Washington’s Second Christmas Day Attack

"An East Prospect of the city of Philadelphia" (1753)

From the intelligence provided by his New York and New Jersey spies, General Washington believed, early in 1777, that General Howe would eventually strike at Philadelphia though he knew not when or whether he would travel by land or sea. In a letter dated July 24, 1777, from Col. Matthias Ogden, he was informed that Gen. Howe had set sail “in the fore noon of yesterday … with upwards of 200 sail” from New York.[1] But where was he headed – northward to Boston or southward to Philadelphia? Initially, Howe planned to sail to the Delaware River, but on July 30 he decided that because the river was too well defended, [2] it would be safer to travel by way of the Chesapeake Bay. Washington received communications that the fleet was seen on July 30 off Delaware Bay, and August 14 off Cape Charles, Virginia; then word came on August 25 that the army was landing at Head of Elk, Maryland. It was now clear that Philadelphia was the target. In the battle of Brandywine, Washington unsuccessfully tried to bring a halt to Howe’s march. On September 26, the British army under General Howe entered the city of Philadelphia.

Washington had been planned for this possibility four months earlier. On April 10, he wrote to Brigadier General Thomas Mifflin directing him

“Wherever their Army lies it will be of the greatest advantage to us to have Spies among them, on whom we may depend for Intelligence. I would therefore have you look out for proper persons for this purpose … I would have some of those in Bucks County, some in Philada. and others below Philada. about Chester … I would therefore have you set about this work immediately and give the persons you pitch upon, proper lessons. Some in the Quaker line, who have never taken an active part, would be least liable to Suspicion from either party.”[3]

He intended to have a large, well-trained and well-concealed group of spies in place if Howe reached Philadelphia.

Major John Clark, formerly Aide-de-Camp to Major General Greene, was chosen to be the intelligence officer for the spy ring. Washington recommended his base of operations: “It appears to me … that NEWTON SQUARES would be a good general place of rendezvous, from which he might send out his detachments …”[4]

The small village of Newton Squares was about twelve miles northwest of Chester, Pennsylvania.

For the next three months Major Clark, assisted by Brigadier General James Potter, Captain Charles Craig and Captain Allen McLane, sent intelligence dispatches to Washington. The British at the same time were building floating bridges across the Schuylkill River to the west and a chain of redoubts connected by abattis to the north, removing the Chevaux de Frise in the Delaware River to the East and attacking Forts Mifflin and Mercer along the Delaware near the city of Philadelphia.

A plan of the city and environs of Philadelphia : with the works and encampments of His Majesty's forces under the command of Lieutenant General Sir William Howe, K.B. (Library of Congress)
A plan of the city and environs of Philadelphia : with the works and encampments of His Majesty’s forces under the command of Lieutenant General Sir William Howe, K.B. (Library of Congress)

Washington could not sit by and watch as the British built up their defenses around the city. On December 25, Washington called for a Council with his General Officers. Unbeknownst to them, he had prepared a plan for a Christmas attack, just as he had made on Trenton the previous year; this time it would be on the 10 redoubts and the floating bridges. He had learned from his spies that “A scanty supply of forage and fresh food … induced General Howe to cross the Schuylkill on the 22nd with a larger part of the army and encamp on the left of the main road this side of Derby in a line four and a half miles long … “[5] Washington wanted to take back the city of Philadelphia and cut off General Howe from the rest of his army. The previous day he ordered Major John Jameson

“to repair to the East side of Schuylkill and take the command of the parties of Horse stationed upon the different Roads leading into the City of Philadelphia. You are … to cut off the intercourse between the Country and the City of Philadelphia. In order to do this more effectually, you are to Sieze all provision of every kind going into the City without respect to persons … The provision so Siezed is to be applied …to the Support of the parties under your command and the remainder to be sent to the Commissary General. The Horses and Carriages to the Qr. Mr. General,”[6]

He also issued the following General Order: “Every regiment is to draw provisions, to complete their rations, for tomorrow; and the whole army being supplied up to that time, the Issuing Commissaries are then to make return, to the Commissary General of all the provisions they have on hand.”[7]

His plan was outlined in a General Order:

“Jameson … now on the other side of the Schuylkill to … stop, and secure every Person going in, and coming out … A Small Party of Horse … to waylay the road from the Middle and upper Ferry … A Party of foot at each ford from Sweedes to the Falls, for the same purpose. Lord Stirling’s division, with Morgan’s Corp, and … Potters Militia to keep up the appearance of an Attack upon the Enemy’s left … The other half [of Horse] to follow in the Rear of the

