Two weeks ago, General Howe entered Philadelphia, capping a months-long campaign that began in New York, then down to Maryland, then the overland march to Philadelphia. Howe had out-maneuvered Washington's army and taken the city without any real last stand after defeating the Continentals at Brandywine.
Last week, we caught up on what was going on with Burgoyne’s army in New York as General Howe made his way from Maryland to Philadelphia. Today we are going back to the Philadelphia area to see Washington’s response to Howe’s capture of the city. Although the British general had reached his goal, he had left General Burgoyne swinging in the wind without any support in upstate New York. Of greater concern to General Howe was the fact that he had not opened up the Delaware River, meaning his invading army could not link up with the navy and reconnect to the outside supply lines.
Occupation of Philadelphia
General Howe left the bulk of his army in Germantown. Today Germantown is part of Philadelphia. However, in 1777, when the northern border of Philadelphia was Vine Street in what is today center city, Germantown was still several miles north of the city.
|Continentals surround the Chew House at
Germantown (from British Battles)
As you might discern from its name, it was settled by immigrants from the Palatine region, in what is today southwestern Germany. By 1777 the Germans had lived in the area for several generations but still spoke the German language rather than English. Most of the German people who came to Pennsylvania were members of pacifist groups who had fled the nearly continual state of warfare that defined much of Europe at this time. They felt no affinity with the militaristic Hessians who fought with the British. At the same time, as pacifists, most did not join the armed opposition of the patriot movement either. Some had fled the area in advance of the army’s occupation. However, many more stayed put and tried to make the best of life under military occupation.
General Howe went with General Cornwallis to Philadelphia with about half of the army. Howe would occupied a house on Market Street, which had once been the residence of Lieutenant Governor Richard Penn. Most recently Pennsylvania General John Cadwalader had lived there before fleeing the British occupation of the city. Howe also maintained a headquarters at the home of James Logan, about a mile south of Germantown.
Howe’s first order of business was to open up the Delaware River so that he could reconnect with the British Navy and the outside world. He had to deploy a brigade of 3000 soldiers to march back to Head of Elk, Maryland and escort more supplies back to Philadelphia overland because the patriots still controlled the Delaware River. He also had to prepare for an attack by the Continentals, most likely from the north.
In Philadelphia, Howe made every attempt to prevent looting or plundering by British soldiers. He still wanted to win over the locals and be accepted as a liberator, not a conqueror. Howe needed to establish local support so that he could move the regular army on to other cities at some point.
American Plan of Attack
Almost as soon as Howe marched into Philadelphia, Washington was planning to attack. On September, 26, the same day Howe marched into Philadelphia, Washington moved his Continentals to Pennybacker’s Mill, today called Schwenksville, just over twenty miles from Germantown. There, he consolidated his forces, reporting on the 28th that he had 8000 Continentals and another 3000 militia at his camp. The next day, the Continentals marched about five miles closer to the enemy camp and a few days later moved about three miles closer, putting them about sixteen miles away from each other.
|Map of Germantown attack (from Wikimedia)
Washington’s intelligence indicated that less than half of the British Army was camped at Germantown. Actually, it was considerably more, but Washington’s total force still slightly outnumbered the roughly 9000 enemy soldiers camped at Germantown. The British had laid out their camp in a line forming east to west. On the east, or British right flank, camped battalions commanded by Generals James Grant and Edward Mathew. On the left flank were battalions under the command of Generals Grey, Agnew, Stirn, and Knyphausen’s Hessians. The line extended all the way to the Schuylkill River where Hessian jaegers held the left flank.
Washington, as he liked to do, developed a rather complex plan of attack, dividing his forces into four separate columns, each approaching the enemy from a different direction. General John Sullivan, who was still awaiting court martial for his actions on Long Island and at Brandywine, commanded the first column, supported by Anthony Wayne’s brigade, at least those who had survived the Paoli Massacre. Lord Stirling and General Maxwell would follow Sullivan’s column as a reserve force.
Nathanael Greene commanded the second column, which was the largest battalion, containing about two-thirds of the Continental Army. His force would attack the British right flank commanded by Generals Grant and Matthews. A third column made up of Maryland and New Jersey militia under the command of General William Smallwood, who had lost half of his command to desertion and failed to engage the enemy at the Paoli Massacre, would march to the east and attempt to move around to the rear of the British right flank. A fourth column commanded by General John Armstrong would march to the west to try to move behind the British left flank.
