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The Fort that Saved America

For six weeks in the fall of 1777, the British fired upon Fort Mifflin along the Delaware River in an attempt to drive out American troops. This was one of the largest bombardments of the war and a pivotal moment in the American Revolution.

Construction of Fort Mifflin on what was referred to as Mud Island began in 1771. Funding and political issues caused delays, and the fort was not completed until 1775 by the Continental forces.  It was named in honor of Major General Thomas Mifflin of the Continental Army, who later became Pennsylvania’s first governor.

Beginning in late September 1777, British forces under General William Howe began amassing forces on the mainland and islands near the fort. Fort Mifflin was under the command of Lt. Col. Samuel Smith, a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who had previously served with distinction at the famed Battle of the Brandywine.

In early October, the fort’s garrison of approximately 300 American troops engaged the British. British naval forces unleashed a heavy cannonade of artillery, largely from the five batteries located on Province Island some 400 to 500 yards away. Fighting continued for five weeks with neither side achieving a decisive advantage. During the siege, Gen. George Washington was in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, with few troops or supplies to spare to aid the beleaguered fort. 

With the weather turning colder, General Howe needed a decisive blow. Beginning on the 10th of November, the British batteries hammered Fort Mifflin with 18-, 24-, and 32-pounders demolishing the barracks, blockhouse, and artillery pieces.  American casualties were high, and Lt. Col. Smith was knocked senseless at one point by falling debris from a chimney. Writing from the fort on November 11, Smith still was hopeful that he would be able to hold out for another five days.

However, an American deserter carried intelligence to the British regarding the sad state of the fort’s reserves, and that news strengthened British resolve. With daylight on the 15th, the sounding of a bugle announced the incessant bombardment from both land and sea batteries of a barrage of missiles upon the fort. The sound was so loud that it reportedly shook buildings in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

In the first hour, it is estimated that more than a thousand cannon balls were fired, which practically leveled the fort. On the evening of the 15th, with the American flag flying overhead, the survivors of the battle escaped across the river to Red Bank, New Jersey. When British forces entered the next morning, they found Fort Mifflin abandoned and destroyed.

Although an American defeat, the battle of Fort Mifflin demonstrated the tenacity and patriotism of the American forces. Delaying the British for six weeks allowed Washington and his tattered army to reach and encamp at Valley Forge. Without the actions of the troops in the fort, it is quite possible that British forces would have attacked Washington’s army, and the outcome of the Revolution could have been very different. This battle earned Fort Mifflin the moniker, “The Fort that Saved America.”   

In 1795, Fort Mifflin was rebuilt and remained an active military base until 1954. It functioned as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War and was part of Naval Ammunition Depot during World War I & II. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1915. Fort Mifflin still stands today on the Delaware River, at the mouth of the Schuylkill, as a testament to the will and determination of the American spirit.

"Lincoln" Movie Could Be Boon to Teaching Civil War

I just saw the movie Lincoln last night.  Fascinating movie for portraying Lincoln as the consummate politician - and a good period piece too. I wonder if any of you are using the movie's popularity as a way of discussing the Civil War or the 13th Amendment in your classroom? Share your ideas here.

One exercise is to the judge the accuracy of the film.  Some graphic sources from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania may be able to help.  The image above of Lincoln's cabinet dates to 1866, making it posthumous to Lincoln.  However if you click on the image, you can zoom in using our Digital  Library function and see the faces of the cabinet members.  Can students identify the members from the movie?  Are the members shown the same as were actually on the cabinet at the end of Lincoln's life?  (Time here to check out a secondary source.)  What were their roles and political views about the War's progress and its goals?

Likewise, we have two images of the Lincoln family.  The one below (and found at this link) is also from 1866, when hero worship may be settling in. 

http://digitallibrary.hsp.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/1661The artist William Bell Waugh, for example, has placed a bust of Washington right over Lincoln's shoulder.  Nonetheless students can look at the background of the image for clues to the accuracy of the movie setting.  Are the clothes similar? The furnishings?   Students can learn how to use these visual clues to date artifacts and historical events. They may discuss how important is it to a film to get these details correct. Does it change the story if the historical context is altered?

Compare this image to another from 1865.  http://dams.hsp.org/admin/index.php/editor/object_representations/ObjectRepresentationEditor/Edit/representation_id/3897#What elements do the two images share?  How are they different?  Do you feel the same emotion from each?  Which one matches the feel of the movie better?





Finally, take a look at an image of the death of Lincoln. There are far more people in this room than in http://dams.hsp.org/admin/index.php/editor/object_representations/ObjectRepresentationEditor/Edit/representation_id/3496the movie scene.  Now compare it to these images.  Which do you think is most accurate? Why?  Can you find a list of who was there?





Remembering Louisa May Alcott

This November marks the 180th birthday of popular novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), author of such works as Flower Fables (1854), Hospital Sketches (1863), and Little Women (1868).  Most people associate Alcott with her life and work in Massachusetts, but did you know she had a Philadelphia connection?

