Stories from PA History
The American Revolution, 1765-1783
The American Revolution, 1765-1783
Chapter Three: War in Pennsylvania

The War for American Independence had been raging for more than two years before military action came to Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1777. Since the state had not adequately mobilized for war, it had a lot of catching up to do. Pennsylvania never fielded a militia before 1775, much less contributed large numbers of soldiers to Britain's' imperial wars of the eighteenth century. Even after Quakers, who were pacifists, lost their control of the colony in the 1750s, their influence in the colony remained strong enough to discourage military training and the formation of an effective militia.
In 1786 painter John Trumbull memorialized the unsuccessful but heroic American invasion of Canada in <i>The Death of General Montgomery at the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775</i>.  On the right side of the canvas, Colonel William Thompson, dressed in the brown coat of his Pennsylvania riflemen, gazes at the dying Montgomery.
The Death of General Montgomery at the Attack on Quebec, by John Trumbull,...
The limited experience Pennsylvanians did have with armed conflict came in sporadic frontier battles they fought with neighboring Indians and Connecticut squatters and during the French and Indian War.

Even then, Pennsylvania managed to muster only a few voluntary units, relying instead on the expertise of the British Army to oust the enemy. Despite its history of limited armed conflict, Pennsylvania mobilized quickly when news arrived of the outbreak of war in Massachusetts in April, 1775. markerThompson's Rifle Battalion, from Berks and Cumberland Counties, immediately joined the new Continental Army at Cambridge. Within the next year Pennsylvania troops, some led by Col. Archibald Steele, from Lancaster, participated in Benedict Arnold's heroic but unsuccessful expedition against Quebec.
Oil on canvas of the famed Woodstock scene in which General Muhlenberg laid aside his clerical gown. Mulenberg preaching from a pulpit in fill military garb under his robe.
Reverend Johann Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg throwing off his robes, by Stanley...

Other Pennsylvanians led by Gen. Richard Montgomery converged on Quebec in the winter of 1775-76. The Canadian expedition was a military failure, but it did help Pennsylvania accelerate its efforts to catch up to other colonies in military preparedness.

When the war first broke out, the Pennsylvania government had grave concerns about the willingness of residents to join the patriot cause and fight for American independence. Two-thirds of the state's population was Scots-Irish and German. While the Scots-Irish harbored longstanding animosity against the British which made them eager to fight the Redcoat army, most Germans were much less enthusiastic. Some German settlers belonged to peace churches opposed to fighting on religious principle. Others were wary of taking up arms against the Hessians, German brethren whom the British hired as mercenaries to fight against the Americans. Nonetheless, significant numbers of German settlers, including markerHenry Melchior Muhlenberg and his sons, contributed to the war effort by becoming soldiers, providing grain, and making armaments for the American cause. Nor were all of the patriots white males.

African Americans like markerEdward Hector , a private from Conshohocken, joined the Continental Army and saw action during the Philadelphia Campaign. Philadelphian markerCyrus Bustill, supported the patriot cause by joining the Continental Army as a baker to feed hungry troops. Women also supported the war effort on the home front, keeping shops and managing plantations and iron forges.
Molly Pitcher wears a burgundy velvet dress with white trim as she stands courageously loading the cannon for battle.
Molly Pitcher, after a painting by C.Y. Turner.
markerSarah Benjamin traveled to the battlefront with her soldier-husband to care for members of the Continental Army. markerMolly Pitcher saw action at the Battle of Monmouth. Quaker Lydia Darragh spied on the redcoats during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777, sending word of their logistical plans to Washington, then encamped at Valley Forge. Moravian women made a banner for the Polish mercenary markerCasimir Pulaski when his troops guarded Bethlehem in 1778. Carried by his cavalry until he died at the Siege of Savannah two years later, Pulaski's Banner later became a national symbol of women's heroic efforts during the Revolution.

The main theater of war came to Pennsylvania during the winter of 1776 when the collapse of rebel forces in New York sent American troops retreating across New Jersey with the Redcoats in hot pursuit. Fearing a British attack upon Philadelphia, the demoralized Continental Congress fled to Baltimore while the divided Pennsylvania government almost collapsed. Having regrouped his scattered troops at markerSummerseat, Bucks County, at the end of December, Gen. George Washington, on Christmas Day, delivered a brilliant counterstroke. Crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey to surprise a Hessian garrison at Trenton, he forced more than 1,000 troops to surrender.

markerWashington's Crossing and the Continental Army's subsequent victory at Princeton over Britain's feared Hessian mercenaries and British troops on January 2, 1777, restored American morale and weakened British control of New Jersey. Afterwards, German mercenaries were held as prisoners at various places, including the markerHessian Camp at Reading, until the end of the war.

The Battle of Paoli, Xavier della Gatta Color painting of a battle scene
Xavier della Gatta, The Battle of Paoli, 1782.
When the British invaded Pennsylvania from the south in August, 1777, Washington mounted a defense along the Brandywine Creek in Chester County, where he was defeated at the Battle of Brandywine, on September 11. Defeated again on October 4th at the markerBattle of Germantown, Washington repositioned his troops at markerWhitemarsh. Before the Redcoats occupied Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, close to 8,000 of the city's 21,767 residents fled to the countryside. The Continental Congress fled to York, while the state government relocated at Lancaster. Those who stayed behind were ordered to remain quietly at home, as Redcoat guards patrolled the streets. Nevertheless, Philadelphians were divided in their political allegiances.

