Henry C. Watson.

The Old Bell of Independence; Or, Philadelphia in 1776 online

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are you about? You will fire on your own people.' The artillery opened,
but, after fifteen or twenty rounds, the pieces were found to be of too
small calibre to make a serious impression, and were withdrawn.

"A most daring attempt was then made to fire the building.
Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, aid-de-camp to the commander-in-chief, with
a few volunteers, rushed up to the house under cover of the smoke,
and applied a burning brand to the principal door, at the same time
exchanging passes with his sword with the enemy on the inside. By almost
a miracle, this gallant officer escaped unharmed, although his clothes
were repeatedly torn by the enemy's shot. Another and equally daring
attempt was made by Major White, aide-de-camp to General Sullivan, but
without as fortunate a result. The major, while in the act of firing one
of the cellar windows, was mortally wounded, and died soon after.

"Washington accompanied the leading division under Major-General
Sullivan, and cheered his soldiers in their brilliant onset, as they
drove the enemy from point to point. Arriving in the vicinity of Chew's
house, the commander-in-chief halted to consult his officers as to the
best course to be pursued towards this fortress that had so suddenly
and unexpectedly sprung up in the way. The younger officers who were
immediately attached to the person of the chief, and among the choicest
spirits of the Revolution, including Hamilton, Reed, Pinckney, Laurens,
and Lee, were for leaving Chew's house to itself, or of turning the
siege into a blockade, by stationing in its vicinity a body of troops to
watch the movements of the garrison, and pressing on with the column in
pursuit of the flying enemy. But the sages of the army, at the head of
whom was Major-General Knox, repulsed at once the idea of leaving a
fortified enemy in the rear, as contrary to the usages of war and the
most approved military authorities.

"At this period of the action the fog had become so dense that objects
could scarcely be distinguished at a few yards' distance. We had
penetrated the enemy's camp even to their second line, which was drawn
up to receive us about the centre of Germantown. The ammunition of the
right wing, including the Maryland brigades, became exhausted, the
soldiers holding up their empty cartridge boxes, when their officers
called on them to rally and face the enemy. The extended line of
operations, which embraced nearly two miles, the unfavorable nature
of the ground in the environs of Germantown for the operations of the
troops, a large portion of whom were undisciplined, the ground being
much cut up, and intersected by stone fences and enclosures of various
sorts, the delay of the left wing under Greene in getting into
action - all these causes, combined with an atmosphere so dense from
fog and smoke as to make it impossible to distinguish friend from foe,
produced a retreat in our army at the moment when victory seemed to be
within its grasp.

"Washington was among the foremost in his endeavors to restore the
fallen fortunes of the day, and, while exerting himself to rally his
broken columns, the exposure of his person became so imminent, that his
officers, after affectionately remonstrating with him in vain, seized
the bridle of his horse. The retreat, under all circumstances, was quite
as favorable as could be expected. The whole of the artillery was saved,
and as many of the wounded as could be removed. The ninth Virginia
regiment, under Colonel Mathews, having penetrated so far as to be
without support, after a desperate resistance, surrendered its remnant
of a hundred men, including its colonel, who had received several
bayonet wounds. The British pursued but two or three miles, making
prisoners of the worn-out soldiers, who, after a night-march of fifteen
miles and an action of three hours, were found exhausted and asleep in
the fields and along the road.

"I made a narrow escape from being taken by a party of dragoons. They
were nearly upon a small body of us that had got separated from our
division, before we perceived them. I gave the alarm, and we ran on, as
we thought, toward our troops; but the fog was so thick that we mistook
the way, and wandered about for some time in constant risk of being
surrounded by the enemy. At length we stumbled on the main body of
our line, and retreated with them. I never saw a more irritated and
disappointed set of men than our officers on that day. Every one had a
different cause for the repulse. Some said that Greene did not come up
in time to aid Wayne and Sullivan; while others said that Greene had
performed the most effective service during the engagement, and that the
loss of the day was owing to the military prejudices of Knox and some
others, who would halt to attack Chew's house, instead of following up
the advantages already gained. Then the fog was blamed for the confusion
it caused. The fact was, the defeat was owing to many causes combined,
some of which I have mentioned."

