Joseph Reed and The Battle of Fort Wilson

Joseph Reed and The Battle of Fort Wilson

The Battle of Fort Wilson was a strange incident in the American Revolution where some of the rebels turned on each other.  

I set out to write this article about James Wilson but as it came together Joseph Reed became the central figure, mostly because Reed played an important role in the events while Wilson hid in his house.

A New Pennsylvania

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, each State was instructed to write a new Constitution.  

Pennsylvania created for itself a more democratic government than any other State.  It was the only one with a unicameral legislature and a very wear executive branch.  There was no Governor, just a President of Congress.

By 1779, the British had invaded, then left, Philadelphia.  There was a strong push from the more radical elements in the city to confiscate the properly of Loyalists and drive them out of town.

James Wilson

James Wilson was a revolutionary from the start.  Known as one of the most knowledgeable lawyers in America, he pushed for and signed the Declaration of Independence.

However, he drew criticism when he defended in court some of the Loyalists whose property had been confiscated.

At the same time, wartime inflation had made it difficult for the working class to afford the essentials of 18th century life.  They saw the elite, such as Wilson, making more and more money off this inflation and grew angry.

The stage was set for the Battle of Fort Wilson.

War in the Streets of Philadelphia

On October 4, 1779, a group of working class militiamen, full of drink and armed to the teeth, came to the conclusion that James Wilson was against them and needed to be taken care of.

They marched out to take him prisoner.

Hearing of this, Wilson and a group of his friends barricaded themselves inside of his house.  This impromptu fortification, now known as ‘Fort Wilson,’ was in no way ready to see this kind of action.

The militia chanted ‘Get Wilson!’ as they attacked the house.  

Captain Robert Campbell, defending his friend, was shot in the head.  

The first floor of the house was set on fire.

Somehow, the mob was pushed back.  Three of them were killed.  

The siege came to an end when Joseph Reed, President of Philadelphia and much respected by attackers, arrived with the City Troop of Light Horse and persuaded them to leave.


It is interesting that Joseph Reed was the man who came to the rescue, as he and James Wilson were political rivals.  

Perhaps Reed felt he was doing his duty as the leader of the city.  Or maybe he feared letting the mob continue could only leader to worse violence and more mayhem.  We don't know what was on his mind.

What we do know is he was sympathetic to their cause.  They were, after all, the type of people who elected him in the first place.

Reed would go on to pardon every man convicted in the attack on Fort Wilson.

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