Despite the mauling his forces had received along the Brandywine, he retained his confidence that he could stop Howe. The American troops also responded well to the defeat, though there were the usual desertions. To replace his losses Washington ordered 2500 Continentals down from Peekskill and appealed to the states for militia. Within two weeks he had received 900 Continentals and around 2200 militia from Maryland and New Jersey.
Before these men arrived, the main army marched and countermarched, always seeking to block the British from Philadelphia. Several small-scale battles marked this maneuvering; one on September 16 at Warren Tavern, between Lancaster and Philadelphia, might have developed into a general engagement had heavy rain not fallen. The rain ruined the cartridge boxes and the gunpowder carried by the American infantry. With his troops disarmed, Washington pulled back, and Howe showed no disposition to force an action. Five days later at Paoli, about two miles southeast of Warren Tavern, Major General James Grey surprised Anthony Wayne’s force, which Washington had left behind to “hang on” Howe. At about one o’clock in the morning Grey led his troops into an American camp carelessly asleep. On Grey’s order the British had removed the flints from their muskets—he was taking no chances that an overeager private might pull a trigger—and they used their bayonets with cruel efficiency. Many of the sleepers never left their blankets, and when the bloody business was over 300 had been killed and wounded and still another hundred captured. Only eight of the British died. Wayne escaped, carrying with him a renewed respect for “No-Flint Grey” and the value of the bayonet.
The “Paoli Massacre” shook Washington, who was maneuvering cautiously to avoid being trapped or outflanked once more. Howe took advantage of this concern on September 22 when he lured Washington’s army ten miles up the Schuylkill and then crossed at Fatland Ford from the west and slipped into Philadelphia on September 26. A year earlier the loss of the city might have hurt American morale severely. Now it did not, in part because the American army remained whole and in part because reassuring news from the north, where Burgoyne’s army was gradually disintegrating, had seeped down to the middle Atlantic states.
With Howe ensconced in Philadelphia, Washington made camp along Skippack Creek twenty-five miles to the west. He had no intention of sitting quietly, however. The old desire for action worked within him, drawing strength from his conviction that his troops, young and inexperienced as they generally were, would fight well given half a chance. By early October that chance had appeared. Howe had not found life in Philadelphia full of comfort and ease. He held the city but not the Delaware River, which provided an important line of access to it. The American forts on the river blocked all traffic and denied British ships the opportunity to bring in supplies and reinforcements. In his isolated circumstances Howe feared to spread all his troops throughout Philadelphia in inns and houses and had bivouacked around nine thousand at Germantown on the east side of the Schuylkill River five miles to the north. Another three thousand had been sent to protect the transport of supplies from Elktown, which of course involved a slow move over land. Four battalions remained in Philadelphia and two more had marched off to attack Billingsport twelve miles below the city on the Delaware. Howe was now spread all over the map.
When Washington learned of the scattered condition of the enemy, he decided to attack the largest concentration at Germantown. His troops probably needed no persuasion to fight, but Washington felt compelled once more to review the reasons why they should. The preamble to his general order to the army conveyed something of his own eagerness and, what is probably more important, just how far his understanding of the Revolution and of his army had proceeded. He now recognized that a professional pride existed in at least several of his regiments, and he appealed to it by reminding them that far to the north their comrades had delivered a heavy blow to Burgoyne at Freeman’s Farm. He coupled this reminder of the northern success to invocation of the cause of America. “This army, the main American army, will certainly not suffer itself to be outdone by their northern Brethren; they will never endure such disgrace; but with an ambition becoming freemen, contending in the most righteous cause rival the heroic spirit which swelled their bosoms, and which, so nobly exerted has procured them deathless renown. Covet! my Countrymen, and fellow soldiers! Covet! a share of the glory due to heroic deeds! Let it never be said, that in a day of action, you turned your backs on the foe; let the enemy no longer triumph.”
These appeals to pride, to heroism, to honor had been made before, but their linkage to a cause which was “righteous” as well as glorious and which was shared by the “Country” marked a subtle departure, a broadening understanding. Washington ended by bringing these grand concepts into conjunction with the immediate and personal interests of his troops. The enemy, he reminded them, “brand you with ignominious epithets. Will you patiently endure that reproach? Will you suffer the wounds given to your Country to go unavenged?” These questions concerned his soldiers’ families, especially since a revolution that failed would undoubtedly be regarded as treason: “Will you resign your parents, wives, children and friends to be the wretched vassals of a proud, insulting foe? And your own necks to the halter?”
Perhaps only in a revolutionary war do soldiers go into battle with a conception of a “righteous cause” competing with an image of their own necks in a halter. These men could have no doubts about what they were fighting for, though they may have blurred some of the fine distinctions in republican theology. What they had to understand was that their fight was for themselves, not for an overmighty lord and master.
The first task at Germantown was to surprise the British. Washington took care to give Howe no warning by a leisurely march to the village. Rather, he broke his camp which was twenty miles to the west and, by a forced march during the night of October 3, got into position. At 2:00 A.M. on the next day he stopped two miles away from the British pickets.
