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11 Aug 2013

Encamped in Philadelphia

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August 11, 2013 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Fort Mifflin


By Renée S. Gordon   


“You men are not our protectors… If you were, who would there be to protect us from?”    

–Dr. Mary E. Walker


Philadelphia is renowned internationally as being home to the United States’ most historic square mile. That mile, Philadelphia’s Historic District, is centered around Independence Park and visitors and locals alike often fail to venture outside of this area. While that section of the city may  be pivotal to the story of our country there are other significant historic sites located throughout Philadelphia.


One of the most under-rated locations in the region is Fort Mifflin, located near the Delaware River and Philadelphia International Airport on Fort Mifflin Road. This overlooked fort is referred to as “the fort that saved America” and had the events of November 1777 not taken place the American Revolution just might have ended differently. The fort, though destroyed by the British, rebuilt in 1793 and restored in the 1830s, was part of the United States’ coastal defense system until it was decommissioned in the mid-1900s. At that time it was the country’s oldest fort in continuous use. In 1969 the City of Philadelphia received the deed to the fort from the federal government.


William Penn’s colony was the only major colonial settlement founded without a fort. Essentially “Penn’s Woods” was undefended, having no standing militia or naval power. By the mid-18th century Philadelphia was the wealthiest of England’s ports in North America and immediately prior to the American Revolution it was the biggest and the founding Quakers realized that fortifications were necessary, initially to defend against pirates and later British forces.   


Captain John Montrésor of the Royal Engineers was chosen to draft a plan for a basic fortification for Philadelphia in 1771. He selected its location because it was an island, Mud Island has since become attached to the mainland, strategically perfect to protect both rivers and was directly across from New Jersey’s Fort Mercer. Montrésor left the fort unfinished in 1774 because of financial issues and Gen. Thomas Mifflin, who later signed the Constitution, completed the job. Ironically, in 1776 Gen. William Howe asked Montrésor to help destroy the fort because he had designed it.


On September 26, 1777, 20,000 British forces commanded by Gen. Howe marched into Philadelphia. A successful occupation of the city depended upon a flow of supplies that needed to be brought in via the Delaware River. The supply line was problematic because Washington and the Continental forces were in command of the river forts and the suburbs and communities surrounding Philadelphia. Howe was forced to break the chokehold with a six week siege and launching a full-scale assault on the forts that protected the Delaware River.


The Battle of Fort Mifflin took place from November 10-15, 1777 when the British troops began the largest ship to shore bombardment in US history. The Americans defending themselves against the 2,000 troops, 250 ships and 10,000 cannonballs did an outstanding job but, low on ammunition after three weeks of intense fighting, 250 soldiers evacuated by boat to Fort Mercer. A small force remained to torch the fort so that it would not fall into enemy hands. As a result of the valiant defense two British ships were destroyed the supply line was disrupted, and Washington’s army was given time to move to Valley Forge to reassemble.


Pierre Charles L’Enfant was employed to reconstruct the fort in 1793 but, just as with the planning of Washington, DC, he did not complete the task. Two years later Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Rochefontaine was selected to finish the project. 


In early 1861 volunteers, fearing Confederate attack, held Fort Mifflin. Two years later in July the fort became a POW camp with the first prisoners taken at Gettysburg. In addition to Confederate prisoners Union deserters, draft dodgers and criminals were also held there.


PHOTO: Civil War reenactment


The most famous incident to occur during the Civil War at the fort was the hanging of Private William Howell for desertion and murder, the only man ever executed there. Howell was a member of the 116th PA, the Irish Brigade. who was wounded at Fredericksburg while heroically bringing the injured back to camp. After being hospitalized he walked home. The Union caught up with him at home in June 1863 and a gunfight occurred in which a soldier was killed. Howell fled but was caught in Reading, PA in July. He was tried twice and  eventually found guilty on both counts. Howell attempted to escape but failed to get off fort grounds. He was then incarcerated in Eastern State Penitentiary until he was executed on August 26, 1864. Tickets were sold to witness the hanging. The casemate in which he was held was recently excavated.


