Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > George Alfred Henty > True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence > This page

True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence, a novel by George Alfred Henty

Chapter 11. The Capture Of Philadelphia

< Previous
Table of content
Next >

During the course of the spring of 1777 a large number of loyal colonists had volunteered their services. They had been embodied into battalions, and when the army prepared to take the field they were placed in garrisons in New York and other places, thus permitting the employment of the whole of the British force in the field. The Americans had occupied themselves in strongly fortifying the more defensible positions, especially those in a mountain tract of country called the Manor of Courland. This was converted into a sort of citadel, where large quantities of provisions, forage, and stores of all kinds were collected. About fifty miles from New York, up the North River, was a place called Peekskill, which served as a port to the Manor of Courland. The country was so difficult and mountainous that General Howe shrank from engaging his army in it. He determined, however, to attack and destroy Peekskill, and a party of 500 men, under the command of Colonel Bird of the Fifteenth Regiment, were sent up the river in two transports to destroy it. The garrison, consisting of 800 men, set fire to the place and withdrew without firing a shot. The British completed the destruction of the stores and returned to New York.

A little later 2000 men were sent on a similar expedition against the town of Danbury, another place on the confines of Courland Manor, where great stores had also been collected. They proceeded up the East River and landed at Camp's Point. They started on foot at ten o'clock at night, and after a ten hours' march arrived at eight o'clock at Danbury. The enemy evacuated the place on their approach, and the English set fire to the great magazines filled with stores of all kinds.

The news of the march of the English had spread rapidly, and the enemy assembled from all quarters and posted themselves under the command of General Arnold at a town called Ridgefield, through which the English would have to pass on their return. Here they threw up intrenchments. It was late in the afternoon when the English, fatigued with the long march, arrived at this spot. They did not hesitate, but when the Americans opened fire they boldly assailed the intrenchments and carried them with the bayonet. They were unable to march further, and lying down so as to form an oblong square, slept till morning. All night the Americans continued to come up in great force, and in the morning as the troops advanced a terrible fire was opened upon them from the houses and stone walls in which the country abounded. The British had to fight every foot of their way. General Wooster had brought up some field-artillery on the side of the Americans. Gradually the column fought its way forward until it arrived within half a mile of Camp's Point. Here two strong bodies of the enemy barred their way. The column was by this time greatly exhausted; the men had had no real rest for three days and two nights, and several dropped on the road with fatigue. Brigadier General Erskine picked out 400 of those who were in the best condition and attacked the two bodies of the enemy with such vigor that he put them utterly to flight, and the column, again advancing, reached their destination without further molestation. Nearly 200 men, including 10 officers, were killed and wounded on the part of the British; the loss of the Americans was still greater, and General Wooster and some field officers were among the slain.

Many other skirmishes took place with varied success. The Americans at Bondwick, seven miles from Brunswick, 1200 in number, were surprised and routed by Cornwallis, while on the other hand the American Colonel Meigs carried out a most dashing expedition by crossing to Long Island and destroying a quantity of stores at a place called Sag Harbor, burning a dozen brigs and sloops which lay there, taking 90 prisoners, and returning safely across the Sound.

In June Washington with 8000 men was encamped in a strong position at Middlebrook. General Howe, although he had 30,000 men, hesitated to attack him here. By a feigned retreat he succeeded in drawing General Washington from his stronghold and inflicted a decisive defeat on 3000 of his men. Washington fell back to his position in the mountains, and General Howe retired altogether from Jersey and withdrew his troops to Staten Island. A dashing feat was executed at this time by Colonel Barton of the American army. Learning that General Prescott, who commanded at Rhode Island, had his headquarters at a distance of a mile from his troops, he crossed from the mainland in two boats, seized the general in his bed, and carried him off through the British fleet. The object of this dashing enterprise was to obtain a general to exchange for the American General Lee, who had been captured by the British.

General Howe, in June, again marched against Washington and again fell back without doing anything. Had he, instead of thus frittering away his strength, marched to the Delaware, crossed that river, and advanced against Philadelphia, Washington would have been forced to leave his stronghold and either fight in the open or allow that important city to fall into the hands of the English.