Louisa was born in Germantown on November 29, 1832 at 5425 Germantown Avenue.  Her parents were from Massachusetts, Amos Bronson Alcott was an educator and Abigail May was a social worker. The couple moved to Philadelphia at some point after they were married in 1830. Amos was called to teach in Germantown with the help of Reuben Haines, then owner of the Wyck House.  Amos served as the head of a school on Eighth Street near Locust Street; and he later ran a school in Germantown.  Accounts vary as to when exactly the family moved back to Massachusetts; but once they did move, they lived in Concord and a short-lived experimental communal village known as Fruitlands before moving to Boston.  Amos continued his work in local schools and became friends with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Amos and Abigail successfully raised a family for four daughters: Anna (born 1831), Louisa, Elizabeth (born 1835), and Abigail (born 1840).

American authors Emerson and Thoreau, as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, played roles in Louisa education in Massachusetts, though she we primarily educated by her father at home.  As a child she was a voracious reader. She began writing her own stories as a teenager, but she did not find immediate success in the field.  Her sisters had found work to help support the family, and Louisa did the same with the occasional sewing job or work as a governess.

Still, she did not give up on writing entirely. She had some short stories and poetry published early on, and became a more well-known author with her first book, Flower Fables, published in the 1850s.  She found company with other authors and performing artists in Concord and Boston, which helped her remain in the area's cultural and literary loop.  She took a brief break from writing in 1862 when she moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse during the Civil War.  While there, unfortunately, Louisa contracted typhoid fever.  She was treated with a drug containing mercury and suffered from the effects of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life.

She picked up writing again after her service and found monetary success publishing sensational stories, such as Pauline's Passion and Punishment (1863), under the pseudonym "A. M. Barnard." But it was her best known work Little Women (1868) that brought Louisa fully out of obscurity. Little Women did not take shape until about a year after one of her publishers asked Louisa to write a book for girls.  The novel -- based largely on Louisa’s own life with three sisters -- was an instant hit and Louisa May Alcott was officially a household name. Little Women spawned several sequels, and Louisa went on to produce novels for children and adults.

In the 1870s, Louisa became active in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements.  She never married but came into custody of her sister Anna's baby, Louisa or "LuLu" as she was called," after Anna's untimely death in 1879. Her mother had died a couple years earlier, so Louisa spent most of her later years with her father.  He died in March 1888 just a few days before Louisa. The family never again returned to Philadelphia, but a historical marker denotes the place of Louisa's birth in Germantown.

Filling in Family Details with Undertakers' Records

Following up on Sarah's post about cemetery records last month, I thought I'd highlight another helpful source for family history research: undertakers' records.

Undertakers and the companies that manage funerals compile a variety of information about each deceased person whose burial they arrange. Sometimes this information can help fill in gaps in family trees, provide more information about occupations or residences, and generally provide brief glimpses into a person's life.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a variety of undertakers’ records, including records from Philadelphia-area undertakers Andrew J. Bair & Son (1901-1919, call # Ph 53A:1-15), David H. Bowen & Son (1845-1918, call # Ph 60A:1-46), and Kirk and Nice (1874-1918, call # Ph 51A:1-46).

Our largest collection of undertaker records – 991 boxes! – is the Oliver H. Bair Company records (collection #3338), which includes burial information from 1920-1980.

The vast majority of the collection is records from the Oliver H. Bair Company, but it also includes burial records from the 1960s-1980s from five other Philly-area funeral homes purchased by Bair: William Rowan Grant, Inc.; David G. Frankenfield & Sons, Inc.; William F. Cushing, Inc.; Davies Funeral Chapel; and Evoy & Sons, Inc.

Most of the Oliver H. Bair Company burial records include an information sheet compiled by staff at the funeral home, usually with some biographical information and notes about the planned service.

Oliver Bair Company information sheet for Edgar Moore

An Oliver H. Bair Company information sheet for Edgar Moore, who was buried June 24, 1921. The form is two-sided, and in this case, two additional notes are attached.

You may also find copies of bills from the funeral home, or brief correspondence between the staff and the family of the deceased person. If a death notice appeared in a newspaper, a clipping of that may also be saved in the file. In rare cases, you may find hidden treasures: lengthier correspondence (expecially if bills went unpaid), small coin purses, documentation about the deceased's military service, and more. Once, I even found a photograph of the person whose burial file I was reviewing.

Letter from Oliver H. Bair Company to Mrs. Mary Moore

Another document in Edgar Moore's file in the Oliver H. Bair Company records confirms his connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

The burial records are arranged by date, but if you don't know the exact date of the person's burial, you can also consult our index to the Oliver H. Bair records, available in our reading room (call # Index F 158.1 O45 2008).

Once you know that a record exists in the Oliver H. Bair collection, you can come in and view the records in person, or you can order a photocopy of the file here.

Earlier this year, we partnered with Ancestry.com to digitize the index. If you're a member of HSP, you can access that digitized index through our web site. We also re-housed the original records to better preserve them for years to come. You can read more about the re-housing work and some interesting discoveries in the collection over on our archives and conservation blog, "Fondly, Pennsylvania."

Explore Philadelphia - the City of Neighborhoods - through maps, stories, photographs, and documents. Share your favorite "PhilaPlace" by adding photographs and stories. HSP welcomes interns to help add new stories; to apply see the Internships section of the website.

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