"The attack was certainly skilfully planned and truly executed, in spite
of its want of success," remarked old Harmar. "Your opinion of the
causes of the defeat, Mr. Smith, is that which is now generally adopted.
The halt at Chew's house did not give rise to the retreat of Sullivan's
division. The ammunition of the troops was exhausted, and they were not
aware of Greene's approach until they had begun to fall back. By the
way, did you hear how General Nash was killed?"

"He was killed by a cannon-ball, I believe," replied Smith.

"Yes," said old Harmar. "A round-shot from the British artillery
striking a sign-post in Germantown, glanced therefrom, and, passing
through his horse, shattered the general's thigh on the opposite side.
The fall of the animal hurled its unfortunate rider with
considerable force to the ground. With surprising courage and
presence of mind, General Nash, covering his wound with both
of his hands, called to his men, 'Never mind me, I have had a
devil of a tumble; rush on, my boys, rush on the enemy - I'll
be after you presently.' He could do no more.

Faint from loss of blood and the intense agony of his wound, the
sufferer was borne to a house hard by, and attended by Dr. Craik, by
special order of the commander-in-chief. The doctor gave his patient but
feeble hopes of recovery, even with the chances of amputation, when Nash
observed, 'It may be considered unmanly to complain, but my agony is too
great for human nature to bear. I am aware that my days, perhaps hours,
are numbered, but I do not repine at my fate. I have fallen on the field
of honor, while leading my brave Carolinians to the assault of
the enemy. I have a last request to make of his Excellency, the
commander-in-chief, that he will permit you, my dear doctor, to remain
with me, to protect me while I live, and my remains from insult.' Dr.
Craik assured the general that he had nothing to fear from the enemy; it
was impossible that they would harm him while living, or offer insult
to his remains; that Lord Cornwallis was by this time in the field,
and that, under his auspices, a wounded soldier would be treated with
humanity and respect. The dying patriot and hero then uttered these
memorable words: 'I have no favors to expect from the enemy. I have been
consistent in my principles and conduct since the commencement of the
troubles. From the very first dawn of the Revolution I have ever been
on the side of liberty and my country.' "He lingered in extreme torture
between two and three days, and died admired by his enemies, admired and
lamented by his companions in arms. On Thursday, the ninth of October,
the whole American army was paraded by order of the commander-in-chief,
to perform the funeral obsequies of General Nash."

"I have heard those who knew him best speak of him as a brave soldier
and a noble-hearted man; and your account of his death assures me of the
truth of their eulogy," remarked Smith.

"It is said that Washington, seeing that his well-arranged plan was
about to be defeated, could not control his anger and disappointment,"
said Mr. Jackson Harmar.

"It is true. Washington, like all very great men, was naturally strongly
passionate. His usual self-command was the more wonderful because it had
been acquired by stern practice. The battle of Germantown was one of
those few occasions in his life when his feelings burst through all
restraint; and then, it is said by those who should know, that his wrath
was fierce and terrible. The officers were compelled, by considerations
of his safety, to lead his horse from the field. He did all that a man
could do to rally his broken troops, and exposed himself as fearlessly
as the bravest soldier. All his exertions were vain, however, and he
became much irritated in consequence."

"The retreat just when victory was within his grasp was enough to
irritate any commander who valued his aim and plan," observed Mr.
Jackson Harmar, agreeing with Smith in the remarks which he had just
made. "I suppose, if Washington had been completely successful at
Germantown, the British would have been driven from Philadelphia," said

"Ay; and from the vicinity of Philadelphia," replied Smith. "They could
not have recovered from such a defeat."

[Illustration: BATTLE OF THE KEGS.]


"Father," said Mr. Jackson Harmar, "I have a song in my portfolio,
written by Francis Hopkinson while the British were in Philadelphia;
perhaps you can tell us something about the event which is the subject
of it. Here it is. It is called 'The Battle of the Kegs.'"

"The Battle of the Kegs! That I can, my boy. But read the song," replied
old Harmar. His son then read the following facetious ditty:

"Gallants, attend, and hear a friend
Trill forth harmonious ditty:
Strange things I'll tell, which late befell
In Philadelphia city.

