Visit to Fort Mifflin, Mud Island, on the Delaware River, Pennsylvania, today reveals a star shaped fort of familiar pattern and of most substantial construction. It has the distinction of being within the corporate limits of one of the largest cities on the continent of North America, – Philadelphia, – yet a more deserted or forlorn looking spot it would be hard to imagine. Without benefit of policemen or any of the familiar marks of a great city, it might well serve in a ” movie ” for an ancient stronghold in a desert waste and may have been discovered by some enterprising movie manufacturer before these words are in print. Not always quiet, however, Fort Mifflin was the scene of one of the heaviest cannonadings of the War of Independence, when it sturdily held off the combined English naval and land forces until its own walls were reduced to powder.
The ground on which the Fort Mifflin of today stands was deeded to the Federal government by the State of Pennsylvania in 1795, and the present works were commenced in 1798. As the strategic advantage and the ease of fortification of the point had been amply demonstrated during the Revolution, a large and strong fortress was built and garrisoned until changing conditions of warfare caused its importance to be a thing of the past and its garrison to be withdrawn in 1853. During the Civil War the fort was garrisoned by a volunteer regiment and served as a detention place for prisoners taken during that conflict, but this structure saw no service in this war and, indeed, has never fired a shot in anger. After the Civil War the place was deserted, though the government has ever since kept a caretaker there. The government land reservation includes over three hundred acres. In other parts of the island are more modern government stations, but in these we have no present interest.
The old fortification is surrounded by a deep moat over which are bridges leading to its three sally ports. Only one of these entrances is open now. Passing through the thick walls of this entrance, one finds one’s self facing a large parade ground, which is surrounded by quaint, old fashioned structures the barracks and officers’ quarters of a bygone day. On the south of the parade is a very charming little Georgian chapel, through whose broken windowpanes pour in damp winds.
In the casemates of the old fort were confined Morgan’s men during the Civil War. It is a dark and dismal trip to the damp rooms in which these men were confined, as one goes through narrow subterranean corridors beneath the thick walls of the fort. One comes to a large cavernous chamber lighted from above by a single narrow slit. At one end of this chamber is an open fireplace. On the walls are scribbled numerous names and messages from Morgan’s men. It might perhaps be an interesting matter to copy down these names and messages, if one had the patience and time to do so, but hardly a task within the province of this chapter. May be the room was cheerful enough in the days of its use with the big fireplace containing a roaring fire, but it is dismal now, in all conscience!
From the walls of Fort Mifflin there is a fine view of the Delaware River. Natives of the neighborhood say that the marshes round about yield fine gunning during the season. Directly across the Delaware from Fort Mifflin the river being about a mile wide, here are the remains of Fort Mercer and the outworks which made up this strong little post in the days of the Revolution. Fort Mercer and its earthworks are preserved by the nation, forming a public reservation, which annually receives many visitors.
The ancient Whitall house a two story building of red brick still stands at Fort Mercer, reminding one of the intrepid old lady who occupied it during the battle. Old Mrs. Whitall was urged to flee from the house but refused, saying, “God’s arm is strong and will protect me; I may do good by staying.” She was left alone in the house and, while the battle was raging and cannonballs were driving like sleet against her dwelling, calmly plied her spinning wheel. At length a twelve pound ball from a vessel in the river, grazing the American flag staff (a walnut tree), at the fort, passed at the north gable through a heavy brick wall, perforated a partition at the head of the stairs, crossed a recess, and lodged in another partition near where the old lady was sitting. Conceiving Divine protection a little more certain elsewhere after this manifestation of the power of gunpowder, the old lady gathered up her spinning implements and with a step as agile as youth retreated to the cellar, where, not to be pushed out of her house by any circumstance, she continued her spinning as industriously as before. When the wounded and dying were brought to her house to be cared for, she went industriously at the work of succor, not caring whether she tended friend or foe. She scolded the Hessians vigorously for coming to this country on a work of butchery, and at the same time ministered to their sufferings.
The third American redoubt lay farther down the river at Billingsport.
It will be recalled that Howe, with his English regulars and Hessians, spent the winter of 1776-77 in New York with occasional forays from that point. In July 1777, after a trial of wits with Washington in northern New Jersey, he embarked his troops and set sail to the south. Washington’s uneasiness as to the whereabouts of his foe was set at rest after three weeks by hearing of the landing of Howe at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. There then ensued the battle of the Brandy wine and that series of skirmishes which ended in Howe’s taking possession ‘ of Philadelphia, then the capital of the country, with the removal of the American official papers to York.
To secure his position and keep his lines open in Philadelphia, however, it was necessary for Howe to take the American positions at Billingsport, at Fort Mercer and at Fort Mifflin. The works at Billingsport fell quickly before a surprise attack, and it now remained to take Mifflin and Mercer.
The garrison at Mercer consisted of two Rhode Island regiments under Colonel Christopher Greene. At Mifflin there was about the same number of the Maryland line under Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith. The American fleet in the river consisted chiefly of galleys and floating batteries, and was anchored off the present League Island. It was under the command of Commodore Hazlewood.
Count Donop, with 1200 picked Hessians, was sent by Howe to take Fort Mercer. On the morning of October 24, he appeared before the little fort. Though the Americans had only 400 men with fourteen cannon they were not dismayed but stood to their arms. The battle commenced at four o’clock in the afternoon and raged with great fierceness. It resulted in the repulse of the assailants and the death of their commander, Count Donop, to whom a monument has been erected at Fort Mercer Park.
The firing of the first gun against Fort Mercer was the signal for the British fleet to open upon Fort Mifflin. A heavy cannonade continued until the British were obliged to draw off. A hot shot struck one of their large ships, the Augusta, and this vessel burned to the water’s edge.
For a season the Americans held undisputed possession of their section of the Delaware, but then the British returned the charge with increased force. Fort Mifflin was made the centre of attack. Batteries were posted upon Province Island, now a part of the mainland directly off Mud Island on which the little fort stood, and on this side the fort was not finished. A large floating battery was also brought up the river within forty yards of one angle of the fort. Altogether the British had fourteen strong batteries, in addition to four 64gun and two 40gun ships. The engagement opened on the 10th of November and continued for six consecutive days without interruption. In the course of the last day more than a thousand discharges of cannon were made against the little fort on Mud Island. By this time there was little left of its walls and no single chance of the garrison holding out longer. The officer in command escaped to Fort Mercer with the remnants of his force. It is said that the British were preparing to draw away from Fort Mifflin and had made up their minds to give up the siege, but information from a deserter caused them to keep on for the few days necessary to reduce the weakened stronghold.
So strong a force was now sent against Fort Mercer that Colonel Greene was obliged to evacuate that post, leaving behind some guns and ammunition with military stores.
The American fleet sought safety in flight up the Delaware. One brig and two sloops escaped to Burlington. Seventeen other vessels, unable to escape, were abandoned by their crews and burned at Gloucester, just across from the Philadelphia of today.
The Delaware River and Philadelphia were now in the hands of Howe. For a long winter he was to lie inactive while Washington took up position at Valley Forge and spent that historic winter with his men of which so much has been written. Instead of working for the future the British spent their time in balls and the Meschianza. Let Americans of today be thankful that they found Philadelphia manners and Philadelphia belles so altogether delightful!