Runkle speaks to area history buffs about American Revolution

MIFFLINTOWN – Steve Runkle asked his audience how many of them were descended from Abigail Hartman Rice. Hands went up all over the room. Descendants of the Hench and Hartman families? More hands went up.

Runkle, a Lewistown native and Mechaniscburg resident, then spoke about the Revolutionary War in 1777-1778 in the Philadelphia area, and how those common ancestors also figured in the war. A PowerPoint with illustrations of maps and paintings accompanied his narrative.

A retired engineer and volunteer speaker with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission Speakers Bureau, Runkle addressed a full house of history buffs Monday afternoon at Juniata County Library, on the subject of “The Philadelphia Campaign” which took place from June 1777 to June 1778.

At the close of the presentation, Runkle presented a book of history and photos about the three families to the event sponsors, the Juniata County Historical Society.

As he began his historical presentation, Runkle noted that the Continental army, under the command of Gen. George Washington, had crossed the Delaware River the previous Christmas, surprising and routing the Hessians from Trenton, N.J., and retaking nearby Princeton from British forces. That was an encouraging victory for the Continental army, fresh from humiliating defeats at Long Island, Fort Washington and Fort Lee.

After that, both armies went into winter quarters, Washington’s army at Morristown, N.J. When Spring 1777 rolled around, Washington, secure in the New Jersey hills, watched for clues but did not move his troops, not knowing where the British would attack.

The British plan

In the meantime, British Sir William Howe, commander of the British troops in New York City, made the Patriot capital of Philadelphia his objective.

Philadelphia at the time was the largest city in the American colonies, with 40,000 residents. It was a busy seaport. A Continental navy contingent of eight ships was stationed there, plus privateers who preyed on British shipping. The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

However, the British war plan for 1777 did not include taking Philadelphia. Instead, troops under John Burgoyne were to come down through Lake Champlain from Canada, troops under Barry St. Leger were to come down the Mohawk valley via Lake Ontario, and Howe’s army was to come up the Hudson, all meeting at Albany, N.Y. The goal was to cut off the New England colonies, isolating them from the other colonies. Howe was supposed to support Burgoyne.

But Howe had his sights on Philadelphia. Lord Howe’s older brother, Sir Richard Howe, was commander of the British navy at New York City while William Howe commanded the British army in New York City.

At this time, Washington had 16,000 troops. Howe had 18,000 men and at least 3,000 camp followers, who did such chores as cooking and laundry.

Richard Howe had 260 ships in New York harbor. William Howe decided to load his army and entourage onto his brother’s ships. By a circuitous route, they sailed down the Atlantic coast and up the Chesapeake Bay to Head of Elk (present-day Elkton, Md.). In the meantime, they had been spotted by the Continental army, and Washington knew he would have to split his army to pursue the British. He realized Philadelphia was their objective.

It was an ugly, month-long voyage for the British, Runkle noted. The British lost 180 head of horses and some people en route.

They landed at Head of Elk, the uppermost reaches of the Chesapeake, on Aug. 25. Howe believed it was easier to attack from land, with Continental ships in the Philadelphia harbor and forts Mifflin and Mercer guarding the Delaware River side, as well as the difficulty of moving their army across the broad Delaware.


Washington decided to make a stand on the high ground along Brandywine Creek in the Chadds Ford area and took up defensive positions, knowing all the fords upstream to the forks of the creek were guarded. The British led Washington to believe he was correct in expecting the main attack here, while British troops crossed the stream above the guarded fords and hit the Americans on the flank, rolling up the army. The relatively untrained Americans fell back and reformed, fell back and reformed, until dark and then retreated.

“Brandywine was not George’s finest hour,” Runkle observed.

Runkle noted that the population of the colonies was split at that time about one-third each Patriot, Loyalist and pacifists (mainly Quakers and Dunkards). Patriot armies ravaged Loyalist farms, British armies ravaged Patriot farms, and both sides ravaged the Quakers, whom neither side liked.

“It was a hard time in Chester County and Philadelphia,” Runkle said.

Battles surrounding Brandywine included confrontations at Quaker meeting houses at Kennett Square and Birmingham. Runkle said the opening battle, at Kennett Square, was “American against American, (Continental) army against Loyalists.”

Loyalists fighting with the British wore distinctive green uniforms. Continental army uniforms were blue coats carrying red facings.

