The Major Battle of the American Revolution That Never Happened

A massive storm interrupted a battle between American and British forces during the American Revolution. Did heavy rain save George Washington's army?

May 28, 2024By Dale Pappas, PhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian Studies

battle clouds american revolution never happened


We often recognize the power of natural disasters in changing the history of a place or country. However, the role of weather in shaping the course of historical events is largely forgotten. For example, weather conditions became critical in determining the date of the D-Day landings in WWII. Poor weather has also prevented battles from happening. One example is the so-called Battle of the Clouds during the American Revolution (1775-1783). What happened that day in September 1777, and what might have been had Mother Nature cooperated?


British Plans for 1777

george german square
Lord George Germain. Source: American Battlefield Trust


George Washington’s American army and Sir William Howe’s British forces battled to control Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1777. Philadelphia was the fledgling American nation’s capital city. Only the year before, in July 1776, did the Continental Congress formally declare American independence from Britain.


Unable to crush American resistance in 1776, British strategists developed an ambitious plan to end the war in 1777. This involved three separate armies converging on New York’s capital, Albany. By seizing Albany, the British would cut off New England from the rest of the rebellious American Colonies. The British could then isolate and defeat the rebellious Americans piecemeal.


But this plan was developed in London by the British government’s minister responsible for the war in America, Lord George Germain. Meanwhile, Sir William Howe had other ideas on the other side of the Atlantic. Howe commanded British troops in North America tasked with defeating the American rebels.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Instead of following Germain’s plan, Howe would strike the American capital, Philadelphia. After the city’s capture, Howe would consider sending troops north if other British forces needed help securing Albany.


The Campaign for Philadelphia Begins 

william howe print
Sir William Howe. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library


Throughout the summer of 1777, Howe prepared his army to move out from the British base in New York City. Howe’s army of over 15,000 British troops, Loyalists, and hired German soldiers collectively known as Hessians boarded 264 ships in mid-July 1777. Few people, including those boarding the ships, knew the army’s destination.


Much to the surprise of many British commanders and Washington alike, Howe took his army south to capture Philadelphia. After a difficult month at sea, Howe landed his army in Maryland on August 25. After gathering some supplies, the British began their march of roughly 60 miles towards Philadelphia.


Philadelphia had little strategic value, but Howe believed the city’s fall would crush American patriotic spirit. He also correctly recognized that Washington’s army would have to fight for the city, at least for symbolic reasons. Thus, by moving on Philadelphia, Howe thought he could destroy both Washington’s army and the cause of American independence.


Moreover, the Philadelphia area boasted several American arsenals and supply depots. Therefore, the British could deal a heavy blow to Washington’s capability to arm, equip, and feed his army. At the same time, although Philadelphia was the American capital, it was home to many people who remained loyal to Britain or at least indifferent to the idea of independence. Thus, Howe felt the British army would be well-received by most locals upon arriving in the Philadelphia area.


Washington marched his army of roughly 11,000 from New Jersey through Philadelphia to Delaware. The American commander planned to fortify Delaware to prevent the British from marching directly to Philadelphia.


Opening Battles 

cornwallis painting
Lord Charles Cornwallis by John Singleton Copley, c. 1795. Source:


The campaign’s first significant fight took place at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware on September 3. Here, some American troops skirmished with Howe’s advancing army. Unable to prevent the British from moving on Philadelphia, Washington arrayed his army for battle near the Brandywine Creek just over the border in southeastern Pennsylvania.


On September 11, the two armies met at the Battle of Brandywine. According to historian Michael C. Harris, Brandywine would be one of the war’s largest and bloodiest battles. In fact, about 30,000 troops fought for nearly 11 hours that warm September day. Washington’s army performed well during an intense day of fighting. However, by late afternoon, part of Howe’s army under Lord Cornwallis turned Washington’s flank. Thus, facing a British attack from multiple sides, the Americans had to retreat.


Brandywine exhausted and bloodied both armies. In fact, Howe ordered part of his army to establish hospitals in the nearby city of Wilmington, Delaware.


As Washington’s army retreated to the northwest of Philadelphia, the British mostly stayed around the battlefield. However, just four days after the Battle of Brandywine, Washington prepared for a rematch with Howe’s army. Washington moved his army towards the British in the direction of the Brandywine battlefield along the Lancaster Road. On September 16, Howe finally set out to attack Washington’s army.


