Michael J. Troy: Michael, welcome to the American Revolution podcast. We're happy to have you.
Michael C. Harris: Well, thank you for having me.
MJT: So why specifically Germantown? What prompted you to write a book about the Battle of Germantown?
MCH: For those who don't know, I wrote a book on Brandywine previously. And I had worked at Brandywine for the state of Pennsylvania. And when I started working there, I was discouraged that there weren't good research files. There really wasn't a good history on the battle as a starting point as for somebody who's working there. And so that project started as a process to correct that problem and to dispel the many myths that I found surrounding Brandywine.
It never was an intention to continue that story into a second book. But as I was promoting the first book, there was a lot of interest for people that came to hear me in Revolutionary War history written on the common soldiers level, at the tactical level, that wasn't just generalities about political and social issues. But that dove into deeper military issues. It’s just not that common American Revolutionary history. So I kind of decided to think through the research files and start working on what's in a sense of second volume to Brandywine, covering more the Philadelphia campaign.
MJT: Yeah, that's what I really like. You take both of your books together: your book on Brandywine and your book on Germantown. It's a pretty thorough coverage of the Philadelphia campaign, generally. It doesn't just go over those two battles as isolated incidents. It's part of the continuum from New York to the Chesapeake to Philadelphia for the British.
|Michael C. Harris|
So let's start at the beginning of the campaign. Why do you think general Howe took forever to start the campaign that year? He really didn't even leave New York until mid July, and then didn't get down to the Chesapeake and actually land his troops until the end of August. Typically, a military campaign would start in the spring. Why didn't he do that?
MCH: Well, they do, in a sense, start in the spring. There is some minor maneuvering in northern New Jersey. And it was the battles of trading Princeton, Washington went in the winter quarters up in northern New Jersey, in that mountainous area around Morristown.
Washington had to rebuild his army. The army that fought in 1776 had one-year enlistments. They were expiring, actually during the Trenton and Princeton operations. The army was bleeding troops throughout that whole operation. So they're really starting over almost from scratch, creating new regiments and new brigades and new divisions. Many of the guys that are recruited in ‘77 had not even fought the previous year. So they're starting from scratch.
And so Washington kind of held up in those mountains, because he was protected there. And Howe does initially maneuver up around the Raritan river, where New Brunswick, New Jersey is today trying to get Washington out of the mountains and draw him into an open fight. And there are some minor skirmishing. There a minor engagement of a place called Short Hills in June of 1777. But all that's really minor, and he really doesn't get Washington out of the mountains.
The other thing though, the other reason he's going to wait, is he's actually waiting for word that John Burgoyne, who's leading an army out of Canada, a British army out of Canada, had reached Fort Ticonderoga. He kind of wanted to make sure that they at least got that far before he takes the majority of the army in New York and leaves. And so there's a combination of things. He tries to march overland and that doesn't work. And he's also waiting for word from going. And that's really when he starts loading the ships to go south.
And then, there's kind of a second part to that, you know, why do they go to the Chesapeake, the fleet leaves New York Harbor in mid-July, they actually enter Delaware Bay down around Cape May, at the end of July, around July 31. And they could have come up the Delaware River and landed in Wilmington, or just south of Chester come to me, and we choose not to do that.
It gets a little complicated, in the weeds here. Howe had said before he left New York, he told the government that he would only come up with our river, if Washington's army had yet to cross the Delaware River like they were still in New Jersey. And when it gets to the Delaware Bay, there was a naval Captain named Andew Hammond, who was in command of blockading squadron for the British fleet in the Delaware. And he reports to Howe, and his brother Richard who commands the fleet, the Howe brothers, that Washington is across the river, which was an incorrect report. Washington was not across the river. They had gotten to the river just above New Jersey, but they had not crossed yet. So it was a false report.
And so based on that false report, Howe up. I'm not going up here then and they go back out to sea. They're going to spend another month at sea to get around the Delmarva Peninsula, before landing in the northern Chesapeake where the Elk River empties into the Chesapeake, a place called Turkey Point, just outside Elkton, Maryland today. And that's August 25. So they spent almost another month at sea, and they land roughly twenty miles west of where they could’ve landed a month previously.
It's a stunning decision. And it's a decision that really dooms Burgoyne. Because, the moment that they go back out to sea, there's no possibility of anybody returning to assist Burgoyne and down the road, you're gonna have this battle Saratoga and Burgoyne’s going to surrender an army.
MJT I think a lot of people question that decision both then and now. Why didn't he land in Delaware Bay and just march up from there? When he went out to sea and he had to sail all the way down to Virginia and back up the Chesapeake, that cost him weeks where his men were getting sick and dying aboard ship. He lost half of his horses aboard ship. It just didn't make any sense to anyone. I never understood it.
MCH: He's going to resign at the end of this campaign. And he has to testify before Parliament. And the official reason he gives the Parliament is that he went to attack the supply depots in the backcountry before getting Philadelphia. Well, the problem with that argument before Parliament is that the moment they land, every decision he makes is about reconnecting with the fleet on the Delaware River. Because the British have a constant supply issue throughout the war. An inland army can never venture far from a navigable river because they need the supply ships to supply the army.
MJT: That’s what happened to Burgoyne.
MCH: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to Burgoyne. And so the moment they land, every decision he makes through northeastern Maryland, northern Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania is how to reconnect with the fleet. He never goes after the backcountry, never. Washington's afraid he will and makes his own decisions based on that fear. But Howe, I don't think I've ever had an intention of really going back there.
