One of the more intriguing limited actions of the Revolutionary War was the Battle of the Clouds on September 16, 1777, a meeting of the armies of Gen. Sir William Howe and Gen. George Washington in the Great Valley of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Although more than 25,000 soldiers were present to battle, a tremendous eighteen-hour storm intervened to turn what should have been a major engagement into a couple of short skirmishes involving small bodies of troops on the South Valley Hills. Notwithstanding the very limited action and the non-decisive outcome, this battle has received considerable attention in published narratives of the Philadelphia Campaign as well as within biographies of its participants. Chester County, already home to the massive Battle of Brandywine and the gruesome Battle of Paoli, has demonstrated considerable interest in the Battle of the Clouds, as evidenced by a community park named in its honor and an all-encompassing technical report of this action produced by the county’s planning commission, one that utilizes an impressive number of primary and secondary sources.
Most of these sources individually and collectively fail to establish a solid timeline for this contest, resulting in a speculative but still widely accepted chronology of events. This traditional narrative of the Battle of the Clouds is summarized from the technical report as follows: Four days after the Battle of Brandywine General Washington advanced his army westward on the Lancaster Pike which ran through the center of the Great Valley. Alerted the following morning of General Howe’s northward advance toward him, Washington sent two skirmishing forces, each containing 1,500 troops, southward to the heights to protect each flank of his army tarrying on the Lancaster Pike. The easternmost skirmishers on South Valley Hills engaged the leading elements of the British advance of General Charles Cornwallis early in the afternoon near the Goshen Friends Meetinghouse, followed by a mid-afternoon encounter between Pennsylvania militia and Hessian jaegers and grenadiers at Boot Tavern, two miles west of the first skirmish area. Washington had advanced a considerable portion of his army onto the South Valley Hills between the skirmish sites, but the intensifying rains muddied a battle arena already muddled by unformed battle lines. After consulting his staff, Washington was convinced to pull his army from the South Valley Hills back through the Great Valley beginning at approximately 4:30 P.M.—near the close of the Boot Tavern skirmish. Ninety minutes later Washington’s entire force of Continentals had completed their alignment upon the North Valley Hills, directly behind White Horse Tavern where they stood two miles away from Howe’s force on the opposite heights of the valley. As afternoon turned to evening and with the storm pounding the region and preventing either army from advancing against the other, the Americans retreated northwest to Yellow Springs, suffering twenty to twenty-five Pennsylvania militia killed and an unknown number captured against about fifteen total losses within the Crown Forces for the day.
Rarely does a single document force an entire reconsideration of a traditionally accepted, daylong event. Regardless, the lack of confirming sources to solidify a timeline weakens the foundation upon which the best-known version of the Battle of the Clouds stands. One eyewitness account collapses this house of cards and encourages an effort to rebuild a new narrative of the contest—at least one with a reconsidered timeline. This rare source—only seven sentences long—has gone unnoticed for centuries even though it was published for a large audience shortly after it was written.
During the early evening of September 16, 1777, amidst the heavy rains and winds of one of the most violent Nor’ Easters of the latter half of the 1700s, an express rider negotiated his way onto Market Street in the center of Philadelphia, completing a ride originating in Chester County. He made his way to the home of Maj. Gen. Thomas Mifflin, the quartermaster general of the Continental army, and delivered to him a letter created twenty miles northwest of the capital by Mifflin’s subordinate, Col. Clement Biddle, Mifflin’s thirty-seven-year-old deputy quartermaster and the commissary general of forage since July 1.
Mifflin read the letter and digested its contents. He revealed portions of it to a confidant the following morning. By connections and means not yet known, Mifflin sent Biddle’s letter to Boston where it reached the public via the Boston Gazette on September 29. Five days afterwards—the very day the Continental army attacked General Howe at Germantown, Pennsylvania—the Boston publication of Biddle’s letter was republished in the chief newspapers of Rhode Island and New Hampshire. It has been referenced in only one known publication since. The following is the letter as it appeared in the Boston Gazette thirteen days after it was crafted (spelling and parenthetical statements unchanged from the original):
Tuesday September 16, Two & ¼ o’clock.
I am just arrived at Howell’s tavern 5 miles from Warren tavern on Lancaster road, towards the Valley forge or Sweed’s ford, having been sent off in charge of waggons which are safe here. When I came off the enemy were advancing, had come up to our pickett on the right front, which had retired. —Litway said they were then within 3 quarters of a mile of our right on the road by Goshen meeting. Our troops were formed on some very good heights on the north side of the Lancaster road, two miles up from the Warren tavern (23 miles from Philadelphia) in high spirits, and I trust that our arms will be this day crowned with success, as officers and men seem determined to retrieve their characters from blame for breaking on Thursday last, tho’ that day was a severe blow to the enemy, and I believe has harden’d our men to the fire of cannon. It has rain’d at times for near an hour and a half, which may be the reason that the action is not begun, and as it continues, it may prevent it, tho’ we have heard some little firing.
