The military urbanism of revolutionary Philadelphia

[A survey of the city of Philadelphia and its environs shewing the several works constructed by His Majesty’s troops, under the command of Sir William Howe, since their possession of that city 26th. September 1777, comprehending likewise the attacks against Fort Mifflin on Mud Island, and until it’s reduction, 16th November 1777. Surveyed & drawn by P. Nicole w/ current GoogleEarth overlay]

Having recently visited Vicksburg, MS I have been thinking a lot about cities under seige or cities whose basic componentry — the streets, buildings, ridges, hollows, defiles and valleys — have become the very syntax of warfare. People tend to forget that Philadelphia was, too, occupied like Vicksburg. And I’ve always wanted to know where the line of British redoubts constructed in 1777 were and how they fit with the protuberances of Lemon Hill, Promontory Rock, Bush Hill, etc. If I can trust the British topographer P. Nicole, then their line of works were placed north of these high grounds–in flagrant opposition to military dogma. Strong places were constructed to cover the upper and middle ferries, and at fording points in the Schuylkill River.

Maybe it’s because we’re civilians but we rarely try and rate the defensibility of our urban spaces. For others living in our city, interior spaces and other enclosed structures are seen as defensive “positions” and assessed as hard targets and safe zones. Most times, interior spaces are never as safe as they feel. Perhaps we don’t need to look at texts like these in order to imagine a militarized cityscape.  For some Philadelphia “civilians”, just intellectualizing about urban space as a battlefield is a luxury.


3 thoughts on “The military urbanism of revolutionary Philadelphia

  1. General Howe was my Great great great great grandfather. I often laugh to myself how (howe) he must be turning in his grave on how I’ve been so complacent(in his eyes) in living and working with this city.

  2. Check the Captain John Montresor papers, a copy of which is with the David Library; for more details. He designed & oversaw the construction of the redoubts. He also designed & later sieged Fort Mifflin.

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