So then the question begs why did he do it? And, you know, I could speculate The problem is Howe’s personal papers are gone. His wife burns them after he dies. And all we have is his official reports and his testimony before Parliament, and his true feelings aren't going to be revealed in those official documents.
I mean, I speculate that he's mad at Burgoyne. Burgoyne had gone home during the winter previously, and basically proposed the plan of campaign for 1777, where he was going to lead that army south, and Howe was supposed to lead an army North and they were supposed to meet in Albany.
And the fact that Burgoyne basically went behind Howe’s back and got approval for that plan without Howe’s input. I can't prove it, but I think it rankled him. And I think he didn't care what happened to Burgoyne. Again, I can't prove that.
MJT: No, but that theory does make sense. I mean, Burgoyne ticked off a lot of people, including General Guy Carlton and General Clinton by basically going back to London saying these guys are all grannies and cowards who aren't willing to push ahead. And I could do it. So put me in charge, even though I'm a junior general to them.
MCH: Exactly, So I mean, again, I think that plays into it. And he had to have an official reason for abandoning Burgoyne. I think he makes up the backcountry story. I think he needed a reason in hindsight for why everything went down.
Because by the time he resigns, Burgoyne’s already surrendered. He officially sends in his resignation letter like late October. I think it's post-Saratoga. It’s definitely after Germantown. But he technically stays in command until the following spring when he takes a ship home. But he submitted his resignation before several of the operations around the forts and the Whitemarsh operation.
MJT: I think Howe was never happy with the amount of troops he had. Even when they were giving him record amounts in ‘76, he wasn't completely happy. And it sounded like he really wanted to resign because they just they wouldn't give him the troops to complete the job.
Let's assume for a minute that Howe wasn't deliberately trying to tank the British success in America. He could have let it in southern Delaware and gone from there. One reason I think was he wanted to avoid being attacked while he was landing his troops, which makes sense.
MCH: The problem with that theory is well, okay, he was given the impression that Washington's across the river. That doesn't mean Washington is in Delaware. You know, even if Washington was across, he would have been basically up around where New Hope is today. He wasn't even in Philadelphia yet. In my opinion, even if Hammond’s report was accurate, let's assume that argument for a moment, Howe could have landed in Wilmington, or a place called Reedy Island, just south of Chester, Pennsylvania, within a day or two of entering the Delaware Bay, and there was nothing Washington could do about it.
MCH: So Howe made bad decisions. If he really wanted to win the war, he was making bad decisions.
MJT: Yeah. But that also brings up the idea that, since, he did give Washington all that additional time by sailing around to the Chesapeake. Washington probably could have hit him once he realized where he was landing like, why didn't Washington want to be that aggressive?
MCH: I don't think he was ready. Remember, the army's being rebuilt. And he's also short one of his divisions. When the army moves south, they actually left John Sullivan’s division in northern New Jersey, in case Howe came back that way, basically to keep an eye on things up there. And they don’t rejoin the army until, I want to say it's either late August or early September, while they're in northern Delaware. So, at that point, but the point I'm making is when Howe actually lands, Sullivan’s not back with the army yet.
The other issue is the day Howe lands, Washington is still north of Philadelphia. He had camped for a long while while along the Neshaminy Creek on the north side of Philadelphia. And he doesn't actually march through the city and start moving into the Delaware into northern Delaware until seeing the appraiser landed. So he wasn't even a position to even think about attacking the day that they landed.
MJT The British get a few days or a couple of weeks before they start marching. Washington is in Wilmington, Delaware, and Howe moves up, they have a small skirmish, at Cooch’s bridge, which Delaware people are always excited about because that's their one battle, and then moves a little bit west and of course, goes up the Brandywine Creek and that's where we have the first major battle of this campaign. What do you think each side did right or wrong at Brandywine?
MCH: Okay, so let's start with a British. The British did almost everything right, with the possible exception of the tail end of the battle without pursuing defeated Americans. That's the one thing you do wrong. Because they don't really pursue Washington's retreat marking for the next morning. By then it's too late. But other than that, they effectively use locals for intelligence. They knew the road network. They executed their game plan almost to perfection.
Basically, it's a repeat of the same plan that they used on Long Island at the battle Brooklyn Heights, Battle of Long Island, depending on how you want to refer to that. It's the seventh time he executed a flanking maneuver against Washington successfully. Every time Washington doesn't figure it out. So I mean, ultimately, they did everything right, except the very end, they don't really pursue and you could argue that they retired. Darkness was setting in. They didn’t have enough cavalry with the army to effectively pursue them. You can make all those arguments. But that's one thing I would argue that they did wrong.
The Americans, on the other hand, from a leadership standpoint, let's talk about the common soldiers in a second, did everything wrong. They do not use locals effectively to learn the road network and the actual costs and points that were available to the British Army. They don't even use senior officers in the army to learn the road network. They don't use senior officers that live in the area to go out and scout when they start to get reports that there's a flanking maneuver. They use people from other parts of the country that do not know the roads or the farms in the area. I would argue that Washington’s decision making the entire day are poor. I don't think he makes one right decision the entire day.
That said, I think the common soldiers in the army do not get enough credit in that battle. Because, despite the mistakes that all the senior leadership make throughout the day, it ain’t their fault they lose. In fact, of the three divisions that rushed to the north to try to confront the flanking maneuver, two of those three divisions actually fight well. If they weren't so outnumbered, I don't know if the British push them off that hill. So you know, despite that this is pre-Valley Forge and it's a fairly new army and they are growing and learning. I don't think a comment soldiers do that poorly at Brandywine. I don't think you get enough credit, but their senior leadership failed them in a battle.
