Fort Mifflin: A Tale of Death, Heroism and a Flag…

Fort Mifflin Flag.

The flag that flew over Ft. Mifflin during the Revolutionary War. The Stars and Stripes had yet to be designed.

Every so often I like to repost this blog I did on America’s Revolutionary War. Since I have been writing about Revolutionary Boston and my laptop is off at the doctors, I thought I would return to Revolutionary Philadelphia today. 

In the fall of 1777, 240 years ago, all that stood between the British and the likely defeat of the American Revolution was a small fort on the Delaware River. It is a chapter in American History that is little known and rarely told.

General Howe had overcome Washington’s troops at Brandywine and then occupied Philadelphia, sending America’s young government fleeing. An effort by Washington to counter-attack the British in early October and drive them out of the city failed. If the British Navy could resupply General Howe before winter set in, there was a very good chance he would catch the ever-illusive Washington and end the Revolution. There would be no United States of America.

Ft. Mifflin Pa.

A canon’s view across the tiny Ft. Mifflin focusing in on Canadian Geese. The mound was a bunker for storing munitions.

But Howe had a problem. The tiny Fort Mifflin with a circumference of 3600 feet and a contingent of 250 men was blocking the Navy’s 250 ships and 2000 troops from entering Philadelphia. It had been for six weeks. A concerted strike by British land batteries was initiated on November 10 and a massive bombardment by land and sea was planned for November 15.

The Fort, being blasted apart by the land batteries, did what little it could to prepare.  Under Washington’s orders, 286 fresh troops from Connecticut and 20 artillerymen from the Second Continental Artillery under Captain James Lees were slipped into the Fort on the 13th.  The night of the 14th was spent desperately making repairs to the shattered walls.

On the morning of fifteenth, five British Warships including the sixty-four-gun Flagship Somerset appeared out of the mist below the fort. Of equal, if not more concern, the British had taken advantage of a high flood tide and pulled the converted and armed East Indian merchant ship Vigilant and the gun-sloop Fury within pistol range of Mifflin’s northwest corner.

As the sun rose, the ships and land batteries opened fire in a bombardment that sent over 1000 cannonballs per hour crashing into the fort. It was the heaviest naval bombardment of the Revolutionary War.

Joseph Plumb Martin, a young private from Massachusetts, was there during the battle and captured the sheer terror of the experience some years later in his book Ordinary Courage. “They mowed us down like corn stalks,” he reported.

“I saw five artillerists belonging to one gun cut down by a single shot, and I saw men who were stooping to be protected by the works, but not stooping low enough, split like fish to be broiled.”

Gun emplacements at Ft. Mifflin.

Gun emplacements along the walls at Ft. Mifflin.

While protection from the onslaught was nonexistent, one section of the fort was more exposed than any other according to Jeffery Dowart in his book, Fort Mifflin of Philadelphia, an Illustrated History. The northwest corner was directly under the guns of the Vigilant and Fury. Time and again these ships sent broadsides smashing into the ramparts manned by Captain Lees’ Company while British Marines posted in the masts of the ships fired down on the exposed artillerists.

“Every man who tried to serve the cannon on the battery’s angle was either killed or wounded,” Dowart reported.

At the height of the bombardment a decision was made to hoist a signal and request help from the galleys and floating batteries above the fort. A volunteer was requested to climb up the flagpole with the signal flag as the cannonballs hurtled in from all directions.

Joseph Plumb Martin had a vivid memory of the event. “…a sergeant of the artillery offered himself; he accordingly ascended to the round top and pulled down the (fort’s) flag to affix the signal flag to the halyard. The enemy, thinking we had struck (surrendered), ceased firing in every direction and cheered.”

“Up with the Flag!” was the cry from our officers in every part of the fort. The flag was accordingly hoisted and the firing was immediately renewed. The sergeant then came down and had not gone a half-rod from the foot of the staff when he was cut in two by a cannon-shot.”

