The American Revolutionary War, a struggle for independence, was punctuated by dramatic battles and historic events that shaped the course of history. Among these, the Battle of the Kegs stands out as a unique and somewhat comical episode that took place during the winter of 1777 in the waters of the Delaware River. What makes this story even more fascinating is the involvement of Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who penned a satirical poem about the event.
The Setting: A Desperate Winter
As the winter of 1776-1777 descended upon the American colonies, General George Washington and his Continental Army found themselves in dire straits. Having suffered defeats and faced numerous challenges, Washington sought creative ways to weaken the British, who had occupied Philadelphia.
The British Navy’s Unwanted Cargo
The British forces had positioned themselves in Philadelphia, which was under British control. The Americans decided to strike back by deploying "torpedoes" in the form of kegs filled with gunpowder, nails, and other explosive materials. These kegs were intended to float down the river and explode upon contact with British ships, causing damage to the enemy's vessels and ideally disrupting their operations.
The Comical Battle of the Kegs
On the night of January 5, 1777, a flotilla of kegs was set adrift in the Delaware River toward the British ships anchored there. However, the plan did not unfold as expected. Instead of hitting their targets, many of the kegs became stuck in the river's icy surface or drifted harmlessly downstream. In the morning, as British sailors spotted these odd-looking barrels, they cautiously approached and began firing upon them. The ensuing explosions created a chaotic and humorous scene.
Francis Hopkinson's Satirical Poem
The Battle of the Kegs captured the imagination of many Americans, including Francis Hopkinson, a distinguished figure in the intellectual and political circles of his time. Hopkinson, known for his wit and literary talent, was inspired to write a satirical poem about the comical events on the Delaware River. His poem, titled "The Battle of the Kegs," offered a humorous take on the failed mission. Here's an excerpt from Hopkinson's poem:
Now in a fright, they leave their fleet,
They ran, or die, t’ avoid the heat,
Great claps of thunder from below,
Our noble fleet began to thow,
And beams of fire, like lightning, flew,
And filled the skies with a dismal hue.
The Legacy of the Battle of the Kegs
While the Battle of the Kegs may not have been a military victory for the American forces, it remains a memorable and lighthearted episode in the annals of American history. Francis Hopkinson's satirical poem, with its playful take on the events, adds a touch of humor to the often grim narrative of the Revolutionary War.
Beyond its humorous aspects, the Battle of the Kegs serves as a reminder of the resourcefulness and determination of the American patriots during their struggle for independence. It showcases the creative methods employed by the Continental Army in its quest to weaken the British forces, even in the face of adversity.
In the end, the Battle of the Kegs may have been a battle of wits and innovation rather than a military triumph, but it remains a testament to the indomitable spirit of the American Revolution.
Submitted by Raymond E. Foster