Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Martha K. Robinson

British Occupation of Philadelphia

On September 26, 1777, the British army marched into Philadelphia, beginning an occupation that lasted until the following spring. Its arrival led patriots to flee and Loyalists to rejoice, although wartime shortages soon led to suffering for those who remained in the city. The occupation, however, led to no concrete gains, and the British abandoned the city the following June.

[caption id="attachment_24552" align="alignright" width="197"]Drawing of William Howe, reclinging slightly against a hill, holding a sword and looking to the side. British General William Howe took Philadelphia in September 1777 and led the bombardment of Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer later that year to open a supply line to the occupied city. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The occupation of Philadelphia deviated from a British plan to conquer New England in 1777, after two years of inconclusive war. To conquer New England, the British intended to send two armies into New York state. The first, headed by General John Burgoyne (1722-92), proceeded south from Canada. At the same time, forces led by General William Howe (1729-1814) would have headed north from New York City along the Hudson River. These two armies would have divided New England from the other colonies, allowing the British to invade and conquer.

Howe, to the surprise of his superiors, did not follow through on this plan. Whether from personal dislike of Burgoyne, fear of allowing General George Washington (1732-99) time to rebuild his army, or doubts about his own ability to prosecute the Hudson River campaign, he rejected the plan. Instead, with a force of about fifteen thousand English and German soldiers, he sailed south along the coast and then headed up the Chesapeake Bay toward Philadelphia. In August 1777, he landed at Head of Elk, some fifty miles from the city.

Howe set his sights on Philadelphia for a number of reasons. Philadelphia, of course, was the American capital and the meeting place of the Continental Congress. Howe also apparently hoped to draw Washington into a battle that might destroy the Continental Army once and for all. Furthermore, prominent Loyalists, including Joseph Galloway (1731-1803), had claimed that more than 75 percent of Americans in Philadelphia and the surrounding region were loyal to the crown and would welcome and aid the British.

Battle of Brandywine Creek

Washington, watching Howe’s movements carefully, attempted unsuccessfully to stop the British advance at the Battle of Brandywine Creek (September 1777). It was a costly loss–Washington suffered some nine hundred casualties (of eleven thousand soldiers), while Howe lost only 550. As the British army approached Philadelphia, thousands of patriot citizens fled, including the delegates to the Continental Congress. Sarah Logan Fisher (1751-96), the wife of a prominent Philadelphia merchant, described “wagons rattling, horses galloping, women running, children crying, delegates flying, & altogether the greatest consternation, fright & terror that can be imagined.” One estimate suggests that more than 10 percent of Philadelphia’s homes were abandoned by their owners before the British arrived, and reports of looting and theft grew. When Howe entered Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, Loyalists lined the streets to welcome the return of British authority. On October 5, Washington tried to dislodge the British at the Battle of Germantown, but this effort also failed.

[caption id="attachment_24551" align="alignright" width="300"]Map drawing of the Delaware River, showing Fort Billings, Fort Mifflin, and Fort Mercer. This map of the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia shows three American-occupied fortifications that British naval ships attacked during the summer and fall of 1777. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Once in control of Philadelphia, Howe faced serious problems. Even though thousands of Americans had fled, the civilian population still numbered some fifteen thousand. Howe’s forces added another fifteen thousand. But Howe’s supply lines were inadequate. Having marched overland to Philadelphia, he needed to control the Delaware River to ensure an adequate supply of provisions. The Delaware, however, was guarded by two American forts, Fort Mifflin on Mud Island and Fort Mercer on the New Jersey side of the river. The Americans successfully defended both forts for almost seven weeks. Suffering followed in Philadelphia, as food and other provisions were in short supply. British officers quartered with local citizens, churches became hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers, and Philadelphians described British and German soldiers stealing horses, cattle, wood, food, and clothing. The suffering of American prisoners in the Walnut Street Jail was especially severe, as prisoners endured hunger, cold, and abuse from their jailers. In October 1777, the Quaker diarist Elizabeth Drinker (1735-1807) described the suffering of the city, writing “if things dont change 'eer long, we shall be in poor plight, everything scarce and dear, and nothing suffer’d to be brought in to us.” The forts fell in November, relieving the blockade, but prices in the city remained high and citizens continued to complain of theft and other crimes committed by soldiers. Howe tried, without much success, to deter such behavior. He offered monetary rewards for information about crimes, and frequent courts-martial sentenced men to up to a thousand lashes for plundering and other crimes.