Several galleys, floating batteries, and a frigate did come down river to aid the beleaguered fort but heavy fire from the British Warships drove them back.

At some point in early afternoon the fort ran out of ammunition and was totally at the mercy of the British guns. The end was only hours away. Under cover of darkness, the fort was evacuated. As the final group left around midnight, the flag was still flying.

Howe received his much-needed supplies in Philadelphia but time was running out. After two failed efforts at penning Washington down, he returned to Philadelphia while Washington moved on to Valley Forge for his winter encampment. Other battles would determine the future of the Revolution.

The November 1777 payroll for Captain Lees’ Company. Note #2 and 8.

When I became involved in genealogy nine years ago, I discovered that my Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather, Andrew Mekemson had arrived in America from Ireland in the 1750s with six sons and one daughter. All six sons ended up fighting in the Revolutionary War. Four were involved in the battle over Fort Mifflin. My sixth cousin, Bill Makemson, shared a flyer researched and distributed by Fort Mifflin that presented a different perspective on the flag incident described by Joseph Plumb Martin. Following is a direct quote:

“During the siege and battle of Fort Mifflin, November 10-15, 1777, the flag was kept flying despite the British bombardment, one of the most stupendous in US History. Although at one point the British cannonballs were falling into the fort at the rate of 1,000 per hour, the American garrison heroically rose to the challenge and kept the flag flying. Two brothers from Pennsylvania, Sergeant Andrew Mackemson and Lieutenant James Mackemson, were both killed in re-raising the shot torn flag. The fort was finally evacuated by the remnants of the defenders, but was never surrendered to the British. The Fort Mifflin Flag was still flying at the end.”

Andrew and James were brothers of my Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather Joseph Mekemson. They were both part of Captain Lees’ Second Continental Artillery Company that entered the fort on November 13. James was second in command. Andrew was the Sergeant of Joseph Martin’s memory. Both brothers would have also been involved in the devastating battle with the Vigilant and the Fury.

I am standing below the walls of Ft. Mifflin feet away from where the British ships

I am standing below the walls of Ft. Mifflin feet away from where the British ships Vigilant and Fury poured cannon fire onto the position defended by Andrew and James Mekemson.

Two other brothers, Thomas and William, joined the fight as well. Each served on the Floating Battery Putnam under Captain William Brown. The Putnam was one of the floating batteries to respond to Fort Mifflin’s signal for help.

Captain Brown had been appointed as the first Marine Captain in the Pennsylvania Navy and sent out to recruit more marines. He was in charge of the marines on the PA Navy’s Flagship Montgomery and then helped organize Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776. He and his marines then went on to participate in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. It was the first joint marine/army operation in the nation’s history.

Documents from the Pennsylvania archives show that all four Mekemson or Makemson brothers (James, Andrew, Thomas and William) had joined Captain Brown by the time of Washington’s battle at Trenton and night march to Princeton. They may have been with him even earlier at the Delaware crossing. By September the brothers had split with James and Andrew moving on to their destiny with Captain Lees and Fort Mifflin.

Today, a beautiful moat filled with plants and wildlife surrounds Ft. Mifflin. I like to think of it as a fitting memorial to James, Andrew and the other men who fought against overwhelming odds and gave their lives so the young republic could live.

Today, a beautiful moat filled with plants and wildlife surrounds Ft. Mifflin. I like to think of it as a fitting memorial to James, Andrew and the other men who fought so bravely against overwhelming odds and gave their lives so the young republic could live.

38 comments on “Fort Mifflin: A Tale of Death, Heroism and a Flag…

  1. Thanks for such a wonderfully told family story. It is always great to see interested visitors at the Fort!

    Beth Beatty, Executive Director
    Fort Mifflin on the Delaware

  2. What a great post.. I always learn something new from you.. It’s so odd to think that we actually had wars here in the USA for we have been at peace for so long now..My father was a history/war buff and would have loved this post.I wonder if he ever visited here..I hope so 🙂

    • I love history Lynne… in fact it was my minor in college. Had life not dictated otherwise, I could very well have become an historian. One of the fun things about genealogy is that it has allowed me to indulge…

  3. Would like to say hello, – My ancestor – Josiah Munroe was also one of the defenders of Fort Mifflin. – He was mortally wounded in the battle, and died 3 months later at Valley Forge.

