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

CHAPTER VII.

THE enemy increased his works on Province Island, mounting them with thirty-two pounders; which being completed on the 9th of November, a demolishing cannonade took place without delay, and continued without intermission; being erected within four or five hundred yards of the nearest defences on Mud Island, the block-houses were soon battered down; and the breach, in that quarter, encouraged immediate resort to the ultimate operations, which would most likely have been attempted, had not the heroic stand made by colonel Greene at Fort Mercer presented an admonition too impressive to be disregarded by an officer of sir William Howe’s prudence. This attempt was considered by lieutenant colonel Smith, not only practicable but probable; and he advised the withdrawal of the troops. Nor was his counsel unsupported by the actual condition of the fort and garrison: the first dismantled in various points; and the second always greatly inadequate in strength, and now extremely incapacitated, by fighting, watching, and working, for close and stubborn action. Indeed so desperate was the prospect, and so probable the last appeal, that colonel Smith assembled his officers, for the purpose of deciding on the course to be pursued; when, with one voice it was determined that should the expected event take place, and the enemy succeed in forcing the outer works, the garrison should retreat to an inclosed intrenchment in the centre of the fort, and there demand quarters; which, if refused, a match should be instantly applied to the magazine, and themselves, with their enemy, buried in one common ruin.

Washington, still sanguine in his expectation of being soon formidably reinforced from the army under Gates, frowned upon every suggestion of evacuation. He established a small camp in New Jersey under brigadier Varnum, contiguous to Fort Mercer, for the purpose of affording daily relief to the garrison of Mud Island, whose commandant received orders to defend it to the last extremity.

The enemy, from his ships below, and from his batteries on Province Island, and the heights above Schuylkill, continued to press his attack with renewed vigor and increased effect. In the course of the fierce contest, lieutenant colonel Smith received a contusion from the shattered walls of the fort, which, obliging him to retire, the command devolved on his second lieutenant colonel Simms, who continued to sustain the defence with unyielding firmness, until he was relieved by colonel Russell of Massachusetts, who preserved the undaunted resistance uniformly exhibited. Russell and his officers, being unacquainted with the condition of the works, and some movement indicating a determination to storm the fort being discovered, lieutenant colonel Simms proposed to the retiring garrison to remain until the next day. This proposition was generously assented to; and the united force repaired to their post, determined to defend, at every hazard, our dilapidated works. In the course of the night, a floating battery was descried, falling down the river, the precursor, as was supposed, of the long expected assault. But whatever may have been the enemy’s design, it proved abortive; as only that single battery reached us, which was soon silenced by our guns, and abandoned by its crew.

Russell was succeeded by major Thayer of the Rhode Island line, an officer singularly qualified for the arduous condition in which he was placed. Resistance could not slacken, under such a leader. Entering with ardor into the wishes of his general, he labored with diligence, during the night, to repair the destruction of the day; he revived the hopes of his brave soldiers, by encouraging them to count on ultimate success; and retrieved their impaired strength, by presenting to their view the rich harvest of reward and glory, sure to follow in the train of victory. The terrible conflict became more and more desperate. Not the tremendous fire from Province Island and the heights of Schuylkill, not the thunder from the hostile fleet, nor the probable sudden cooperation of the army down the river, could damp the keen and soaring courage of Thayer. Cool and discriminating amidst surrounding dangers, he held safe the great stake committed to his skill and valor.

A new assailant now presented itself. Between Province and Mud Islands, water and time had worked a ship channel, on high tide, through a mere gut, which had never been observed by those, on whose examination and information, the defences in the river and on the island had been planned and executed. A succession of high tides for several preceding days, it is supposed, had at this period added considerably to the width and depth of this channel. However this may be, it is certain that this pass was first shown by the enemy, prepared to apply the advantage it bestowed.

An East Indiaman, cut down to its depth of water, was, by the skill and perseverance common to British seamen, readily brought to the desired station, close to the fort. Thayer saw himself gone, unless the commodore could crush this unexpected and decisive operation. He lost not a moment in reporting his changed condition, and claiming immediate relief. Hazelwood felt with the same heart the altered and menaced state to which Fort Mifflin was reduced; but all his efforts to repel this new enemy were ineffectual. Nothing now remained for the valiant Thayer, but to abandon the high-prized station. He retired in the second night of his command, admired by the brave garrison who had experienced the value of his able predecessors, and honored by the commander in chief, though compelled to a measure fatal to his wisely projected and well supported system.

Notwithstanding the loss of Fort Mifflin, Washington was very unwilling to abandon Fort Mercer, knowing that the northern reinforcement must soon arrive; to accelerate whose progress, he had some time before despatched lieutenant colonel Hamilton. He consequently determined to counteract lord Cornwallis’s operations, who, after Donop’s repulse, had been detached across the Delaware with a respectable force, and was now moving upon Fort Mercer. To this end, major general Greene, by his order, entered New Jersey with a considerable detachment, to be strengthened by the first division of the troops expected from the north. Disappointed in the promised aid, and very inferior to his enemy in number, who had been reinforced in his march by troops just arrived from New York, Greene could not act offensively: the Fort of Red Bank was consequently evacuated; and the two generals rejoined without delay their respective leaders.[note 24]

Washington, soon after sir William Howe retired from Germantown, had advanced, as before mentioned, to White Marsh, within reach of the enemy; a strong position, rendered stronger by the application of art and labor, wherever requisite. On the return of lord Cornwallis from New Jersey, the British general resolved to bring the American army to battle; with which view he moved from Philadelphia on the 4th of December, and took post on Chesnut Hill, distant three miles from White Marsh Here he passed two days, making many demonstrations of a general assault. On the third he changed his ground, and encamped in front of our left, the most vulnerable part of Washington’s position, as it might have been turned by pursuing the old York road; which measure would infallibly have produced battle, or have forced retreat. Here the British general renewed his demonstrations of assault; and lord Cornwallis engaged the light troops on our left flank, who were driven in, after a sharp rencontre, in which major Morris of New Jersey was mortally wounded. This officer’s distinguished merit had pointed him out to the commander in chief, as peculiarly calculated for the rifle regiment, made up with a view to the most perilous and severe service, and which had, under its celebrated colonel (Morgan,) eminently maintained its renown in the late trying scenes of the memorable campaign in the north; in all of which Morris bore a conspicuous part. His loss was deeply felt, and universally regretted, being admired for his exemplary courage, and beloved for his kindness and benevolence. This skirmish concluded the manifestations of battle exhibited by Howe. He returned to Philadelphia, unequivocally acknowledging by his retreat, that his adversary had at length attained a size which forbade the risk of battle on ground chosen by himself.[note 25]

Truth, spoken in terms so imperative, would have conveyed to the British minister salutary admonition, had his mind been open to its reception. This was the period for the restoration of the blessings of peace; and the loss of one army, with the late unequivocal declaration of the British commander in chief, ought to have led to the acknowledgment of our independence, and to the renewal of amity, with preferential commercial intercourse; thus saving the useless waste of blood and treasure which followed, stopping the increase of irritation which twenty years of peace have not eradicated, and preventing the alliance soon after effected, between their ancient enemy and these states—the prolific parent of great and growing ills to Great Britain and to America.

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