Stories from PA History
The Philadelphia Campaign
The Philadelphia Campaign
Overview: Philadelphia Campaign

"The army is to march in one column thro' the City of Philadelphia," ordered General George Washington on August 23, 1777, "going in at and marching down Front street to Chesnut street, and up Chesnut street to the Common." The next day was a Sunday and the American commander in chief wanted his soldiers to put on an impressive display. He directed the officers of the young Continental Army to show "great attention" to the condition of the troops in order "to see that the men carry their arms well, and are made to appear as decent as circumstances will admit."
Mural painting of Washington on horseback riding through Philadelphia. His men carry rifles on their shoulders while marching behind him.
Washington's March through Philadelphia, by Violet Oakley.

A year into the American Revolutionary War, the ragtag Continental army was on its way to meet a large, well-trained British force that was maneuvering to invade Philadelphia from the south. It was a mismatch of monumental proportions. A twenty-year-old French aristocrat, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had joined the rebellious colonials, observed that the soldiers were "ill armed and still worse clothed," pointing out that "many of them were almost naked."

"Our soldiers have not yet quite the air of soldiers," admitted John Adams, a member of the Second Continental Congress, in a letter to his wife Abigail who was back home in Massachusetts. "They don't step exactly in time." But he added hastily that they were still, in his opinion, an imposing bunch. "I feel as secure here as if I was at Braintree." Another patriot, observing the spectacle from a coffeehouse on Front Street, noted hopefully that the men "though indifferently dressed, held well burnished arms."

It had been more than a year since Adams and other members of the Congress had issued a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. During that time, the war for independence had, for the most part, gone badly for the Continental Army. The British now controlled New York City, the second most populous city in the colonies. Their forces, under General William Howe, had driven the main body of the Continental Army deep into New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Washington had managed to score a set of surprising victories at Trenton and Princeton during the winter of 1776-77, but otherwise his track record as the American commander in chief had been mainly a series of reversals and narrow escapes.
This painting, titled "Washington at Valley Forge" is the work of Pennsylvania artist N.C. Wyeth. This painting is in the collection of the Hill School in Pottstown, PA.
Washington at Valley Forge, by N.C. Wyeth.

The citizens of Philadelphia, many of whom supported the Crown, had little faith that Washington's Continental forces could prevent British occupation of their city. Yet Howe, who had led royal troops into a massacre at Bunker Hill, had enough respect for the fighting capacity of American soldiers that he decided in the summer of 1777 to avoid a direct overland assault through Pennsylvania. He chose instead to sail over 14,000 troops along the Atlantic coast and up the Chesapeake Bay into Maryland. He then planned to sweep up into Philadelphia with an element of surprise and through a region of the colonies reportedly full of supporters of the Crown, or Loyalists.
"Progress of the Army from their landing till taking of possession of Philadelphia,"...

Eventually, the two sides met about 25 miles southwest of the city at a place where the road to Philadelphia crossed the Brandywine Creek. Washington had concentrated his troops at the main fords or crossing points of the small river but somehow overlooked one of them and ended up getting caught unprepared for a British assault toward the rear of the American lines. Once again, Washington and his men retreated.

But this retreat and a series of other setbacks that occurred during the rest of the Philadelphia Campaign actually benefited the American cause. Shortly after the Battle of Brandywine, the British entered the city of Philadelphia. Undeterred, Washington convinced his war council to authorize a daring assault on the British positions in Germantown at the edge of the city. The result was yet another American defeat, but the battle-scarred Continental troops would not disappear. They camped close to the city, at Whitemarsh, and watched as a small contingent of their comrades desperately held onto a handful of forts on the Delaware River in the face of a ferocious British bombardment.

Amazingly, the result was catastrophe for the victors. The energy and resources Howe spent on seizing Philadelphia should have been used elsewhere. Instead, British forces in upstate New York, expecting reinforcements, had been isolated and forced to surrender at Saratoga. News of the defeat, along with other factors, subsequently led the French to join the war on the American side. Howe had believed that by occupying Philadelphia, he would demoralize the revolutionaries. Instead, he helped unite them. Washington's troops endured a miserable winter in 1777-78 at nearby Valley Forge. Many deserted or died from disease, but those who remained appear to have grown stronger, more disciplined and ultimately better trained. By the spring of 1778, Howe resigned his commission and returned to London in disgrace.

John Adams had actually predicted this outcome. In his letter after the August parade, the future president expressed "a secret wish" that Howe would succeed in taking control of Philadelphia. "I think it more for our interest that they should be cooped up here," he wrote, "than that they should run away again to New York."

Still, few would trade battlefield victories for bloody defeats or warm beds in Philadelphia for cold huts at Valley Forge. Even Adams grew despondent during moments of the brutal campaign. "Oh, Heaven!" he confided in his diary, "grant us one great soul!" Adams was a wise man, but not quite profound enough to see that the "great soul" he desired was the very man he had once nominated to become the embattled Commander in Chief. Arguably the most significant outcome of the Philadelphia Campaign was the emergence of Washington as a true leader for the new nation.

Back to Top