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Washington’s Dilemma

Howe moved up through Valley Forge stretching his troops over seven miles but did not attempt to cross the Schuylkill River. Washington joined Sullivan to push further north up the river to prevent Howe from turning his right flank as he had done twice before. The Main Army was now stretched over a nine-mile front. Under these circumstances Washington could not afford to be outflanked. The significance of Wayne’s defeat at Paoli became painfully clear. The plan of preventing Howe from crossing the Schuylkill while Wayne made a lightening attack on Howe’s rear had been foiled. Howe was again in full control of the military options. Furthermore, no matter in which direction Washington moved he would lose something significant. Philadelphia was about 25 miles to Washington’s one side and Reading was 35 miles on the other. Reading contained valuable military stores that could not be lost without seriously affecting the American Army’s fighting capability. For Washington to stay put would mean taking the risk of being outflanked and trapped against the Schuylkill River, with the possibility of total defeat. The loss of Philadelphia would be a major political blow and contribute to mounting public defeatist attitude but the loss of Reading would be a significant military setback. Howe had numerous options as to how he could take Philadelphia with Wayne momentarily disabled and not of sufficient troop strength to repel the entire British Army. Therefore, Howe could choose the route he preferred.

Wayne now commanded approximately 1500 men with fewer effectives along with 1100 of Smallwood’s Marylanders, many of who were unarmed. With thunder rumbling in the clouds, Wayne wisely decided to stay at the Red Lion and Uwellan Meeting on September 21, 1777. Wayne moved September 22nd towards David Jones Tavern 20 miles west of the British Army. Those that were wounded but strong enough to march made an arduous journey to further remove the possibility of another British attack.

Meanwhile, Howe was in no apparent rush to take Philadelphia. He would instead attempt to defeat Washington by maneuvers and attrition. Washington began shifting north towards Reading and away from Philadelphia. He continued to be concerned that the British would try to outflank him on his right. He made a decision that the military value of the magazine in Reading was more important than the capture of Philadelphia from which the Continental Congress would be begrudgingly forced to vacate. The loss of Philadelphia would be a humiliation, but not a significant British achievement. General John Sullivan was left to cover the rear should Howe decide to cross the river fords.

Howe coveted Philadelphia. The American army’s move towards Reading made the taking of the largest city in American a low risk endeavor. Crown forces crossed the Schuylkill River simultaneously at Garden’s Ford and six miles down stream at Fatland Ford. Sullivan’s pickets were quickly disposed of by jaegers and abates placed by the American Army were subsequently removed. Howe ordered his troops across the Schuylkill beginning about 2:00 a.m. The troops took up ground as they crossed and built campfires to warm and dry themselves out.

A lone soldier on reconnaissance for Wayne and near the top of Mount Joy observed the British movements. He also observed the illumination of the sky from the British fires set at Valley Forge burning the factory and army supplies for which the British Army had no use or time to salvage.

On August 24, 1777 Philadelphia saw the American Army march proudly down their streets. Little than a month later, on September 26, 1777 Philadelphians were witness to the triumphal entry of the Royal Army. Howe finally achieved his goal of seizing the rebel capital leaving Washington high up in the country at Faulkner’s Great Swamp near Pottsgrove. The Crown forces occupied Germantown on September 25, 1777. Lord Cornwallis took possession of Philadelphia the next day. Washington had spared the total destruction of ordinance in the French Creek Valley but he took heavy criticism for his handling of recent events even from his most ardent supporters.

Wayne’s reconnaissance of the battlefield from Mount Joy brought reports the British had crossed the Schuylkill with no resistance, befuddling him and many of his officers. At the time, Wayne was 40 miles west of Philadelphia. He broke camp with Smallwood on September 24, 1777 and marched east to Trappe to rejoin the main army. Colonel Hartley would march on to Reading with the wounded from Paoli. The next morning Hartley had breakfast with the exiled John Adams and several other members of Congress. John had the following to say, as quoted by McGuire:

‘Rode this Morning to Reading, where We breakfasted, and heard for certain that Mr. How’s Army had crossed the Schuylkill. Coll. Hartley gave me an Account of the late Battle, between the Enemy and General Wayne. Hartley thinks that the place was improper for Battle, and that there ought to have been a Retreat.’

Adams was not a military man and his note may not have been an accurate depiction of what was said. Nonetheless, it again hints at the tensions between Wayne and his staff. Adams was the least upset of his fellow congressman with the evacuation from Philadelphia, was unsettled by the lack of information concerning the state of the military and decided to make his forced evacuation productive. In general, Congress was so unhappy with Washington’s failure to protect Philadelphia that some were calling for his removal. By contrast, Franklin later agree with Washington, commenting when he heard the news in Paris that “No – Philadelphia had captured Howe.” This essentially proved to be true as events later proved.

During Wayne’s march to rejoin Washington tensions were mounting among some of the Pennsylvania Line officers. As they moved through the hilly townships of northern Chester County towards Packers Ford, Colonel Richard Humpton, second in command of the Pennsylvania Line and commander of the 2nd brigade, had a confrontation with General Wayne. Humpton later claimed that he first became aware of the missing picket and warnings that had taken place the night of the Paoli Battle on the march to Trappe. After the confrontation Wayne felt betrayed by a cabal of disloyal subordinates and fired off a letter to Washington demanding a military inquiry. Washington reluctantly granted Wayne’s request at a time he determined was appropriate.