Twas early day, as poets say,
Just when the sun was rising,
A soldier stood on log of wood,
And saw a sight surprising.

As, in amaze, he stood to gaze, -
The truth can't be denied, sirs, -
He spied a score - of kegs, or more,
Come floating down the tide, sirs.
A sailor, too, in jerkin blue,
The strange appearance viewing,
First damn'd his eyes, in great surprise,
Then said, 'Some mischief's brewing.

These kegs now hold the rebels bold,
Pack'd up like pickled herrings
And they're come down to attack the town,
In this new way of ferrying.'

The soldier flew, the sailor, too,
And, scared almost to death, sirs,
Wore out their shoes to spread the news,
And ran till out of breath, sirs.

Now up and down, throughout the town,
Most frantic scenes were acted;
And some ran here, and some ran there,
Like men almost distracted.

Some fire cried, which some denied,
But said the earth had quakèd;
And girls and boys, with hideous noise,
Ran through the town half-naked.

Sir William he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring,
Nor dream'd of harm, as he lay warm,
While all without was roaring.

Now, in affright, he starts upright,
Awaked by such a clatter:
He rubs both eyes, and boldly cries,
'For God's sake, what's the matter?'
At his bedside he then espied
Sir Erskine at command, sirs;
Upon one foot he had one boot,
And t'other in his hand, sirs.

'Arise! arise!' Sir Erskine cries:
'The rebels - more's the pity -
Without a boat, are all afloat,
And ranged before the city.

'The motley crew, in vessels new,
With Satan for their guide, sir,
Pack'd up in bags, or wooden kegs,
Come driving down the tide, sir.

'Therefore prepare for bloody war!
These kegs must all be routed;
Or surely we despised shall be,
And British courage doubted.'

The royal band now ready stand,
All ranged in dread array, sirs;
With stomach stout, to see it out,
And make a bloody day, sirs.

The cannons roar from shore to shore,
The small arms make a rattle;
Since wars began, I'm sure no man
E'er saw so strange a battle.

The rebel vales, the rebel dales,
With rebel trees surrounded,
The distant woods, the hills and floods,
With rebel echoes sounded.
The fish below swam to and fro,
Attack'd from every quarter:
Why, sure, thought they, the devil's to pay
'Mongst folks above the water.

The kegs, 'tis said, though strongly made,
Of rebel staves and hoops, sirs,
Could not oppose their powerful foes,
The conquering British troops, sirs.

From morn to night, these men of might
Display'd amazing courage;
And when the sun was fairly down,
Retired to sup their porridge.

A hundred men, with each a pen,
Or more - upon my word, sirs,
It is most true - would be too few
Their valor to record, sirs.

Such feats did they perform that day
Upon these wicked kegs, sirs,
That years to come, if they get home,
They'll make their boasts and brags, sirs."

"Ha! ha! that's a good thing. The enemy used to be so fond of the word
'rebel' that they would attach it to the most trifling things, when
speaking of our people. Judge Hopkinson ridicules that in fine style,"
remarked old Harmar.

"It ought to be sung to the tune of the 'Hoosier's Ghost,'" said Wilson.

"Who is the Sir Erskine alluded to in the song?" inquired Mrs. Harmar.
"Sir William Erskine, one of Sir William Howe's officers," replied old
Harmar. "This song created much merriment among the whigs at the time
it was written, so that, however much the enemy were right, we had the
laugh on our side."

"But what were the circumstances which gave rise to it?" inquired Mr.
Jackson Harmar, impatiently.

"I was about to tell you," replied his father. "A Mr. David Bushnell
had invented several ingenious articles of submarine machinery, for the
purpose of destroying the British vessels stationed in the Delaware.
Among these was the American torpedo, a machine shaped like a water
tortoise, and managed by a single person. It contained sufficient air to
support respiration thirty minutes without being replenished, valves to
admit or reject water for the purpose of rising or sinking, ballast to
keep it upright, and a seat for the operator. Above the rudder was a
place for carrying a large powder magazine, constructed from two pieces
of oak timber, and capable of carrying one hundred and fifty pounds of
powder, with the apparatus for firing it. Within the magazine was an
apparatus constructed to run any proposed length of time under twelve
hours, after which it sprung a strong lock similar to that of a gun,
which gave fire to the powder. This apparatus was so secured that it
could be set in motion only by the casting off of the magazine from the