    • Thanks for the visit to my blog, Ron. Fort Mifflin has a fascinating history that few people know about. Do you know what capacity your ancestor served in at the Fort? –Curt

      • Good to hear from you Curt, – My Josiah Munroe was a private in ‘Varnum’s Brigade’, Capt. Elisha Lee’s Company, during the siege of Fort Mifflin. He marched at the ‘Lexington Alarm’, 8 of his cousins and uncles were in the militia that faced the British on Lexington Commons the day the ‘shot heard round the world’ was fired. Two of them died that day, – I’ve put up a page on him at http://story.sharing.ancestry.com/people/443528?h=3c1014 – Southern Oregon – good country

  4. An interesting bit of reporting and genealogical research Curt. I’ve read harrowing accounts of Civil War battles, and I see that things weren’t any different in the Revolutionary War. ~James

    • Thanks for your comments, Peter. I read your blog. Mifflin was one of the battles in the Revolutionary War that has never received the attention it deserves, both for its role in slowing down the British and for the brave men who fought and died there. –Curt

  5. Transcript of speech to my SAR Chapter:

    Captain Nathan Stoddard
    Woodbury CT
    August 8, 1742 – November 15, 1777
    My 4th Great-Grandfather

    Peter Stoddard

    I lived in suburban Boston in 1964-66. At age 7-9 I was riveted by colonial and Revolutionary War history. School field trips to Freedom Trail sites, Plymouth, Salem, down to tricorn hat flintlock musket skirmishes with friends deep in our back woods.

    My family moved to Atlanta in 1966. Only years later did I dust off the old Stoddard genealogy in the attic to discover that our clan has deep and wide New England roots.

    I can talk about this stuff for weeks, months and years, but even my two brothers begin to doze off after only a few minutes. I hope to find this a more captive and receptive audience, because it will be awkward for you to get up and leave as I wax nostalgic.

    My immigrant ancestor was Anthony Stoddard, who arrived in Boston in 1638. He was a linen importer and merchant, which included the export of fur and hides to England. He was a selectman, town clerk, town commissioner, deputy to the General Court and constable. Upon his death in 1687 he was reputed to be the wealthiest citizen in Boston. The site of his 1640s home and shop was adjacent the Old State House. The Boston Massacre took place in his front yard – 130 years later.

    His son, Rev Solomon Stoddard, was a member of Harvard’s 1662 graduating class and in 1667 was appointed as first librarian of the college. In 1670 he prepared to sail to England to explore his fortunes there. With his belongings on board a ship set to sail the next day, he was invited to become Pastor at the church in Northampton in the western Massachusetts wilderness. Had that invitation been one day late I would not be here today.

    Solomon served the church for 60 years, returning to Harvard annually for 30+ years to deliver the commencement sermon – an annual 200+ mile round trip trek. The original road from Boston to Northampton, now the Mass Turnpike, was constructed to facilitate his commute. He never missed a Sunday service in his entire pastoral career. He was succeeded in the pulpit by his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, known as America’s greatest early theologian.

    His son, Rev Anthony Stoddard, was a member of Harvard’s 1697 graduating class. Little is recorded about his time at Harvard, other than he was known for “breaking college rules and windows”. He served as the Pastor at Woodbury CT for 60 years. In 1736 he built the Curtis House, which still stands as Connecticut’s oldest inn.

    His son, Capt Gideon Stoddard, was a farmer, Deacon of the Woodbury church, and Captain in the CT trainband and militia. In 1757 he joined a company raised for the relief of Fort William Henry on Lake George, New York in the French and Indian War. The French victory is chronicled in James Fenimore Cooper’s highly fictionalized novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Colonials were allowed to keep their firearms, but no ammunition, and they were ordered to go home. Indians, having been denied the booty they were promised by the French, set out to attack the defenseless Colonials. Cooper’s depiction suggested a massacre of hundreds, but history records 40-50 casualties.

