If I’m Reading the Declaration of Independence Right…

Tomorrow I will have the distinct honor (honour?) of reading the Declaration of Independence at an American Revolutionary War site hallowed by the blood of 200 patriots. The site is Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia. It sits on the banks of the Delaware River just south of the city and adjacent to a very busy airport; in fact, you fly only a few hundred feet over it when you land at PHL. And while it is overflown, it is overlooked as a site that bills itself as “The Little Fort That Saved America,” it’s the Revolution’s “Alamo,” if you will. 

It was here 400 Continental soldiers with their 20 cannons under orders from Washington himself to “hold to the last extremity,” took on the might of the British Navy in November of 1777, in what became the largest naval bombardment on American soil. Until Gettysburg eclipsed it 87 years later, never had so many cannons been fired at one place on this continent. To put it in perspective, on the night of November 15, 1777, cannonballs were flying at the rate of 1,000 per hour…mostly from British guns…in an effort to get past the little island fort on the Delaware and resupply Lord Howe’s occupational army that had recently taken Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had fled to Lancaster, PA, then York. 

With the clever use of obstacles placed in the river called “chevaux de frise,” basically huge iron-tipped logs, giant chains, floating powder kegs and a scrappy little navy, the Fort delayed the greatest naval power on Earth for five weeks. The net result was, because of the delay, Lord Howe chose to stay in Philadelphia over the winter and NOT march his well-fed, well-equipped and well-trained 20,000-man army of British Regulars and Hessian mercenaries out to Valley Forge and annihilate Washington and his ragtag band of 12,000. By Spring, Franklin and company had made an alliance with the French and the British decided to evacuate the city without further encounters. And Washington’s army was to regroup, retrain, resupply and live to fight another day. 

Nevertheless, on this site where I will be reading “The Declaration,” half of the 400 gave their last ounce of devotion to their country. One witness to the barrage said “men were cut down like corn stalks” after seeing five men “laid out like fish to be broiled.” The 200 survivors of the cannonade rowed with “muffled oar” across the river to New Jersey the night of the 15th, finally giving up what was left of the smoldering Fort…but not surrendering!

In preparing for this event, I have read and reread the document Mr. Jefferson wrote on very short notice (with a Mr. Adams and Franklin providing sage editorial advice) and am struck by the passion of its words. It is, in many ways, a scathingly angry letter to the King. At one point, TJ writes “he has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.’ (his punctuation)

To add to the rebellious atmosphere, I will have my costumed confederates in the audience shouting “down with the King” and “huzzah!” in an effort to create the scene that took place on July 8 of 1776 at Independence Hall when it was read to the public for the first time (see my piece on this event from 2017). A bit of “powder only” cannonfire, as punctuation, will ensue from our reenactors manning the Fort’s guns.

As our industry is dedicated to building out the infrastructure that connects America, keep in mind tomorrow, the brave, unheralded and too often overlooked sacrifices that our commerce is built upon.

By Jim Fryer, Inside Towers Managing Editor

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