"With this machine a skilful operator could swim so low on the surface
of the water, as to approach at night very near to a ship without being
discovered. After sinking quickly, he could keep at any necessary depth,
and row to a great distance in any direction, without coming to the
surface. Bushnell found, however, that much trial and instruction were
required for a man of common ingenuity to become a skilful manager. It
was first tried by his brother, who, unfortunately, was taken ill at the
time when he had become an able operator. Another person was procured,
and the first experiment tried upon the Eagle, a sixty-four, which Lord
Howe commanded in person. He went under the ship, and attempted to fix
the wooden screw into her bottom, but struck, as was supposed, a bar
of iron running from the rudder-hinge. Not being well skilled in the
management of the machine, he lost the ship in attempting to move to
another place; and, after seeking her in vain for some time, rowed a
little distance and rose to the surface. Daylight had now advanced so
that the attempt could not be renewed, and, fearing he was discovered,
he detached the magazine from his vessel and escaped. In an hour the
powder exploded, throwing a vast column of water to an amazing height,
and leaving the enemy to conjecture whether it was caused by a bomb, a
water-spout, or an earthquake. Want of resources obliged Mr. Bushnell to
abandon his schemes for that time; but, in 1777, he made an attempt from
a whale-boat against the Cerberus frigate, by drawing a machine against
her side with a line. It accidentally became attached to a schooner and
exploded, tearing the vessel in pieces. Three men were killed, and one
dangerously wounded.

"In December, 1777, Mr. Bushnell contrived another ingenious expedient
for accomplishing his favorite object. He charged a number of kegs
with powder, arranging them so as to explode on coming in contact with
anything while floating along the tide. This squadron was launched
at night on the Delaware river, above the English shipping; but,
unfortunately, the proper distance could not be well ascertained, and
they were set adrift too far from the vessels, so that they became
obstructed and dispersed by the floating ice. On the following day,
however, one of them blew up a boat, and others exploded, occasioning
the greatest consternation among the British seamen. The troops were
aroused, and, with the sailors, manned the wharves and shipping at
Philadelphia, discharging their cannon and small-arms at everything they
could see floating in the river during the ebb tide.

"The scene must have been a very ridiculous one, and we cannot wonder
at Judge Hopkinson making such comic use of it. The British must have
imagined that every keg was the visible part of a torpedo, intended for
their destruction."

"We cannot wonder at their consternation, while in constant danger of
being blown into the air," said Mr. Jackson Harmar. "Just place yourself
in their position; and, knowing that several attempts had been made to
blow up the ships, how would you have acted?"

"I should have made quite as much noise, I suppose," replied old Harmar;
"but then it was so laughable. I don't think the folks aboard of those
ships slept for a week after finding that there was powder in the kegs.
That, I believe, was Bushnell's last attempt to destroy the fleet."

"For my part," remarked Wilson, "I never liked such contrivances; and it
is a very pregnant fact that in most cases they have failed, when, from
the skill and science displayed in their construction, success was
anticipated. It's my opinion, God works against such things. As much
as I hated the enemy, I could not sanction such wholesale murder - for
murder it would have been, to have sent hundreds of men into eternity,
without giving them an inch of fair fighting ground. I would not have
minded blowing up the British government - that I could have done myself
without any more sting of conscience than the hangman feels; but
soldiers and seamen fight fairly and openly for their country's honor
and rights, as they understand those things, and they should be met in
the same manner."

"You're right, Mr. Wilson. Torpedoes, catamarans, and such inventions,
might be employed by both parties in war, and with destructive effect.
But wars ought to be conducted in such a manner as to gain the desired
end with as little loss of life as possible; besides, in the eyes of all
really brave men, these things must seem cowardly," said Morton.