Washington ordered all four columns to engage in a night march so that all would be in position for an attack beginning at 5:00 AM on the morning of October 4. From there, the forces would converge from different positions on the British camp with a bayonet charge.
Before I get to the battle, I want to give a quick background on two new generals. I mentioned William Smallwood a few weeks ago during the Paoli Massacre. Smallwood came from a prosperous Maryland family which owned a plantation. As a boy, his family sent him to England for his education where he attended Eaton, where he may have been a classmate of Barry St. Leger.
Smallwood returned home to run the family plantation. He also served in the Maryland Assembly, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. Coming from a family of wealth and status within the colony, Smallwood also served in the colonial militia. During the French and Indian War served as an officer on several campaigns.
In 1775 Smallwood attended the Maryland Convention and was an early advocate of armed resistance to British policies. When Maryland sent soldiers, Smallwood was among the first to go to New York as a colonel. He served on Long Island and was wounded at the Battle of White Plains in 1776.
He returned home to recuperate and did not rejoin the army for some time. During his convalescence, Congress promoted him to general. When the British landed at Head of Elk, Maryland in August 1777. Smallwood decided it was time to get back into the fight and raised a regiment of 2000 Maryland militia. These were the troops that scattered when the British attacked General Wayne’s Continentals at Paoli. He recovered about half of his army that had not run home and joined Washington’s Continentals for the continuing fight.
Washington ordered Smallwood to take his division on the far American left, to go around the British right flank and attack their rear.
The other division commander that I have not mentioned yet was General John Armstrong. Born in Ireland, Armstrong was educated as a civil engineer. He came to Pennsylvania in 1740 as a surveyor for the Penn family. One of the areas he surveyed became the new town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He liked the area so much that he settled there and started a family.
|John Armstrong, Sr.
(from Founder of Day)
During the French and Indian War, Armstrong served as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia. He led 2700 militia soldiers during the Forbes expedition to recapture Fort Duquesne, today Pittsburgh, from the French. During this expedition, he served alongside fellow militia colonel George Washington.
By 1775, Armstrong was a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia and an outspoken patriot. When Pennsylvania joined the fight in early 1776, Armstrong received a commission as brigadier general in the Continental Army. He put his engineering experience to work, setting up the defenses at Charleston, South Carolina prior to the British attack on Fort Sullivan.
Armstrong resigned his Continental commission less than a year after he received it to become a major general in command of the Pennsylvania state militia. He commanded the left flank of the American line at Brandywine. Since the British attacked the right flank, he did not see much action that day, but had to retreat with the rest of the army after the American right flank collapsed. At Germantown, Washington gave Armstrong command of the division on the American right flank with orders to get behind the enemy flank and attack.
That night, the troops struggled to get into position over dark and unfamiliar terrain. The first Americans to make contact with the enemy were from the head of Sullivan’s column, led by French General Thomas Conway. The Americans began a firefight with British pickets,who had time to fire a signal gun and warn the British army of the American attack. Colonel Thomas Musgrave of the 40th Regiment of Regulars commanded the defense against Conway’s attack. Both sides poured in reinforcements. Anthony Wayne’s continentals reportedly fought viciously and shouted “remember Paoli” as they ruthlessly cut down the enemy, even men trying to surrender.
General Howe personally rushed toward the sound of the gunfire confronting his retreating soldiers. He ordered the men to form and told them it was only a scouting party. About that time, an American cannon hit the tree under which Howe was sitting atop his horse, making clear that this was no scouting party.
At sunrise, a dense fog remained over the battlefield, preventing both sides from determining where anyone was and leading to confusion. As Musgrave’s regulars fell back against the much larger attacking force, he ordered his six companies to take shelter inside a large stone house owned by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew. As the rest of the British line retreated, the British inside the Chew House became isolated.
Initially, several of Washington’s officers proposed leaving one regiment to keep the defenders of the Chew House from moving and continuing on with the attack. General Henry Knox, however, objected. He thought it an error to leave a force in their rear. He proposed taking the house before moving on. Washington agreed.
|Americans storm the Chew House
The Americans sent an officer under a flag of truce to demand surrender. The British defenders fired on the officer and killed him. Next, Knox brought up several field cannons that could smash the doors and windows, but could not penetrate the thick stone walls of the house. The Americans charged the house, but were shot down. The few who made it inside were quickly cut down by the defenders. During the assault’s Washington’s aide, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, the son of Continental Congress delegate Henry Laurens, was wounded. Another officer, John Marshall, the future Chief Justice, who had received a minor wound at Brandywine, received a more serious one in the assault on the Chew House.