During the British occupation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania experienced a peculiar three-way conflict among Patriots, Loyalists, and pacifists, who attempted to remain neutral. Of the nearly 14,000 Philadelphians who remained in the city, perhaps a third welcomed the British for their nine-month stay. Led by Joseph Galloway, Pennsylvania Loyalists took over civil administration of the city, and mounted a markersuccessful military raid on Newtown in Bucks County.

Most Philadelphia Quakers refused to aid the Redcoats in adherence to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's marker position of neutrality. Their neutrality, however, made them suspect, both in the eyes of the British, who harassed them, and patriots, who accused them of loyalty to the Crown after their return to the city. Nor were rural Quakers immune from suspicion, as Friends from both markerPlymouth Meeting, on the outskirts of the city, and markerBirmingham Meeting in Chester County struggled with the charge of being loyal to the Crown. Some Friends, however, did take active roles in the patriot cause by serving as spies or suppliers of clothing and other materials for the Continental Army.

George Washington praying under trees; military camp in background.
"The Prayer at Valley Forge," engraved by John C. McRae, 1866.
Once the British occupied Philadelphia, Washington had to decide where to encamp his troops for the winter. Many of his generals urged him to relocate to an inland town. Continental and state leaders wanted the army to remain in the field to pursue active military resistance to Redcoat forces. In late December, Washington brokered a compromise by relocating the Continental Army eighteen miles to the northwest of the city near the town of markerValley Forge. Here he kept the army "in the field" in exchange for supplies and political cooperation for military reforms.

The "Valley Forge Winter" was not the ordeal of endless privation and Continental suffering that legend has portrayed, but it did show the difficulty of maintaining armed resistance in a divided political climate. American troops spent a strenuous winter trying to exclude southeastern Pennsylvania's civilians from occupied Philadelphia, but the blockade was only partly successful.

German engraving of Battle of Saratoga Depicting a large horse and rider as the focal point of an imaginary scene of the Battle of Saratoga.
German engraving of the Battle of Saratoga, 1777.
Washington was also under considerable pressure from the Congress, who believed that one of his generals, markerHoratio Gates, was better suited to lead the army. Gates, who had led the American victory at Saratoga - the only significant victory to date - was a shrewd and ambitious officer who courted favor with Congress and planned his own ascendancy to the command of the Continental Army through a military takeover to be carried out by Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway, the army's inspector general.

Gates' plans backfired when French mercenary markerMarquis de Lafayette uncovered the conspiracy and reported it to Washington. This so-called "Conway's Cabal," however, was the least of Washington's worries during the hard winter at Valley Forge, where his troops waged their own battle against sickness and disease. Temporary, or "flying," hospitals were established on the outskirts of the encampment to prevent the spread of typhus. markerDr. Bodo Otto, chief physician of the Continental Army, treated dozens of ill soldiers nearby at markerYellow Springs. Many soldiers deserted, but those who remained emerged more disciplined, and ultimately better trained.

Patriot fortunes improved in 1778 when markerBenjamin Franklin finally brokered an alliance with France, and in June, when the British abandoned Philadelphia without having reaped any significant strategic advantages from the presumed loyalty of its inhabitants.
Formal portrait of Sir William Howe, by C. Corbett, in formal military dress.
 Sir William Howe, by C. Corbett, circa 1777.
In fact, the energy and resources Howe had spent on seizing Philadelphia might have prevented the Redcoat surrender at Saratoga in October, 1777. This defeat played an important role in the French decision to join the war on the American side. Howe had believed that by occupying Philadelphia, he would demoralize the revolutionaries. Instead, the occupation strengthened American resolve to pursue independence.

Realizing his failure, Howe, in spring 1778, resigned his commission and returned to London in disgrace. By that time, the focus of British military operations had shifted to the south. Three years later, a combined Franco-American army, under the leadership of Washington, defeated the British at Yorktown. When General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on October 19th, 1781, the fighting was over.

The American victory in the Revolutionary War did not, however, end conflict in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvanians who refused or were unable to pay their state taxes had their lands and goods confiscated by the courts and sold to others. Between 12 percent and 40 percent of the taxpayers in any given county suffered this fate during the 1780s, until they created a resistance movement against their own revolutionary government.

In 1782, disgruntled veterans, who had yet to be paid for their service during the war, and officers who feared that Congress would fail to make good its promise to fund half-pay pensions for the rest of their lives, revolted, chasing the Congress out of Philadelphia to Princeton, New Jersey. Quakers, suspected as loyalists during the war because of their refusal to fight for the patriot cause, struggled to earn back the trust of their countrymen in the new nation.

At the same time, the Society of Friends had lost more than 1,000 of its members, whom it had disowned for supporting the patriot cause. How many Loyalists returned to Pennsylvania after the war was over is not known, but many who faced exile ended up establishing new lives in other parts of the British Empire. Perhaps the greatest losses, however, were suffered by Native Americans, who after losing most of their remaining lands in Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary war, continued to launch sporadic attacks on Pennsylvania's western frontier.

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