Army, and watch all the Fords from Sweedes downwards on the East side … A Spirited and enterprizing (Captn.) … with a good guide … to possess … by surprize the Redoubts; … and to form a Chain of Centrys from the one to the other; … The Right Wing of the Army (under Genl. Sullivan) is, … to hasten towards the four Ferries, and possess themselves of the Bridges; cut them loose from the West Shore; and defend the Passes till further orders … Genl. Woodfords Brigade to furnish one Regiment for the Security of the upper Ferry … and to possess themselves of the Redoubts which defend the bridge at the middle Ferry which is to be cut away from the West side … Genl. Scott’s Brigade is to do the same at Grey’s Ferry, and Genl. Wayne’s division the like at the lower Ferry… Genl. Poors Brigade is to join the Reserve on the Right of it … The Left Wing is to March immediately into the City … take possession of the most advantageous parts, release our own Prisrs. and demand a surrender of the Enemys Arms under promise of good Quarter in case of compliance, and no Quarter if opposition is given. Also to threaten all the Ships in the Docks with destruction … (by Fire) and to the Crews by the Sword, if they Stir or offer to resist. The Batteries above, and below the City, to be immediately possessed … this business to be undr. Genl. Knox. Poor’s, Varnum’s, Huntington’s and the No. Carolina Brigades are to form a Corps of reserve, and draw up in a line on the Common … The Pennsylvania Militia under Genl. Armstrong to March and form a junction with Lord Stirling the Moment our lodgment is made; and … move towards Matson’s ford … for covering our retreat, or securing our Camp, in case of a disaster or disappointment. General Smallwood is also to join Lord Stirling, and the force of Pensa., Maryland, the lower Counties and Jerseys with Provns. to be pourd In to Crush Howe before he could recovr. from the Surprize …”[8]

The plan took some of Washington’s generals by surprise because two days earlier he had written to Congress and informed them that the Continental Army was “unable to stir on account of [a lack of] provisions and that a dangerous Mutiny begun the Night before, and [which] with difficulty was suppressed by the spirited exertion’s of some officers was still much to be apprehended on acct. of their want of this Article.”[9] Now that same army, suffering from poor food, inadequate lodging, cold weather, fatigue, illness, lack of clothing and worn-out shoes, was going to be asked to repeat what it had accomplished exactly one year ago at Trenton. The plan’s basic premise was that if General Howe and more than one half of his army could be trapped outside of Philadelphia and on the wrong side of the Schuylkill River, the remaining force in the city was vulnerable to attack.

To understand the genesis of the plan we need to go as far back as November 8 when in a Council of General Officers, Washington asked “Whether, in Case the Enemy should make an attack upon the Forts upon Delaware, it would be proper with our present Force to fall down and attack the Enemy in their Lines near Philade? Ansr. In the Negative unanimously.”[10] During the next two weeks, Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer were both attacked and fell but not before the Americans were safely evacuated from each.

On November 24, in another Council of General Officers, Brigadier General John Cadwalader raised the question again of a possible attack on Philadelphia, but this time also offered a plan. “As the Enemy have made very considerable Detachments from their main Body to New jersey under the Command of Lord Cornwallis; and a considerable number of men being necessary to defend the several Posts on the Islands which are at least 7 miles from the Lines it may be very proper to consider whether a successful attack cannot be made on the City.” His plan involved three-pronged attack with most of the action south of the ten redoubts. General John Sullivan and Brigadier General William Woodford with 1800 men would lead an attack before dawn from the south; Lord Stirling, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne and Brigadier General John Paterson with 3000 men would lead the main attack from the direction of the Schuylkill; and General Nathanael Greene and 2000 of his men would attack from the rear by way of the Delaware River. He recommended “every method should be taken to procure Intelligence relating to the Situation of the Enemy & their Works – The General Officers will have time to re[c]onnoitre the Grounds where their several attacks upon the Lines are to be made.”[11] Washington then asked for every officer’s opinion in writing regarding the plan by the next day. Thirteen officers had attended the Council; Washington received fourteen opinions. The additional one came from Brigadier General Henry Knox who did not attend the Council. Nine officers believed “the attempt would be Hazardous & must End in Ruin to the Army & to the American Cause.”[12] The remaining five believed it was worthwhile as long as “the Plan thereof can be properly laid, all necessary dispositions and calculations made, as to the time and mode … [and] intelligence of the Enemy’s Position [is collected].”[13]

