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Delaware River forts

Date: 1777 
From: Encyclopedia of American History: Revolution and New Nation, 1761 to 1812, Revised Edition, vol. III.

After General William Howe occupied Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, the revolutionaries still controlled the Delaware River forts and prevented supplies reaching his army from the sea. The British had the formidable task of clearing the Delaware River of obstructions, defeating a flotilla of warships and gun boats under Captain John Hazelwood, and capturing three forts–Fort Mercer near Red Bank, New Jersey; Fort Mifflin on Mud Island; and an outpost at Billing sport four miles down the river.

The British campaign began well when they captured the frigate Delaware on September 27 after it went aground near Philadelphia and they occupied Billing-sport almost unopposed on October 2. But they ran into difficulties in clearing the river of obstructions near Billingsport and were harassed by Hazelwood's ships. Establishing batteries on the islands at the mouth of the Schuylkill River opposite Fort Mifflin proved difficult because of the marshy and unstable nature of the ground. But by October 15 the British had opened up a narrow passage at Billingsport and began an artillery bombardment on Fort Mifflin. The revolutionaries had their own problems since they were low on ammunition and had a divided command—Hazelwood was independent of the officers in charge of the forts, and those officers were independent of Hazelwood. These difficulties aside, the defenders scored two big victories in the failed assault by Hessians on Fort Mercer in the Battle of Red Bank (October 22, 1777) and the disastrous naval attack on Fort Mifflin on October 23 in which the royal navy lost the 64-gun ship—the Augusta—and a 20-gun sloop—the Merlin. Both vessels had run aground near each other, caught fire, and then blew up in huge explosions. The loss in men was minimal since the ships had been evacuated, but the destruction of two warships was significant.

The situation, however, remained tenuous for the revolutionaries. Although George Washington finally consolidated the command structure under General James Varnum, supplies remained low and the situation at Fort Mifflin exposed. The British built platforms on the marshy ground opposite Mud Island to support big cannon from the navy, and they began an all-out bombardment on November 10. The navy brought additional ships up the river on November 15 and fired on the fort from point-blank range, pounding it into a shambles and forcing the Continentals to abandon it that night. About half of the 500-man garrison was killed or wounded; the British lost only a handful of men.

Washington and Varnum hoped that they could still check the British on the Delaware by holding on to Fort Mercer. But when Charles, Lord Cornwallis, and 4,200 men began to move on the fort on November 20, Varnum thought the situation at Fort Mercer untenable. He therefore reluctantly ordered an evacuation of the fort. Varnum's rear guard left just before Cornwallis's troops arrived on November 21. This move left Hazelwood's fleet without any land-based support. Some of his galleys were able to row upstream, but because of the wind, the sailing ships were unable to escape. Hazelwood ordered all 11 ships burnt to prevent their falling into the hands of the British. In the meantime Washington had sent Nathanael Greene with 7,000 men into New Jersey, hoping to use Fort Mercer as bait to trap Cornwallis. But little came of this effort, and Cornwallis was able to recross the Delaware unobstructed. Washington then had to order Greene to rejoin him before Howe and Cornwallis could strike at his depleted army at Whitemarsh. When Greene returned to Washington's main body on December 1, the campaign for the control of the Delaware River forts was over, and the British were able to resupply their army in Philadelphia.


Stephen R. Taffe, The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–78 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003).

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Gilje, Paul A. "Delaware River forts." In Gilje, Paul A., and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Revolution and New Nation, 1761 to 1812, Revised Edition (Volume III). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHRIII026&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 1, 2016).

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