MJT:I guess one decision Washington did make right that day was the decision to get out of there in time before the army was captured. After that, Howe sat in Brandywine for, I think over a week,
MCH: five days
MJT Five days, okay. Was that because his army was still exhausted from the voyage and for marching up from the Chesapeake?
MCH: No, there's several times throughout the campaign where they're going to stop for four, five, or six days. The main reason is, not that they're tired, they kind of dealt with that while they were still down in northeastern Maryland, and Delaware. The real issue is they have a shortage of supplies. So the fresh food ran out on the voyage. Their salted beef and hard bread were rotted and moldy by the time they landed. And then the other factor, which you mentioned earlier, is their livestock, the vast majority of it die on the wage.
So they have a shortage of draught animals for moving wagons and artillery, etc. to the point where they’re going to spend multiple times through the campaign, stopped so they can raid the countryside for supplies and horses. They do right after they land, they do it in northern Delaware, right before the battle of Cooch’s bridge. They do it again, at Brandywine. They're going to do it for the Battle of the Clouds. They do it multiple times. So they can send out these foraging parties and gather hopefully what they need.
The other reason that specifically the Brandywine, that they're going to stop, Howe needs to create a reconnection with the fleet. So while they're stopped, he's going to send a detachment, the first of many he's going to make over the next few weeks, to seize Wilmington and garrison Wilmington, for a connection point when a fleet comes back around from Chesapeake Bay. So that's another reason they're going to be stalled and they need to evacuate the wounded. I mean there’s a lot of reasons. They ship their wounded to Wilmington, with that detachment, you get them off the battlefield. So there's multiple factors but the main one is its a supply issue.
MJT: So after Brandywine, while the British are foraging and doing what they're doing, taking Wilmington, Washington retreats all the way back across the Schuylkill River to Philadelphia, sees that British aren’t pursuing him, and then finds his way back, wanders back toward the army again, leading to the Battle of the Clouds. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
MCH: Yeah, Let's start with the maneuvering first and why. First of all, he had to get out of there. The reason they fight Brandywine is it was a natural defensive barrier between the British Army in Philadelphia.
I know for those of you that may live in the area, it's hard to imagine the Brandywine defensive barrier today. But back then the Brandywine was deep. I mean, just to give you a sense, the fords where you could walk across, were chest-deep. So it was a barrier to an army. So once they lose that fight, the only other natural defensive barrier between the British and Philadelphia now is the Schuylkill River. Because in the 18th century, Philadelphia sat on a peninsula and formed by the Schuylkill and the Delaware River. It’s not like today where it was on both sides of the Schuylkill River. Compared to today it was a fairly small city, you know, on that narrow peninsula.
And so Washington now knew he had to get into position and he had to rest and regroup. But he also had to get a position to block the crossings of the Schuylkill River. So the very complicated maneuvering he does over those five days that the British stay at Brandywine is the night. The morning after the battle, he retreats up through upper Darby, crosses Schuylkill River roughly where 30th Street Station is today, and marches out Ridge Pike and camps in the Germantown area, actually, the day after the battle. They’re going to spend a couple days there regrouping, resupplying, shipping off their wounded, etc. Then they start to maneuver back into that blocking position.
So off the top of my head, I think it's the 13th, it might be the 14. I don’t have it right in front of me. But they start to move out of Germantown. They cross at Levering’s Ford which is where Manayunk is today, and then they start maneuvering out roughly what was the Lancaster road and 18th century but it's roughly US 30, route 30, heading west. And so by the morning or by the evening of September 15, just four days after Brandywine, they have maneuvered into the area known as the Great Valley, roughly where Immaculata College is today. And they are in that valley. And that valley is formed by something called the South Valley hills and the North Valley hills. And so the morning of the 16th. Washington's plan is, he wants to maneuver the army up onto the South Valley hills to block access to the road junctions in the great valley that leaves to the Schuylkill River Ford. That was the point of getting into that position.
What he doesn't know is that in the morning on the 16th, William Howe has now decided to get moving again. And his army is going to come up two different roads, well ultimately three different roads, to converge on that south valley hill from the south. And neither army really realizes this is happening, but they're using the same road to get up onto the hill. And it's an unexpected engagement, they kind of run into each other.
And you have this clash. It becomes known as a battle the clouds really, because this massive rainstorm breaks out, ruining ammunition on both sides. And so there is some minor skirmishing but it never develops into a full-scale battle that it could have, because all the ammunition gets ruined in this windswept rain, into these guys’ cartridge boxes. And that's why it's known as the battle of the clouds.
And it's really two separate agents on two different roads separated by a mile, mile and a half. It's not like a rolling stand up engagement like you would think of as like at a Brandywine or a Germantown. The two very isolated little skirmishes that never develop into a full scale gave up because of that rainstorm.
MJT: It could have been a very serious battle. But…
MCH: Yeah, it could have, yeah.
MJT: After that Washington, I guess, thinks better of his advance and pulls back across the Schuylkill river again. But he does leave an attachment behind, which ends up in the British rear near Paoli. Want to talk about what happened there.
MCH: Because of the ammunition situation, the night of the Battle of the Clouds, the army initially retreats to Yellow House, which was a tavern it'll later be a hospital facility during a Valley Forge campaign. Today it’s known as Chester Springs or not yellow house, Yellow Springs, I'm sorry, Yellow Springs. Today it’s known as Chester Springs. I actually think it's not until they get there, that they realize how bad the ammunition situation is. And so it's going to force him to retreat even farther west. All the way out to Warwick Furnace and Reading Furnace, all the way out in northwestern Chester County to get access to their supply depots and a new supply of ammunition.
When they make the decision to go that far west Anthony Wayne’s division is ordered to remain behind and keep an eye on British Army. And they're ultimately going to camp actually outside of the modern town of Malvern. It's known as the battle of Paoli because of Paoli tavern, but it’s not actually in the town of Paoli today.
|Battle at Paoli|
So they're left behind and while Wayne is sort of hanging out behind the British Army, Washington regroups to get that resupply, and then he maneuvers back across the Schuylkill River. They cross at Parker's Ford, which is where, again if you are familiar with the Philadelphia area, it's where Linfield Road crosses towards Limerick if you're coming from the south side of the Schuylkill, there’s a bridge there today. And then he moves into a blocking position stretched from roughly modern day Royer’s Ford all the way out to modern day Norristown. The army’s kind of spread out watching all these fords again, almost like what happened at Brandywine. They're spread out watching multiple fords.
And the plan was, Washington's thought process was, that as the British were attempting to cross the river, Wayne was going to strike their rear. That's why he was waiting back there. The problem is the British intercept the messages between Washington and Wayne. The British, know the plan. The other problem is the loyalists in Chester County inform Howe of exactly, or not exactly, roughly where Wayne was camped. And so Howe wants to cross the river but, he doesn't want Wayne in his rear while he's doing it.
So on the night of September 20-21, he orders a detachment to go assault Wayne's camp. And what’s sort of a myth about the battle is that these guys were caught in their beds and stabbed and burned to death and all that other stuff. And some of these things do happen. But they're not caught in their beds. That's a myth.
Wayne actually does get a report that the British are coming for him in the middle of the night. And he actually gets his division in line to march out of there. The problem was he wanted his supply wagons and artillery to lead the column, instead of being at the back, and one of those artillery pieces, overturns and blocks the way out through the fences. And so the infantry is all lined up in a column to march when the British hit them.
And so in some ways, it's not totally I mean, Wayne was trying to get out of there. And so these British come swarming out of the woods and they catch these guys in the marching column and not a line of battle. It becomes vicious. I mean, there is some violence and there is some massacres, where guys are stabbed dozens of times. The British were just playing with them in a weird sort of way. And so Wayne does extricate his division, but he gets chewed up and chopped up, and it becomes known as this Paoli massacre and Battlefield.
MJT: So with Wayne's army out of the way, at least as far as the British are concerned, at this point, they do go ahead and cross the Schuylkill. And it seems like this time Washington is trying to learn from his lessons because when they move up river to try to flank around him again, he follows them, but then they kind of come back and zip across the river from where he was in the first place.
MCH: I my opinion, it’s funny I’ve been talking to another historian lately about this, Washington overreacts. He was lined up in a perfect position. And on the 23rd I think it September 23, the British send a column west down what’s today Route 23 towards Phoenixville, because they knew of a factory down there making gun locks for the American army. And he wanted to destroy that facility. And Washington scouts, and the militia report back, that they’re moving west, but it was just a detachment.
Washington, I think, panics because Brandywine is still very fresh in his mind. And he knows that there's fords farther west, he's really not keeping an eye on and I think he overreacts. He pulls his guys away from the fords around Norristown and modern day Oakes to shift west, thinking the British are heading that way. And of course, it's really not what Howe’s intent was. But because they opened up all those lower fords, Howe’s able to cross. I think it's the night of the 23rd into the 24th. They cross at Fatlands Ford, which is roughly behind where the chapel is in Valley Forge Park is today, and basically marching into Norristown, camp for a day before occupying Germantown.
MJT: Howe ends up taking a few more days before he actually takes Philadelphia proper. It’s hard to imagine for people who know Philadelphia today, but Philadelphia, at the time, was really went from about South Street, to Race Street and maybe out to about seventh or eighth Street. That was really Philadelphia at the time.
MCH: Yeah, it wasn't very big. Basically, you pretty much nailed that, you got the dimensions about right there.
MJT: Usually you think you cross the Schuylkill River, as you said before, you think you're in Philadelphia, which you would be today. But back then, you were still miles away from the city. And Germantown, of course is part of Philadelphia today as well, was well outside of town in 1777. So General Howe finally enters Philadelphia on September 26, takes possession of the city, but he leaves the majority of the army in Germantown, correct?
MCH: It starts to get complicated. So they move into Germantown on September 25. And then he starts creating detachments. So he had already sent troops to Wilmington. We talked about that earlier. The next chunk of troops that are going to be detached are the occupying force for Philadelphia.
Now, Howe does not go with them. Charles Cornwallis is going to lead that column. And it's a significant chunk of the troops. It's several elite regiments, grenadiers are going to go and a lot of the artillery is going to go to officially occupy Philadelphia. And then on October, either September 30 or October 1. He's going to send two more regiments from Germantown, the 10th and the 42nd of foot to Chester, because he wants those two regiments to be ferried across the river by the fleet, which has now returned to the Delaware, to attack a fortification called Billingsport in southern New Jersey, which is near modern-day Paulsboro because Howe needs to start eliminating the obstacles to the fleet, and their ability to get to Philadelphia. Because there's obstructions in the river. And there were three fortifications keeping the fleet from moving up the river. And so that was like step one, to opening up the river to the fleet.