The attempt to take the house went on for over an hour. More American regiments, drawn by the sound of gunfire marched toward the house. General Adam Stephen, who was the advance of General Greene’s main column, marched his battalion over as well. General Greene’s main column of Continentals was behind schedule and had not yet reached the battlefield.
General Wayne had advanced beyond the Chew House, but hearing the firefight continuing there, believed that Sullivan must be having trouble and returned to assist. In the fog, Stephen’s regiment and Wayne’s regiment saw each other and thought that they must be the enemy. Both fired on each other and caused both brigades to flee in panic.
As Sullivan’s division continued its frustratingly ineffective assault on the Chew House, British Generals Grey and Grant led their regulars to attack Sullivan on both his right and left flanks. Most of Sullivan’s continentals feared they were being surrounded in the fog. They panicked and fled the battlefield.
When Greene’s force finally arrived, it struck the British right and forced back the defenders. The Americans soon found themselves in the British camp as the regulars retreated in the face of superior numbers. Greene’s men had smashed the British right flank with fair success. But with Sullivan’s division already dispersed, the British who had deployed there, now turned on General Greene’s flank.
Some of Greene’s force had fallen out of formation as soldiers took an opportunity to loot the enemy camp. When the British counter-attacked, the men were not in their lines and ended up fleeing the field.
One of Greene’s divisions, led by Pennsylvania General Peter Muhlenberg pushed deep into British lines, only to find himself cut off from the rest of his own army. His division had to fight its way back through the British lines to join the rest of the Continental Army. One of Muhlenberg’s regiments, the 9th Virginia, found itself isolated and surrounded by the British counter-attack, forcing the entire 400 man regiment to surrender. The remaining bulk of Green’s force retreated to safety.
Colonel Pulaski, who now commanded a cavalry regiment, was being held in the rear. When the British attacked, his men fled on their horses, riding right into Greene’s retreating infantry. The infantry thought the cavalry were British soldiers and scattered. Greene struggled to restore order as the men retreated.
|British at Germantown (from MoAR)
By this time, British General Cornwallis had brought up fresh battalions of regulars from Philadelphia. Cornwallis pursued the retreating Americans for eight miles, but then gave up his pursuit. The retreating Americans marched a full 24 miles back to Pennybacker’s Mill, where they had camped two days earlier. Most of the army between the march to Germantown, and the retreat, marched over 40 miles that day and night, in addition to fighting a pitched battle.
Many of the men had not slept for nearly two days, having marched the previous night to get into position for the attack. To give an example of how tired they were. There is a story of General Muhlenberg during the retreat. He tried to get his horse to jump a fence, but the horse refused. As Muhlenberg paused for a few minutes while some soldiers broke down the fence to let him pass, Muhlenberg fell asleep in his saddle. He awoke a minute later when a bullet whistled past his ear and he heard the screams of the enemy charging his position.
Over the course of the battle, General Stephen was found at one point nearly passed out on the battlefield. He was accused of drunkenness and ultimately lost his command as a result. He would face a court martial and be cashiered a short time later. He probably had been drinking, but perhaps not to excess. His condition was likely more one of exhaustion. Also during the retreat, General Conway was found asleep in a barn. General Pulaski also got caught napping in a farmhouse as the army retreated.
During the retreat, Continental General Francis Nash used his reserve force as a rear guard against the advancing British. Nash, who was from North Carolina, had only received promotion to brigadier general a few months earlier. He had a long history of supporting the patriot cause. He had fought at the Battle of Alamance back in 1771 and had served as an officer in North Carolina at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge and was present the attack at Fort Sullivan.
After his promotion to general in February 1777, Nash remained in the south, trying to recruit more volunteers. However, when the more senior general from North Carolina, James Moore fell ill and died in April, Nash took command of the North Carolina regiments fighting with Washington. He had commanded those regiments at Brandywine, and had been held in reserve at Germantown.
During the Continental retreat, Nash advanced his division to buy time for the rest of the retreating army. In his attempt to slow the British advance, a British cannonball struck Nash in the hip while riding his horse. The same ball killed his aide, Major James Witherspoon, the son of a signer of the Declaration. Nash was carried from the field, but died from his wounds a few days later.
The British also lost a general that day. About that same time, as Cornwallis’ divisions pushed on the American retreat, an American sniper shot British General James Agnew, who fell from his horse and died.
