Friday, May 4, 2012

Letters from the Front: Warring for Philadelphia

"...our men seeing a Body of british advance to cover the Retreat of their routed Army, & not being able thro a thick Fog to discern their Numbers, became panick Struck & fled from Victory"

While Horatio Gates' army battled Burgoyne across the the northern reaches of upstate New York, Washington's main army faced off against General Sir William Howe's forces in a struggle for control over Philadelphia. Landing at Head of Elk, Maryland, on August 25, 1777, British and German troops advanced slowly towards Philadelphia, taking the city in late September. In early October, Washington launched a counter-strike at isolated British outposts outside the city in the vicinity of Germantown. While initially succeeding, Continental forces were repulsed by British reserves, paving the way for the famous winter at Valley Forge. John Banister's letter, the full text of which is available below, provides stunning eye-witness commentary on this vital campaign, as well as a rather strong expectation of eventual American victory that few of his comrades probably shared until news of Burgoyne's defeat arrived. Our thanks go to David Library research assistant David Swain for this transcript.



Sol Feinstone Collection No. 75
John Banister to Theodorick Bland. Camp 15 miles from Germantown [Pa.] [c. 12 Nov. 1777]
Transcribed by David Swain August 2011

                                                “Camp of the Continental Army 15 miles from German Town

My dear Sir
            as nothing worth your attention has occurd during a Journey thro the upper Parts of Virginia Maryland & this Province I deferred writing til my arrival at Camp. I am fixed in Quarters within half a mile of the Generals, in an agreagble Company, with whom I pass the day in visiting my our acquaintance & dine at Head Quarters, where I have a standing Invitation or with with some acquaintance in the army.  The Col. & I have been inseperable since our first meeting. You must have heard of an Act which happened the 4th of Octo’r.  When our Army attacked & forced the Enemy’s Camp at German Town & was pushing them on towards Philadelphia with the utmost Precipation, till the whole were actually routed when O’ dreadful to relate, our men seeing a Body of british advance to cover the Retreat of their routed Army, & not being able thro a thick Fog to discern their Numbers, became panick Struck & fled from Victory, compleat & decisive of the War, had we but persued our advantage.
            So certain were the Enemy of being vanquished that Genl Howe had ordered a Retreat to Chester, & was making Preparations, for his whole army’s Retreat to Wilmington passing the Schuylkill.  They acknowledge this to be the severest blow they have felt since the affair of Bunker Hill. Their loss amounts to fifty two officers slain among whom is Gen’l Agnu, & upwards one [pg 1] thousand privates are killed & wounded. Once in this action we had Possession of near all their artillery Camp Tents and Bagge.  A heavy cannonading has been carried on for three daies past, as is supposed against our Fort at Mud Island which commands the channel & the cheveux de frizes.  Their Intention in attacking this Place is to enable them to take up the obstructions in the Channel, that so they may bring up their Ships to Philadelphia, in which if they succeed, I fear we shall not regain Philadelphia that Town. The cannonade has eased but we know not the Fate of the Fort this Evening may put us out of suspence & make us acquainted with an unfortunate Event. Before this will reach you another Battle will have been fought between the two armies & I suspect a most bloody one
            If we conquer they are undone, if vanquishd we may recruit renew the blow, & in time melt them down by repeated losses.
            We are every where in a critical Situation Gen. Burgoyne is in a strong Camp between our Generals Gates & Lincoln. What his desperate Situation may impel him to perform is not within the Bounds of Conjecture, but in human probability the Campaigne will turminate in his defeat. I have forgot to inform you of the arrival of some reinforcements to the Tyrant’s Force in New York, with these it is General Robinson’s [Pg 2] Intention to force his way up the north River and attempt a junction with Burgoyne. With all the Iniquity incurred by these People in being the abettor of Tyranny and Persecution it must be allowed to plan and execute well. I wait only to see the event of this Battle and shall immediately return to my duty on the assembly.  My most respectful Complements to Mrs. Bland & believe me with true attachment yr. affect hble Servant
                                                                                                                                    John Banister

[Pg 3]”

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