General Howe now embarked his army in transports. Had he sailed up the North River to Albany he would have effected a junction with General Burgoyne's army, which was advancing from Canada, and with the united force could have marched through America from end to end as he chose. Instead of doing so he sailed down to Chesapeake Bay and there disembarked the whole army, which had been pent up in transports from July 3 to August 24. Not till September 11 did they advance in earnest toward Philadelphia. The Americans thus had ample time to take up a strong position and fortify it. This they did on the other side of Brandywine Creek. Under cover of a cannonade the British advanced, mastered the fort, and carried the intrenchments. General Sullivan, with a considerable force, had now arrived, accompanied by General Washington himself. He took up his position a short distance from the Brandywine, his artillery well placed and his flanks covered with woods.

The following afternoon the British attacked. The Americans fought well, but the British were not to be denied, and rushing forward drove the enemy from their position into the woods in their rear. Here they made a stand and were only dislodged after a desperate resistance. The greater portion of them fled in all directions. Washington himself, with his guns and a small force, retreated eight miles from Chester and then marched by Derby to Philadelphia. Here he waited three days rallying his troops, and then, having recruited his stores from the magazines, marched away.

All this time the British remained inactive on the ground they had won. In the battle the Americans lost 300 killed, 600 wounded, and 400 prisoners. Several guns were also taken. The British lost 100 killed and 400 wounded.

On September 20 they advanced toward Philadelphia. The American General Wayne had concealed himself in the woods with 1500 men, with the intention of harassing the rear of the British army. News of this having been obtained, Major General Grey was dispatched at once to surprise him; he ordered his men not to load, but to rely wholly on the bayonet. The success of the expedition was complete. General Wayne's outpost was surprised and the British troops rushed into his encampment. Three hundred of the Americans were killed or wounded and 100 taken prisoners. The rest escaped through the woods. On the English side 1 officer was killed and 7 privates killed and wounded.

The capture of Philadelphia was an important advantage to the British, but it could not be thoroughly utilized until the fleet could come up the river to the town. The American Congress, which had sat at Philadelphia until General Howe approached the town, had taken extensive measures for rendering the passage impracticable. Three rows of chevaux-de-frise, composed of immense beams of timber bolted and fastened together and stuck with iron spikes, were sunk across the channel, and these lines were protected by batteries. At these forts were fourteen large rowboats, each carrying a heavy cannon, two floating batteries carrying nine guns each, and a number of fireships and rafts.

The forts commanding the chevaux-de-frise were abandoned on the approach of the British, and Captain Hammond of the _Roebuck_ succeeded, in spite of the opposition of the enemy's boats and batteries, in making an opening through the chevaux-de-frise sufficiently wide for the fleet to pass.

Large numbers of troops having been sent away from Germantown, a place seven miles from Philadelphia, where the main body of the British army were posted, General Washington determined to attempt the surprise of that position. For this purpose he re-enforced his army by drawing 1500 troops from Peekskill and 1000 from Virginia, and at daybreak on October 4, under cover of a thick fog, he made an attack on the troops posted at the head of the village.

Half of the British force lay on one side of the village, and half on the other, and had the attack upon the place succeeded the British army would have been cut in two. The village was held by the Fortieth Regiment, who, fighting obstinately, were driven back among the houses. The Americans were pushing forward in five heavy columns, when Lieutenant Colonel Musgrave, who commanded the Fortieth, threw himself into a large stone house. Here he offered a desperate resistance, and so impeded the advance of the enemy that time was given for the rest of the British troops to get under arms.

General Washington ordered a whole brigade of infantry to attack the house and turned four guns against it. Colonel Musgrave and his men resisted desperately and held the post until Major General Grey, with the Third Brigade, and Brigadier General Agnew, with the Fourth Brigade, came up and attacked the enemy with great spirit. The engagement was for some time very hot. At length a part of the right wing fell upon the enemy's flank, and the Americans retired with great precipitation. The fog was so dense that no pursuit could be attempted.

On the part of the English 600 were killed and wounded. The loss of the Americans amounted to between 200 and 300 killed, 600 wounded, and 400 taken prisoners. General Howe had on the previous night been acquainted with the intention of General Washington to attack the place, and had he taken the proper measures to have received them the American army would have been destroyed. He took no measures whatever, gave no warning to the army, and suffered the camp to be taken by surprise.

After this battle the fleet and army united, cleared away the chevaux-de-frise across the Delaware, and took the forts commanding them after some hard fighting.

The passage of the Delaware being thus opened and the water communication secured, the army went to their winter quarters at Philadelphia.

