General George Washington’s battered forces manage to outsmart British General William Howe’s year-end attempt to drive the Americans from the hills in what is now Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia.
According to legend, a Quaker housewife named Lydia Darragh gave Washington’s men warning that the British planned to attack. Although the Pennsylvania militiamen sent to meet Howe’s troops on December 5 quickly fled, their retreat back to the hills proved a strategic boon. From the hills they could see Howe’s every move, and Howe overestimated the Patriots’ strength. Washington successfully deceived his opponent by having his men set extra campfires.
By December 6, Howe realized that he would be unable to use his preferred flanking strategy against the Americans, as they could see his every move from their lofty vantage point. On December 7, Howe chose to engage on Edge Hill on the left side of the American position. American General Daniel Morgan led his riflemen against the British in the style of guerilla warfare for which they would later become famous in the Carolinas, though he was eventually forced to retreat in the face of an attack by General Charles Cornwallis’ regiment.
Although Howe decided against attacking the main American line, General Charles “No Flint” Grey grew tired of waiting for Howe’s go-ahead and launched a separate attack on Edge Hill. The Patriots narrowly avoided disaster at Grey’s hands. A cavalry squad arrived just in time to save Continental officers Colonel Joseph Reed and General John Cadwalader from death at the ends of Hessian bayonets. Having successfully softened Washington’s position, Grey decided against further combat.
After two days of inconclusive skirmishes, Howe decided to return to the city on December 8th. He made no further attempts to attack Washington’s troops that winter, a decision for which he was eventually relieved of his duties.