Reenactors commemorate 234th anniversary of Siege of Fort Mifflin

Rose Examilotis, of Jamesburg, N.J., reloads her musket among other reenactors during events marking the 234th anniversary of the Siege of Fort Mifflin. Hundreds of students and history buffs turned out to watch.
Rose Examilotis, of Jamesburg, N.J., reloads her musket among other reenactors during events marking the 234th anniversary of the Siege of Fort Mifflin. Hundreds of students and history buffs turned out to watch. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 14, 2011

As blasts from dozens of muskets filled the air, the British army seized control of the American garrison at Fort Mifflin a little before 3 o'clock Sunday afternoon.

It was the final battle in a two-day commemoration marking the 234th anniversary of the siege and bombardment of Fort Mifflin, an often-neglected chapter in American history.

The British pounded Fort Mifflin by ship and land for six days in November 1777, and the Continental Army ultimately lost the fight but won valuable time for the colonists by delaying British ships carrying much-needed supplies. And it gave commander-in-chief George Washington the time he needed to establish winter quarters at Valley Forge.

As many as 700 students and history buffs came this weekend to learn about the battle and watch 200 reenactors relive scenes from the heaviest naval bombardment of the Revolutionary War.

"It's really loud!" third-grader Lauren Karpyn, 7, said, adding that an ancestor, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, had fought for the Continental Army.

"It's a great story, a fabulous historical site," said her father, Michael Karpyn, a history teacher at Marple Newtown High School.

Karpyn, who visited Fort Mifflin himself as a child, worked as a summer intern there while in college. "I love this place," he said. "It's off the beaten path, but it's a great educational experience for kids."

These days, airplanes, not cannonballs, fly over Mud Island Fort, as it was originally known, situated in the shadow of Philadelphia International Airport.

"As the planes fly over - and some of them do get rather close - don't think of it as a jet," reenactor Ed Kane, a captain in the Pennsylvania State Regiment, advised the crowd. "Close your eyes. Go back to that time. It's the whistling of 1,000 cannonballs coming over your head."

Added Kane: "Nov. 10, 1777. 7 a.m. Here's a wake-up call for you: 1,000 cannonballs coming at you every 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset."

After the siege ended on Nov. 15, the American soldiers evacuated the fort but did not surrender. Forty volunteers remained to set fire to everything but the flagpole. The colors were left flying.

The deed for Fort Mifflin is owned by the City of Philadelphia. The group that takes care of the 50-acre site is Fort Mifflin on the Delaware, charged with preserving the buildings, which include a quartermaster's supply store, soldiers barracks, officers quarters, a blacksmith shop, ammunition and weapons storage areas, an artillery shed, a commander's residence, and two underground rooms discovered in 2006 by a caretaker who, while mowing grass, fell into a sinkhole. The rooms had been used as prison cells during the Civil War.

Mingling with several hundred spectators Sunday was a camera crew from Firecracker Films, a television production company in London whose members were filming a segment about Fort Mifflin for the National Geographic Channel.

Sunday's crowds saw a noon battle with the British attacking the fort and Americans pushing them back, and a second skirmish in which the British prevailed.

The battle reenactments, guided tours, hands-on history activities, and cannon and weapons demonstrations make up Fort Mifflin's annual flagship event.

"This is a commemoration of the extraordinary courage displayed by the garrison, which was, by and large, young infantry soldiers," said Beth Beatty, executive director of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware.

"The fort's garrison held on, as ordered by Washington, 'to the last extremity.' They were running out of ammunition, they were running out of black powder. They were actually reduced to retrieving British cannon balls fired into the fort in order to fire them back at the British," she said.

In each of four successive battles over the weekend telling the story of the siege, the British came further and further into the fort, which was destroyed by fire and later rebuilt.

Fort Mifflin, in use until 1954, functioned as a river defense during the War of 1812, a prison camp during the Civil War, and an ammunition depot in World Wars I and II.

Reenactor Michael White, a soldier in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, demonstrated the various elements of the weaponry that soldiers would have on the field: flints, black powder, musket balls, and cartridges.

White, of Newark, Del., who works as an event producer, travels to 20 to 30 historic events a year. "It's sharing history," he said. "I enjoy just connecting folks a little bit more with how we are from where we were."


To watch the reenactment, grab your tricorn hat and powder horn and go to www.philly.com/enactment


Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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