Battle of the Kegs

Early in January, 1778, David Bushnell, the inventor of the American Torpedo, and other submarine machinery, prepared a number of "infernals," as the British termed them, and set them afloat in the Delaware River, a few miles above Philadelphia, in order to annoy the royal shipping, which at that time lay off that place. These machines were constructed of kegs, charged with powder, and so arranged as to explode on coming in contact with any thing while floating along with the tide. On their appearance, the British seamen and troops became alarmed, and, manning the shipping and wharves, discharged their small arms and cannon at every thing they could see floating in the river during the ebb tide. Upon this incident the following song was composed by Francis Hopkinson, one of the happiest writers of his time. It soon became popular with Washington's army, and is mentioned by Surgeon Thacher as follows: "Our drums and fifes afforded us a favorite music till evening, when we were delighted with the song composed by Mr. Hopkinson, 'The Battle of the Kegs,' sung in the best style by a number of gentlemen."


GALLANTS attend, and hear a friend,
Trill forth harmonious ditty,
Strange things I'll tell, which late befell,
In Philadelphia city.

'Twas early day, as poets say,
Just when the sun was rising,
A soldier stood, on a log of wood,
And saw a thing surprising.

As in amaze he stood to gaze,
The truth can't be denied, sir,
He spied a score of kegs or more, 1
Come floating down the tide sir.

A sailor, too, in jerkin blue,
This strange appearance viewing,
First damn'd his eyes, in great surprise,
Then said, "some mischief's brewing.

"These kegs, I'm told , the rebels hold,
Packed up like pickled herring,
And they're come down, t' attack the town,
In this new way of ferrying."

The soldier flew, the sailor too,
And scared almost to death, sir,
Wore out their shoes to spread the news,
And ran till out of breath, sir.

Now up and down, throughout the town,
Most frantic scenes were acted;
And some ran here, and others there,
Like men almost distracted.

Some fire cried, which some denied,
But said the earth had quakèd;
And girls and boys, with hideous noise,
Ran through the streets half naked.

Sir William, 2 he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring;
Nor dreamed of harm, as he lay warm,
In bed with _______. 3

Now in a fright, he starts upright,
Awak'd by such a clatter;
He rubs his eyes, and boldly cries,
"For God's sake, what's the matter?"

At his bedside, he then espied,
Sir Erskine at command, Sir, 4
Upon one foot he had one boot,
And t'other in his hand, sir.

"Arise! arise, Sir Erskine cries,
The rebels - more's the pity -
Without a boat, are all afloat,
And rang'd before the city.

"The motley crew, in vessels new,
With Satan for their guide, sir,
Packed up in bags, or wooden kegs,
Come driving down the tide, sir.

"Therefore prepare for bloody war;
These kegs must all be routed,
Or surely we despis'd shall be,
And British courage doubted."

The royal band, now ready stand,
All ranged in dread array, sir,
With stomachs stout, to see it out,
And make a bloody day, sir.

The cannons roar from shore to shore,
The small arms make a rattle;
Since wars began, I'm sure no man
Ere saw so strange a battle.

The rebel dales, the rebel vales,
With rebel trees surrounded,
The distant woods, the hills and floods,
With rebel echoes sounded.

The fish below swam to and fro,
Attack'd from every quarter;
Why sure, thought they, the devil's to pay,
'Mongst folks above the water.

The kegs, 'tis said, though strongly made
Of rebel staves and hoops, 5 sir,
Could not oppose their powerful foes,
The conquering British troops, sir.

From morn till night, these men of might
Display'd amazing courage;
And when the sun was fairly down,
Retir'd to sup their porridge.

An hundred men, with each a pen,
Or more, upon my word, sir,
It is most true would be too few,
Their valor to record, sir.

Such feats did they perform that day,
Against those wicked kegs, sir,
That years to come, if they get home,
They'll make their boasts and brags, sir.

