American Revolution

Valley Forge

Valley Forge National Historical Park
credit: Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau

The battle for America's independence began and turned upon events within the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. In Philadelphia a group of men took bold steps and did something that had never been done before: declared their freedom from the most powerful nation on earth. At Germantown, Paoli, Fort Mifflin and Brandywine, the patriot army fought difficult battles with the British. At Valley Forge, a war-torn and weary group of men suffered through a grueling winter and emerged in spring as a well disciplined army. The farms and furnaces to the north and west provided much needed food and supplies to the patriot cause. American history turned here.

Politics and culture

By the mid 1700s Philadelphia had grown to be the largest English-speaking city in the world outside of London. It was also one of the most ethnically diverse cities, and the mix of cultures, values, and religions made Philadelphia the cultural, social, and political center of the North American colonies. This mix of people and ideas created an environment for talking about radical ideas that was unparalleled in other North American cities at the time. When anger over taxation and the policies of the British Parliament reached a fevered pitch in the early 1770s, delegates from each of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia. Here they could debate their issues far more freely than would have been possible in Boston or Charleston. Those places were viewed as being too radical or conservative in their views. Philadelphia presented a unique opportunity for these men to gather and share their hopes, dreams, and fears about declaring their freedom.

The mix of politics and culture in Philadelphia also allowed for the free expression of ideas and beliefs by the citizenry. English-born Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin. An outspoken critic of Parliament and its policies, Paine embraced the patriot cause and published Common Sense in 1776. The pamphlet was one of the most convincing cases for independence made up to that point, and helped convince the colonists to support the war effort.

Independece Hall

Independence Hall
credit: WRT

Following the Revolution, the task of establishing a new government was debated in Philadelphia. The Constitutional Convention met in the State House and toiled over the proper way to govern these newly independent states. The Constitution was signed in the Pennsylvania State House in 1787, and Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the document later that same year. Philadelphia was established as the first capitol of the United States, a role it served until 1800. Montgomery County born Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg became the first Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Battles and encampments

The Revolutionary War arrived in Southeastern Pennsylvania in earnest the summer of 1777. Prior to that time the impact of the war had been purely financial and political as the Continental Congress continued to meet in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) and the financial resources of the region's citizens were tapped to support the war effort. However, a contingent of British troops landed in Maryland in August 1777 and began their march northward. Washington and his generals suffered three crushing defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown over the next two months, and the British took control of Philadelphia in late September.

Washington's Headquarters

Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge NHP
credit: Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau

As battles between patriot General Horatio Gates and Sir John Burgoyne raged in upstate New York, Washington and his army feverishly worked to defend and reclaim Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In November, British General William Howe launched an offensive against patriot-controlled Fort Mifflin at the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. The lower Delaware was a critical supply route for the British and as long as Fort Mifflin was under Washington's control, Philadelphia was closed to British supply ships. For six weeks this tiny, incomplete island fort was laid under siege. From November 10 through 15, 1777, it is estimated that the British fired 1000 canon ball, shot & shell into the Fort every 20 minutes. Of the 406 men garrisoned, close to 250 were either killed or wounded. Howe and his army conquered the Fort, but the service of these men delayed the supplies that the British needed. If it was not for the men who served in Fort Mifflin, the British Army would have had their supplies earlier and General Washington's Army could have been destroyed.

Following the defeat at Fort Mifflin, Washington moved his army up the Schuylkill to prepare for the winter. The tired and tattered group arrived in the tiny village outside the Valley Forge in mid-December. The army set up camp on the bluffs overlooking the Schuylkill River and waited out the long and unusually cold winter. As spring approached the largely untrained and ill-equipped militia began drilling and training under the direction of Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben. It was here that they learned to become an army and to fight the British on their own terms.

Supplying the cause

The concentration of battles, encampments, and political influence in Pennsylvania meant that food, weapons, and other supplies were in high demand. The fertile fields of Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties were pressed into service to meet the needs of the cause. The Schuylkill River Heritage Area was home to over 50 iron forges and furnaces in 1776, more than all the other colonies combined. While most produced household items like pots, nails, and hinges, several, including Hopewell Furnace, cast cannon and ammunition.

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

The American Revolution was largely a private cause fought on the public's behalf. The colonial assemblies supplied militia and some cash, but there was no unified system for the collection of funds or supplying of troops. Many wealthy individuals, particularly merchants, responded by fronting cash and supplies to the Continental Congress, who in turn distributed them to the Army. Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant was among the principal financiers of the American Revolution. Like many elite Philadelphians, Morris lived in the city during the fall, winter, and spring, but retreated to the country during the oppressive summers. Morris made his home at Lemon Hill on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Of course, not everyone in the region was supportive of the Patriot cause. The Pennsylvania legislature arrested many pacifist Quakers for their lack of support and relocated them to Virginia. Residents in the backcountry, particularly predominantly English Chester County, vehemently opposed the war, which caused considerable difficulties in obtaining supplies and moving troops.