At The Battle of the Clouds, the rains won the day

by David Schmidt

Special to Main Line Life

This non-battle demonstrated the occasional value of the “fog of war”

While this part of the country has numerous Revolutionary War battlegrounds, East Whiteland Township is home to a famous “non-battleground.” Along the ridgeline of King Road, George Washington strung out his weary army to stop the British from taking Philadelphia and trapping his army.

Local history enthusiast Sylvia Baker is a teacher with a 20-year interest in the Battle of the Clouds. According to her, the Battle of the Clouds was neither a battle, nor in the clouds. “It was a very important event. Many local people say it was a turning point in the war, although I don’t know if I’d go that far. But it was important for the revolution because it stopped the British when we were at a low defensive point. If we’d been overrun at that point, things would have gone differently,” she says.

Although they were defeated on Sept. 11, 1777 in the Battle of the Brandywine, for the first time the shambling American army of about 1,500 militia and 9,500 Continentals, had stood its ground against a vaunted British infantry. In fact, they were outnumbered so severely that the British General Howe brought 18,000 men to the battle.

“Although they were defeated at the Brandywine and physically exhausted from moving backwards to defend Philadelphia, the fact that Washington’s army survived Valley Forge may be in part because their morale was high after both the Battle of the Brandywine and the Battle of the Clouds,” she says.

And exhausted they were. The Americans had marched through Chester to Philadelphia, and then moved north and camped in Germantown, six miles from the city. Washington needed to be in a position wherein he could protect both Reading to the west and Philadelphia to the south. Although they were safe for the time being, Washington feared being flanked by the British. Then his army would be trapped in the “pocket” formed by the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Washington decided the best position for protecting both cities was on the west side of the Schuylkill River. Also, Washington’s men, especially General Anthony Wayne, were anxious to meet the British again. Convinced by his officers, Washington re-crossed the Schuylkill at Swede’s Ford on Sept. 14, 1777, and moved up the Great Valley on the Lancaster-Philadelphia road.

General Howe’s army couldn’t come up the Chester-Philadelphia road because the Americans kept all their boats on the Philadelphia side of the river. So Howe would have to march upstream to cross the Schuylkill at one of the possible fords: Matson’s Ford (now West Conshohocken), Swede’s Ford (now Norristown and Bridgeport), Fatlandford (at Valley Forge), Long Ford, Gordon’s Ford (now Phoenixville) and Parker’s Ford (below Pottstown). Howe and the British began moving on Sept. 15, 1777. To reach the fords, his army would have to march north to the White Horse Inn in the Great Valley, and then eastward to the Schuylkill River. As it turned out, the White Horse Inn was occupied by both sides between Sept. 15-18, 1777.

Washington had the assistance of Anthony Wayne, whose home, Waynesborough, was nearby. Washington had stopped at the Buck Tavern, 10 miles from Philadelphia on the Lancaster road, the night of Sunday, Sept. 14. On Monday, Sept. 15, the Continental army passed the General Warren Inn on the Lancaster road. Continuing on Lancaster Road Washington stopped at Malin Hall where he made his headquarters the night of Sept. 15. “Swedesford Road really has changed, so you really can’t follow the exact route,” Baker says.

Washington deployed his army along the Lancaster/Swede’s Ford Road between Malin Hall and the White Horse Inn, which was 3 1/2 miles to the west. Their line stretched for three miles. The busy Washington, who had other business to attend to, made his headquarters from Malin Hall.

Reports from the time say that the soldiers carried their camp kettles, and were allotted one tent per eight soldiers. Tents were carried on wagons, with wagons allotted at one per 50 tents, “and no more”. Any women following the army were “not under any pretense to go with the army, but to follow the baggage.” Also, any troops which had not received their complement of 40 cartridges were to get them, a decision that would be damaging later. They also drew a day’s worth of cooked rations.

Any man, not wounded, who was caught fleeing from the enemy before receiving orders to retreat, was to be “instantly put to death” by officers stationed in the rear for that purpose. As Washington put in this order, “The man does not deserve to live, who basely flies, breaks his solemn engagements, and betrays his country.”

Howe discovered Sept. 15 that Washington’s army had re-crossed the Schuylkill and began his move to attack on the 16th. General Knyphausen’s army of about 5000 men moved north the morning of Sept. 16 from Turk’s Head (now West Chester) toward the White Horse Inn using the road to Boot Tavern. At the same time, Cornwallis and about 13,000 men marched north on Goshen Road, which also led to the White Horse Inn.