1 He spied a score of kegs or more. The following prose accounts of this affair were published in the Pennsylvania Ledger, a loyal print. "The town of Philadelphia, not being as fully acquainted with the subject of the following letter taken from a Burlington paper, as the ingenious author would have his readers believe them to be, it may be necessary to relate them the fact. At the time it happened, it was so trifling as not to be thought worthy of notice in this paper, and we do not doubt but our readers will allow this letter-writer full credit for the fertility of his invention. The case was that on the fifth of January last (1778), a barrel of an odd appearance came floating down the Delaware, opposite the town, and attracted the attention of some boys, who went in pursuit of it, and had scarcely got possession of it, when it blew up, and either killed or injured one or more of them. So far the matter was serious, and the fellow who invented the mischief may quit his conscience of the murder or injury done the lads, as well as he can. Some days after a few others of much the same appearance, and some in the form of buoys, came floating in like manner, and a few guns were, we believe, fired at them from some of the transports lying along the wharves. Other than this no notice was taken of them, except, indeed, by our author, whose imagination, perhaps as fertile as his invention, realized to himself in the frenzy of his enthusiasm the matters he has set forth." "Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, Jan. 9, 1778. - The city has been lately entertained with a most astonishing instance of the activity, bravery, and military skill of the royal navy of Great Britain. The affair is somewhat particular and deserves your notice. Some time last week, two boys observed a keg of singular construction, floating in the river opposite to the city. They got into a small boat, and in attempting to obtain the keg, it burst with a great explosion, and blew up the unfortunate boys. On Monday last, several kegs of a like construction made their appearance. An alarm was immediately spread through the city. Various reports prevailed, filling the city and royal troops with consternation. Some reported that these kegs were filled with armed rebels, who were to issue forth in the dead of the night, as did the Grecians of old from their wooden horse at the siege of Troy, and take the city by surprise, asserting that they had seen the points of their bayonets through the bung-holes of the kegs. Others said they were charged with the most inveterate combustibles, to be kindled by secret machinery, and setting the whole Delaware in flames, were to consume all the shipping in the harbor; whilst others asserted they were constructed by art magic, would, of themselves, ascend the wharves in the night-time, and roll all flaming through the streets of the city, destroying every thing in their way. Be this as it may, certain it is that the shipping in the harbor, and all the wharves in the city, were fully manned. The battle began, and it was surprising to behold the incessant blaze that was kept up against the enemy, the kegs. Both officers and men exhibited the most unparalleled skill and bravery on the occasion, whilst the citizens stood gazing as solemn witnesses of their prowess. From the Roebuck, and other ships of war, whole broadsides were poured into the Delaware. In short, not a wandering chip, stick, or drift log, but felt the vigor of the British arms. The action began about sunrise, and would have been completed with great success by noon, had not an old market-woman, coming down the river with provisions, unfortunately let a small keg of butter fall overboard, which, as it was then ebb tide, floated down to the scene of action. At the sight of this unexpected reinforcement of the enemy, the battle was renewed with fresh fury, and the firing was incessant till evening closed the affair. The kegs were either totally demolished, or obliged to fly, as none of them have shown their heads since. It is said that his Excellency Lord Howe has despatched a swift-sailing packet, with an account of this victory, to the court at London. In a word, Monday, the fifth of January, seventeen hundred and seventy-eight, must ever be distinguished in history for the memorable battle of the kegs."

2 Sir William he, snug as a flea. Sir William Howe commanded the British army, which entered Philadelphia on the 27th of September, 1777.

3 In bed with____. The wife of Joshua Loring, a refugee from Boston, made commissary of prisoners by General Howe. "The consummate cruelties practised on the American prisoners under his administration, almost exceed the ordinary powers of human invention. The conduct of the Turks, in putting all prisoners to death, is certainly much more rational and humane than that of the British army for the first three years of the American war, or till after the capture of Burgoyne."

4 Sir Erskine at command. Sir William Erskine, a General in the British army. He attended the expedition against Danbury, Connecticut, in 1777.