An express going to Philadelphia on some business, I embrace the opportunity to write to you.
I am, dear General, your very obedient Servant,
N.B. Half after Two o’clock. Both cannon and artillery have been smart & heavy (tho’ not general) for a few minutes, but have ceased, and the rain continues; the firing was in our front, not considerable, the rain continues, and renders a general action for To night impracticable.
This letter—written by an unbiased witness to the events of September 16 who documented them either as they were occurring or within two hours of those occurrences—easily makes it the most reliable, unimpeachable, and most contemporary account of the timeline of the Battle of the Clouds—although the Gazette’s publisher may have made edits or interpretations. No other American witness was able to record any same-day view of this event as even diary entries dated September 16 could not have possibly been entered on that date during an overnight march through floodwaters and sheets of unrelenting rain. Most surviving accounts were written days, weeks, months, years or decades later. Breaking down Biddle’s letter provides a new and unique understanding of the events that transpired on the South Valley Hills and North Valley Hills of the Great Valley in Chester County, Pennsylvania, bisected by the Lancaster Road and bordered on the east by White Horse Tavern and Warrant Tavern three miles east of it.
Biddle times the letter at 2:15 P.M. from Howell’s tavern and states that he had “just now arrived there.” His starting point is unknown from his missive but he does mention witnessing American troops aligned two miles up from the Warren Tavern, which he determined—likely guided by mile markers made of wood or stone—to be five miles from where he wrote his letter. This means the minimal distance Biddle traveled to reach Howell’s Tavern was seven miles. Biddle did not state his mode of travel. If he walked the entire distance, a minimum of two hours was required with additional time to initiate the duties for which Washington sent him there before he had time to write. He could have walked part of the way and be carried by a horse-drawn vehicle or a solo horse ride for the other part. The quickest mode of travel was on horseback at a trot. Acknowledging uncertainty in how long it took Biddle to travel, the next step is to create the most reasonable scenario for the shortest amount of elapsed time in order to fathom the absolute latest clock time that Biddle saw those troops in formation on the north side of the Lancaster road. The best assumption, without other evidence, is to use the fastest possible time, created with Biddle riding a horse for the entire trip.
Accounting for the requisite time to travel at a trotting pace, then briefly inspect his wagon park, enter the tavern and settle in to a desk to prepare his letter, a time span of sixty to ninety minutes likely elapsed from Biddle’s view of the American troops to writing out the heading of his letter, which he stated occurred at 2:15 P.M. Thus, Biddle’s eyewitness view of the aligned soldiers seven miles away could not feasibly have been taken in any later in the day than 1:15 P.M. and likely earlier than this—perhaps before 1:00 P.M. Traveling by a slower means would put his view of the soldiers closer to the noon hour; a seven-mile walk would push back the view to a the late morning rather than the early afternoon.
Establishing the latest time of Biddle’s view of American troops is critical, for it forces a re-interpretation of the time frame in which the Battle of the Clouds transpired. All accounts of the Philadelphia Campaign that place any emphasis on the Battle of the Clouds have timed the transfer of American troops from the South Valley Hills across the Great Valley to the North Valley Hills to the late afternoon or early evening of September 16; the Technical Report initiates this movement at 4:30 P.M. Biddle’s view of “Our troops . . . formed on some very good heights on the north side of the Lancaster road” at approximately 1:00 P.M. re-establishes George Washington’s transfer of his army from the south side of the Great Valley to the north during the noon hour for them to be formed in place when Biddle saw them. This advances the movement four hours earlier than the traditional version of the timeline of this contest.
Biddle’s letter also uniquely times the start of rainfall in Chester County on September 16. Toward the end of his short letter, he reveals to Mifflin that had been raining for nearly ninety minutes. This starts the rain close to 1:00 P.M. which must have been the time that Washington had completed or was close to completing the transfer of his army to the North Valley Hills. The “at times” description of the rain defines it as a non-devastating start of what would become a most devastating storm. Certainly, the meek initiation of rainfall as described by Biddle was not going to impede movements of the army. This real-time characterization of the start of the storm runs counter to suggestions that the rain was the impetus to move the army in the first place. Biddle’s account reveals that Washington’s troops on the South Valley Hills and on the Lancaster road at the start of this confrontation against General Howe felt few drops of rain until they all moved up the slopes of the ridge line comprising the North Valley Hills between noon and 1:00 P.M. In other words, the start of the infamous Nor’ Easter which formed the backdrop of this non-battle had no impact whatsoever on Washington’s troops until they were aligned in their final position of the contest.