At about 11 o’clock on the morning of Sept. 16, Washington received a surprising report from newly elected Chief of Cavalry Pulaski that the main British army was only a few miles to the south and advancing. Hoping perhaps to catch the enemy unprepared and strung out along their marching paths, he ordered his troops forward to meet the British.

The Battle of the Clouds began at about 1 P.M. when Washington ordered Count Casimir Pulaski, the recently appointed “Commander of the Horse” (Cavalry), to scout the British position and delay their advance. Cornwallis sent the 1st Light Infantry charging at the Americans. The Americans “shamefully fled at the first fire,” rather than delaying the British. A dozen American casualties resulted but the British were “without the loss of a man.”

Washington moved his troops up the slope of South Valley Hill and attempted to deploy them on the high ground along Indian King Road between Three Turns Tavern on Goshen Road (Chester Road) and a road about three miles to the west which is now Ship Road. Wayne’s brigade moved out ahead and engaged the advance guard of Howe’s army on both the east and west flanks.

Together with Maxwell and Pulaski, he skirmished with Knyphausen’s Hessians under Colonel Carl von Donop. Wayne’s men momentarily threatened to capture Donop, but the exchange of fire was inconclusive. As Howe’s main army approached, Washington again ordered Wayne to head the attack.

But it seemed like Washington was going to be outflanked. Furthermore, Knyphausen’s 5000 men on the right flank threatened the American’s base camp on Swede’s Ford Road. Just the British left flank, with 13,000 men under General Cornwallis outnumbered the Americans. The two wings of the British army were about to close a pincers on the Continental army.

A well-trained and coordinated army might be able to block the double flanking attack, but the Continental army was not of such quality in Sept. 1777. Washington’s position was precarious.

Both the roads and the terrain were such that if the Americans attempted to retreat after engaging the British they could be overrun. Worse yet, they could lose their artillery and baggage train, which would have been a disaster.

When Colonel Timothy Pickering, Washington’s adjutant returned from inspecting the lines, he implored Washington to make a decision to move or complete the deployment at once. ‘Let us move,’ was the General’s answer.

Just as Washington decided to move a heavy rainstorm hit both armies. As Major Bauermeister of Knyphausen’s Corps later wrote, “I wish I could give you a description of the downpour, it came down so hard that in a few minutes we were drenched sank in mud up to our calves.”

The rain aided the Americans, giving them time to retreat. They withdrew under cover of the storm, although the roads quickly formed deep ruts and became virtually impassable. Slogging down the slope, Washington’s troops reformed about 4 p.m. on high ground just north of the White Horse Inn, then moved on to Yellow Springs (now Chester Springs) the night of Sept. 16, stopping there until the next day. The difficulty of that march in knee-deep ruts filled with water and clinging mud was later summed up by Continental officer Lt. James McMichael: “This march for excessive fatigue surpassed all I ever experienced”

“Everything turned to mud, the powder was wet and unusable. But the Americans were able to retreat without being overrun,” Baker says. “It was a tactical retreat, rather than a rout.”

So the Americans lived to fight another day. “If they’d have had another fighting retreat the morale would have been poor, but now they were at a high point and the morale was high, as it probably is before any battle, and if they’d been defeated it would have been devastating,” she says.

“We wish we had some diaries that would confirm it what they thought, but later it was discussed that, for the soldiers, it would have seemed like Divine Providence had turned the weather against their enemies,” she says.

Washington’s report to Congress, written at Yellow Springs on Sept. 17, didn’t report a “Battle of the Clouds,” and that term may have come later. He states, “We suffered much from the severe weather yesterday and last night, being separated from our tents and baggage, which not only endangers the health of the men, but has been very injurious to our arms and ammunition.”

Indeed, the loss of ammunition due to the rain was significant. About 40,000 cartridges had been issued only days before, and after the rain hardly any were usable.

According to Baker the Bicentennial in 1976 created a lot of local interest in the “non-battle.” “At that time people were looking to see what events in history had occurred in their local areas, and the events of the Battle of the Clouds were relearned. The township even named a recreation area after it, and today American kids battle it out on the soccer fields there.

“It isn’t located on the site of the battle, which was further up towards Immaculata,” say Butler. But the clouds probably don’t have nearly as much impact on the soccer battles as it did in helping the cause of freedom during those dark days before Valley Forge.

It gave the American army life. Within several years they would not only meet the British on an equal footing, in both training and equipment, but defeat them.