Captain Wilson, and his son had taken no part in any of these operations, as a short time after the capture of Harold and Harvey by the American cavalry the company had been disbanded. The men, when they entered the service, had volunteered for a year. This time already had been greatly exceeded--twenty months had passed since the battle of Bunker's Hill--and although the men were willing to continue to give their services so long as it appeared to them that there was a prospect of a favorable termination of the war, no such hope any longer remained in their minds. The great army which England had sent over had done nothing toward restoring the king's authority in the colonies, and if, after a year's fighting, its outposts were still within a few miles of New York, how could it be expected or even hoped that it could ever subdue a country containing hundreds of thousands of square miles? The retreat from the Delaware and the virtual handing over of New Jersey again to Washington was the finishing stroke which decided the volunteers to demand their discharge, according to the terms of their engagement. Except during the Canadian campaign they had had but little fighting, nor in such a warfare as that which General Howe was carrying on was there much scope for their services. Many of the gentlemen who formed the majority of the company, and who for the most part had friends and connections in England, sailed for that country; some had left wives and families on their estates when they took up arms; and most of them, despairing of the final success of the war, had instructed their agents to sell these estates for any sum that they would fetch; others--among them Captain Wilson--now followed their example. It was but a mere tithe of the value of the property that was obtained, for money was scarce in the colonies, and so many had sold out and gone to England, rather than take part on one side or the other of the fratricidal strife, that land and houses fetched but nominal prices.

Mrs. Wilson had long since gone to England, and her husband, having made arrangements for the disposal of his property, now determined to join her. Fortunately he possessed means, irrespective of his estate in America. This had come to him through his wife, and his own fortune and the money obtained by the sale of his commission had remained invested in English securities. While determined on this course for himself, he left it to his son to choose his own career. Harold was now nearly eighteen, and his life of adventure and responsibility had made a man of him. His father would have preferred that he should have returned with him to England, but Harold finally decided upon remaining. In war men's passions become heated, the original cause of quarrel sinks into comparative insignificance, and the desire for victory, the determination to resist, and a feeling of something like individual hatred for the enemy become predominant motives of the strife.

This was especially the case in the American war. On both sides there were many circumstances which heightened the passions of the combatants. The loyalists in the English ranks had been ruined by the action of their opponents--many had been reduced from wealth to poverty, and each man felt a deep passion of resentment at what he regarded his personal grievance. Then, too, the persistent misrepresentations both of facts and motives on the part of the American writers and speakers added to the irritation. The loyalists felt that there were vast numbers throughout the colonies who agreed with them and regarded Congress as a tyrannical faction rather than the expression of the general will. In this, no doubt, they were to some extent mistaken, for by this time the vast majority of the people had joined heart and soul in the conflict. Men's passions had become so stirred up that it was difficult for any to remain neutral; and although there were still large numbers of loyalists throughout the States, the vast bulk of the people had resolved that the only issue of the contest was complete and entire separation from the mother country.

Harold had now entered passionately into the struggle. He was in constant contact with men who had been ruined by the war. He heard only one side of the question, and he was determined, so long as England continued the struggle, to fight on for a cause which he considered sacred. He was unable to regard the prospects of success as hopeless; he saw the fine army which England had collected; he had been a witness of the defeat of the Americans whenever they ventured to stand the shock of the British battalions; and in spite of the unsatisfactory nature of the first campaign, he could not bring himself to believe that such an army could fail.

When the company was disbanded he decided to continue to serve as a scout, but, sharing in the general disgust in the army at the incapacity of General Howe, he determined to take ship again for Canada and take service under General Burgoyne, who was preparing with a well-appointed army to invade the States from that side.

When he communicated his determination to Peter Lambton the latter at once agreed to accompany him.

"I've gone into this business," the hunter said, "and I mean to see it through. Settling down don't suit me. I aint got any friends at New York, and I'd be miserable just loafing about all day doing nothing. No, I'll see this business out to the end, and I'd much rather go with you than anyone else."

Jake was of the same opinion. Accustomed all his life to obey orders and to the life on his master's plantation, he would not have known what to do if left to his own devices. Captain Wilson pointed out to him that he could easily obtain work on the wharves of New York or as a laborer on a farm, but Jake would not listen to the proposal and was hurt at the thought that he could leave his young master's side as long as Harold continued in the war.

Accordingly, the day after Captain Wilson sailed for England the three comrades embarked in a ship for Halifax, whence another vessel took them to Quebec. They then sailed up the river to Montreal and took service as scouts in General Burgoyne's army.

For political reasons General Burgoyne had been appointed to the command of the expedition which had been, prepared, and General Carleton, naturally offended at being passed over, at once resigned the governorship. His long residence in Canada, his knowledge of the country, of the manners of its inhabitants and the extent of its resources, and his acquaintance with the character of the Indians, rendered him far more fit for command than was General Burgoyne. In military knowledge and experience, too, he was his superior, and had he retained a command the fate of the expedition would probably have been very different.

