Washington's Christmas Journey

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
December 18, 2002

If you drive down Montgomery orLancaster avenues in LowerMerion Township going to andfrom holiday shopping and celebrations,you’re following in thefootsteps of a group of desperatemen fighting their way acrosswhat’s called the Main Lineon their way to winter garrisonin a reasonably sheltered – and defendable- valley.

Called Valley Forge, it was on the waywest, blocking any thought by the Britishof foraying to Reading to captureWashington’s provisioning capability or toLancaster and capturing the exiledContinental Congress. The location ofValley Forge was approved byWashington’s political masters, who werewell aware of the area’s geography.

Those soldiers, as they retreatedthrough the Welsh Barony, left little mark.There were no battles fought or heroesnamed. There were a few bloody skirmishes,but their passage was remembered bythe Quakers and usually not favorably.

This was at the nadir of theRevolutionary War, now in its third year.The ragged and untrained militia fightingthe redcoats had won some victories, mostlyby luck. They had also escaped totaldefeat, thanks to that same lady. No onediscounted their bravery, and they were ascommitted as any bunch of citizen soldierscan be. What really made the difference isthat they stayed with Washington in ValleyForge instead of making their way back tohearth and home.

As they made their way from the outskirtsof Philadelphia, there must have beenmuch grousing about the simple joys of awinter day at home in front of a roaringfire. But in spite of their appearance andthe quality of their equipment, they hadsurvived a season of battle against theworld’s best. Tired, cold and hungry, youcan bet they were still a cocky, if weary,bunch. Few armies had done so wellagainst Britain’s imperialist might.

While much has been lost to legend andtales told around campfires, there are factsthat demonstrate this discipline.

Lines of march were organized and fast.Moving an army is no easy task under thebest of circumstances. You have to quarterthem, feed them and keep them both restedand alert for battle.

Following the Americans’ defeat atGermantown, the army had gatheredstrength and reorganized in theirWhitemarsh encampment. Although thiswas a good position to fight from, it wasn’twhere the Americans would want towinter.

It was too exposed, both to the elementsand to the British. To allow for an effectiveend to the campaign for the winter, theAmericans needed to be further from theBritish in Philadelphia and Germantown.So after six weeks, Washington began tomove his troops across the Schuylkill Riveron Dec. 11, 1777. He headed for Matson’sFord, near what is now Conshohocken.

In one of those strange twists of fate,the British general, Howe, sent a strongforaging expedition into Lower Merion onthat same day. It is thought that neithercommander was aware of the intentions ofthe other: The British were in desperateneed of fodder for their animals, and thefarms of the Welsh Barony were ripe forthe picking.

Lord Cornwallis brought some 3,000British regulars into Lower Merion, crossingthe Schuylkill at what was then knownas the Middle Ferry, where Market StreetBridge is located in Philadelphia. Hisforces then proceeded onto Lancaster Pike.

At the old Black Horse Tavern, whichstood at the present 54th and City Avenue,Gen. James Potter had established a picketof Pennsylvania militia.

The American outpost was warned by aCol. Heston who, according to local historianJohn F. Reed, galloped stark naked toissue a warning and lead the outpost asthey attempted a stand against the advancingBritish. This skirmish didn’t last long;when the Americans had taken a halfdozen casualties they realized the futility oftheir task and fell back.

But here again the Americans did betterthan you would expect of men in their situation.They didn’t run; instead, they fellback in good order, skirmishing with theoncoming British toslow their advance.

But the Britishregulars continuedalong Old LancasterRoad in Cynwyd andwhat now isMontgomery Avenuetoward MerionMeeting. Gen. Potterthen threw two regiments(several hundredmen in each) ofmilitia into the runningbattle.

There was anothersharp encounter justwest of the meeting,and the Americanscontinued their withdrawaluntil they reached CharlesThomson’s Harriton plantation in BrynMawr.

At Harriton, Potter had three more militiaregiments, but realizing he couldn’t holdagainst Cornwallis’ forces, withdrew.

