On June 18, 1778, after almost nine months of occupation, 15,000 British troops under General Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia, the former U.S. capital.
The British had captured Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, following General George Washington’s defeats at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. British General William Howe had made Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, the focus of his campaign, but the Patriot government had deprived him of the decisive victory he hoped for by moving its operations to the more secure site of York one week before the city was taken.
The Continental Army froze at Valley Forge, while Howe and the British officer corps spent the winter enjoying the luxury of Philadelphia’s finest homes. During the long fall and winter months, the British built up the city’s defenses, kept an eye on the American army at Valley Forge, and sent foragers into the countryside to search for wood and hay. But such tasks could not occupy the thousands of men in the army, and the British also turned to a wide variety of leisure activities. Some occupied themselves by playing cards, drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. Others sought more elaborate entertainments, arranging dinner parties and taking part in amateur dramatics. British officers put on plays at the Southwark Theatre on Monday nights from January to May, performing at least fourteen different plays.
When Howe resigned in April 1778, his officers planned a grand celebration to honor him before his departure. This “Meschianza” (in Italian, “medley”) began with elaborately decorated flatboats and galleys carrying officers and hundreds of guests down the river. This procession was followed by a tournament in which British officers dressed as medieval knights jousted in honor of the “Ladies of the Blended Rose” and the “Ladies of the Burning Mountain.” The tournament was followed by a feast, fireworks, and dancing. Participants judged the event a stunning success, but not all Philadelphia citizens agreed. The Meschianza cost more than three thousand guineas, a stunning amount of money in an occupied city where citizens complained regularly of shortages and high prices. The diarist Drinker criticized the officers’ extravagance, writing, “How insensible do these people appear, while our Land is so greatly desolated, and Death and sore destruction has overtaken and impends over so many.”
While Howe and his army spent the winter in Philadelphia, the fortunes of war were turning. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne (lacking support from Howe) surrendered at Saratoga. This American victory encouraged the French to make an alliance with the Americans. With British plans in America threatened by the French fleet, the British could no longer afford to occupy Philadelphia, especially as they had gained nothing from being there. General Henry Clinton (1730?-95) was ordered to abandon Philadelphia and retreat to New York. The British army left Philadelphia in June 1778, accompanied by some three thousand loyalists.
The British occupation and abandonment of Philadelphia also led to difficult choices for black residents of the city, both free and enslaved. In 1777 and 1778, it was not clear whether an American or a British victory would be more likely to lead to freedom and greater rights. On the one hand, Quaker and abolitionist sentiment in Philadelphia had been growing in the decade before the war. As masters freed their slaves, the free black population of the city grew. Slaves in Philadelphia hoped that an American victory would lead to outlawing of slavery. During the war, thirty-five black men served in the Second Pennsylvania Brigade of the Continental Army, and others served on American privateers. On the other hand, black men and women in Philadelphia quickly learned of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation (November 7, 1775) offering freedom to patriots’ slaves who joined the British forces. Although Dunmore was the royal governor of Virginia, news of his proclamation reached Philadelphia within a week. During the occupation, many Africans and African Americans seem to have decided that the British offered better prospects than the Americans, and served among them as soldiers, guides, and laborers. When the British evacuated, dozens of slaves fled with them.
The British position in Philadelphia became untenable after France’s entrance into the war on the side of the Americans. To avoid the French fleet, General Clinton was forced to lead his British-Hessian force to New York City by land. Loyalists in the city sailed down the Delaware River to escape the Patriots, who returned to Philadelphia the day after the British departure. U.S. General Benedict Arnold, who led the force that reclaimed the city without bloodshed, was appointed military governor. On June 24, the Continental Congress returned.
Several capable Europeans, including Baron von Steuben, Marquis de Lafayette, Johann Baron de Kalb, Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Count Pulaski, aided Washington in creating a well-drilled, professional force capable of fighting the British in the coming months
Ferling, John E. The Loyalist Mind: Joseph Galloway and the American Revolution. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.
Fisher, Darlene Emmert. “Social Life in Philadelphia during the British Occupation.” Pennsylvania History 37 no. 3 (July 1970): 237-260.
Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Jackson, John W. With the British Army in Philadelphia, 1777-1778. San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1979.
Martin, James Kirby and Mark Edward Lender. “A Respectable Army:” The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789. 3rd ed. Malden, Mass.: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign. vol. 1. Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia. Mechanicsburg, Pa.A: Stackpole Press, 2006.
Nash, Gary B. First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.