When General Sir William Howe’s British army occupied Philadelphia in 1777, he commandeered the house of a wealthy local patriot as his residence. The house wasn’t large enough to properly accommodate meetings with his officers, so he decided to seize the house across the street, belonging to the Irish Quaker Lydia Darragh, the local midwife. Darragh protested that she had already sent her children away and she herself had nowhere to go. Howe let her stay as long as she made her house available for British officers to rest, and she retire early if they had any evening meetings.
Although Darragh was Quaker and had family in the British Army, her oldest son was a soldier in the Continental Army and she despised the British. She routinely listened at the door of Howe’s evening meetings. On the night 3 December 1777, she heard of Howe’s plan to launch a surprise attack on Washington camped at White Marsh outside the city to the northwest.
The next morning, Darragh was granted permission to leave the city to purchase flour. On her way she met an American cavalry officer to whom she delivered the information about the impending attack. Washington planned to use the information to surprise the British and force them to fight another Bunker Hill-style battle on ground his choosing.
Washington was in desperate need of a morale boosting victory. Horatio Gates’ victory at Saratoga had some in the Continental Congress calling for Gates to replace Washington. Furthermore, the Continental Army was woefully under supplied and lacked shoes, clothing, and blankets for the coming winter. Desertion was becoming a problem. The arrival of Morgan’s Riflemen, and Glover’s and Patterson’s brigades from up north further exacerbated the supply situation, not to mention the morale situation as the Washington’s men hadn’t won a victory since Princeton the winter before. Darragh’s information was a God-send.
On the evening of 4 December 1777, Howe’s army departed Philadelphia in hopes that a night attack on Washington’s encampment would destroy the Continental Army. However just after midnight, Howe’s surprised light infantry encountered fully alert cavalry pickets and American skirmishers. Washington planned on engaging the British army, withdrawing in feigned confusion back to his entrenchments, fixing the British with a Bunker Hill style defense, and then attacking both flanks. Unfortunately Howe saw through the ruse.
For the next three days, both sides skirmished and jockeyed for position as Howe continually kept trying to out flank Washington’s strong entrenchments and Washington tried to force Howe into attacking them. The British got the better of the Americans in most engagements, but Howe couldn’t find a way to defeat Washington without doing exactly what Washington wanted him to do. To everyone’s surprise, Howe withdrew his men back to Philadelphia on the eighth of December. The shame of the withdrawal would lead to Howe’s resignation as commander in chief of the British Army in North America.
Though he still held the field of battle, the frustrated and disappointed Washington accepted that he would not be able to encamp his army in the warm houses of Philadelphia for the winter. He still had to monitor Howe so he needed to quarter for the winter relatively close to Philadelphia, but far enough away to preclude any surprise attack by the British. Washington chose a clearing along Valley Creek wherein resided a local iron forge, about twenty miles away from his encampment at White Marsh.
The trek from White Marsh took the exhausted and demoralized Continental Army almost eight days. On 19 December 1777, the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge.