A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections and events at the RIHS

Soldiers’ Winter Part II

Plan of Fort Mifflin

There is yet another Rhode Island record of the events at Fort Mifflin: the letters of Ebenezer David, Chaplain of the 2nd Rhode Island. Today, his November 23, 1777 letter to Nicholas Brown will be added to the accounts of Fort Mifflin. David was a graduate of Rhode Island College (now Brown University), and a Seventh-Day Baptist. He resigned from the Regiment in January, 1778 to undertake medical training, but  rejoined the troops at Valley Forge in the medical service a month later. He died  March 19, 1778, of what was probably typhus, contracted during an epidemic.

Waldo
November 15
An attack was made on Fort Mifflin by 4 ships, 4 Batteries, & 1 Gally. Our People fired from Fort Mifflin 1 Battery, 12 Gallies & two Shearbacks or small ships. The firing was incessant all Day. Our people defended themselves with unparallel’d bravery amidst a continual storm of Balls ‘till at length when Capt. Lee’s company of Artillery were almost all cut off, and a reinforcement had stood at the Guns till 9 o’clock in the evening the Garrison evacuated the  fort, after having spiked up the Cannon. Capt. Stephen Brown was kill’d by a shot from the round-top of a Ship that had hauled up in pistol shot of the Fort.
Mem.—Fort Mifflin was a Burlesque upon the art of Fortification.

Greenman
S15.
This morning about 9 oClock the Enemy made a furious attack, by the River, & land / the Ships came as near to the Fort as posable in the Main Channell, & a large East Indiaman they cut down & mounted 20 24 pounders on here. She came up under the protection of the Land Batteries, behind Hog Island & anchored four yards from the Angle of the SW Battery, the Fort had been very much exposed on this side / than on it, did not remain one Single Gun except those that was dismounted Major Thayer ordered a 32 pounder to be carried thare, which was effected with great trouble & danger, this was done before the Ship got up / the single gun put 14 shot into her bow but as soon as She was farly at anchor she began to play, all resistance became imposable, in 3 or 4 Broad Sides and from the tops with Cowhorn filled with Grape Shot so that it was almost imposable for a man to move without being killed…

David
Nov 23—1777
–the 15 of the Month & 6th Day of the Canonade the East-indiaman Cut down [the Vigilant] of which you must have heard with 20-24 pounders came up a Channel that was said by the Commodore to the insuffitient for her, & laid within Pistol shot of the Fort. Our Cannon being chiefly dismounted, & the Fort badly constructed—What was extraordinary she fired 2- 24 pound shot into a 32 Pounder, from which she received the chief annoyance. This Day the fire exceeded all Description from their Fleet & Batteries.

The noise and misery of Mud Island must have been intense, as 400 Americans defended the Fort against some 2000 British troops. More than half of the American defenders were killed or wounded before the Americans evacuated and began the march to Whitemarsh and eventually to winter quarters at Valley Forge. When Major Simeon Thayer, of the 2nd Rhode Island, ordered the evacuation of the Fort, Greenman wrote:

Major Thayer evacuated the Fort with a Degree of fermness equal to the Bravery of his defence, he set fire to the Remains of the Barracks & with less than two hundred men carried off all the wounded & most of the Stores

A 32-pound gun produces not just enormous noise but also a shockwave that reverberates in your chest and pops in your ears, so the terror and noise is multidimensional; you cannot escape it. It is impossible for most of us to really imagine what those men experienced 234 years ago.  Reading their journals, erratic spelling and all, helps us put ourselves in their place.

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