The army under General Burgoyne consisted of 7173 men, exclusive of artillerymen. Of these about half were Germans. The Canadians were called upon to furnish men sufficient to occupy the woods on the frontier and to provide men for the completion of the fortifications at Sorrel, St. John's, Chamblee, and Isle-aux-Noix, to furnish horses and carts for carriage, and to make roads when necessary. A naval force was to go forward with him on the lake. The Indian question had again to be decided. Several tribes volunteered to join the British. General Burgoyne hesitated, as General Carleton had done before, to accept their services, and only did so finally on the certainty that if he refused their offers they would join the Americans. He resolved to use them as little as possible. He knew that their object in all wars was murder and destruction, and although he wished to conquer the Americans, he did not desire to exterminate them.

On June 16, 1777, General Burgoyne advanced from St. John's. The naval force had preceded the army and opened a way for its advance. The troops were carried in a flotilla of boats, and under the protection of the fleet passed Lake Champlain and landed at Crown Point.

Harold and his companions had joined the army a fortnight previously, and as they crossed the lake with the fleet they could not but remember their last expedition there. At Crown Point they were joined by 1000 Indians, who marched round the lake, and at this place General Burgoyne gave them a great feast and afterward made a speech to them, exhorting them to abstain from all cruelty, to avoid any ill-treatment of unarmed combatants, and to take as prisoners all combatants who fell into their hands.

But while thus exhorting the Indians to behave with humanity and moderation, the general took a most ill-judged step, which not only did the English cause great harm, but was used by the Americans with much effect as a proof of the cruel way in which England warred against the colonists. He issued a proclamation threatening to punish with the utmost severity all who refused to attach themselves to the British cause, and at the same time he magnified the ferocity of the Indians; pointing out with great emphasis their eagerness to butcher those who continued hostile to the mother country, whose interests they had espoused.

This proclamation was naturally construed by the Americans as a threat to deliver over to the tender mercies of the Indians to slay, scalp, and destroy all who ventured to resist the authority of the king.

The Americans had fallen back on the approach of the British, and upon the landing being effected, the scouts were instantly sent forward.

Among the Indians who had joined at Crown Point were the Senecas--among them their old friend Deer Tail.

The scouts received no particular orders and were free to regulate their own movements. Their duty was to reconnoiter the country ahead and to bring in any information they might gather as to numbers and positions of the enemy.

Finding that Peter and his companions were about to start, Deer Tail said that, instead of waiting for the feast, he would take five of his warriors and accompany them.

It was at Ticonderoga that the Americans had prepared to make their first stand. The place lies on the western shore of the lake a few miles to the northward of the narrow inlet uniting Lake Champlain to Lake George. It was to reconnoiter the fort that the party now set out. News had been brought that the Americans had been executing great additional works, and the British general was anxious to learn the nature of these before he advanced.

It was certain that the enemy would on their side have sent out scouts to ascertain the movements of the royal army, and the party proceeded with the greatest care. They marched in the usual fashion--in Indian file; the Seneca chief led the way, followed by one of his braves; then came Peter, Harold, and Jake; the other Senecas marched in the rear.

When they came within a few miles of the fort their progress was marked with profound caution. Not a word was spoken, their tread was noiseless, and the greatest pains were taken to avoid stepping on a twig or dried stick. The three scouts when they left St. John's had abandoned their boots and had taken to Indian moccasins. Several times slight murmurs were heard in the forest, and once a party of four American frontiersmen were seen in the wood. The party halted and crouched in the bushes. The Senecas turned toward Peter as if asking if an attack should be made, but the latter shook his head. A single shot would have been heard far away in the woods and their further progress would have been arrested. Their object now was not to fight, but to penetrate close to the American intrenchments.

When the enemy had passed on the party continued its way. As they neared the fort the caution observed increased. Several times they halted, while the Seneca, with one of his braves, crawled forward to see that all was clear. At last they stood on the edge of a great clearing. Before them, just within gunshot range, stood the fort of Ticonderoga. Peter Lambton was well acquainted with it, and beyond the fact that the space around had been cleared of all trees and the stockades and earthworks repaired, little change could be seen.

As he was gazing the Indian touched his shoulder and pointed to a high hill on the opposite side of the narrow straits. This had been cleared of trees and on the top a strong fort had been erected. Many cannon were to be seen along its crest, the roofs of huts, and a large number of men. Halfway up the hill was another battery and a third, still lower down, to sweep the landing.

