THE British troops under General Howe made Philadelphia their headquarters during the winter of 1777-1778
THE British troops under General Howe made Philadelphia their headquarters during the winter of 1777-1778. They entered that city, which was the largest and most important in the thirteen states, on September 26, 1777, having defeated Washington’s army in a series of small engagements. The American commander-in-chief withdrew to a safe distance from the city, and prepared to rest and recruit his forces before meeting Howe again.
In the meantime the British General Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga, and many troops that had been engaged in fighting him joined Washington’s command. By November, 1777, there was a general clamor for Washington to capture Philadelphia. But that city was protected by the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers and could only be approached from the north, and on that side the British had built a chain of fourteen redoubts. Washington realized that his army would have little chance of taking the city from the large British force there, and selected the woods of Whitemarsh for a temporary encampment.
General Howe in Philadelphia heard that the Americans were ill prepared for an attack, and so, on December fourth, he marched fourteen thousand men against them. Washington, with only some seven thousand really effective soldiers, prepared to meet him, but after much maneuvering and several slight skirmishes Howe decided that the Americans were too well protected by the broken country and their entrenchments, and retired into the city again. The rest of the winter Howe spent in Philadelphia, and Washington put his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, on the Schuylkill River, twenty-one miles outside of Philadelphia. Thus the two armies rested, and waited for spring to renew hostilities. When spring came, to the surprise of the Tories, the British marched out of the city on June 18, 1778, and allowed the Americans to enter unmolested.
The British spent the winter in Philadelphia in entertainments of every fashion; the Americans at Valley Forge had difficulty in getting sufficient food and clothing. With the army so near it was natural that many of the soldiers should try to send messages to their families in the city, and receive word from them. Many plans were tried to dodge the British sentries, and letters were often hidden in the farm-wagons that drove into town with provisions for citizens and soldiers.
One of those who was most active in sending messages was a Philadelphia girl named Mary Redmond. She was known as “The Little Black-eyed Rebel,” and Will Carleton’s poem tells the true story of one of her successful attempts to smuggle notes from the soldiers at Valley Forge to their wives and children in Philadelphia.