    Gideon was absent from Woodbury for only 3 weeks. How he returned 150 miles during the forced march from Fort William Henry is lost to history.

    Nathan Stoddard was born August 8, 1742, lived in Woodbury, CT, and married Eunice Sanford about 1767. Little is known about his childhood.

    In early 1775 he was commissioned Ensign of the first Company or trainband of Woodbury, which was known as the 13th Regiment of the Colony. Months later he entered the army as a private in the 4th Regiment. This outfit was ordered by Washington to join the troops opposed to the British near Lake Champlain and to garrison Fort Ticonderoga, led by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen.

    In May 1775 he was taken prisoner and carried to Quebec. Before he was ordered to jail he was concealed by a French landlady, who apparently provided him food and shelter for some time. He eventually escaped by swimming the St. Lawrence River, then trekked 450+ miles on his return to Woodbury. In 1777 he formed another company, of which he became Captain.

    In November 1777 he raised a supply of blankets and other provisions, then joined his command at Fort Mifflin, at Mud Island on the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia.

    For six weeks the British navy had attempted to sail north on the Delaware to resupply the troops occupying Philadelphia. They had been obstructed in their efforts only by troops at Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side and Fort Mercer on the Jersey side.

    Desperate, Admiral Richard Howe finally assembled enough artillery and warships to lay siege to Fort Mifflin beginning on November 10. Mifflin was staffed by no more than 500 men.

    From November 10-15 the Britain conducted what is described as the heaviest naval bombardment in US history or anywhere in the world in the 18th century. Toward the end cannonballs pounded the fort at a rate of 1,000 per hour.

    I once saw a DAR document citing that Nathan Stoddard was briefly the commanding officer at Mifflin following the death of his superior. No one had much time to write anything down, so I must question the veracity of that claim.

    On November 15 Captain Nathan Stoddard rose up to take fire and was beheaded by a cannonball. Lieutenant John Strong, also of Woodbury, related for over 30 years that “for a few moments Nathan stood there, erect, as in life, without a head, before falling.”

    In the book Private Yankee Doodle, author Joseph Plumb Martin described his experience at Fort Mifflin as the greatest hardship he endured in the entire war. For days it was bitter cold, with no ammunition, clothing, food, water, shelter or sleep. The only reward offered for recovery of a cannonball for return fire was a shot of rum.

    It is inconceivable to me that the few exhausted surviving troops somehow managed to remove bodies of the dead during their frantic evacuation, but they did. When British landed on November 15 they reported every inch of the fort to be covered in blood.

    Nathan died at age 35, leaving one son and six daughters. His burial place is unknown.

    Though Mifflin was leveled to the ground, the walls were rebuilt on the original footprint. It served various military uses until the 1950s. It still stands near the PHL airport.
    Had Fort Mifflin not impeded the advance of the British fleet for those crucial six weeks, Washington would have had too little time to organize his retreat to Valley Forge. In all likelihood England would have won the war. Thus, Mifflin is recognized as “The fort that saved America.”

    I moved to suburban Philly in 1998 and visited the fort often. I have a prized poster illustrating the bombardment with the caption:

    “Washington never slept here. Nobody slept here.”

    In 2001, just prior to moving to Florida, I walked the full perimeter of Mifflin with my 9 month old son in my arms. Knowing that at some point I crossed the very spot where Nathan fell, I thought it possible I might feel his hand on my shoulder. Alas, I experienced no such connection.

    Fort Mifflin is reputed to be extremely haunted, as attested to by staff, camping Boy Scout Troops, everyday visitors and numerous paranormal researchers. One spirit repeatedly cited is the “faceless man”, suspected my many to be the only man hanged there – with a hood – a Union Civil War deserter. During one visit I introduced myself to a docent obviously immersed in fort history, who just read some archived papers I left there years earlier. She was taken aback by my arrival that day. Days earlier she had seen the faceless man, and she insisted he was in Rev War, not Civil War period attire. She serves there to this day, and she is convinced the faceless man is Capt Nathan.