At least 30,000 Hessians, German mercenaries, fought with the British. Among these were the Jaegers, with deadly short rifles, as snipers. After the war, some 6,000 of the Hessians remained in the United States, Runkle said.

Nathaniel Greene’s division held the British long enough during the battle of Brandywine, with a last ditch effort that allowed the Continental army to retreat. Greene, Runkle said, was a “fighting Quaker from Rhode Island” and one of Washington’s best subordinates.

Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman new to the war, also held the line a little while, allowing Washington’s tattered army to escape.

Also new to the Continental army at the time was a young French nobleman, the Marquis de LaFayette, a man whom the childless Washington would come to see as “the son he never had,” Runkle said, adding that LaFayette lost his father when he was very young, and he came to see Washington as the father he never had.

Young LaFayette was severely wounded in the leg at Brandywine, and removed to Allentown. He later rejoined Washington at Valley Forge.

After Brandywine, the Battle of the Clouds took place at White Horse Tavern – the two armies were ready to clash when a Nor’easter, a storm with torrential rain, came up. Everybody’s powder got wet so they couldn’t fight, and Washington retreated again.

The local connection

During that retreat to the Continental supply depot, Runkle’s ancestors got involved and had personal encounters with George Washington.

At Pickering Creek Mill, Washington asked Abigail Hartman Rice for a drink of water. She responded by mixing up a pail of water with rum, sugar and spices, a common drink known as “flip.

Pennsylvania troops would camp that night on the pro-Patriot Rice, Hench and Hartman farms in Chester County. Abigail Rice and her neighbor, Christina Hench, baked bread all night to feed the troops and allowed officers to sleep in their homes. Johannes Hench let the soldiers slaughter 40 of his cattle for food and pick the fruit from the trees in his orchard.

The next day, a contingent of those soldiers were ordered to hide out in Paoli and observe but were betrayed by Loyalists. They were ambushed by British soldiers, who were masters at the use of bayonets (the colonials had bayonets, but didn’t know how to use them). Flints for their rifles had been taken away from the British soldiers; they were told to watch for the fire from Patriot rifles and go in with bayonets. As were many of the battles, it was a confusing mess in the dark, with some patriots losing their lives to friendly fire. The American side lost 280 men, the British, 11. The event was dubbed the “Paoli Massacre.

Congress gets out

On Sept. 18, six days after the battle of Brandywine, the Continental Congress got out of Philadelphia – hastily – and the 8,000 Loyalists in Philadelphia were overjoyed, Runkle said. With them, the congress took the Liberty Bell and the bells of Christ Church to Allentown.

The Continental Congress went first to Lancaster, then to York, believing it was safer to keep the mile-wide Susquehanna River between them and the British. York was a small town with 1,700 residents in 300 homes at the time. The congress stayed there for nine months, until the British left Philadelphia.

This was the only time the Philadelphia Campaign spilled over into the Susquehanna Basin, Runkle said.

Philadelphia fell without a fight, when the British army marched in on Sept. 26.

The elite Grenadiers marched through the city to the wharf, making a show to the Continentals still in the Schuylkill River. The main body of the army stayed in Germantown.

The Battle of Germantown took place Oct. 4. The British had occupied the small town about four miles from Philadelphia. Washington, embarrassed at losing the capital, mounted a pre-dawn attack, but couldn’t pull it off, Runkle said. Lives were lost to friendly fire here, too.

Elsewhere, good things were happening for the Continental army, Runkle said. The Americans scored a victory against Burgoyne at Saratoga, N.Y. It resulted in the surrender of the entire British army of 6,000 men. The British prisoners were taken to Carlisle, where they built the Carlisle Barracks.

The major impact of Burgoyne’s defeat was in Europe. It took a month to six weeks for word of the rout to get to Europe, eventually bringing France into the war on the side of the colonies. The French didn’t get to America until May 1778.

Winter quarters

In the meantime, the British navy arrived in Philadelphia around Thanksgiving, under Richard Howe. The Howe brothers got together for the winter. The American naval contingent of eight ships was finally trapped and defeated, although some privateers had slipped away successfully.

While the British wintered in the comfort of Philadelphia, the Continental army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. It was a terrible time, Runkle noted, adding, “It wasn’t the coldest winter, but it was the sickest; 2,000 died.”

It was also the low point of Washington’s career.

With Washington’s encouragement, the men built log cabins with trees from the nearby forest. Runkle noted 1,100 cabins were built, all 14-feet across, all with a stone chimney (by Washington’s orders), each providing shelter for 12 soldiers. Provisions were lacking, and the men sometimes shared shoes for outside duties, while the feet of some were bound in rags for meager protection.