"You must permit me to differ with you, gentlemen," put in Mr. Jackson
Harmar; and, in a very dignified, Congressional style, he delivered
himself of the following defence of the innovations of modern warfare:
"I view all such contrivances as the triumph of the genius and skill of
man over mere brute force, and as tending to the great ends of the peace
and happiness of mankind. They place the weak upon a level with the
strong, and make it evident to every one that the best course would be
to submit all questions of right to the arbitration of the mind instead
of the arm and sword. Suppose I, being a small, weak man, should quarrel
with a man of great physical strength, and a hatred to the death should
be declared between us. Now, upon whichever side the bone of right lay,
the strong man would have the power to destroy me; but if I set my brain
to work, and contrive an 'infernal machine,' I shall be superior to him,
and drive him to the same resource. Now, we both see by this, that we
stand an even chance of being destroyed, and reason resumes her reign.
We see that the wisest and safest course for both would be to submit
the question involved in the quarrel to the judgment of a mutual and
impartial friend. Even so these inventions operate among nations,
which, by the way, should be ruled by the same general principles as

"That's all very true," remarked Wilson. "But if I was about to fight
a duel with a man, and I stood up, pistol in hand, while he stood off
beyond my reach, and with some infernal invention endeavored to kill me,
I should call him a coward."

"That would not settle the dispute," said Mr. Jackson Harmar. "Your
wisest course would be to equal his invention, and compel him to fight
fairly or make peace."


"Many strange and many laughable public events occurred in Philadelphia
during the Revolution," said old Harmar. "I was with the army during the
greater part of the time, but our family remained in the city, and kept
me advised of everything that was going on. I was engaged to be married
to your mother, Jackson, before the war commenced, and I had to leave
her in Philadelphia also, until the war was over. She used to write me
letters, telling me about everything that passed in the city that was
interesting. I recollect in one letter she gave me an account of how the
news of Arnold's treason was received among the people."

"With blessings on the traitor's head, of course," remarked Wilson,

"I could imagine how it was received," said Mr. Jackson Harmar. "The
people were indignant and cursed the traitor."

"The people of Philadelphia knew Arnold's real character," replied old
Harmar. "They knew, from his residence among them, that he was capable
of selling his soul for gold, glory, and pleasure; but they did not
suspect him of any intention of leaving our cause entirely. They thought
he would see that it was for his interest to stand by his country's
rights. While in command in this city, Arnold had been very intimate
with several wealthy tory families, and I believe had married a lady
who was connected with them. But such an intimacy was not sufficient to
justify suspicions of his patriotism, if it had not been joined with
other circumstances. He gave great entertainments at his house, and
lived as if he was worth a mint of money. Then he was always in trouble
with the committees of Congress about money matters, which made
people generally believe that he cared more for gold than he did for
principles. Well, when the news of his discovered treachery reached
Philadelphia, the men with whom he had been wrangling about money said
they knew it would turn out just so, and they never expected anything
else; and the citizens generally were very indignant. They chose some
laughable ways of showing the state of their feelings. An artist
constructed a stuffed figure of the traitor, as large as life, and
seated him in a cart, with a figure of the devil alongside of him,
holding a lantern so as to show his face to the people. The words,
'Benedict Arnold, the Traitor,' were placed on a board over the head
of the first figure. An evening was appointed for the display, and the
hanging and burning of the effigy. A vast procession was formed, with
the cart at the head, and drums and fife playing the Rogues' March. This
paraded the streets of the city during the whole evening. The people
groaned and hissed, and pelted the figures as they passed. At length the
procession reached a common which had been selected for the purpose, and
on which a gallows had been erected. There the effigy was hung, and then
taken down and burnt. In the fire, the figure of old Nick was arranged
with one hand upon Arnold's head, and the other pointing below, while he
grinned as if over a triumph."

"An appropriate ceremony," said Wilson.

"It must have been a great sight," observed Mrs. Harmar.

"They should have caught the man himself, and burnt him instead of a
stuffed figure," said Higgins.

"It would have saved Andre," remarked Smith.

"The scoundrel!" exclaimed Morton. "He ought to have been put to death
with all the torture the Indians use with their captives."

These slight remarks indicated the peculiar manner in which each of
these individuals viewed a subject.

"The British generals expected that Arnold's example would be followed
by numbers of the Americans; but I think they soon saw the character of

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Online LibraryHenry C. WatsonThe Old Bell of Independence; Or, Philadelphia in 1776 → online text (page 8 of 11)