During the long fall and winter months, the British built up the city’s defenses, kept an eye on the American army at Valley Forge, and sent foragers into the countryside to search for wood and hay. But such tasks could not occupy the thousands of men in the army, and the British also turned to a wide variety of leisure activities. Some occupied themselves by playing cards, drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. Others sought more elaborate entertainments, arranging dinner parties and taking part in amateur dramatics. British officers put on plays at the Southwark Theatre on Monday nights from January to May, performing at least fourteen different plays.

Howe’s Resignation

When Howe resigned in April 1778, his officers planned a grand celebration to honor him before his departure. This “Meschianza” (in Italian, “medley”) began with elaborately decorated flatboats and galleys carrying officers and hundreds of guests down the river. This procession was followed by a tournament in which British officers dressed as medieval knights jousted in honor of the “Ladies of the Blended Rose” and the “Ladies of the Burning Mountain.” The tournament was followed by a feast, fireworks, and dancing. Participants judged the event a stunning success, but not all Philadelphia citizens agreed. The Meschianza cost more than three thousand guineas, a stunning amount of money in an occupied city where citizens complained regularly of shortages and high prices. The diarist Drinker criticized the officers’ extravagance, writing, “How insensible do these people appear, while our Land is so greatly desolated, and Death and sore destruction has overtaken and impends over so many.”

While Howe and his army spent the winter in Philadelphia, the fortunes of war were turning. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne (lacking support from Howe) surrendered at Saratoga. This American victory encouraged the French to make an alliance with the Americans. With British plans in America threatened by the French fleet, the British could no longer afford to occupy Philadelphia, especially as they had gained nothing from being there. General Henry Clinton (1730?-95) was ordered to abandon Philadelphia and retreat to New York. The British army left Philadelphia in June 1778, accompanied by some three thousand loyalists.

The British occupation and abandonment of Philadelphia also led to difficult choices for black residents of the city, both free and enslaved. In 1777 and 1778, it was not clear whether an American or a British victory would be more likely to lead to freedom and greater rights. On the one hand, Quaker and abolitionist sentiment in Philadelphia had been growing in the decade before the war. As masters freed their slaves, the free black population of the city grew. Slaves in Philadelphia might have hoped that an American victory would lead to yet more manumissions, or even the outlawing of slavery. During the war, thirty-five black men served in the Second Pennsylvania Brigade of the Continental Army, and others served on American privateers. On the other hand, black men and women in Philadelphia quickly learned of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation (November 7, 1775) offering freedom to patriots’ slaves who joined the British forces. Although Dunmore was the royal governor of Virginia, news of his proclamation reached Philadelphia within a week. During the occupation, many Africans and African Americans seem to have decided that the British offered better prospects than the Americans, and served among them as soldiers, guides, and laborers. When the British evacuated, dozens of slaves fled with them.

The occupation of Philadelphia did little for the British war effort. The American government survived, as the Continental Congress fled the city. Washington’s army survived the harsh winter at Valley Forge. Relations between the British and Loyalists in Pennsylvania worsened. Worse, Howe had lost a vital opportunity. By failing to meet Burgoyne in New York, he had thrown away the best chance the British would have to conquer New England.

Martha K. Robinson is an Associate Professor of History at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include “New Worlds, New Medicines: Indian Remedies and English Medicine in Early America,” Early American Studies 3 (Spring 2005): 94-110.

Medicine (Colonial Era)

In colonial Philadelphia, physicians and other medical practitioners contended with a difficult disease environment. The best medical efforts of the day were often inadequate or even harmful in the face of chronic illness and epidemic disease.