Supplies started to come in after five visiting congressmen saw the dire situation at Valley Forge. Runkle noted that German farmers from the Palatinate, a region in southwestern Germany, gave excellent support to the Continental army at Valley Forge.

Runkle said that an early shad run in the Schuylkill River in March provided much-needed food and saved lives at Valley Forge.

The Battle of the Kegs took place in January 1778. The colonists floated kegs filled with explosives – essentially floating bombs – down the Delaware, hoping to destroy British ships. They didn’t do any damage, but caused lot of confusion and uproar, before the tide took the kegs out to sea.

A Prussian nobleman and captain from the Prussian army, Count Frederich Von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge on Feb. 25, as a volunteer to train Washington’s ragtag forces. He quickly realized the men needed to learn discipline and drill, as well as how to use their bayonets. He also wrote a drill book based on the Prussian code.

Runkle noted that Von Steuben did not speak English, and led through an interpreter, adding, “He would swear in German and that got translated, too.”

Under Von Steuben’s tutelage, it would be a different Continental army that took to the field in the spring.

Eventually the French sent supplies and troops to the Continental army, “which would be a gamebreaker,” he said.

More local connection

During this time, Washington petitioned Congress for a hospital to care for the sick at Valley Forge. One hospital was approved, “and it was built right where our ancestors lived,” in about a month’s time, at a site then known as Yellow Springs, Runkle said. Zachariah Rice helped to build the hospital and at one point Peter Hartman helped Washington plant a tree there. Abigail Rice and Christina Hench served as nurses. Both eventually contracted typhus and, although they recovered, were always frail afterward, both dying within a few years of the war’s end. Washington visited the hospital several times.

Back in Philadelphia, the British got word about France declaring war before the colonists did. William Howe resigned his commission in March and sailed back home to England in May, when his successor, Sir Henry Clinton, arrived.

The British army evacuated Philadelphia on June 16, 1778. The city’s Loyalists were appalled that they would give up the city without a fight but, fearing reprisals, insisted on accompanying the army to New York City. So it was that 6,000 Loyalist civilians sailed to New York aboard Howe’s fleet and the soldiers walked across New Jersey to Sandy Hook, where they finally would board ships to New York.

Many of the Loyalists ended up in Canada after the war, Runkle noted.

Decisive victory

It was on that fateful march across New Jersey that the only battle of 1778 and the last battle in the north of the Revolutionary War took place. Washington attacked the British at Monmouth, N.J., routing the British so thoroughly that they left their dead and wounded behind on the battlefield in their retreat, something they had never done before. Skill with bayonets and accurate firing of cannons were among the improvements attributable to Von Steuben’s training.

Early in the battle, Capt. Charles Lee “committed every error in the book,” allowing British advances, Runkle said. “Washington really lost his cool and fired him.”

Runkle noted that it was “a 15 hour day in 96-degree weather” for the Battle of Monmouth, and that Washington’s horse collapsed under him due to the heat.

It was also at Monmouth that Mary Ludwig Hayes, of Carlisle, earned the nickname Molly Pitcher. A camp follower, she went around the battlefield carrying water to the soldiers, and when she saw her husband go down in battle stepped in to take his place.

Historical sites

Of the Hartman, Hench and Rice families, only one, Peter Rice, stayed in Chester County, and eventually got back some of the family properties.

The others, foreclosed on in 1789, moved to Juniata and Perry counties. Zachariah Rice is buried in Old Church Hill Cemetery near Port Royal. Johannes Hench also is buried in Juniata County, but his grave has been lost, Runkle said.

“Abigail Hartman Rice had 21 children, explaining why there are so many descendants in the local area,” Runkle said. “Three Henches married Rices.” Abigail died before the family left Chester County, but 17 of her children moved to Juniata and Perry counties with their father.

Runkle showed photos of family sites that still exist in Chester County.

The house where Abigail Rice gave the drink to George Washington is now privately owned and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. It is known as Clover Hill Farm.

The hospital burned in 1906. It’s foundation remains, preserved now as an historic property.

The Hench house, next to the Rice property to the south, was burned down in 1987 and the farmland has been preserved as open space.

The Hartman house, known as Pickering Ford, built in 1750, still stands on adjacent property to the north of the Rice farm. It also is privately owned.