"They've been working hard," the hunter said, "and the army'll have a mighty tough job before it. What do you think of that, Harold?"

"It is a very strong position," Harold said, "and will cost us a tremendous number of men to take it. The fort cannot be attacked till that hill has been carried, for its guns completely command all this clearing."

For some time they stood gazing at the works, standing well back among the trees, so as to be screened from all observation. At last Harold said:

"Look at that other hill behind. It is a good bit higher than that which they have fortified and must be within easy range both of it and the fort. I don't see any works there--do you?"

Peter and the Seneca chief both gazed long and earnestly at the hill and agreed that they could see no fortification there.

"It won't do to have any doubt about it," Peter said. "We must go round and have a look at it."

"We shall have to cross the river," Harold remarked.

"Ay, cross it we must," Peter said. "That hill's got to be inspected."

They withdrew into the wood again and made a circuitous deviation till they came down upon the river, two miles above Ticonderoga. They could not reach the water itself, as a road ran along parallel with it and the forest was cleared away for some distance. A number of men could be seen going backward and forward on the road.

Having made their observations, the scouts retired again into a thick part of the forest and waited till nightfall.

"How are we to get across?" Harold asked Peter. "It's a good long swim, and we could not carry our muskets and ammunition across."

"Easy enough," the scout said. "Didn't you notice down by the road a pile of planks? I suppose a wagon has broke down there, and the planks have been turned out and nobody has thought anything more about 'em. We'll each take a plank, fasten our rifle and ammunition on it, and swim across; there won't be any difficulty about that. Then, when we've seen what's on the top of that 'ere hill, we'll tramp round to the other end of the lake. I heard that the army was to advance half on each side, so we'll meet 'em coming."

When it was perfectly dark they left their hiding place and crossed the clearing to the spot where Peter had seen the planks. Each took one of them and proceeded to the river side. Peter, Harold, and Jake divested themselves of some of their clothes and fastened these with their rifles and ammunition to the planks. To the Indians the question of getting wet was one of entire indifference, and they did not even take off their hunting shirts. Entering the water the party swam noiselessly across to the other side, pushing their planks before them. On getting out they carried the planks for some distance, as their appearance by the water's edge might excite a suspicion on the part of the Americans that the works had been reconnoitered.

After hiding the planks in the bushes they made their way to Sugar Hill, as the eminence was called. The ascent was made with great circumspection, the Indians going on first. No signs of the enemy were met with, and at last the party stood on the summit of the hill. It was entirely unoccupied by the Americans.

"Well, my fine fellows," laughed the scout, "I reckon ye've been doing a grist of work, and ye might jest as well have been sitting down quietly smoking yer pipes. What on arth possessed ye to leave this hill unguarded?"

In point of fact General St. Clair, who commanded the Americans, had perceived that his position was commanded from this spot. He had only 3000 men under him, and he considered this number too small to hold Ticonderoga, Mount Independence, and Sugar Hill. The two former posts could afford no assistance to the garrison of a fort placed on Sugar Hill, and that place must therefore fall if attacked by the British. On the other hand, he hoped that, should the attention of the English not be called to the importance of the position by the erection of works upon it, it might be overlooked, and that General Burgoyne on his arrival might at once attack the position which he had prepared with so much care.

Having ascertained that the hill was unoccupied, Peter proposed at once to continue the march. Harold suggested to him that it would be better to wait until morning, as from their lofty position they would be able to overlook the whole of the enemy's lines of defense and might obtain information of vital importance to the general. Peter saw the advantage of the suggestion. Two of the Indians were placed on watch, and the rest of the party lay down to sleep. At daybreak they saw that the delay had been fully justified, for they had now a view of the water which separated Ticonderoga from Mount Independence, and perceived that the Americans had made a strong bridge of communication between these posts. Twenty-two piers had been sunk at equal distances, and between them boats were placed, fastened with chains to the piers. A strong bridge of planks connected the whole. On the Lake Champlain side of the bridge a boom, composed of great trees fastened together with double chains, had been placed. Thus, not only had communication been established across the stream, but an effectual barrier erected to the passage of the fleet. Fully satisfied with the result of their investigations, the party set out on their return. _

Read next: Chapter 12. The Settler's Hut

Read previous: Chapter 10. A Treacherous Planter

Table of content of True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence


Post your review
Your review will be placed after the table of content of this book