The health of the colonial population varied by race and region. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as in the rest of the colonies, Native Americans were struck by epidemic diseases introduced from the Old World, including smallpox and measles. Africans and African Americans also suffered, facing overwork, malnutrition, and a new disease environment. European migrants brought European diseases with them, but they also encountered diseases imported from Africa, including yellow fever and a deadly form of malaria. Beyond these patterns, other variables also affected colonial health. Cities were less healthy than rural regions, as local and international trade networks facilitated the spread of disease and as crowding and improper disposal of wastes led to sickness. European immigrants often suffered from higher death rates than native-born colonists. Disease environments also changed over time. In general, the seventeenth century was healthier than the eighteenth. As the population grew and trade expanded, diseases spread more easily.

Philadelphia and the surrounding region stood at the intersection of these patterns. As a multiethnic city, Philadelphia had a population that included Native Americans, blacks (both free and enslaved), and European immigrants from Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. In the colonial period, the city saw both chronic and epidemic threats to health. All colonial cities suffered from overcrowding and problems with waste disposal. At the same time, as a major port, Philadelphia was subject to epidemic diseases imported from Europe, the West Indies, and Africa. Local officials (in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey) tried to impose quarantines when infectious disease was known to exist, but such quarantines were of limited effectiveness. Even when human beings respected a quarantine, the mosquitoes that carried malaria or yellow fever would not. By the end of the seventeenth century, Philadelphia’s death rate exceeded its birth rate, and the city grew only because of continuing migration. Major killers in the region included chronic threats like dysentery and respiratory illnesses as well as epidemic diseases like smallpox and yellow fever.

Pennsylvania Hospital

[caption id="attachment_20028" align="alignright" width="300"]A view of Pennsylvania Hospital from the South-East. Founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond, Pennsylvania Hospital was one of the first Hospitals in the British Colonies. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In confronting this disease environment, residents of the city turned to a wide variety of medical practitioners. Philadelphia was the site of one of the first hospitals in the British colonies, Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in 1751. Still, university-trained physicians were rare, and their services might be expensive. One historian estimated that in the 1770s, only about 200 physicians with medical degrees lived in all of the American colonies combined. These doctors had studied in Europe, as there were no medical schools in America until the first, the Medical Department of the College of Philadelphia, opened in 1765, drawing students from Pennsylvania and elsewhere. This school closed during the Revolution, but reopened in the 1790s. No medical school was founded in New Jersey in the colonial period, but New Jersey doctors formed the New Jersey Medical Society in 1766 in an attempt to professionalize the practice of medicine in the colony. Whether in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, most colonial doctors did not study medicine at school. Rather, they trained through an apprenticeship with a local physician, often studying and observing his medical practice for a three-year period.

But Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents also turned to other practitioners. Ministers commonly attempted to aid the sick with physical as well as spiritual help. In Elizabethtown, New Jersey, for example, the Reverend John Dickinson  acted both as pastor and medical practitioner. Ordinary men and women might grow herbs, gather medicinal plants, or trade time-honored remedies with each other. Midwives aided women in childbirth, a realm of health care from which men were largely excluded. The belief that each land and climate produced both its own sicknesses and its own remedies led some colonists to seek advice from Native American healers, and American plants like guaiacum, sassafras, tobacco, and ipecacuanha (often called “Indian Physick”) had long been incorporated into colonial medicine. Colonists might also attempt to treat themselves or their families with the aid of medical handbooks. Major works printed or reprinted in Philadelphia included John Tennent’s Every Man His Own Doctor, first published in Virginia in 1734 and reprinted in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin in 1734, 1736, and (in German) 1749; William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, first published in Edinburgh in 1769 and reprinted in Philadelphia in 1771, 1772, and 1774; and the theologian John Wesley’s Primitive Physick, first published in London in 1747 and reprinted in Philadelphia in 1764 and 1770 and in Trenton in 1788.