Germantown, five miles northwest of Philadelphia, extended two miles on both sides of Skippack Road, which ran between Philadelphia and Reading. All of the British there were east of the Schuylkill, as indeed was most of the town. Most of their camp lay at the south end of town, though of course they had placed pickets along its northern edge. Four roads which led into Germantown seemed to make an attack on a broad front possible, and Washington decided that his army should converge on Howe’s camp in overwhelming strength. Accordingly, he drew up a plan which provided that four prongs of the American army would push into Howe simultaneously at 5:00 A.M. on October 4. Major John Armstrong and his Pennsylvania militia would advance down the Manatawny Road on the American right and behind the British left. Sullivan with his own and Wayne’s reinforced brigade would deliver the main blow down the Skippack road, which cut the town in two; Green would lead his force, including Stephen’s division and Alexander McDougall’s brigade, along Limekiln Road to the northeast of Skippack; and a mile farther to the left Smallwood with Maryland and New Jersey militia would march down the old York Road and if all went well cut into the British right and into the rear of their main encampments.
On the map the plan looked brilliant, and it very nearly worked on the ground. Once the American troops positioned themselves at 2:00 they moved forward within a few hundred yards of the outposts, and around five o’clock in early light they struck. Washington’s order called for an assault by “bayonets without firing” along all four roads. Sullivan’s force, which Washington rode with, hit first at Mount Airy and drove over the pickets. There was firing, apparently from both sides—American fire discipline was almost never tight—and the British in confusion gave ground. A heavy fog which made seeing ahead more than fifty yards impossible created some of the confusion, especially about the size of the attacking force. Howe rode up through the fog to scout the ground for himself and immediately berated his light infantry for yielding. “Form! Form!” he called, and added that he was ashamed of his soldiers for running before only a scouting party. The scouting party turned out to be Sullivan’s infantry accompanied by light artillery, which soon disabused Howe of the notion that only a probe was under way. The fog also confused Sullivan’s troops, who had trouble maintaining contact with one another. And within the first hour they experienced greater confusion when they ran into a strong point on Skippack Road. This point was the “Chew House,” an old and large house constructed of heavy stone which Colonel Thomas Musgrave of the 40th Regiment occupied with six companies. After failing to take it, Sullivan sent his men on, but the delay had given the British time to form.
Even this delay might not have proved detrimental to the attack had Wayne, leading Sullivan’s left, not been fired upon by Stephen coming in on Greene’s right. Greene had attacked about forty-five minutes after the designated hour, because he had to move two miles farther than Sullivan in order to reach his position of assault. This delay has often been blamed for the confusion at the center and ultimately for the loss of the battle. Of itself Greene’s delay was probably not important and may indeed, had fog not covered the ground, have been desirable. For when Sullivan struck, the British sent their troops forward to meet him. Greene might have been able to cut behind them had he been able to see. In the fog, however, Sullivan’s left remained uncovered for an hour, and Wayne moved to secure this flank. Stephen, uncertain as to where he was to link his flank with Wayne’s, drove behind him and then, his vision obscured by the fog, opened fire. Wayne returned fire, and before the two groups discovered their mistakes, casualties mounted and the left-center was thrown into disorder. Whether through good luck or shrewd timing, Howe then delivered a counterattack with three regiments. A major part of this attack hit Sullivan’s left and poured through almost unopposed. This drive blunted the American effort, and within minutes the impetus in the battle had swung to Howe. The Americans retreated despite Washington’s efforts to reform the retreating troops. Thomas Paine, who had accompanied Washington, later called this retreat “extraordinary, nobody hurried themselves.” They were much too tired to hurry and resembled nothing so much as a slow herd in motion. Greene too pulled back, for Sullivan’s collapse had left him terribly exposed. One of his regiments, the 9th Virginian, which had taken around a hundred prisoners, was now trapped itself and surrendered, four hundred strong. On the American right, Armstrong survived intact—he had not sent his force into battle. And on the far left Smallwood arrived much too late to exert pressure on the rear of the British, and retired almost as soon as he arrived. By late evening Washington’s bedraggled army had pulled back some twenty miles to the west to Pennybacker’s Mill.
The failures of the day undoubtedly arose in part from a plan which was much too complicated to fulfill. The plan called for coordinated attacks by four widely separated forces. Their failures of coordination are often cited as reason for the defeat. Washington blamed the fog for a lack of coordination, but the mounted messengers and the flankers each column was supposed to send out might have kept the brigades in touch with one another even through the fog. There is a possibility too that the fog enabled the attack to get off to a good beginning, as the British could not determine just who or what they faced. Moreover, American troops usually fought at their best from cover, and the fog afforded cover of sorts. What might have occurred in bright sunshine with clear visibility is anyone’s guess. The British explained their recovery and victory on rather different grounds; discipline and the counterattack they made won the battle as far as they were concerned. Still, they and foreign observers conceded that the battle that had been won was almost lost. The Americans again had taken serious losses, but they had fought gallantly, as Washington remarked. And, as always, the British too had fought bravely. Perhaps Washington’s army derived most from the battle: knowledge that they could carry the attack to a fine professional army and carry it well. They lost the battle, to be sure, and for reasons which we will never completely understand, given the possibilities in this engagement and given the confusions on both sides. But even in defeat they had absorbed another valuable lesson.