After the meeting Washington sent a dispatch to Major Clark requesting specific information: the location of cannons and strength of the river batteries, the number of troops and horses, the number of the ships that “lay opposite the city” and whether the bridges were drawn up at night. By 9 p.m. the next day, he had his answers. Again he wrote to Clark: “As I have now got the necessary information as to the Enemy’s Works, position etc … what your Friends will particularly attend to, will be, the Return of Lord Cornwallis and his Troops [from their foraging in New Jersey], and what appear after that, to be their intentions. Whether to sit down in quarters for the Winter, or to seek this Army.”[14] The next day, Washington received a dispatch from Captain Charles Craig informing him, “By every account – Lord Cornwallis is return’d it is a Certainty that a number of Troops are Arrived.”[15] Three days later, Major Clark confirmed Captain Craig’s report and stated “The Bridge at the middle ferry draws in two places, no strangers are permitted to pass it after Night, & the Hinges are kept loose.”[16]

On December 3, Washington sent a “Circular to the General Officers;” in it he wrote, “I wish to recall your attention to the important matter recommended to your Consideration sometime ago – namely – the Adviseability of a Winter Campaign, & practicability of an attempt upon Phila. with the Aid of a considerable body of Militia to be assembled at an appointed time & place. Particular reasons urge me to request your sentiments on this matter by the Morning …”[17] That same day eight officers submitted their “sentiments;” thirteen more were submitted the following day. To the first question Washington posed, nearly all of the officers recommended going into winter quarters because of fatigue, sickness, lack of clothing, and the need for more militia.[18] To the second question again nearly all were against any form of attack on the city.

On December 19, Washington and the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge; it was 25 miles northwest of the city of Philadelphia. The next day he received a dispatch from Major Clark. He reported, “This Day, about 30 Waggons escorted by 100 Hessians, went a foraging towards Derby & Returned loaded with Hay & Rye straw without interruption.”[19] Washington would receive eight more dispatches from Major Clark over the next eight days.

On the 21, Clark informed Washington “the Enemy’s intention [is] to … visit Darby, Maple & Springfield Townships this Week … expect a much larger foraging party this Week than last …”[20] It was also on this day that Washington gave us a hint as to what he was mulling over. In a dispatch to Brigadier General James Potter, he wrote, “I think it of the greatest consequence to have what Hay remains upon the Islands, above the Mouth of Derby Creek, destroyed … [if] we cannot remove it … as we shall probably oblige [the British] to come out into the Country to Forage, which will perhaps give us an opportunity of cutting off a party.”[21] The next day he sent the following report ”Genl Sr. Wm. Howe, Sr. Wm. Erskine & a number of other Generals are with the party at Derby – they have a very formidable Body with them … they’ve 200 Waggons with them.”[22] Later in the day, he reported, “the Enemy … must have arrived by this time [at Derby] … I have alarmed Morgan … If a Corps was thrown instantly toward Middle ferry their retreat is inevitably cutoff.”[23] Hessian Officer John Ewald gives a detailed description of General Howe’s force:

“At daybreak … the Commander in Chief crossed the Schuylkill at Gray’s Ferry to forage in the vicinity of Darby and the highway to Lancaster, and to collect cattle for the army. He took three jager companies with half of the mounted jagers, two battalions of light infantry, the English and Hessian grenadiers, several 6-pounders and howitzers, four troops of light dragoons, and the Anspach Brigade. The three remaining jager companies with the other half of the mounted jagers and ten battalions, under the command of General Knyphausen, remained behinds the redoubts for the protection of the city.”[24]

Near half of the British Army had ventured forth and was now on the west side of Schuylkill River. Washington immediately issued a General Order that stated,

“that no furloughs be granted to officers above the rank of Captain, but from himself … Each brigade thro’ the line to furnish a good partisan Captain, two Subs. Three Serjeants, three Corporals and fifty privates, all picket men, fit for annoying the enemy in light parties – Those of the Right Wing to parade at General Sullivan’s quarters, and receive orders from him – those of the left Wing at general Greene’s quarters, and take orders from him – those of the second line and of the N. Carolina Brigade at the park, and take orders from Lord Stirling. The whole … to be furnished with a full supply of ammunition of 40 rounds each.”[25]

The next day, Lord Stirling informed Washington that he had arrived at Radnor, near the Derby Creek, and been joined by Colonel Daniel Morgan’s Corps and Brigadier General Potter’s Militia.[26] Major Clark sent a dispatch to Washington that “[Howe’s] troops are encamped all along the Road from the Ferry to the high Ground on this side of Derby … they are busy hauling Hay from the Marshes … they don’t venture a Mile in the Country from their Pickets – they intend to forage all that Country, burn the Fences, plunder the inhabitants & then return.”[27] On the 24th Lord Stirling wrote,