And so Washington spies are doing a very good job of informing him of all these detachments from the army at Germantown. So that the troops that are left in Germantown, at this point, or that army that's left there, is a shadow of the army that fought at Brandywine, because of all these detachments from that force.
Washington, in the meanwhile, has actually, if nothing else, has replaced his losses from Brandywine and the other engagements we've talked about. Because a brigade of Connecticut troops that were not at Brandywine have now joined the army, and New Jersey and Maryland militia, have now joined the army that we're not at Brandywine. And so I actually think the army that was assembled prior to Germantown is fairly equal in size to the force he had at Brandywine.
The problem is, how many of them are able bodied? How many of them actually make the march into Germantown? That's what's debatable. I don't think the entirety of those 15,000 troops make the attack. I think a lot of them are sick. I also know from the records that they left a significant detachment to watch the camp equipment, as camp guards from where they left from. So the traditional number of about 11,000, they make the attack, probably isn't that far off. But on paper, they were probably close to equal what they were at Brandywine. And so they significantly outnumber that British force at Germantown. Washington knew that. And he takes a gamble. He's going to attack.
MJT: Washington comes up with what's been later criticized as a hopelessly complicated attack plan with multiple columns. And this was not unusual for Washington, he tried to do the same thing at the back of Trenton and on other occasions. Why was he so intent on trying these really complex plans with an army that was not particularly skilled or experienced, and how to work out for him?
MCH: That's a good question. And I mean, I don't know 100% why he did it. But let's start with how it turns out. Despite what later historians will claim, you know, I've obviously done a lot of research on it. It's not true. I mean, those five columns, well at least four of the five, yes, they are going to use five different roads. That's true. But despite what most histories say, from what I could find in the records, all of those columns got to where they were supposed to in the middle of the night, over roads, they were unfamiliar with, roughly within 10 to 15 minutes of each other, which is admirable 18th century when you don’t have radios and GPS, and you're doing it in the middle the night. So the plan actually worked, and he actually crushed two thirds of the British troops that were there before things turned sour. And I’m sure we’re goin to talk about that in a second. Things, they worked.
Now why does he do it? Why does he make a complicated plan? Well think about 18th century roads, that maybe are a cart width or a wagon width wide, they're not like modern roads, they're not paved, it's dark, it's the middle of the night. Getting 11,000 troops from your camp, to where you want to attack and be able to deploy them in a manner where they can all attack at once - You can't use one road to do that, and surprise the British Army.
You're going to have to use multiple roads to be able to deploy that force in such a way that they can assault at roughly the same moment. Yes, it's complicated, but I think there was a necessity to do that.
MJT: The other question I guess I had was, Why Germantown? Why did he attack there? Was he hoping to distract the British from their plans to clear the Delaware River? Did he really hope to retake Philadelphia?
MCH: At this point, I don't think it has to do with the river. That's going to come later. And I think it's a bit far fetched to think he was gonna retake Philadelphia in one fell swoop. But I think he was under an incredible amount of pressure, politically, to get a win.
There are at least, off the top of my head, three or four councils of war, from the moment they recross the Schuylkill. So after the Battle of the Clouds, once they're across the Schuylkill, they're going to over that roughly, two week period, there's at least three or four councils of war where Washington proposes to his senior officers to attack and he keeps getting voted down. So he's looking for an opportunity, probably from about September 22-23 on.
It's not until they get those Connecticut reinforcements that he gives a majority of the division commanders to say, Okay, let's give this a try. And that takes place on October 2, I think it is, while they're camped on the Methacton Hills northwest of Germantown. That's when he devises the plan, and then they leave the night of the third to attack the morning of the fourth. So he's basically waiting for the Okay, the support of his commanders. But I think if he could have gotten there, okay, earlier, he would have done it earlier.
Now, what's the ultimate goal? That was part of the question, right? I think the ultimate goal was to destroy the force at Germantown. I don't think all, in that same day they could have gotten Philadelphia too. But if they could have destroyed the force of Germantown, and forced them to retreat into Philadelphia, remember Philadelphia sits on a peninsula. If they could have blocked the land approaches to the city and maintained the river forts from the British, so the fleet couldn’t resupply and reinforce that army, he could have starved them out of the city and forced their surrender. I think that's a long term goal. But we'll never know because he doesn't win that battle. But he will continue to try to maintain those forts, and try to starve them out of the city.
MJT: So the columns hit Germantown. It's a cloudy, foggy, dew-ridden morning. sightlines are pretty limited. It seems like the British intentions are pretty much taken by surprise. What goes wrong?
MCH: Well, I mean, things were going right. There was a reserve division that was not initially engaged, of New Jersey, North Carolina troops. And the plan was, after the initial success, to rotate out the units that started the fight, replace them with these fresh troops. And to keep the attack going. Allow the troops that started the fight to get resupplied with ammunition, and then ultimately, they would be able to rejoin the fight over time.
And what goes wrong is that senior leadership gets completely wrapped up with this issue at a house called Cliveden, the country retreat of Benjamin Chew. And what goes down is, during the initial successes, as they’re routing and pushing back British units, a couple companies of the 40th of foot led by Colonel Thomas Musgrave are getting swept up in this attack, and they run into the house for protection.
While they're in the process of blocking the windows and doors and stuff, and getting ready to defend the house, the Americans keep going. They push past it, I don't think initially realize they even had guys in that house, because they push well beyond that house, into the center of Germantown, very close to where the market square in Germantown is.
