The Battle of the Kegs, 1778

January 6, 1778

The Battle of the Kegs was an incident that took place on January 6, 1778, during the American Revolutionary War. It was a failed attempt to bomb British ships by fixing explosives to floating kegs. It is most well-known for inspiring Francis Hopkinson to write a song about, which chastised General William Howe for his affair with a married woman.

Francis Hopkinson, Founding Father, Illustration, NYPL

Francis Hopkinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of the Kegs Summary

The “Battle of the Kegs,” happened on January 6, 1778, during the Revolutionary War. It was not actually a battle, but a failed attempt to sink British ships and disrupt shipping.

During the winter of 1777–1778, British forces occupied Philadelphia, and the Continental Army was encamped at Valley Forge. It was a low point for the Patriot Cause. Seeking to provide a boost, inventor David Bushnell devised floating mines that would be used to sink British ships anchored in the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

However, the British ships had been relocated to avoid ice floes in the river. Most of the kegs were stopped by the ice floes, while the rest floated by the ships and caused no damage.

The British fleet, alarmed by the floating kegs, engaged in a somewhat comedic response, firing upon any floating debris they saw in the river. This incident inspired humorous songs and articles, including one penned by Francis Hopkinson, a Founding Father and Signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Battle of the Kegs, 1778, Illustration, NYPL
This illustration depicts the kegs floating in the river and a British ship firing on them. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of the Kegs Facts

The Battle of the Kegs happened near Bordentown, New Jersey. 

Bordentown, northeast of Philadelphia, was the home of Colonel Joseph Borden, who represented New Jersey during the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. It also played a role in the Battle of Trenton (December 25, 1776) and was the site of a free school established by Clara Barton in 1852.

David Bushnell, a Yale graduate, traveled to Bordentown to help devise an attack on British ships anchored in the Delaware River near Philadelphia. Bushnell was the inventor of “The Turtle,” an early submarine, which was used in an attempt to sink the ship of Vice Admiral Richard Howe, the HMS Eagle, on September 6, 1776, while it sat in New York Harbor.

Bushnell devised a floating mine that consisted of a float, a keg of gunpowder, and a flintlock fuse. When the keg bumped into something, it was designed to explode.

The floating mines were made by a cooper — barrel maker — who worked for Colonel Borden.

At some point prior to January 6, one of the kegs was floating in the river when two curious boys approached it. Unfortunately, the keg exploded, killing both of them. 

The incident alerted the British to the possibility of an attack and the crews of the ships were on the lookout for anything suspicious.

On the night of the 5th, approximately 100 kegs were transported in two rowboats down the Delaware River toward Philadelphia, where they were released. 

Ice floes in the river created problems for the Americans. First, the British moved their ships out of the River, into a channel, to avoid being hit by ice floes. Second, the ice floes blocked many of the kegs.

The kegs that made it past the ice floes were safely carried past the ships by the current. The British saw the kegs and fired at them — and anything else they saw floating past in the river. 

According to some accounts, they shot at everything they saw in the water for several days. The British even turned the cannons of their ships loose on debris floating in the water, much to the amusement of the Americans who witnessed the scene.

Francis Hopkinson wrote a song called “The Battle of the Kegs,” which was sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” that was published in the newspapers. By all accounts, it was popular with supporters of the Patriot Cause.

The song also teases General William Howe — who was Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America at the time — for his affair with Elizabeth Loring, the wife of Joshua Loring Jr.

Bushnell went on to join the Continental Army and participated in the Battle of Yorktown, which culminated in the Surrender of Cornwallis.

General William Howe, Illustration
General Willliam Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

What Happened During the Battle of the Kegs?

There are two versions of what happened during the Battle of the Kegs. 

The more popular version is the British panicked and spent days shooting at everything they saw in the water. 

The less popular version essentially says the British were not all that concerned with the kegs, although they did shoot at some of them.

Both versions relate the incident of two boys pulling a keg from the water, which exploded.

An Account from the New Jersey Gazette, January 21, 1778

This account appeared in the New Jersey Gazette on January 21, 1778. It tells the popular version of the story. 

Please note that some text corrections have been made from the original source, which is taken from Diary of the American Revolution: from Newspapers and Original Documents, Volume 2, by Frank Moore, published in 1860.

“JANUARY 6 — PHILADELPHIA has been entertained with a most astonishing instance of the activity, bravery, and military skill of the royal navy of Great Britain. 

The affair sometime last week, two boys observed a keg of a singular construction, floating in the river opposite to the city; they got into a small boat, and attempting to take up the keg, it burst with a great explosion and blew up the unfortunate boys. 

Yesterday, several kegs of a like construction made their appearance. An alarm was immediately spread through the city; various reports prevailed, filling the city and the royal troops with consternation. 

Some reported that the kegs were filled with armed rebels, who were to issue forth in the dead of night, as the Grecians did 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 that 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 everything 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 ship, 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) 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 the 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 his Excellency, Lord Howe, has despatched a swift sailing packet with an account of this victory to the court of London. 

In a word, Monday, the fifth of January, 1778, must ever be distinguished in history for the memorable BATTLE OF THE KEGS.”

An Account from the Pennsylvania Ledger, February 11, 1778

This letter tells the alternate version of the Battle of the Kegs.

Please note that some text corrections have been made from the original source, which is taken from Diary of the American Revolution: from Newspapers and Original Documents, Volume 2, by Frank Moore, published in 1860.

“The town of Philadelphia not being as fully acquainted with the subject of the letter taken from a Burlington paper, as the ingenious author would have his readers believe them to be, it may be necessary to relate to them the fact. 

At the time it happened, it was so thrilling 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, 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.”

The Battle of the Kegs Lyrics by Francis Hopkinson

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, he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring;
Nor dreamed of harm, as he lay warm,
In bed with Mrs. Loring.

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,
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, 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.

Listen to the Battle of the Kegs

This recording of Francis Hopkinson’s song was recorded by Oscar Brand in 1967.

Significance of the Battle of the Kegs

The Battle of the Kegs is important to United States history because it shows how events during the American Revolutionary War can be presented, depending on a particular point of view. It is also remembered thanks to Francis Hopkinson’s famous song.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of the Kegs, 1778
  • Date January 6, 1778
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of the Kegs, Francis Hopkinson, William Howe, Richard Howe, David Bushnell
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 27, 2023

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