American Revolutionary War

Congress Escapes Philadelphia

After the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777, Philadelphia was vulnerable to British forces. Military supplies were quickly moved to Reading and elsewhere. Additional troops moved toward Philadelphia, where General William Howe, of the British army, expected to pursue another battle with Washington. By September 18, Congress adjourns and prepares a trip to Lancaster. September 27, Congress reconvenes for one single day in Lancaster. By September 30, Congress meets at the York courthouse. They remain at this location for nine months until June 27, 1778, when they return to Philadelphia. To understand why the movement took place, one must look at the details of September 18, 1777, the last day Congress met in Philadelphia for that year.

The morning session began with a discussion of removing the sick and injured from Trenton, New Jersey. Further, resolved that the action of moving the hospital be suspended for the moment. A memorial from Colonel Flowers gives the members time to react to commission rates for named individuals per rank. Congress resolves that all hospitals stand equipped with departments and noted chaplains leading these departments. Reverend Noah Cook elected chaplain for the eastern department with wages sixty dollars a month, including three rations a day and forage for one horse. Congress orders Major General Armstrong to remove all presses from Philadelphia and Germantown except for Mr. Bradford’s English-type press. The payment was approved for Robert Towers for two dollars a day and forage for a horse from November 19, 1775, to May 19, 1777.

Interior of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository)

As Congress was preparing to adjourn, a letter arrived from Colonel Hamilton, George Washington’s aid. The letter strongly suggests that Congress remove to a safer location immediately. Keep in mind that Congress debated this subject numerous times in previous days leading up to September 18th. The preceding discussions always met with the same solution to abandon the thought of leaving Independence Hall. The action received no votes due to the request of voting was not considered. Instead, a united movement began as Congress members respond to personal intelligence reports that they were receiving.

The inquiry into naming Lancaster as the designated location links to Sunday, September 14th. A vote on Sunday’s session determines the location of Lancaster as the meeting point if Congress should vacate Philadelphia. Congress met for the entire day, and this action would play out with future events four days later. Friday, September 19th, Congress did not meet. Apparently, this time allowed members to move what materials were necessary to reconvene in Lancaster. Saturday, the 20th is the next session, and it is here that Congress notes that York-town will be the meeting location planned for Tuesday, September 23rd. Although members did meet on that Tuesday, they quickly adjourned to the following day.

Wednesday, October 1st, 1777, Congress agreed to meet daily at the York Courthouse until further notice at 10 am until 1 pm, then adjourn until 4 pm to continue business. The meetings continued until nine months later when Congress returned to Philadelphia.

A letter from John Adams written to Abigail explains further into the movement of the Second Continental Congress. The letter dates September 14th, 1777, and it states:

“You will learn from the newspapers before this reaches you, the situation of things here. Mr. Howe’s army is at Chester, about fifteen miles from this town. General Washington is over the Schuylkill awaiting the flank of Mr. Howe’s army. How much longer Congress will stay here is uncertain. If we should move, it will be Reading, Lancaster, York, Easton or Bethlehem. It is the Determination not to leave this state.”

John Adams

Letters Of Delegates To Congress: Volume 7 May 1, 1777-September 18, 1777

During the future months, Congress submitted The Articles of Confederation and received ratification from the states. Virginia was the first to ratify doing this on December 16th, 1777, while Congress was still meeting in York. By February of 1779, all states had ratified, except for Maryland. As for Philadelphia during the nine months, Howe marched his army onto the streets of Philadelphia on September 26th and met with no opposition.

  1. Journals Of The Continental Congress Volume 8 pp. 745-777.
  2. Letters Of Delegates To Congress Volume 7 May 1, 1777-September 18, 1777

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