And it's not until Timothy Pickering, the Army's Adjutant General, is ordered to ride forward and tell the advanced units to slow down the rate of fire because of the ammunition issues. He delivers that order and on his ride back up Germantown Avenue. He gets shot at from the house. And he's like, whoa. And so about what’s today now, I guess it's like two blocks north of the house. There's a house. the Billmeyer House, which stood at the time. But at the time, it was all open ground from the Billmeyer House to Cliveden. And so even with the fog and things, the senior leadership gathered outside this Billmeyer House to discuss what to do and because that was the house closest to Cliveden, because it was all open up between those two buildings at the time.
Pickering comes back and he rides back to this argument going on. And really arguments developed between Henry Knox, the Army's chief of artillery and Pickering, the Army's Adjutant General, there's other officers there too. But I get the sense they’re the two arguing the most.
Knox claims, you can't leave what he calls a castle in our rear. We must deal with that before continuing the fight. And Pickering’s argument is this battling ain’t over. Let's not worry about that, because we need to deal with what's in our front, because this is far from decided. And there's a huge debate. And ultimately, Washington is going to side with Knox. I’m not clear why. Knox is not a trained military man. He basically got his position from the fact that he had pulled a bunch of cannons from Fort Ticonderoga and brought them to Boston. And by that sheer thing he's made brigadier general, chief of
artillery, you know, he's not anybody with great knowledge or expertise when it comes to military matters
MJT: Right, he was a bookstore owner before the war.
If for whatever reason, Washington has put a lot of trust in him. We can debate what really went down at that argument. But that's the decision that's made. And there's gonna be multiple ways that they attempt to draw those British troops out of that house. They first send an officer with a white flag to summon the surrender. He gets shot, mortally wounded. He's going to die. They then try to pound the house with artillery. Well, the light field guns that were with the American army were never going to be able to cave in the walls of that house. If you've never been there, it’s very thick sandstone walls.
|Americans storm the Chew House|
They then deploy that reserve division that was meant to continue the attack forward, to confront the house, the North Carolinians, the New Jerseyans. And I actually think if they ended up just one or two of those regiments to keep an eye on things, they could have still sent the rest of that division forward. They don't do that. I also argue in the book, I don't think there was actually an order to assault the house. I think Matthias Ogden and Elias Dayton kind of do that on their own. I don't think there was an actual order to do it. But you know, we did debate that another time too. But the first and third New Jersey regiments are going to attack up the lane to Cliveden to try to take over the house, and they basically start getting picked off in the yard the house. They did not gain entry to the house, and that fails in a bloody mess in the front yard of the house.
The next thing they try to do is they're going to try to burn them out. And they move a wagon with hay loaded on it up to the side of this stone house, now mind you. They try to burn them out and that will fail. And more senior staff officers are mortally wounded. John Laurens is going to take a round in the shoulder trying light that hay on fire. John Lauren's father, of course, will very soon be the president of Congress, Henry Laurens. So all their efforts are going to fail.
And what's really important here is while all this is happening, the troops that had advanced deep into Germantown to start to hear all the shooting to their rear. And a combination of factors are going to happen. They are starting to run out of ammunition. They hear shooting in their rear. There's fog. They don't really know what's happening behind them, and units start to peel off and start to move back in the opposite direction. You start to get friendly fire incidents when this happens. And it allows the British to regroup and reinforce the areas of the line that had been collapsed.
And so, as all these units start to draw up towards the fight at Cliveden, the British counter attack. And they're going to retake all the ground they lost and drive the Americans out of Germantown. It really all hinges on those decisions made to attack Cliveden or deal with Cliveden.
MJT: That obviously was a major source of confusion that day. There was a great deal of confusion in other parts of the field as well. I know General Adam Stephen’s troops ended up firing on other American troops in the midst of the fog. After the battle. Stephen is accused of drunkenness and malperformance of duty and all sorts of things and ends up getting kicked out of the army essentially. Do you think that was fair? I mean, it seems like there was a lot of problems on that day and he was not the only one.
MCH: That's a great question. Let's do some background here. He is accused of drunkenness. But when you read the court martial documents, he's not found guilty of drunkenness. That's a hard thing to prove in an army of drinkers. But he's actually convicted of conduct .. I don’t actually remember the exact language.
MJT It was “conduct unlike an officer.”
MCH: Actually it's because he's not with his troops. There's at least three documented incidences during the course of the battle where he's giving orders to men that aren’t under his man, creating a great deal of confusion. I think the most egregious of those is during the retreat, Anthony Wayne assembles a rearguard in Whitemarsh, where St. Thomas Church is today, at the intersection of Bethlehem Pike and Route 73, up in the Whitemarsh area. They assemble a rearguard there because of the British pursuit. Wayne scratches together a force and Stevens just rides up and orders them away. That's one of three documented ones where he's getting orders, he shouldn’t be giving. So ultimately, the real true reason he's thrown out of the army is for conduct unbecoming, basically.
Now why right? That's the big mystery question. Is what he did any worse than what others did? There's four major court martials in the aftermath of Germantown. John Sullivan is court martialed for Brandywine and exonerated. William Maxwell is court martialed for Brandywine and the Battle of the Clouds, accused of drunkenness, and exonerated. Anthony Wayne is court martialed for Paoli and exonerated. Steven is the only one that gets thrown out of the army.
So why, right? My guess is, I can't prove it. They needed to find a spot for Lafayette. Congress made him a two star general. Now he gets wounded at Brandywine while not actually in command of anybody. He's getting ready to come back to the army and they’ve got to find a spot for him. Politically, they have to find a spot for him. And I actually make an argument in the appendix of the new book where I do the court martial, I think it has a lot to do with that. Stephen is a two star general.