The Battle of the Clouds 

johannvon ewald
Captain Johann Ewald by C. A. Jensen. Source: Wikipedia Commons


On September 16, five days after Brandywine, the two armies were on a collision course to fight another battle. After spreading out his troops over several miles of hilly ground about 30 miles from Philadelphia, Washington prepared to defend the capital from British forces.


However, drenching rain erupted just as multiple skirmishes broke out across the battle lines. As historian Tom McGuire explains, the rain was a nor’easter, part of a hurricane or tropical storm that soaked the Philadelphia area on that Tuesday afternoon.


Hessian Captain Johann Ewald became the primary British officer involved in the skirmish. Ewald’s troops were green-coated Jägers (riflemen). The sharpshooters took cover behind trees and fired on the Americans. But soon, neither side could fire consistently as the rain destroyed gunpowder supplies.


Eighteenth-century firearms depended on black powder to function. Once wet, the powder was essentially useless. The Americans lost an estimated 40,000 powder cartridges because of the rain. On the other hand, the British lost fewer powder stores because of their superior cartridge boxes.


Without dry powder to fire their rifles, Captain Ewald’s men charged at the Americans with short hunting swords. They managed to seize some prisoners before rushing for cover. British troops attempted a bayonet charge in another part of the battlefield but got bogged down in the mud. Washington ordered American troops to retreat before the British could mount a pursuit.


Both sides then decided to renew the war under better weather conditions. Thus ended the Battle of the Clouds.


What Might Have Been?

George Washington, lithograph by unknown artist, 1836. Source: Library of Congress


Why should we care about a battle that never happened? What could have happened had Washington and Howe’s armies met again just a few days after the Battle of Brandywine?


Historians agree that had the weather permitted, the Battle of the Clouds would have been the second major battle for Philadelphia after Brandywine.


Beyond the weather, there are other factors to consider. For example, Howe’s tactics once again nearly defeated the Americans. As at Brandywine and several earlier battles, British forces threatened to outflank Washington and cause chaos in the American ranks.


A crushing defeat for Washington’s army would have jeopardized the very existence of the young United States. However, the rain and Washington’s quick thinking to order a retreat prevented Howe from getting the chance to rout the Americans. Thus, Washington’s leadership and generalship matter to the story behind the Battle of the Clouds. Historian Justin Clement argues that the storm and Washington’s orderly retreat saved the American army and, by extension, the American Revolutionary cause.


After the battle-turned-skirmish of September 16, both armies changed course. Washington moved to find suitable powder to replace that lost in the Battle of the Clouds. Instead of pursuing Washington, Howe ordered a series of raids against small American outposts. For example, the British attacked and destroyed a small arsenal at Valley Forge. Only months later, Washington’s army would spend an important and bitterly cold winter at Valley Forge.



battle of paoli
The Battle of Paoli by Xavier della Gatta, 1782. Source: Valley Forge Historical Society


On September 20, British troops launched a daring evening raid on a camp and routed General Anthony Wayne’s Americans at Paoli. Within a week, British troops under Lord Cornwallis entered Philadelphia. Washington made one significant effort to drive the British out of Philadelphia but was defeated at Germantown in October 1777. The city remained under British occupation until June 1778.


Meanwhile, Congress fled Philadelphia to evade the British army. First, the American government met in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But as historian Wayne Bodle explains, the Pennsylvania government pushed Congress out of Lancaster. It seems the town was only big enough for one government. Congress moved to the frontier outpost of York, Pennsylvania. While meeting in York, Congress approved the Articles of Confederation. The Articles marked an early attempt to unite the thirteen states under a central government.


Although disappointed at the fall of Philadelphia, 1777 proved to be a positive year for the cause of American independence. In fact, while Washington and Howe squared off near Philadelphia, another set of American and British armies fought in upstate New York. At the battles of Saratoga in September and October 1777, American forces eventually forced the British to surrender.


Victory at Saratoga proved critical to the American cause. For example, it helped secure an alliance with France, which would culminate in the final surrender of British troops at Yorktown in 1781. Two years later, the Treaty of Paris recognized an independent United States of America.

Author Image

By Dale PappasPhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian StudiesDale Pappas has taught History and Academic Writing at the high school and university levels in the United States and Europe. He holds a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Miami. Dale researches the history of tourism in the Mediterranean and the political history of Modern Greece. When he needs a breather from world travels, Dale lives between Miami, FL and Athens, Greece.