”Col. Morgan with his Corps [serves as a} detached party … the Milita have posted themselves in the front and on the left-flank of the Enemy, in Sight of them … Col. Morgan’s opinion is that the Enemy mean Nothing more than to forage the Neck & Islands … our forces are well posted, and sufficient to Answer every purpose, till they Adopt other Measures. I am of his opinion, and that with our whole Army , it would be imprudent to Attack them in their present position, indedd from what I Know of the Ground I tink they have taken a post of defiance …”[28]

Major Clark’s final dispatch before we return to the beginning of this story was sent Christmas Day. “This morning a party of the Enemy with a few field pieces moved from Derby towards Chester … [their] design is only to forage on the Chester Road … the party consists of the 1st and 2nd Light Infantry … N.B. The Enemy have a Bridge of Boats over the lower Ferry to Province Island – & probably will retreat that way.”[29]

Was Washington’s plan outlined in the General Order of December 25, 1777, based solely on military considerations or also on political ones? After Washington’s loss of Fort Washington and Fort Lee, his defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, and the loss of Philadelphia, concern began to rise as to whether he was the best choice for the position of Commander-in-Chief. When news of General Gates’s victory at Saratoga reached the Congress on October 31, the concern began to pick up momentum. Some members of Congress and officers in the military such as Brigadier General Thomas Conway, Major General Thomas Mifflin, Major General Horatio Gates, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Adjutant General Joseph Reed, General Charles Lee, James Lovell, and even Richard Henry Lee began to question Washington’s ability as a military commander. Adding fuel to the fire in November, Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer fell to the British.

The second issue that was weighing on him was a recent decision made by Congress. On November 27, Congress had changed the makeup of the Board of War; members of Congress were now excluded and the number on the Board was increased from 3 to 5. General Gates was named President and rest of the Board was comprised of General Thomas Mifflin, Colonel Timothy Pickering, General Joseph Trumbull and Richard Peters. Congress also changed its role. It was still to supply the army, but it was also to have the highest military authority, even above the Commander-in-Chief, and the Inspector-General was to supervise all of Washington’s commands and acts. When Washington learned of these decisions, he wrote to Richard Henry Lee asking that Conway not be considered or promoted:

“General Conway’s merit, … as an Officer, and his importance in this Army, exists more in his own imagination, than in reality: For it is a maxim with him, to leave no service of his own untold, nor to want any thing which is to be obtained by importunity … I … would ask, why the Youngest Brigadier in the service should be put over the heads of all the Eldest? And thereby take Rank, and Command Gentlemen, who but Yesterday, were his Seniors…”[30]

On December 14, the ultimate insult was dealt to Washington. Not only was Thomas Conway promoted to Major General, but he was also made Inspector-General for the Army.[31]

The third issue that may have influenced his decision was the vacancy in the office of Quartermaster General. Thomas Mifflin, who had been the Quartermaster, proved incompetent. He resigned on October 8, claiming ill health. To offset the lack of food deliveries, Washington planned to buy directly from local farmers. Unfortunately, they were reluctant to sell their produce to the army because it was bought with depreciating currency; the farmers preferred to sell to the British in Philadelphia because they paid with specie.[32] Congress accepted Mifflin’s resignation on November 7 but did not select his replacement until March 2, 1778. This meant that Washington’s soldiers, having no roof over their heads and lacking clothing, were now faced with starving.

The fourth issue facing Washington was the same one he faced the two previous years of the war – expiration of enlistments at the end of December.

The fifth issue was the number of men he had fit for duty. In December Washington declared close to 3,000 soldiers “unfit for duty” and in late January, 4,000. The term “unfit for duty” meant that they were ill, injured or without clothing or shoes.

Washington could not afford for to lose the faith Congress, the citizenry and his soldiers placed in him. What he needed was another Trenton.

The plan he presented on the 25th was a combination of Cadwalader’s plan, Major Clark’s intelligence, his General Officers “sentiments.”, and the opportunity the British presented.