Now those other guys that got court martialed, only John Sullivan was a two star general. And Sullivan, I mean, there was no proof against Sullivan. There's no way they could have done that to Sullivan. Stephen, they could make an argument that he was causing issues, and it would shockingly create a spot for Lafayette. And when Lafayette returns, that's the division he gets. He ends up commanding Virginians.
MJT: I've always felt like Washington never really liked Stephen from the beginning. They knew each other back to the beginning of the French and Indian War. They got along, but they were very different personalities.
MCH: Yeah, true.
MJT: Washington was very prim and proper, elite, chain of command, formality. Stephen was really the opposite of that. And I think also, Steven almost screwed up the raid on Trenton by sending soldiers to hit the British right before the surprise attack. So I think Washington felt Stephen had several strikes against him already, which set him up for being a fall guy when he failed again at Germantown.
MCH: Sure. I mean, yes, all that's true, but was he doing anything any worse than anybody else? He's only one of two general officers thrown out of the army the whole War. The only other one being Charles Lee in the aftermath of Monmouth, which you could argue his actions were far worse than what Stephen did. We could do a whole discussion just on that.
MJT: You’re right. But I think we could agree that, if they were looking for somebody to put where ... to put Lafayette, Stephen was the weakest link.
MJT: So in the attack on Germantown, Washington used militia for the far left and far right flanks of his attack. They did not do so well. Was that a good idea?
MCH: Yes, they don’t do well. It's not their fault that Americans lose that fight. The Pennsylvania militia is the far right of the attack, basically attacking down Ridge Road through Manayunk, supposed to cross at the mouth of the Wissahickon Creek and that Wissahickon Gorge, and assault the left flank of the British camp. That was what they were supposed to do.
|British at Germantown |
If you’ve ever gone - I'm going to depend them a little bit here. If you ever go into the Germantown area and visit Wissahickon park, and walk those trails where this all happened. That’s a gorge. If you ever drove up Kelly drive along the Wissahickon, it's a gorge. It's not easy terrain to attack across, and they're up against Hessian jaegers, which are an elite force.
I'm not saying they did exactly what they were supposed to do. But the task assigned to them was not an easy one. They do get to where they're supposed to. They do engage the jaegers, but don't make much of an effort to cross the bridge that was there across the Wissahickon and really occupy the left flank of the first force, but prevent them from sending reinforcements to the center of the line. They do not do that. So of all the units, I would argue that at Germantown, they perform the worst. They do get to where they’re supposed to. They do engage. But they don't really push the issue.
Now I actually disagree with other histories of the battle, the Maryland and New Jersey militia, which are on the far left - most histories of the battle make it sound like they don't even get there, or they don't fight. I don't agree with that. There's enough circumstantial evidence. And there's enough evidence in the casualty reports, and in pension records, and in British accounts, that they engaged somebody over there. And it wasn't Greene's column.
I actually argue, in a new book, that the Maryland and Jersey militia do engage with the Queen's Rangers and elements of the British were Brigadier Guards. Now. They don't push them back. They don't really find a lot of success, but they are engaged. They do suffer casualties, which tells me they got to where they're supposed to. But again, they're not the reason that they lose the battle either. They actually do keep troops from reinforcing James Grant’s British division, which got crushed by Nathaniel Greene attack. I mean, that division was utterly crushed and driven into Market Square in Germantown. And the fact that the Maryland and Jersey militia were occupying some elements of the British force, those years couldn't come in and save Grant’s division. So I kind of don't agree with most other histories of the battle, except when it comes to the Pennsylvania militia.
MJT: The British do effectively counter-attack and the Continentals are forced to withdraw. Washington ends up setting up a new camp for defense at Whitemarsh, which is fairly close to Germantown. It's only a few miles away. It looked like he was gearing up for another fight. Do you think at that point, the Continental Army was really a condition for another battle?
MCH: How I do I want to answer that? no. Let's keep it simple. There's going to be a long stretch from about mid-October to mid-November, where really the focus of the campaign becomes the river forts: Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer.
For the good good chunk of that time period. Yes, Washington is encamped roughly in the Whitemarsh area. For some of that he's a little bit farther north. But for most of that he's in the Whitemarsh area. It's not until really after Fort Mifflin is forced to be abandoned. And then, as a result, Fort Mercer is abandoned, that the ground that Washington is on becomes a factor. It's pretty good ground. In fact I was out there yesterday, starting to work on a new project. Looking at the ground, it's significant terrain, it's not easily assaulted by an attacking force.
But there's a lot going on there. The army that had fought under him at Brandywine and Germantown is regrouping. But this is now post-Saratoga. So the army that captures Burgoyne is slowly coming down and joining the main army, Washington's army. The bulk of Saratoga force will also be at Valley Forge. So there's a lot of new units being amalgamated into the force that had served throughout the rest of the campaign. So there’s a lot going on at Whitemarsh. Like they're reconstructing the army. They're regrouping. They also need to decide where their winter quarters are going to be. At this point. I'm not convinced Washington thought there would be another fight, but they need to decide where to camp for the winter.
