Wet Flintlocks Don't Fire: 1777's "Battle of the Clouds"

Many of those who came to Mount Vernon last Sunday and bravely faced the weather were no doubt disappointed to see the day's battles canceled due to the heavy rains. Yet many were equally surprised to hear that such a cancelation was actually historically accurate. After all, flintlock muskets just won't work in damp (let alone soaking wet) weather. And no one learned this more acutely than Crown and Continental forces during the Philadelphia campaign of September 1777 in the little known "Battle of the Clouds".

Following the British victory at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, General Howe and his forces remained on the field for the next five days. The Guards had been part of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis' flanking column during the battle, but had suffered relatively light casualties: one rank and file killed, five wounded, and one missing.

Washington's Army, meanwhile, retreated to camp near Germantown.  Shortly thereafter, he re-crossed the Schuylkill River and on September 15th the Continental Army (11,000 strong at that point) marched into the Great Valley of Chester County. General Sir William Howe, having learned of this movement, directed his army of 15,000 to march north on September 16th and meet Washington. Crown Forces were dived into two columns: Cornwallis would depart at midnight and march up the eastern road while Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen's column would head north along the western route beginning at daybreak.

Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen of Hesse-Kassel, commander of the column in which the Brigade of Guards marched northward from Brandywine.

The line of march for Knyphausen's division, as directed by Howe on the evening of the 15th, was for "the troops to be in readiness to march by the Right, in half Companies, to-morrow morning at 5 o'clock" according to the following order:
  • Yager Infantry with an Officer and 12 Mounted.
  • Mounted Yager.
  • Hessian Grenadiers.
  • Regiment Du Corps.
  • Brigade of Guards.
  • 4th Brigade (33rd, 37th, 46th, and 64th Regiments of Foot) under General James Agnew 
  • 3rd Brigade (15th, 17th, 42nd, and 44th Regiments of Foot) under General Charles Grey
One Squadron of Queen's Light Dragoons was positioned at the head of 4th Brigade, and one at the head of the 3rd. In addition, the Artillery was to march out in front of the Guards, 4th, and 3rd Brigades, respectively. The baggage was to follow their respective brigades, while the wagons of the Commander in Chief, staff, hospital, and paymaster would follow to the rear of the Guards.

The Brigade of Guards advances northward in Knyphausen's column (bottom left).  Map courtesy of Western Heritage Mapping.

Midmorning, an American scouting party encountered Knyphausen's column near Turk's Head Tavern in modern-day West Chester. As John Andre, aid to General Charles Grey in the 3rd Brigade, wrote in his journal:
The Army marched from Brandywine to Goshen...some shots were fired on the Column at the Turk's Head five miles from Brandywine, where a soldier of the 33rd Regiment was killed and another wounded, an Officer was likewise slightly wounded.
It was at this point that Knyphausen's column continued its march northeastward to rendezvous with Cornwallis - while the Guards (under the command of Brigadier General Edward Mathew) were detached and ordered to pursue the scouting party up Pottstown Pike (modern Route 100).

The Brigade detaches and pursues the rebel skirmishers up Pottstown Pike (modern Route 100) toward Dunwoody Farm.  Map courtesy of Western Heritage Mapping.

Skirmishes between the advancing Crown Forces and American advance parties occurred in both the Cornwallis columns (near the Thomas Lewis House) and the Jaegers commanded by Colonel Carl von Donop (near Boot Tavern). Donop found himself surrounded but was able to break through back to the British lines as rain began fall more steadily.

The Brigade continues to pursue as a larger skirmish occurs to the East at Boot Tavern.  Map courtesy of Western Heritage Mapping.

It was at this point that Washington decided not to complete his order of battle - but rather due to the inclement weather (both a missed opportunity for battle but a real one to withdraw) to use the opportunity of the soaking storm to withdraw. The storm itself was no ordinary shower - it was nor'easter that quickly flooded the muddy roadways, rendering them impassable. As Hessian Jaeger Captain Johann Ewald recalled, it was an "extraordinary thunderstorm...combined with the heaviest downpour in this world."

More importantly, it soaked countless cartridges. For the Jaegers who engaged Potter's Militia Brigade behind Boot Tavern, they found themselves literally awash with misfires. Washington would later write in a letter of the deficient cartridge boxes used by the Continental Army at the time:
With respect to Cartouch Boxes, without which is impossible to act,...each Box should have a small inner flap for the greater security of the Cartridges against rain and moist weather.  The Flaps, in general, are too small, and do not project sufficiently over the ends or sides of the Boxes...For we know from unhappy experience in the severe rain, on the 16th [of September] the few Boxes we had of this construction preserved the ammunition without injury, whilst it was almost wholly destroyed in those of the Common form, with a single flap. (Letter to Congress, 13 October 1777)
Continental forces withdraw under heavy rain while Crown Forces camp in place from September 16-18.  Map courtesy of Western Heritage Mapping.

By 5 o'clock that night, Howe called off the British attack and Washington headed northward. This left the Crown Forces to camp where they halted. Perhaps most interesting, the Guards position on the night of September 16 is among the most clearly identified. A 1782 depredation claim from James Dunwoody lists the items taken by General Matthew for the Brigade, with a sum total value of over 361 pounds sterling:
  • To 10 Bushels of Barley
  • 135 d. of Oats...
  • 100 d. of Indian Corn
  • 25 d. of Buckwheat
  • 1 1/2 Bushel Sowing of Flax...
  • Damage done to Sown Wheat & Rye by Encamping on it
  • 5 Turns of Good Hay
  • 5/8 of an Acre of Potatoes...
  • a Quantity of Apples...
  • 1 pair of velvet Breeches...
  • 2 Fine Shorts worth
  • 3 d....
  • Silver Stook Buckle & Stock
  • 1 Mans Saddle
  • To 1 Mare 4 Years old...
  • 1 Horse 6 Years old...
  • 15 Sheep...
  • 1 Large Sow Worth...
  • 8 Shoats or Pigs...
  • 8500 Rails & Fencing...
  • Timber Cut & Burned
  • Destruction on Buildings
  • Butter Cheese & Kitchen Furniture
  • A Quantity of apples...
  • 1 Beaver Hatt & Surlowl Coat
  • 1 Coat Jacket & Breeches...
  • 6 Fine Shorts Worth
  • 5 Flax d.
Of course, these items may not have offered much comfort, as the Guards and the rest of the Crown Forces suffered through two days of of torrential rains. Worse yet, they had left their tents behind before advancing into intended battle. The upside, of course, was that the road to Philadelphia was open. The British entered the capital ten days later on September 26, 1777.


We are deeply indebted to the 2013 research carried out by Chester County, PA - in particular Robert Selig, Thomas J. McGuire, and Wade Catts.  For anyone who cares to learn more about the "non-battle", please visit Western Heritage Mapping for a wealth of knowledge on the event and beautifully recreated animated maps.

Battle of the Clouds Technical Report (2013), County of Chester, Pennsylvania, ABPP Grant Number GA-2255-12-005

McGuire, Thomas J. (2000), Battle of Paoli (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books)

Selig, Robert, Thomas J. McGuire, and Wade Catts (2013), "Detailed Historical Research in Support of the Battle of the Clouds Project", American Battlefield Protection Program Grant GA-225-12-005 (West Chester: John Milner Associates, Inc.)

Western Heritage Mapping, Appendix B: Battle Maps

Western Heritage Mapping, Appendix D: Depredations Report