Faden’s North American Atlas: a record of the American Revolution
National Maritime Museum
01 Jul 2007
July's item of the month is William Faden’s North American Atlas, published in 1777.
Caird library ref: PBD8188
The American War of Independence (1775-83), an armed revolt of the thirteen American Atlantic Coast colonies against British rule, produced much passion on both sides of the ocean. Public interest in the conflict in Britain encouraged cartographers to produce and issue up to date maps of America to enable people to follow the latest developments in the struggle.
One particular publication of note was The North American Atlas, produced in 1777 by the London geographer and map seller William Faden. This book contains maps and charts of the American colonies and large and small scale plans of towns, cities, battles and campaigns.
Among the interesting plans featured in Faden’s atlas is one of Philadelphia and its environs (the city where the Continental Congress drafted and passed the Declaration of Independence on the 4 July 1775 and later seized by the British) and also one of the Delaware River and its defences. Both of these maps can be associated with the ‘Philadelphia Campaign’, a British strategy to capture this important city and seat of the revolutionary government.
The Course of the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Chester, exhibiting the several Works erected by the Rebels to defend its Passage, with the Attacks made upon them by his Majesty’s Land & Sea Forces. Engraved by William Faden…1778. Repro ID A1674
The chart describes the operations of Admiral Richard Howe’s fleet to gain control of the river, including the attacks on Fort Mercer and Fort Mifflin, an inset plan of Fort Island and image of the American underwater obstacles known as ‘Chevaux-de-friese’.
After securing New York for the British, General Sir William Howe defeated the Continental army of General George Washington at White Plains on the 28 October 1776, and resolved to follow his retreating opponents and invade Pennsylvania. A Royal Navy Fleet under his brother Admiral Richard Howe transported the British army to Chesapeake Bay, where they landed and marched on Philadelphia, again repulsing the Americans at Brandywine on 11 September 1777. Soon afterwards, General Howe’s forces entered and occupied Philadelphia without opposition.
With Philadelphia now under British control, on 6 October 1777 Admiral Howe was assigned the task of clearing a supply passage up the Delaware River. The plan titled ‘The Course of the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Chester…’, is a good example of the detailed maps bound in the Faden atlas and shows the operations of Admiral Howe’s fleet in this stretch of water and the extremely strong American defensive measures he was forced to overcome. In addition to enemy warship presence and the location of several powerful forts, the river was also guarded in several places by rows of underwater stockade obstacles called ‘Chevaux-de-frise.
After several days of fighting, on the 22 October 1777, the British and their allies launched a combined land and water assault on Fort Mercer and Fort Mifflin. A Hessian attack on Fort Mercer was repulsed with heavy losses and during the British fleet bombardment of Fort Mifflin, HMS Augusta and HMS Merlin went aground in the shallows during the exchange of fire with the American gun batteries. Both vessels came under concentrated fire from the fort and supporting American warships and eventually HMS Augusta caught fire and exploded, while HMS Merlin was abandoned and became a total loss. The position of this action and the wrecks of HMS Augusta and HMS Merlin are marked on the plan. Fort Mifflin was eventually taken by the British on the 15 November and shortly afterwards, the Americans also abandoned Fort Mercer, enabling the first British ships to complete the navigation of the Delaware River and enter Philadelphia on the 23 November 1777.
Despite this military success, elsewhere the course of the war was going badly for the British. At the end of October 1777 General Burgoyne surrendered his army to the Americans at Saratoga and the following year France entered the fighting on the side of the rebels. A discouraged General Howe resigned his command and his successor General Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and returned to New York, leaving the Americans to re-enter Philadelphia in triumph.
Although the war continued for a further six years, concluding with the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, and a cessation of hostilities in 1783 (Britain finally recognised American Independence at the Treaty of Paris September 1783), the ‘Philadelphia Campaign’ of 1777, proved to be an important stage in the course of the war. Faden’s atlas effectively illustrates this and other events and proceedings in the early stages of the American Revolution.
Brian (Curator of Hydrography)
If you are interested in viewing this or any other atlas, map or chart, see our visiting the Caird Library page available from the main museum website. Please note that some items are kept offsite and you may need to request items in advance.
Copies of this image can be ordered via the Picture Library. An order form is available at www.nmm.ac.uk/picturelibrary or by contacting 020 8312 6600. Please quote the reproduction ID: A1674.
Discover more of the library and manuscripts collection in our online catalogue: www.nmm.ac.uk/librarycatalogue.