Equally revealing about what Biddle saw was the position of the American troops on the North Valley Hills. Tradition placed the Americans in Philadelphia Memorial Park, north of the still-standing White Horse Tavern. As stated earlier, this is three miles west of Warren Tavern (also still standing). Biddle changes that troop location, and in doing so becomes the only known witness to pinpoint the location of the Continental army at this juncture of the contest. He witnessed them two miles from Warren Tavern, not three, which places them due north of Washington’s headquarters at Randall Malin’s house at the junction of the Lancaster road with the Swede’s Ford road. This position is ideal for the left flank of the army as it anchors them on a possible retreat route should that become inevitable. Washington’s headquarters accounts provide further evidence for this position, noting reimbursement to Mr. Malin on September 16 for his house “and trouble—(rainy day).” Highlighting the rain places at least some of Washington’s staff in the house at 1:00 P.M. or later and directly in front of the aligned troops. It also dovetails well with Biddle’s reason to be at that spot before his trek to Howell’s tavern; i.e., he likely was at or near headquarters to receive the orders to head eastward to the wagon park.
Part of Biddle’s letter to his superior officer relayed hearsay regarding skirmishing near Goshen Friends Meetinghouse. From this point forward, he becomes an important “ear witness” to the Battle of the Clouds. He expressed surprise that the action “is not begun” although both armies were in striking distance with each other, noting that from Howell’s tavern he had heard “some little firing” toward the close of his six-sentence letter.
Equally intriguing about Biddle’s account is the long seventh sentence comprising his Nota Bene, an intended addition to his letter to highlight an important occurrence. Biddle timed it at 2:30 and notified Mifflin that he could hear a “smart & heavy” combination of cannon and musket fire. It should be assumed that when he placed the action “in our front,” Biddle must have used “our” to define the front of the American troops rather than in front of him personally at Howell’s tavern. The battle noise he heard eight miles away matches the traditional Boot Tavern action waged between the Hessian forces under Colonel Von Donop and Pennsylvania militia under Colonel Potter, particularly since it chronologically follows his hearsay allusion of the first skirmish on the road by Goshen Meetinghouse.
Placing the action at 2:30 p.m. could describe either the Goshen Meetinghouse skirmish or the Boot Tavern action; regardless, it runs counter to the traditional version of the battle which places the skirmish either before Washington advanced a considerable portion of his force onto South Valley Hills (the Goshen skirmish), or on the right flank of his army while they were on those heights (the Boot Tavern skirmish). Biddle’s letter vanquishes that notion. By seeing Washington’s army on North Valley Hills no later than 1:15 P.M. and then hearing a separate action in front of those troops seventy-five minutes after that, Biddle was describing an isolated skirmish against advanced American troops, not an attack against the American flank, or one preceding the American advance to the southern heights.
Adding intrigue to Biddle’s Nota Bene is his perception of artillery mixed in with the small arms fire. Heretofore all descriptions of the Boot Tavern action are devoid of artillery deployment and subsequent cannon fire. Furthermore, the distance between Washington’s main body on North Valley Hills and the bulk of General Howe’s army on South Valley Hills measured two miles—well outside the range for an exchange of artillery fire. Unless Biddle was mistaken and did not hear a cannon that afternoon, his description of artillery is the only one known concerning the action of September 16, 1777. He noticed that the sounds of this exchange of fire did not grow and lasted only “for a few minutes.” Biddle ended his letter by admitting that the rain had already intensified enough to render a general battle “impracticable.”
Biddle composed at least one more letter that day. At 9:00 P.M. in the midst of transferring the wagon train, Biddle wrote to George Washington from Valley Forge, requesting additional orders “relative to the Baggage.” Noteworthy in contrast to his letter to Mifflin is a more specific distance between Warren Tavern and Howell’s tavern (4 ½ miles instead of 5 miles). Biddle closed his dispatch to Washington mentioning that he diverted an “Express from Philadelphia just arriving” to deliver the 9:00 P.M. letter to him. This may have been the same rider he sent off to General Mifflin shortly after 2:30 P.M. If so, it is reasonable to assume Mifflin received the Biddle letter in Philadelphia no later than 7:00 P.M. and likely even earlier than that.
General Mifflin considered his subordinate’s account of the action west of Warren Tavern on September 16, 1777 so significant and important to send it through unknown channels for publication in the Boston Gazette less than two weeks later. The passage of 243 years since its composition and publication has failed to diminish the importance of Clement Biddle’s eye and ear witness testimony to the Battle of the Clouds. On the contrary, Biddle’s letter offers us a revised timeline of the action, one that provides some clarity to what had been at best a rather nebulous event.
Battle of the Clouds Technical Report, 4-10, www.chesco.org/DocumentCenter/View/17453/CloudsTechReport?bidId=.
Marvin Kitman, ed., George Washington’s Expense Account (New York: Grove Press, 1970), 225-26. The Battle of the Clouds Technical Report offers an equivocal appraisal of the Location of Washington’s headquarters, but acknowledges the best evidence supports Malin Hall. Battle of the Clouds Technical Report, Appendix A, Consultant Question No. 5, 3.