Fort Mifflin served as a munitions depot throughout WWI and II. Currently it is restored to reflect its 1834 appearance. Both self-guided and authentically clad docent tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday. Weapons Demonstrations and Soldier Life Programs are regularly scheduled as well as individual buildings are staffed with costumed interpreters. While on tour visitors should note the graffiti left by soldiers throughout the centuries.


There are 20 sites on the walking tour with several located on the fort’s exterior. The complex includes an original blacksmith shop, soldier’s barracks, hospital, officer’s quarters, commandant’s house and casemates. One building houses a small museum that features a 1770s diorama of the fort and the river. Also showcased is a small example of a cheaux-de-frise, a device anchored below the river’s surface to disable the wooden ships of the day. A full-sized cheaux-de-frise was 30-ft. wide and had eight 15-ft. spikes.  


You might meet Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, Civil War surgeon and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, in the hospital. When she was denied a commission she volunteered and was the first female US Army surgeon. Confederate troops captured her and she was in a Richmond POW camp for four months. In 1865 she was awarded the Medal of Honor and in 1917 it was rescinded. She refused to return it and wore it daily until she died. She was buried wearing it. Her award was reinstated in 1977.


Fort Mifflin, a National Historic Landmark, is a favorite for ghosthunters. It is believed to be one of the most haunted sites in the region and has been the subject of several television programs.


On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and shortly thereafter, on May 22, 1863, General Order 143 was issued establishing the United States Bureau of Colored Troops. By the surrender in 1865 the USCT (US Colored Troops) made up 10 percent of the Union Army, approximately 180,000 men. Nearly 10,940 of those troops, 11 regiments, were trained at Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, another of Philadelphia’s unsung historic sites.


The Union League of Philadelphia, an exclusively white, male, organization, “was founded to suppress the rebellion of the American Civil War and to preserve the Union.” They immediately began efforts to assist USCT recruitment by donating $100,000 to create a training camp and instituted a recruitment mechanism. Camp William Penn was the first and biggest training camp to train only African American Civil War soldiers.


Noted abolitionist Lucretia Mott purchased Roadside, an estate in Cheltenham in 1857. The house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Adjacent to her property was land owned by Quakers that was donated for Camp William Penn. After the war the area was named La Mott to honor Lucretia Mott. 


Many renowned people visited the camp including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Local black churches and organizations brought food and medical supplies and provided essential services to the soldiers and David Bustill Bowser, a self-taught black painter, designed the regimental flags. About 600 soldiers from the 22nd Infantry, trained at Camp William Penn, were among the troops tracking Lincoln’s assassins. They were then honored to lead President Lincoln’s funeral cortége in Washington, DC. 


The only structural reminder of the original campsite is the iron gate at 7325 Sycamore Avenue. A Pennsylvania historic marker is located at 7322 Sycamore Avenue and a stone marker was erected outside of the Community Center in 1943. La Mott schedules events and activities to mark its history. Information can be found online.


I wish you smooth travels!




`The free Sounds of Gospel Concert will take place at Penn’s Landing from 3PM until 9PM on August 24th as part of a one-day music festival. The Great Plaza will come alive with a variety of genres of religious music. The featured artists are Hezekiah Walker, Kurt Carr and Tye Tribbett. Additional information is available at or (215) 922-2FUN.2


In 2014 Glasgow will host the XX Commonwealth Games from July 23rd to August 3rd. Seventeen sports will be showcased over an 11-day period featuring 4,500 athletes. In conjunction with the games Glasgow will present The Glasgow 2014 Cultural Program, focusing on the unique Scottish culture and creativity. The cultural events will begin in July 2013 and conclude at the end of August 2014.


Two great websites for travelers are: This site provides hotel and travel discounts that are also available as mobile websites and iPad apps. It seems that every time I travel the rules have changed. Some days you can take your Uzi and some days you can’t. You can get all the most updated Transportation Security Administration Information their website including traveling with children and traveling with a disability.


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