[caption id="attachment_20025" align="alignright" width="260"]A portrait of Rachel (the wife of Chalres Willson Peale), crying over the body of her daughter Margeret who died of Smallpox. The difficult disease environment of colonial Philadelphia affected all parts of  society. Margaret, the daughter of famous portrait painter Charles Willson Peale, died of smallpox in 1772. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Popular medicine seldom had a strong theoretical basis. Plants or other remedies were popular because they worked (or seemed to work), often by causing powerful physical reactions. Those who read Every Man His Own Doctor, for example, would have found many remedies advising that the sick person be dosed with “Indian Physick” (ipecac) to cause vomiting or suggesting that a medicine made from mallow (an imported herb) and peach-blossom syrup would cause purging. Buchan preferred milder remedies, though noting that bleeding and purging could sometimes be useful. Wesley, on the other hand, was far more suspicious of doctors. In Primitive Physick, he maintained that temperate habits and moderate exercise could ward off many diseases, and that drinking water could treat many illnesses effectively. Doctors, he thought, had made medicine unnecessarily complicated in order to gain money and honor for themselves. 

Theories of Medical Procedure

University-trained physicians deplored the lack of system in such popular remedies. The Philadelphia physician John Morgan (1735-89) was among the first professors in Philadelphia’s medical school. In his Apology for Attempting to Introduce the Regular Practice of Physic (published in Philadelphia in 1765) he proudly declared that he had studied with “the most celebrated masters in every branch of medicine” in Europe. The human body, he wrote, was so complex that long years of education were necessary to understand its workings. Formal medical training was vital, for an untrained or half-trained physician was as likely to inadvertently poison a patient as heal him or her.

[caption id="attachment_20024" align="alignright" width="219"]A portrait of Herman Boerhaave, an eighteenth century medical theorist. Herman Boerhaave theorized that the human body consisted of solids and fluids that had to be kept in balance. (U.S. National Library of Medicine: Images from the History of Medicine)[/caption]

Morgan and other university-trained physicians were profoundly influenced by the ideas of leading European physicians, including the Dutch doctor Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) and the British physician William Cullen (1710-90).  Boerhaave had theorized that the human body was made up of “solids” and “fluids,” which must be kept in balance. Disease resulted from imbalances in the solids and fluids, which could often be remedied by bleeding or purging the patient to restore balance. Cullen’s theory of medicine was somewhat different, as he believed that diseases might be caused by contagion from another person or by breathing infected air (a miasma). Their remedies, however, were much the same. Eighteenth-century doctors in Philadelphia, as in Europe, generally believed that the best cures had dramatic effects on the body. Medicines that caused vomiting and purging (including ipecac and jalap) were popular, as was mercury (to cause salivation). Such treatments were intended to restore balance to the body by drawing off corrupt or excessive matter. Doctors also relied on bleeding, which might have the additional benefit of lowering a fever or even causing a suffering patient to lose consciousness. For those who trusted these doctors, the dramatic effect of their medicines testified to their strength. Skeptics argued that such powerful drugs could only weaken a sick person. One satirical poem summed up the remedies of the day: “Piss, Spew, and Spit, / Perspiration and Sweat; / Purge, Bleed, and Blister, / Issues and Clyster.

Philadelphia was at the center of a major medical controversy during the American Revolution, when a smallpox epidemic ravaged the colonies between 1775 and 1782. A process for inoculation for smallpox had been known for much of the 1700s. It involved taking pus from the sores of a smallpox victim and introducing the infected matter into an incision in a healthy person. That person would then contract smallpox, but usually in a milder form. Inoculation was controversial in the 1700s, not least because an inoculated person, while sick, was fully contagious. Since inoculation was quite expensive, poorer citizens resented the idea that the wealthy, by inoculating themselves, put the larger community at risk. Nonetheless, inoculation was quite common (and unregulated) in colonial Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Patrick Henry (1736-99), and Martha Washington (1731-1802) were all inoculated there. During the American Revolution, George Washington (1732-99) ordered soldiers inoculated. In Pennsylvania, military inoculations took place in Philadelphia, Newtown, and Bethlehem.

Colonial Philadelphia’s status as a growing city and a major port led to a dangerous disease environment. Its institutions (including the first American medical school and Pennsylvania Hospital) were among the first of their kind in the colonies, but in the end, most of the medical treatments of the day could do little to slow or stop the spread of sickness.

Martha K. Robinson is Associate Professor of History at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include “New Worlds, New Medicines: Indian Remedies and English Medicine in Early America,” Early American Studies 3 (Spring 2005): 94-110.

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