Potter’s report on the action explainsthe American action: “Last Thursday, theenemy marched out of the City with adesire to Furridge (forage); but it was necessaryto drive me out of the way; myadvanced picquet fired on them at theBridge; another party of one Hundredattacked them at the Black Hors [BlackHorse Inn, Old Lancaster Road and CityAvenue]. I was encamped at CharlesThompson’s place [Harriton House] whereI stacconed (stationed) the Regiments whoattacked with Viger (vigor). On the next hillI stacconed three Regiments, letting thefirst line know that when they wereoverpowered the(y) must retreat and formbehind the second line, and in that mannerwe formed and Retreated for four miles;and on every Hillwe disputed thematter with them.My peopleBehaved wel.”

As Potter’stroops approachedthe Gulph, whichwas whereWashington hadarranged for theAmerican troopsto rendezvous, theBritish quickenedtheir pace, sendingmounted dragoonsafter the retreatingAmericans. On thelast long slopesinking towardsthe Gulph the quickness of the Britishadvance at last broke the sturdy Americanranks, and the defeated troops scatteredwestward over Rebel Hill and through theGulph itself.

Although beaten, the Pennsylvania militiahad given a fine account of itself.

Shortly after this, the main Americanarmy coming in from Whitemarsh begancrossing the Schuylkill at Matson’s Ford byusing a bridge of wagons. Nearly half ofGen. Sullivan’s troops, who were in thevan, had crossed when he discovered theline of Redcoats occupying Rebel Hill andthe Gulph.

Sullivan, not waiting for orders,recalled his column. With the Americanforces strung out and fording the river,Cornwallis could easily have slaughteredthe advance column before help couldarrive. Most tacticians say Sullivan’sretreat was wise, although Potter was verycritical of him in his report on the day’saction.

The worst part was the loss of the wagonsmaking up the bridge; Sullivandestroyed them so they wouldn’t be capturedby the British. They would be sorelymissed at Valley Forge. The Americanarmy now marched up the east side of theriver to Swedes’ Ford, at Norristown,where it camped for the night. On the 12ththe army crossed the river and movedtoward the Gulph.

By the time the troops arrived, theBritish had vanished. Cornwallis and histroops had receded down the Gulph Roadto Bryn Mawr, crossed to Haverford Roadand set up headquarters in South Ardmoreas his weary corps camped around him.While the Americans camped at theGulph, Cornwallis returned to Philadelphiawith a large amount of forage.

Washington’s army remained at theGulph for a week, while Washington gavesome thought to making it his winterencampment. But weather and supply conditionsmade this impossible.

On Dec. 19, 1777, the most famousmarch of the war began: the march toValley Forge. Even after he arrived there,Washington considered striking Howe’sscattered force or the weakened linesdefending the city.

Potter’s troops had done a good job ofgathering intelligence on the movementsof the British army. On Christmas day,Washington prepared a plan for a surpriseattack on the redoubts north ofPhiladelphia. But shortly after moving outof camp, the Americans encountered partof Howe’s command and skirmished withthem. The troops did test Philadelphia’sline of defenses, but Washington decidedagainst attacking and returned to ValleyForge.

That ended most of the Main Line’sdirect involvement in the RevolutionaryWar. There were still skirmishes, and bothsides foraged, to the irritation of the residentfarmers. For the soldiers in ValleyForge during that crucible winter of 1777-78, December on the Main Line wasdecidedly less comfortable – although farmore memorable – than it is this year.

On Dec. 19, 1777, a tired, ill-equipped,and despondent army limped its way intothe fields and hills lying just east of theconfluence of Valley Creek and theSchuylkill River. America knows that dateand event; Valley Forge came to mean thesacrifice and valor of the underdog, fightingthe greatest military power on earthwith the weapons of farmers and huntersrather than the equipment – or understanding- of the profession of arms.

This was an army that had met withonly limited success, not because it lackedheart but rather because it lacked the skillsand equipment necessary to defeat theBritish Army in open battle and compel itto leave the United States.

Yet.