In the summer of 1777, British General Sir William Howe set into motion an ambitious plan to strike at the heart of American democracy. Known as the Philadelphia Campaign, the plan called for roughly 17,000 troops to be loaded onto 211 warships under the command of his brother, Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Richard Howe and ferried to a landing point up the Chesapeake River where they would disembark and begin their trek towards the city that seated the Second Continental Congress. Howe felt that by attacking and capturing Philadelphia, it would force General Washington into a full scale confrontation that he knew he could not win.
However, Washington took exception to the maneuver and ordered the removal of livestock and food supplies from Maryland’s Head of Elk area in anticipation of approaching enemy ships. This was a brilliant tactic since the fleet woefully lacked sustainable provisions from the start. As a result, food and water shortages plagued the troops and lowered their effectiveness. The saving grace was that Vice Admiral Howe sailed back to the Delaware River, mounting naval blockades and thrusting carnage against the shoreline defense systems of Forts Mifflin and Mercer which controlled the port entry to Philadelphia.
Despite hard challenges presented to British troops, General Howe’s plan also hinged on the actions of General John Burgoyne and his forces advancing from Canada into New England, thus splitting the American militia. Known as the Northern Campaign, Howe speculated that he would assist Burgoyne in dismantling the rebels once the occupation of Philadelphia was secured. In the ensuing weeks, bloody clashes between foes transpired at the Battles of Brandywine Creek and Germantown. During the latter engagement, confusion reigned as the Americans began to fire on one another while attempting to attack Howe’s garrison in heavy fog. When the fog and smoke cleared, the terrain was strewn with bodies of those killed and wounded. Among the injured was Captain Joseph Borden III, the 22-year-old son of Colonel Joseph Borden, Jr.
Although Howe had pushed Washington into retreating for the winter at Valley Forge, his military actions weren’t proven successful. Due to the slow movements of his troops and those of General Burgoyne, the Americans concentrated their fighting forces and defeated Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga in New York. This fiasco forced General Howe to resign from his commission.
On Dec. 17, two days before marching into the Valley Forge encampment with 12,000 troops, General Washington received a courier message from Francis Hopkinson. The message informed the general that the Navy Commission had approved testing involving oak barrels filled with incendiary black powder in the hope of disrupting enemy ships moored along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. The idea of floating mines was considered audacious at best but the citizens of Bordentown were willing to carry it through.
Hopkinson, Colonel Joseph Borden, Jr., Colonel Joseph Kirkbride, Colonel Oakley Hoagland, and Caleb Carman were the driving forces in making the deadly mines a reality after hearing about experiments conducted by Connecticut inventor, David Bushnell. The wooden kegs were manufactured in Borden’s cooperage behind Hopkinson’s home. Then the men approached a gunsmith named Robert Jackaway to supply gunpowder and fasten spring locks for the devices. A pin maker by the name of Joseph Plowman obliged with the creation of the firing pins. Finally, everything culminated with the Bunting brothers employing their blacksmithing skills in making nails and other features.
Under the cover of darkness on Jan. 6, the men braved the frigid weather and fastened 20 kegs together on the assumption that if the rope was caught on the bow of a ship, the kegs would angle along the hull and explode. Then the kegs were positioned on an open barge. Carman, a leather tanner, offered to pilot the craft down river along with a friend.
When they reached their destination in Philadelphia, they cautiously released the kegs into the water. However, they didn’t realize that the enemy drew their ships to the docks as a preventative measure against masses of floating ice. It is said that as two young crew members of a barge went to investigate the buoys that were tied to the kegs, it set off an explosion instantly killing them and spreading panic to the British fleet to fire upon the bobbing kegs with their muskets. While this may have been considered a maritime failure for the Americans, Hopkinson made sure that the British Empire would be decimated on the printed page. He turned the incident into an exaggerated victory with his whimsical ballad, “The Battle of the Kegs.”
Copies of Hopkinson’s achievement were sent to printers for distribution in newspapers and magazines throughout the land. Sung to the tune of the celebrated “Yankee Doodle,” its satirical nature boosted the morale of colonists. Showing distain for such propaganda, the British militia retaliated by taking out their aggression on the citizens of Bordentown the following spring.
Doug Kiovsky is the co-president of the Bordentown Historical Society.