In the damp cold, without adequate clothing or blankets, the soldiers took cover wherever they could in tiny Fort Mifflin as British artillery pounded them with up to 1,000 cannon shots an hour.
The ragtag band of Americans defiantly held out for two months in the fall of 1777, withstanding what is believed to have been the greatest bombardment of the American Revolution.
Now the Delaware River fort, which played a key role in denying supplies to the Redcoats in Philadelphia and allowing the escape of George Washington's Continental Army, has staved off a less glorious defeat - by money problems that threatened its future.
In the fall, Mifflin's financial woes, aggravated by the economic downturn, forced the Southwest Philadelphia historic site to lay off all four part-time staff members, reduce the pay of two full-time workers, and cut the wages of the fort's executive director in half.
State and city funding to the fort was slashed by tens of thousands of dollars, bills mounted, and the checking account plummeted to $3,200.
But after a national funding appeal and expanded "alternate" programming that included paranormal investigations and Boy Scout overnights, Mifflin is again on firm financial footing.
Determined latter-day defenders such as Lee Anderson, executive director of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware, used creative strategies to hold on, as Washington asked troops in 1777, "to the last extremity."
"The fort was in big trouble . . . but I believe our philosophy of running a nonprofit historic site is now a benchmark case of how it should be done in 2009 and well into the future," Anderson, 53, said. "If historic sites do not adapt, they will be left in the wake with little hope of recovery."
After the fort hit rock bottom in November, Anderson told the board of directors that he was going to send out letters "appealing to the good people of Philadelphia for help and support."
"We had tens of thousands of dollars of bills in December and January and no idea how to pay them," he said.
Getting the word out
By late January, "the call went out almost nationwide. . . . I e-mailed several people, and they passed along my letter to others. By February, a volunteer group had formed and helped get the word out."
The volunteers sent Anderson's plea to Michigan, Florida, New York, and other states, where people responded by purchasing fort memberships running from $150 to $500.
At the same time, "we began to receive small but generous contributions, and our weekend programs began to book, first slowly and then very quickly," Anderson said.
One of the first big contributions was $2,500 from a local company. It was followed by $2,500 from the fort's board members, and separate grants of $7,500 and $25,000 from foundations. By March, every weekend of the year had been booked with reenactments, scout gatherings, school field trips, and overnight paranormal investigations.
"By April, it was apparent that we were going to be fine," said Anderson.
The fort now has $38,000 in the bank and brings in about $4,000 a week, he said, adding: "That's more revenue than we have ever generated in the 23 years the nonprofit has operated at the fort."
Last weekend alone, a paranormal group brought in $6,400, donating the fees from participants in a program that seeks to record evidence of spirits at the fort.
Some visitors believe the original soldiers are still defending Mifflin - and that perception, right or wrong, has helped raise money by drawing paranormal researchers. One of the groups was the Atlantic Paranormal Society, which is featured on SciFi's Ghost Hunters.
"Everybody knows the Liberty Bell as a symbol of the American Revolution, but if you want to look for the real meat of the Revolution," said Gail "Moe" Kubik, founder of Moevanshee Paranormal Investigations, Fort Mifflin "is the place that saved the Revolution."
The fort's defenders "paid in blood. They bought time for Washington. I can't fathom that the government is not protecting the fort and making sure it has the funds it needs."
Kubik, 57, of Old Bridge, N.J., is also co-owner of Asylumcam.com and adviser to Jasonsghost.com, Web sites focusing on the paranormal. The sites are scheduled to hold a public paranormal investigation from July 31 to Aug. 2 at Mifflin. (To register for the event, send your request to AsylmMngr@aol.com).
"Ghost hunting aside, we have to preserve these national treasures," said Susan Bove, 47, a Glendora resident who will speak at the scheduled event and founded South Jersey Paranormal Research. "All the ghost-hunting groups are working together to help save the fort. . . . It is a collective effort."
In 1777, the strategic importance of Mifflin was clear to Washington, who told the commander, Brig. Gen. James Mitchell Varnum, to hold on as long as he could.
Washington was not willing to sacrifice the soldiers at Mifflin to stop the resupplying of British troops and force their evacuation of Philadelphia. He expected them to leave the fort, on Mud Island, before it was destroyed.
During the siege, the thundering guns of Royal Navy and land batteries shook buildings in Philadelphia and were heard across South Jersey. Shells breached the wood palisades and stone wall of the fort, severely damaging three blockhouses.
Ultimately, with Mifflin's flag still flying, three boats evacuated about 300 American soldiers to the safety of New Jersey. They took 20 bodies with them but had to leave about 50 behind.
Like the fort's early defenders, Anderson, the board of directors, and full-time workers Wayne and Lorraine Irby didn't seem to stand a ghost of a chance, either.
Anderson "was writing the grants, beating the bushes, and encouraging the paranormal groups to come here," said Michael DeLordy, president of the board. "That helped the cash flow."
The success has come despite the site's inherent problem of being next to Philadelphia International Airport, at Hog Island and Fort Mifflin Roads.
"It's tough because of its location, its not being part of the historic district," said William E. Mifflin, a member of the board and a descendant of Thomas Mifflin, the Continental Army major general and delegate to the Constitutional Convention whose name was given to the fort.
"There's only so much you can do with marketing locally. What we have done is connect with groups - and not the typical tourist groups," added Mifflin, executive director of Philadelphia Hospitality, a nonprofit that provides cultural programs for special groups visiting the city.
"Some of it was good timing, creative thinking, and being at the right place at the right time."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.