Fort Mifflin — How the Battle of Fort Mifflin Saved the Revolution
Roaring engines sound as countless international and national flights arrive and depart from the Philadelphia International Airport on Hog Island. The island is no stranger to booming sounds bombarding its space. Although the island rests a few miles from the city of Philadelphia, one could argue that its importance to the City’s history is even greater than the national monuments it contains-such as Independence Hall or Carpenter’s Hall.
Hog Island is the home of Fort Mifflin, established in 1776. If the soldiers who were stationed there during the Revolutionary War had failed in their attempts to block British supply ships from supplementing Admiral Howe’s men in Philadelphia, General George Washington and his soldiers would never have made their escape to Valley Forge, where they settled for the winter and prepared for spring battle. Although the men at Fort Mifflin ultimately failed in beating the British, their six-week stand against them was a victory in and of itself.
Beginning in late September, 1777, the British attempted their first offensive maneuver on Fort Mifflin. General George Washington and his men had evacuated the City before the British began their attack, but he did not do so without leaving a garrison of 400 men stationed at Fort Mifflin. It had taken a considerable amount of time to complete the Fort, but even as it experienced its first attack, it was not only undermanned but crude in its construction. According to Hugh Brackenridge, who founded the United States Magazine in 1778, he described the fort as “…nothing more than a wooden fort, quite unfit to support the siege. The enclosure was of palisades on the side of Province Island; and a wall without terriplain on the side of New Jersey, very dangerous for the splinters; and in front, opposite to Hog Island, a water-battery of 16 guns, 18-pounders, and one 32-pounder.” The fort was in a rather sorry state for the efficient and destructive enemy it was to face-the British Navy.
Even before the siege had begun, the militia at Fort Mifflin were at a disadvantage. In 1771, before the Revolution materialized, John Penn, Governor of Pennsylvania, pleaded with British General Thomas Gage to send a man to build a fort along the Delaware to protect the City from French and Spanish privateers. Gage sent Captain John Montresor to design and build the Fort. He returned in 1777 leading the siege to destroy his creation.
In the beginning of October, the British opened fire on the Fort using two mortars and three heavy guns from nearby Province Island. Colonel Smith, who was in charge at Fort Mifflin, ordered a counterattack on the British troops. As a result of the attack, he and his men captured two British officers and sixty British troops. The British had taken the first swing, but the Americans took the blow and countered successfully!
From October 10th through October 21st, heavy fire was maintained between both sides as the British prepared for another siege attempt. Over the course of eleven days, the British destroyed two west block houses and one north block house in the Fort. The British generally hand the upper hand over the duration of the siege; the militiamen were simply attempting to buy time for General Washington and his men. Also, both parties understood the importance of Hog Island; whoever controlled the island, controlled the Delaware and also controlled the flow of supplies and information to and from Philadelphia.
November 15th proved to be the final day in which the patriots at Fort Mifflin would be able to hold off the British. One account of the final invasion states that, “On the 15th of that month, the enemy made a furious attack by the river, and land and floating batteries on the fort.” The British escalated the bombardment on the fort and it was the British Ship Vigilant that destroyed the Fort’s protective walls and guns. Without any weapons to defend itself, the patriots evacuated the fort and burned the rest of it to the ground. Although they had lost territory to the British, the patriots were able to hold onto it long enough to allow General George Washington to escape the city and avoid being captured.
6400 Hog Island Road