I’ve talked about the two main divisions, but remember General Washington had also sent two other divisions, one to march around the British left and the other around the British right in order to attack from behind. General Armstrong’s Pennsylvania militia, assigned to attack the British left, ran into a group of Hessian jaegers near Wissahickon Creek. The Hessians pulled back across the bridge. Instead of charging them, the militia just brought up their cannons and fired from a distance. When the Hessians charged back across the bridge, the militia pulled back and retreated from the battle.
General Smallwood’s Maryland and New Jersey militia had been assigned to attack from behind the British right. They had the longest march of all the divisions, and took so long to march into position that the battle was over before they arrived. Smallwood joined the Continental retreat without engaging the enemy.
The British suffered about 70 killed and 450 wounded. The Americans lost about 150 killed, over 500 wounded and nearly 450 captured, mostly from the 9th Virginia.
The attack at Germantown showed that the Americans were still ready to fight after the loss of Philadelphia, but accomplished little else. The Continental Army pulled back about a day’s march from the British encampment at Germantown. Washington established a headquarters at Whitemarsh, while his army nursed its wounds and planned what to do next. They would remain there until December, when they moved into winter quarters at Valley Forge.
|Assault on Chew House (from British Battles)
The British remained in possession of Philadelphia and Germantown for the next few weeks. General Howe then abandoned Germantown, pulling all of his forces into entrenchments closer to Philadelphia. There, the British and Hessians settled into their winter quarters.
Many military analysts say the battle of Germantown very easily could have been an American victory had Washington not got hung up at the Chew House, and instead had taken most of Sullivan’s division forward to meet up with Greene’s division. Many also blame the bad luck of fog causing confusion on the battlefield. Others would argue that drawing up such a complex plan of attack that required far too much coordinated action without communication was doomed to fail. I think much of this comes with the benefit of hindsight. The Continentals did not get the victory for which they had hoped, but also were able to retreat with most of their army intact and prepare to fight another day.
Next week, British General Clinton in New York City ventures north to see if he can help Burgoyne’s Northern Army, by this time in serious trouble.
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Next Episode 164 Forts Clinton and Montgomery
Previous Episode 162 Raid on Fort Ticonderoga
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John Adams Diary: “1777 Septr. 21. Sunday.,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0007-0003-0006
Charles “no-flint” Grey: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/charles-no-flint-grey
The 1st Earl Grey https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Grey-1st-Earl-Grey
Paoli Massacre: https://www.ushistory.org/march/phila/paoli.htm
Fyers, Evan W. H. “GENERAL SIR WILLIAM HOWE'S OPERATIONS IN PENNSYLVANIA, 1777. The Battle on the Brandywine Creek—11 September—and the Action at Germantown—4 October.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 8, no. 34, 1929, pp. 228–241. www.jstor.org/stable/44232285
Lambdin, Alfred C. “Battle of Germantown.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 4, 1877, pp. 368–403. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20084306
Tompkins, Hamilton B. “Contemporary Account of the Battle of Germantown.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 11, no. 3, 1887, pp. 330–332. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20083215
“Battle of Germantown from a British Account.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 11, no. 1, 1887, pp. 112–114. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20083188
Von Muenchausen, Friedrich Ernst. “Notes on the Battle of Germantown.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 23, no. 4, 1899, pp. 483–487. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20085880
Murphy, Orville T. “The Battle of Germantown and the Franco-American Alliance of 1778.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 82, no. 1, 1958, pp. 55–64. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20089039
“A Partial List of Pennsylvania Troops Killed, Wounded, and Captured at the Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 40, no. 2, 1916, pp. 241–243. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20086266
Darlington, William M. “Major-General John Armstrong.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 2, 1877, pp. 183–187. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20084279
Lapp, Derrick E. “The Death of Lt. Michael Grosh: The Maryland Militia at Germantown” Journal of the American Revolution, February 11, 2020.
(from archive.org unless noted)
Pennypacker, Samuel W. Anthony Wayne, J.B. Lippincott company, 1908.
Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965 (borrow only).
Trussell, John B. B. Jr. The Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Buchanan, John The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution, Wiley, 2004
Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Harris, Michael C. Germantown: A Military History of the Battle for Philadelphia, October 4, 1777, Savas Beatie, 2020.
McGuire, Thomas J. The Surprise of Germantown: Or, the Battle of Cliveden, October 4th, 1777, Thomas Pubns, 1996.
O'Donnell, Patrick K. Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016.
Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Pioneer Press, 1980 (orig. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965).
Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003
Tiger, Caroline General Howe's Dog: George Washington, the Battle for Germantown and the Dog Who Crossed Enemy Lines, Chamberlain Books, 2005.
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.