5 Of rebel staves and hoops. David Bushnell was a native of Saybrook, Connecticut. The particulars of his early life are unknown. Early in the autumn of 1776, he submitted to General Washington a machine invented by himself, for the destruction of the British shipping then at anchor in the New York harbor. The following description of the machine, and accounts of the experiments tried with it, are taken from the journal of Surgeon Thacher. "The internal appearance of the torpedo, bears some resemblance to two upper tortoise shells, of equal size, placed in contact, leaving at that part which represents the head of the. animal, a flue or opening, sufficiently capacious to contain the operator, and air to support him thirty minutes. At the bottom is placed a quantity of lead for ballast. The operator sits upright, and holds an oar for rowing forward or backward, and is furnished with a rudder. A valve at the bottom admits the water for the purpose of descending, and two brass forcing pumps serve to eject the water, when necessary for ascending. Attached to the after part of this vessel is a place above the rudder for carrying a large powder magazine. This is made of two hollow pieces of oak timber, large enough to contain one hundred and fifty pounds of powder, and is secured to the object intended to be destroyed by a screw turned by the operator. Within this magazine is an apparatus, constructed to run any proposed length of time under twelve hours. On running out, it unpinions a lock, which gives the fire to the powder. This apparatus is set in motion by casting off the magazine from the operative vessel."

Bushnell was encouraged in his plan, and Major-General Putnam, being decidedly of the opinion that his operations might be attended with the desired success, resolved to be himself a spectator of the experiment. It was determined to make an attempt on the ship Eagle, on which Admiral Lord Howe commanded. "General Putnam placed himself on the wharf to witness the result. Mr. Bushnell had instructed his brother in the management of the torpedo with perfect dexterity, but, being taken sick, a sergeant* of


*This was Sergeant Ezra Lee, afterwards a Captain in the Continental service. He ever had the confidence and esteem of Washington, and fought with him at Trenton and Monmouth. At Brandywine the hilt of his sword was shot away, and his hat and coat pierced with the enemy's balls. On the return of peace, he retired to his farm, and tilled the land until a short time before his death. He died at Lyme, Connecticut, on the twenty-ninth of November, 1821, aged 72.


a Connecticut regiment was selected for the business. Having such instructions as time would allow, late at night, he went under the ship, and attempted to fix the wooden screw into her bottom, but struck a bar of iron, which passes from the rudder-hinge, and is spiked under the ship's quarter. Had he moved a few inches, there is no doubt he would have found wood where he might have fixed the screw, but not being well skilled in the management of the vessel, in attempting to move to another place, he lost the ship. After seeking her in vain some time, he rowed off, and rose to the surface of the water, but found daylight had advanced so far, that he dare not renew the attempt. In his return from the ship to New York, he passed near Governor's Island, and thought he was discovered by the enemy. Being in haste to avoid the danger he feared, he cast off the magazine, as he thought it retarded his progress, and in a short time it blew up with great violence, leaving the enemy to conjecture whether the stupendous noise was produced by a bomb, a meteor, a water-spout, or an earthquake. Several other attempts were made in Hudson's River, but no one succeeded."

"In the year 1777, Mr. Bushnell made an attempt from a whale boat against the Cerberus frigate, by drawing a machine against her side by means of a line. This machine was different from the torpedo. It was constructed with wheels, furnished with irons, sharpened at the end and projecting about an inch, in order to strike the sides of the vessel when hauling it up, thereby setting the wheels in motion, which in five minutes caused the explosion. Commodore Simmons, being on board the Cerberus, wrote an official letter to Sir Peter Parker, describing the disaster occasioned by Bushnell's attempt on his ship. 'Being at anchor to the westward of New London with a schooner he had taken, discovered about eleven o'clock at night, a line towing astern from the bows. He believed that some person had veered away by it, and immediately began to hard in. A sailor belonging to the schooner, taking it for a fishing line, laid hold of it, and drew in about fifteen fathoms. At the end of the rope a machine was fastened, too heavy for one man to pull up, and other persons of the schooner coming to his assistance, drew it on deck. While they were examining it, it exploded, blew the vessel to pieces, and set her on fire. Three men were killed, and a fourth blown into the water. On examining round the ship after this occurrence, another line was discovered, which Commodore Simmons ordered to be instantly cut away, for fear of hauling up another of the infernals.' "