    I confessed to Chris Russo that I have long been embarrassingly inactive in local SAR chapters. I began my application in Chicago in the 90s, was admitted in Kansas, moved to Philadelphia, then to Florida. For obvious reasons the Philly chapters drew my greatest interest, and I aspired to identify one somehow affiliated with Fort Mifflin or dedicated to the preservation thereof. I was frustrated to learn there was none.

    I am very pleased to go on record as saying I intend to stay put in Cumming and Forsyth for the foreseeable future, and I am excited by what I see as a vibrant and growing young chapter. Thank you for welcoming me into the fold.

    • Thanks for sharing Peter. In addition to Andrew and James, I also had two ancestors fighting on the fireboats. The history of Mifflin is fascinating, and far too little known, given it’s importance. The Mekemsons didn’t arrive until the mid 1750s but all six boys and their father fought in the Revolutionary War. On my mother’s side, the Marshalls arrived in Boston in the 1630s. Our families have much in common. –Curt

  6. This is a great article! I have a second cousin, Captain Samuel Treat, who was killed in that battle as well. He was also an officer in the 2nd artillery regiment, and was killed on the first day of the bombardment. Colonel Samuel Smith, who was with him when he died, wrote to George Washington, “Yesterday Capt. Treat was killed by a Ball which came through the Grand Battery…”

    • Thanks, Marshall. I found the story of the fort and it’s battle with the British fascinating. Once I learned about it, I was surprised that the battle and the role of the fort wasn’t given a more prominent place in the history of the Revolutionary War. –Curt

      • Curt, I agree with your comment. Why so little attention paid to Mifflin – for centuries?! Staff and docents there share the opinion it is because no prominent general or even colonel was present during the siege.

      • My thoughts as well. So much of our Revolutionary War history was based on the stars. If George wasn’t there, how important could it have been? Even modern history continues to focus on the key players. –Curt

  7. The siege at Fort Mifflin 1777 seems a long way from the Emerald Isle where the Malcolmson/Makemson family had settled after moving there from Scotland c.1660. It is also interesting how the name seems to have changed, probably due to different transcriptions of various handwritten documents. Doing family history research it is these stories, however sad, that bring ones Ancestors to life. My link is down through Rachel Malcolmson-Fennell (1790 – 1866) who married Benjamin Haughton. Gillian Callaghan

    • Thanks so much for your input, Gillian. I am fascinated with genealogy and wish I had much more time to spend on it. Like you, I am interested in the history of the family and the stories as much as the names. I am amused by ours, however. When I was doing research in Maryland, where the family spent some time in the 1760s and 70s, I came across around 8 variations.
      One of my goals for this year is to visit Ireland and do more research on the Malcomsons, Makemsons, Mekemsons, etc. 🙂 Do you presently live in Ireland? –Curt

    • “Wow! Without the heroic efforts of the revolutionary folks the US would really had not been born! And the world might had been a lot different today!”

      My 6th great-grandfather, Capt Nathan Stoddard, was killed at Mifflin, the Fort that Saved America.

      Had it not been for heroic efforts there we might all be speaking … well, uh … English. But with a different accent and peculiar spelling.

    • Mifflin deserves to be much better known in American history than it is, Annika. I think the reason that it isn’t was because there were no leading lights of the Revolution involved in the battle. I found the story fascinating and did a fair amount of research. Someday, I will get back to it. –Curt

  8. So exciting to see your own family name on such old documents!! Your photos of this Fort remind me of a thought I’ve had at similar monuments: why, this spot has terrible views! But of course, it would have had a great vantage point at the time of the Fort’s construction, and it’s the years and park-like status that introduces the trees and shrubbery. 🙂

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