It's Howe who decides he wants to try to get another fight in. It's Howe that’s going to lead a column out on December 6 and 7th to try to draw Washington into another fight. I don't think Washington is seeking a fight at that point. He's forced In one. It turns into a relatively minor engagement over two days, over the sixth and seventh. It's mostly militia that's involved, with the exception of Daniel Morgan's riflemen. The main army, the Continental line up on what’s today called Militia Hill and Camp Hill, they're not engaged. It's really just the militia and Daniel Morgan’s riflemen. And that's really the last, well I shouldn’t say that, there's going to be another engagement. That's the last stage of involving the main armies.
MJT: That’s the last intentional engagement. They run into each other at Matson’s Ford. I just thought it was provocative that Washington picked a position so close to the British that point that he was almost inviting attack.
MCH: Well, keep in mind, he's still trying to starve them out. So the closer he is to Philadelphia, the less ground the British have to forage from.
MJT: And as you say, to his credit, he picked really good defensive ground. So, If they did actually try to hit him there. They could have had another Bunker Hill on their hands.
MCH: It’s significant ground. I was walking it quite a bit yesterday with another historian. It would not have been a good position for the British to attack. Let me just put it that way.
MJT: So after the British come out, they have an almost battle at Whitemarsh, they do go into winter quarters at Valley Forge and that pretty much ends the fighting for the season. How does Germantown fit into the larger story of the war? I mean, how important was it to the course of the war?
MCH: Stunningly I was kind of shocked by this when I was doing my research and trying to summarize the importance in the epilogue. There are documents in Franklin's papers, and John Adams’ papers, even in French governmental papers. It's almost like Germantown gets as much credit as Saratoga for the French Alliance, which is kind of stunning when you think about it, because it’s a loss.
However, think about it this way. It was the first time Washington took the main Continental Army and attacked the main British Army. The only other time he attacked prior to that was Trenton and Princeton. And that was against detachments. That wasn't against the whole British Army. So I actually think it had more significance that, yes, they had captured an army at Saratoga, but the fact that Washington was willing to do that. I think it said a lot in those negotiations over in Paris.
MJT: I think the French, were not so concerned about the Americans winning as much as they were concerned about them not losing. In other words, they wanted the war to go on and on and on and distract the British for a long time. And Washington's decision to attack Germantown after losing Brandywine and losing possession of Philadelphia, told the French that they weren't going say, “Oh, we lost our capital. We give up”. They're just going to keep hitting the British and hitting them again and hitting them again. Win or lose that fight is going to go on. And that's exactly what the French wanted to hear.
MCH: Yeah, I would agree with that.
MJT: You did a lot of great research on Germantown on your book. And quite frankly, I did not find a good book on Germantown, unfortunately, when I was writing my episode on Germantown, which came out about a month before your book was released. So obviously, you didn't have a lot of great, great books to rely on when you were writing yours, either. Where did you find most of your research? Or where did you find a lot of inspiration for this work?
MCH: Well, luckily, when I was working on Brandywine, I was sort of smart enough that when I did stumble on something, I copied, like I would just copy somebody's letter about Brandywine. I was copying everything. So I had put together pretty good files after Brandywine, or during Brandywine. And then I could augment it as I was pursuing Germantown.
In some ways it's easier now because so much stuff is digitized and online. So in some ways it's easier now than it was 10-15 years ago. But in another way, Revolutionary War research is so hard because it's scattered. There's Hessian documents in Germany, and it's in German. There's French documents in France, and it's in French. The British stuff is not all in one place. A lot of these officers were lords or became lords later in life, or were the children of lords. And their papers are scattered castles and manor houses all over Great Britain. And so it's not all centralized. It's the same here, depending on what repository of family donated papers to, you go on between the New York Historical Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Library of Congress, to the William Clements library at the University of Michigan, you know, it's scattered. Yeah. So, it involves some travel. It involves long hours in smelly repositories. Yep. Because it's not easy. It's scattered.
MJT: So are you working on anything new these days?
MCH: I'm in the very early stages. I mean, Germantown just came out. Yeah. And I'm mentally taking a break. Although I told you yesterday, I was traipsing some ground with another historian, who is working on his own project, but our stuff is overlapping a little bit. And so we decided to get together a couple times now.
But ultimately, once you read Germantown, or what you've read Germantown, you realize he doesn't finish the story. It basically ends right in the aftermath of Germantown. I originally intended to take that story up to October 20, which is the day the British withdrew that camp from Germantown. My original goal was to end there and the editing didn’t like that. So the last chapter was changed significantly. And then they were right. So, there needs to be a third volume, at least a third volume, that covers the fight for the two forts, Mercer and Mifflin, the engagement at Whitemarsh, and all the maneuvering that takes place to get them to Valley Forge. So ultimately, there's going to be a third book. just I haven't really, truly started yet. Just sort of in the preliminary stages here.
MJT: Yeah, you’re entitled to some time off after finishing Germantown.
MCH: So, probably around Christmas time when I’m on winter break, I'll start digging in. Really, I’ve got to start with Fort Mercer because I really have the first chapter written because it was originally going to be the last chapter of Germantown. So I really got to start diving in on my Fort Mercer research. That's where it’s going to start.
MJT: Alright, well Michael,. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today. Your book, again is: Germantown, A Military History of the Battle for Philadelphia, October 4 1777, which just came out, what, last month?
MCH: Yeah, like the middle of September it got released
MJT: Mid-September? Okay, yeah, it's really good. I love it. It really fills a hole in a lot of writing that I've seen on the war. So I heartily recommend it.
MCH: Well, thank you for having me. It was fun.
- - -
Books by Michael C. Harris:
Germantown a Military History of the Battle for Philadelphia, October 4th, 1777. Savas Beatie, 2020.
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