The Philadelphia Campaign did not end well for the Continental Army after three separate defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown followed by the British occupation of the new nation’s capital. Among other things, however, it would produce an amusing little ditty commemorating an attack on the British on January 5, 1778 for American audiences eager to poke fun at the British.
When informed that the British had occupied his adopted hometown, Benjamin Franklin reportedly waved off his concern and replied, “No, Philadelphia has captured Howe.”[i] Franklin was more militarily astute than many politicians observing the war. When his army captured Philadelphia, General William Howe practically tied a millstone around his neck. Not only did he become responsible for garrisoning and defending the city from American attack, he also had to feed his army and the city’s civilian population. Continentals had done their best to conduct a modest “scorched earth” policy in the immediate environs and conducted a loose siege of the city by intercepting British supply convoys and foraging parties in nearby counties. Howe’s best lifeline, the Delaware River that connected his force to the ocean and supply ships protected by his brother Admiral Richard Howe’s fleet, was closed by Forts Mercer and Mifflin and could later be choked by ice.
As time passed, both Continental forts fell to the British; Washington’s countryside patrols proved less effective; and, Howe was able to bring ships up and down the Delaware and into the city. Washington, however, did not give up on choking the city of its supplies. Introduced to David Bushell, designer of the first submarine and water-borne mines, Washington accepted a plan to damage, if not destroy, British ships docked at Philadelphia by floating mines down the Delaware River. The Continentals launched their attack on January 5, 1778. Unfortunately, two boys spotted the gunpowder-filled kegs floating down the river and went to investigate. Their target promptly blew them up. The explosion caused a panic in the British fleet; unsurprising since detonating gunpowder and fire among ships docked close together could quickly spread and destroy not only the ships, but the wharves as well. Marines and sailors rushed to the tops and unleashed broadsides and musket fire against the approaching mines, causing a racket that alarmed the city. In the end, no ships were damaged, but the noise and ruckus set the city atwitter.
Francis Hopkinson, an attorney, musician, poet, lyricist, New Jersey signer of the Declaration of Independence, and congressman, decided to memorialize the event in a poem/song that he titled, “The Battle of the Kegs.”[ii] It can be sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle.
Gallants attend, and hear a friend
Trill forth harmonious ditty;
Strange things I’ll tell, which late befel
In Philadelphia city.
‘Twas early day, as Poets say,
Just when the sun was rising;
A soldier stood on a log of wood
And saw a sight surprising.
As in a maze he stood to gaze,
The truth can’t be deny’d, Sir;
He spy’d a score of kegs, or more,
Come floating down the tide, Sir.
A sailor too, in jerkin blue,
This strange appearance viewing,
First damn’d his eyes in great surprize,
Then said — “Some mischief’s brewing:
“These kegs now hold the rebels bold
Pack’d up like pickl’d herring,
And they’re come down t’attack the town
In this new way of ferrying.”
The soldier flew, the sailor too,
And scar’d almost to death, Sir,
Wore out their shoes to spread the news,
And ran ’til out of breath, Sir.
Now up and down throughout the town
Most frantic scenes were acted;
And some ran here and others there,
Like men almost distracted.
Some fire cry’d, which some deny’d,
But said the earth had quaked;
And girls and boys, with hideous noise,
Ran thro’ the streets half naked.
Sir William he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring;
Nor dreamt of harm, as he lay warm
In bed with Mrs. Loring .
Now in a fright he starts upright,
Awak’d by such a clatter;
First rubs his eyes, then boldly cries,
“For God’s sake, what’s the matter?”
At his bed side he then espy’d
Sir Erskine at command, Sir;
Upon one foot he had one boot
And t’other in his hand, Sir.
“Arise, arise, ” Sir Erskine cries,
“The rebels — more’s the pity!
Without a boat, are all afloat
And rang’d before the city.
“The motley crew, in vessels new,
With Satan for their guide, Sir,
Pack’d up in bags, and wooden kegs,
Come driving down the tide, Sir.
“Therefore prepare for bloody war,
These kegs must all be routed,
Or surely we despis’d shall be,
And British valour doubted.”
The royal band now ready stand,
All rang’d in dread array, Sir,
On every slip, in every ship,
For to begin the fray, Sir.
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 dales — the rebel vales,
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 ev’ry quarter;
Why sure, thought they, the De’il’s to pay
‘Mong folks above the water.
The kegs, ’tis said, tho’ strongly made
Of rebel staves and hoops, Sir,
Could not oppose their pow’rful foes,
The conqu’ring British troops, Sir.
From morn to night these men of might
Display’d amazing courage;
And when the sun was fairly down,
Retir’d to sup their porridge.
One hundred men, with each a pen
Or more, upon my word, Sir,
It is most true, would be too few
Their valour to record, Sir.
Such feats did they perform that day
Against these wicked kegs, Sir,
That years to come, if they get home ,
They’ll make their boasts and brag, Sir.
[i] Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Valley Forge, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), Kindle ed., Loc 1001.