Read the Revolution
Prisoners of CongressOctober 25, 2023
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Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker left perhaps the most detailed and sustained account of life in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Thanks to her lengthy series of diaries, she is more well known today than her husband, Henry. But in 1777, it was Henry, along with 19 other prominent Quakers, whose arrest and exile captured the attention of Philadelphians and even drew sympathy from George Washington.
In Prisoners of Congress: Philadelphia’s Quakers in Exile, 1777-1778, historian Norman E. Donoghue II explores how on the eve of the British capture of the capital of the United States, Pennsylvania’s government sentenced these potential collaborators to exile in Virginia. Henry Drinker spent that long, cold winter far from home, while Elizabeth managed her household amid a military occupation.
In this excerpt, read about the difficulties that many Philadelphians faced in obtaining food and supplies in October 1777 as the Battle of Fort Mercer unfolded within sight of the Drinker’s home.
Closer to home, uncertainty and hardship continued to reign at the end of October. “Provisions are so scarce with us now,” Drinker recorded. “The fleet not yet up, nor likely to be soon.” The British would have liked to bring up fresh provisions on their flotilla of ships waiting farther downstream, but there was still much fighting on the Delaware River. The Pennsylvania government sought to prevent the entrance of the fleet by live fire as well as by Robert Smith’s numerous chevaux-de-frise. This was one of several strategies both armies developed to deprive the other side of food and supplies. The Americans made sure as little food and other supplies as possible were allowed to pass into the city, where the British would pay hard money for them; the British countered by sending troops into the countryside to round up provisions to bring into the city and prevent the Continental Army from availing itself of these goods. The decisions of all regional farmers, among them many Quaker farmers, whether to sell provisions to the armies became intensely political. At one point, a friend of the Drinkers was taken by “the Americans, bringing provision[s] to Town [for] our Yearly Meeting, and carried to Washington’s camp, where ’tis said he is to be try’d for his life.” (He was released on October 20). Later that fall, Henry’s brother Daniel Drinker lent his horse and cart to fellow Quaker Thomas West to bring goods back to town from the country, but the horse and cart were “taken by the Americans, so that Dan[ie]l has met with a loss, as had West."
Necessities like food and firewood became scarce, as it was hard for suppliers from the countryside to obtain entrance into the city. “If some things don’t change before long,” Elizabeth Drinker opined, “we shall be in a poor plight.” Scarcity, skyrocketing prices, depreciated Continental currency, and lack of the old species of provincial currency combined to make life difficult. In the meantime, “the Hessians go on plundering at a great rate.”
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On October 21, Drinker could see from the garret window atop her three-story house the action on the Delaware. Men crossed in flat-bottomed boats to resupply the Patriots while British ships fired on the fort. Two thousand Hessians crossed over to New Jersey to attack Fort Red Bank, also called Fort Mercer, opposite Mud Island, to help bring the Patriots on Mud Island to heel. The British resupply ships were not able to get upriver yet, and the occupiers had asked residents for blankets, now become scarce implements of war desired by both armies. Drinker continued to shepherd her four school-age children to their school, shop for food and other scarce provisions, manage a household of eleven persons, and check with the families of other exiles for news. All around her day after day was fraught with enormous consequences: arrest, imprisonment, loss, theft, wounding, destruction, and death.
On October 22, twenty-five hundred Hessians crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, and the next day they were driven back two or three times. In endeavoring to storm Fort Mercer at Red Bank, two hundred were slain and many more wounded. Known as the Battle of Fort Mercer, the altercation, evidently within sight of the Drinker house, included the burning of two English ships, the sixteen-gun Merlin and the sixty-four-gun HMS Augusta, which exploded. A Continental Army officer stationed near the Merion meetinghouse compared the event to an earthquake. Drinker, at Fifth Day (Thursday) meeting at noon when the explosion occurred, later echoed the earlier report that “it appeared to some like an Earth Quake.” Thomas Paine was on the road between Germantown and White Marsh and reported later to Benjamin Franklin that the sound was “as loud as the Peal of a hundred Cannon at once.” It was the largest of the four hundred ships there and the largest ship ever lost by the British navy in an American war.
The American troops at Red Bank repulsed an attack by powerful Hessian forces, and a five-hour battle ensued between the British and American fleets on the river itself. Henry Drinker’s partner, Abel James, tried to catch a glimpse of the action from the Drinkers’ roof, but all he could see was smoke. German troops killed, wounded, and captured amounted to 374, while only 37 American soldiers were killed or wounded. Patriot soldiers again secured the fort at Red Bank. “Many of the inhabitants of this City,” Drinker wrote, “are very much Affected, by the present situation and appearance of things, while those on the other side the question are flushed, and in Spirits.” Presumably, she contrasted those in favor of the British with the Patriots, who were giddy at the destruction the Royal Navy had suffered.”
Donoghue, Norman E., II, Prisoners of Congress: Philadelphia’s Quakers in Exile, 1777-1778 (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023).