Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER VI.

BOTH armies having resumed their former positions, the respective leaders, with renovated vigour, directed their views to the cardinal point, of all their movements, and all their conflicts.

Howe felt and understood the late bold attempt of his adversary; and, withdrawing from his position in Germantown, concentrated his force in the vicinity of Philadelphia, strengthening his camp by field works, which in effect increased his disposable force.

He soon became convinced that the dislodgment of the American garrisons from the forts, Mifflin and Mercer, was an indispensable prerequisite to the opening of the passage of the river, where the admiral and fleet had arrived from the Chesapeak, prepared to cooperate in removing those obstructions; and immediate measures were taken towards the accomplishment of this object.

A detachment of Hessians, led by colonel count Donop, crossed the Delaware from Philadelphia, and took the route for Fort Mercer. A few miles only in its van, was a reinforcement for the post of Mud Island, sent by Washington, under lieutenant colonel Simms, of the sixth Virginia regiment.[note 20]

Simms continued to precede Donop, and reached the fort at Red Bank, the evening before the enemy appeared. No doubt existed but that Donop would make his assault the next day. Simms intreated colonel Greene, of the Rhode Island line, commandant in Fort Mercer, to avail himself of the accidental aid under his command. To this proposal Greene readily assented; and a disposition was accordingly made of the united force, to receive the assailant. Matured reflection, in the course of the night, induced colonel Greene to renounce the welcome and seasonable aid before accepted. He considered that the detachment under lieutenant colonel Simms was destined for Mud Island, a place of the highest importance; and which, for ought he knew, might be attacked by the fleet and army at the moment of the intended assault upon himself. He revolved in his mind the weighty responsibility he should assume, by changing the disposition of the commander in chief, increased tenfold should an attack be made upon Fort Mifflin, destitute of the aid sent to contribute to its defence.

These soldier-like reflections determined this gallant officer to rely solely upon his inferior force, which he directed to resume its original disposition, assigning his entire corps to that part of the works heretofore contracted to fit his strength; nor could the persevering solicitations of lieutenant colonel Simms, seconded by the anxious wishes of his troops, shake the fixed resolve of Greene.

Disappointed in his sought participation of the terrible conflict impending, this zealous officer hastened to his destined post, to share with the commandant of Mud Island the dangers of his arduous and momentous struggle.

Filing off through the postern gate of the fort, he embarked in boats prepared to transport his detachment to the island. This movement was quickly discerned by count Donop, who, having some hours before arrived, was engaged in the necessary preparations for attack.

Not doubting, from what he saw, that the garrison was attempting to escape, Donop relinquished his preparations, though absolutely requisite, and arrayed his troops for assault. Rushing on to our works, he entered that part of them designedly abandoned, in consequence of the contraction made by Greene; and, finding these evacuated, his temerity increased; of which the American commandant took full advantage. Having approached, tumultuously, close to the muzzles of our guns, a severe fire from the garrison ensued, which was so fatal in its effect as to destroy instantly every hope of success. The gallant Donop fell, mortally wounded; and the carnage was so dreadful as to render immediate flight on the part of the survivors indispensable. Nor was the naval diversion, in favour of the assault by land, free from disaster.[note 21] The Augusta, a ship of the line, and Merlin sloop of war, part of the squadron employed on this occasion, were both lost: the first, by fire accidentally communicated; the last, having grounded, was purposely destroyed.

Thus was requited scrupulous adherence to military obedience. The hero of Fort Mercer received with universal acclamation the honour conferred on him by congress, so nobly earned; which, through the eventful vicissitudes of after service, he sustained wdth unfading lustre.

This successful resistance, on the part of the Americans, was soon followed by the exhilarating intelligence from the north, placing out of doubt the surrender of Burgoyne and his army.

To protract as long as possible the defence of the obstructions to the river navigation, became more and more dear to Washington: for, with the reinforcements to be derived from the Northern army, he flattered himself to be at length able to act with that vigour, his own temper had invariably courted; but which his impotent condition had prevented. Could he have left a sufficient force in his camp at White Marsh, to which position he had advanced on the enemy’s retreat to Philadelphia, to protect his hospitals and stores in Bethlehem, Reading, and their vicinity, he would have placed himself on the western heights of the Schuylkill, whence he could with facility have driven the enemy from Province Island,[note 22] by which establishment Fort Mifflin was essentially endangered. This movement, on the part of Washington, must have compelled sir William Howe to have ventured the perilous operation of fighting his enemy on his own ground, passing a river into battle, or passing it above or below him. The latter was the most ready approach: but very disadvantageous was the access, through the intermediate marshes of the Delaware and the Schuylkill; nor was it easy to convey artillery, baggage, and the ammunitions of war, through those humid grounds; and delay in the operation would endanger the health of his troops.

To pass above Washington comported better with a due regard to the health, the comfort, and the labour of his army; but to this course were annexed weighty objections. The route would be extensive; it would place Howe, when he reached the western banks of the Schuylkill, too remote from Philadelphia: a weak garrison, if left there, must fall if struck at; an adequate garrison he could not spare, in his then effective strength.

Whatever choice he might adopt in the difficult condition, to which the transfer of the American head quarters to the western heights of the Schuylkill, opposite to the city, must have reduced him; it is very certain, his decision, when taken, would be replete with hazard. Our army being reinforced from the north, with the faithful battalions of New England, flushed with victory, and surpassing, if possible, their comrades in devotion to the American chief; even upon equal ground, the battle would have been keenly contested, and must have been profusely bloody.

Victory, on the side of America, presented the richest rewards, peace and independence. Exhortations, drawn from such sources, could not have been applied without effect. But suppose sir William Howe to have readily surmounted the presumed obstacles to his advance, and to have approached the American army: he would have found Washington in a position selected by himself, ready for battle. Bloody must have been the conflict, and uncertain the event. Yet it may be fairly suggested, had fortune continued to cling to sir William Howe, such would have been the obstinacy of the contest, that, situated as he was, it was highly probable all the advantages resulting from the battle would have been gathered by his adversary. Nothing short of a complete victory, followed by the destruction of his enemy, could have relieved the British general; which, in existing circumstances, was scarcely possible; whereas a well fought day, crippling both armies, would in its consequences have produced decisive benefit to his antagonist. Fort Mifflin, still sustaining itself against the persevering exertions of the enemy, could never have been reduced by the debilitated foe; and the junction of the fleet, on which depended the safety of the army, never could have been effected.

Delighted as was Washington with a prospect so magnificent, he had, on the first intimation of the probable issue to the northern campaign, given orders to general Gates, to hasten to his succour a portion of that army, as soon as the state of things would warrant a separation of his force. Meamvhile, restricted as he was to inferior numbers, he continued to exert every mean in his power to support Mud Island; whose commandant, count d’Arenat, having been disabled by indisposition to execute the duties of his station, lieutenant colonel Smith,[note 23] of the Maryland line, second in command, supplied his place. On this active and determined officer and his brave garrison, the attention of both armies was turned; each being justly impressed with the momentous result of successful resistance.

Smith felt the high responsibility devolved upon him and was well apprised of the vast odds against which he had to contend. Unhappily the commodore and himself soon disagreed; an event, no doubt, productive of injurious effects to the service. Nevertheless, lieutenant colonel Smith, and his gallant garrison preserved the most imposing countenance, submitting to every privation, surmounting every difficulty and braving every danger.

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