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Morton: The Battle of the Clouds was short, meaningful

On this day (Sept. 16) in 1777, American Gen. George Washington’s army took up defensive positions 20 miles west of Philadelphia to thwart British Gen. Sir William Howe’s expected advance toward Philadelphia.

The advancing British force had planned an all-out attack against Washington’s exhausted, ill-supplied army. The ensuing battle, called The Battle of the Clouds, apparently because of the extremely heavy rainfall and high winds, was almost a nonbattle in that there was actual fighting for less than an hour between 1 and 2 p.m.

The brevity of the actual fighting was caused in large part because the unprotected ammunition carried by American soldiers became water-soaked, making it unusable. According to several eyewitness accounts, the torrential rainfall, within minutes, created a lake of mud so thick as to make movement virtually impossible. The heavy rainfall ruined most of the American gunpowder and paper cartridges.

When Washington learned that this sudden deluge had rendered his outmanned army virtually defenseless, he wisely ordered a strategic American retreat to the northwest, while leaving Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s 1,500-man division to defend several fords across the Schuylkill River south of Philadelphia.

Unfortunately for the Americans, Wayne’s force, five days later, was surprised in a night attack and soundly defeated in what since has been referred to as The Paoli Massacre – a massacre because most of the Americans killed or wounded had been brutally bayoneted.

American losses were heavy (about 300 killed or wounded) while the British reported six killed and 22 wounded.

The Battle of the Clouds occurred only five days after Washington’s humiliating, disastrous Sept. 11 defeat at the hands of Howe in the Battle of Brandywine Creek, in which the American general was completely outfought and outgeneraled.

American losses at Brandywine were about 300 killed, 600 wounded and 400 captured, while British casualties were reported to have been 89 killed, 488 wounded and six missing.

Interestingly, Washington took his defeat at Brandywine Creek not as a disaster, but as a mild setback. In the time between the Sept. 11 debacle at Brandywine and the Sept. 16 engagement, Washington adroitly headed toward Philadelphia, setting up a defensive position on the northern bank of the Schuylkill River, where he hoped to prevent or least delay the British advance to Philadelphia.

Washington’s deployment of Wayne’s division at Paoli and the rest of his army near White Horse Tavern was, in fact, adroitly carried out and resulted in the Americans positioning themselves advantageously in a defensive posture between the advancing British army and Philadelphia.

Although Washington was not able to prevent Howe from the Sept. 26 occupation of Philadelphia, he did delay the British advance long enough to allow the Continental Congress to flee safely to Lancaster (Sept. 19) and then to York (Sept. 30). When Benjamin Franklin learned that Howe, despite Washington’s successful delaying tactics, finally occupied Philadelphia, Franklin was heard to remark, “You mistake the matter. Instead of Howe taking Philadelphia, Philadelphia has taken Howe.”

While The Battle of the Clouds was, in fact, only a skirmish with few casualties, it did delay the British advance to Philadelphia long enough to enable Washington to safely retreat, replenished his army with dry ammunition, plan and prepare for a future encounter with the British, and allow Congress to flee to safety.

The future encounter was the Oct. 4, 1777, Battle of Germantown, where the American army acquitted itself well, although, because of heavy fog and miscommunication between American field commanders, the battle is considered a British victory.

Later in December, Washington headed north from Germantown and took up winter quarters at Valley Forge.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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