the british occupy philadelphia -- 7/17/15

Today's selection -- from Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love by Thomas H. Keels. We have all heard that the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed in Philadelphia, and that George Washington spent a fateful winter just outside of Philadelphia in Valley Forge. But we rarely hear of the divided loyalties, fallout and aftermath of the British occupation of Philadelphia during that same winter:

"May [of] 1778 was the British army's swan song after a seven-month occupation of Philadelphia that had not only proved to be expensive and pointless but also had given its shattered enemy time to recover. No military force has ever celebrated its own ineptitude or acknowledged its own defeat with as much splendor and panache as the British army in the sunny spring of 1778.

"When the British captured Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, they thought they had pierced the heart of the American rebellion. The city was the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, seat of the Continental Congress and de facto capital of the United Colonies. They didn't realize that, unlike a traditional European power, the decentralized American government would not crumble once its capital was conquered. Congress quickly reassembled at York, and General Washington moved his forces to Valley Forge after the Battle of Germantown.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

"While American troops and civilians suffered through the bitter winter of 1777-78, the British hunkered down in relative luxury in Philadelphia.

"General Sir William Howe, commander in chief of the British army in North America, occupied the mansion of former governor Richard Penn on Market Street below Sixth (later rebuilt as the President's House). Hessian commander Wilhelm Baron von Knyphausen claimed the John Cadwalader house on Second Street. Their officers commandeered other mansions, often displacing the owners to make room for their mistresses. Common soldiers had to be content at the almshouse, from which two hundred destitute adults and children were evicted in November 1777. Many of them later died from starvation and exposure.

"Viewing himself as a 'peace ambassador,' Howe reached out to Philadelphia's upper classes during these dark days with receptions and parties. His officers entertained proper Philadelphians with plays at the Southwark Theatre and balls at Smith's Tavern. By diverting the elite, Howe hoped to win their hearts and minds, convincing them that they had stronger ties to the English aristocracy than to the noisy rabble demanding independence. Young ladies of quality -- even those who called themselves Patriots --soon succumbed to the endless line of dashing young officers in well-cut red jackets.

Old Southwark Theatre where British officers entertained Philadelphians

"Their parents usually supported the girls' fraternization. Many upperclass Philadelphians were staunch Loyalists who viewed the signers of the Declaration of Independence as traitors. Besides the Continental Congress, these Tories despised Pennsylvania's radical provincial government, which had undermined their political power by extending the vote to all tax-paying free men. Other Philadelphians -- later known as neutralists -- enjoyed Howe's hospitality but remained discreet, waiting to see which way the wind would blow. ...

"In May 1778, Howe was replaced as commander in chief by General Sir Henry Clinton and summoned home to London to justify his lackluster performance before his critics in Parliament. ... The day after Howe's departure, British officials informed Joseph Galloway, civilian superintendent general of police, that their army would leave Philadelphia within the month. France had entered the war as an American ally in February, and Clinton wanted to concentrate his forces in British-held New York.

"Many Tories panicked at news of the impending evacuation, fearful of partisan retribution. One witness described 'a Continual scene of Terror, Hurry & Confusion,' while another reported that 'nothing but misery & Sorrow are to be seen in the Town.' The preoccupied Clinton was besieged by desperate Loyalists, begging for protection. Meanwhile, merchants who had eagerly extended credit now pleaded for payment from British officers, who viewed settling their debts as an extremely low priority. The departing army would leave over £10,000 in unpaid bills. ...

"Less than fifteen minutes after the last British left Philadelphia on June 18, the first American soldiers entered the ruined city. In the following days, mobs attacked a few Tories, but General Benedict Arnold, military commander of the city, limited violence by declaring martial law. Councils of Safety, composed of radical Patriots, seized Tory property and ordered Loyalists to report for trial. The estates of seventy-nine Philadelphians were confiscated, and over one hundred were convicted of treason. Three of them were executed.


Thomas H. Keels


Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love


The History Press


Copyright 2010 by Thomas H. Keels


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