hessian troops) on the 22nd October 1777. On that occasion the American fort had repelled the assault with the loss of only American dead and 23 injured. The Hessians had suffered huge losses with 514 casualties, including Count Carl Emil Kurt von Donop, their commander. The American garrison was led by Colonel Christopher Green of the First Rhode Island Continentals (1737-1781).
The site of Fort Mercer is now a National Park and it includes the James & Ann Whitall House (click)
The site of Fort Mercer now looks like this…
Fort Mercer today
With a view of the river Delaware…
River Delaware view from Fort Mercer
And… James and Ann Withall’s House which served as a field hospital throughout the engagement on the 22nd October 1777.
James & Ann Withall House, Fort Mercer, Red Bank, NJ
Finally, lest anyone forgets…
The Hessians are coming!..