His officers pointed out that the initial action of his plan required some form of direct assault on General Howe’s formidable force, that the Continental Army needed two days to be made ready, and that the success of the plan was based upon Howe choosing to stand and fight rather than retreat to the bridges. Was Washington risking too much? The required coordination was much greater than at Trenton – was he asking too much? Why did he not inform Congress of the risk he was going to take? He had been informed of Howe’s plans as early as December 20 by Major Clark and received additional updates over the next few days.[33] Was he concerned, in the words of Major General Sullivan, that “if you fail the people who are now So fond of Censuring will Change their Clamor & Censure you for not attacking Him when he was within a mile of you?” Or did his General Officers in the field realize that Howe’s force was too formidable? The answers will never be known. In a dispatch on the 26th Lord Stirling wrote, “I do not see, that any Attempt can be made with a proba[bi]lity of Success unless it be on those troops which are advanced … on the Road from Derby to Chester. I think a body of fifteen Hundred fresh Chosen Men from Camp Might push in about a Mile below Derby (while the Troops we have here make an Attack on every other part of their line as a feint) …” The next day he added, “with respect to the proposed Attack upon the detached body of the Enemy, it appears … they can be so easily and readily reinforced from the main body as to render any attempt upon them abortive with.“[34] The most important attack that would allow the plan to unfold never took place.

By the 28th, “most of the hay was loaded on ships, and [what remained] was taken above Gray’s Ferry Bridge over the Schuylkill, where 450 sheep and 180 head of cattle were also taken.”[35] Major Clark’s third to last dispatch to Washington summed up the entire affair “a glorious opportunity was lost yesterday.”[36] Both armies would afterwards settle in for a long winter and in the spring, the war’s focus would change.


[1] “Matthias Ogden to George Washington, dated 24 July 1777,” George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence 1697-1799, image 64.

[2] Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed., Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant General Royal

Engineers, His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780 (New York: New York

Public Library, 1930), 141; Bernard A. Uhlendorf, ed., Revolution in America:

Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776-84 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957), 99.

[3] Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 9:120.

[4] John C. Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Washington DC: G.P.O., 1933), 9:337-338.

[5] Uhlendorf, ed., Revolution in America, 148; “To George Washington from Major John Clark, Jr., 23 December 1777,” The Papers of George Washington, 12:680-81.

[6] Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 10:199.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] Ibid., 203-05.

[9] Ibid., 192-93.

[10] Grizzard and Hoth, The Papers of George Washington, 12:163.

[11] Ibid., 371-73.

[12] Ibid., 398-402.

[13] Ibid., 392-3.

[14] Ibid., 428.

[15] Ibid., 433-34.

[16] Ibid., 456-57

[17] Ibid., 506.

[18] Ibid., 507-10; 515-16; 516-22; 522-24; 524-25; 525-28; 529-30; 530-34; 536-38; 542-43; 543; 543-45; 545; 545-46; 546-47; 553; 553-54; 555-58; 558-59; and 559-60.

[19] Ibid., 644-45.

[20] Ibid., 659-60.

[21] Ibid., 661-62.

[22] Ibid., 667.

[23] Ibid., 666.

[24] Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War, Joseph Tustin, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979),111.

[25] Grizzard and Hoth, The Papers of George Washington, 12:662-665.

[26] Ibid., 691-92.

[27] Ibid., 680-81.

[28] Ibid., 697-98.

[29] Ibid., 704-05.

[30] W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, and Philander D. Chase, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary Series, 10:647-49.

[31] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 9:1026.

[32] Edward G. Lengel, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 13:11, Note 3.

[33] Grizzard and Hoth, The Papers of George Washington, 12:659-60; 666; 667; 680-81; 704-705.

[34] Lengel, ed., The Papers of George Washington, 13:10-11.

[35] Uhlendorf, Revolution in America, 148-49.

[36] Lengel, ed., The Papers of George Washington, 13:4-5.


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  • Great article, Bob! I’m always a fan of the little events or those that didn’t quite come to fruition. I had no idea such a plan was even entertained to attack Philadelphia before settling into winter quarters. Great work as always.

  • Thank you for a very interesting article! I am wondering, did the Whitemarsh campaign of early December, 1777 in which both armies fought numerous skirmishes, culminating in the very bloody Battle of Edge Hill have any influence on the decision not to attack in late December? Howe`s forces had come out from Philadelphia in great force earlier that month to test Washington`s strength and had been met with strong resistance all along the hilly Continental line. The size of the British force at the time seemed pretty formidable, so maybe that played on the minds of the Continental Army leaders a few weeks later, especially since they had just reached Valley Forge.
    I live in Whitemarsh right in the middle of all of this activity. A great place to be if you are interested in the American Revolution!
    Thanks again for a great read!
    John Pearson

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