Battle at Germantown

British 40th Foot occupying the Chew House at the Battle of Germantown on 4th October 1777 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by Xavier della Gatta

American guns fire on the Chew House at the Battle of Germantown on 4th October 1777 in the American Revolutionary War

Map of the Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777

  red British, Hessian and Loyalist forces

  Continental Army and Militia forces

The Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777

  red British, Hessian and Loyalist forces

  Continental Army and Militia forces

4 October 1777

One commander invariably preferred a straightforward approach: fix the enemy’s front in place and, while he is preoccupied, work around a flank. Perhaps the relatively straightforward strategy reflected a man of a blunt, none-too-sophisticated disposition. The other commander had a predilection for the complicated, multipronged attack that required highly developed military skills in his men, and particularly in his officers. Paradoxically, the more experienced commander usually opted for simplicity, like a master chef who cooks a simple omelet. The inexperienced commander, like many amateur cooks, enjoyed doing complicated things with foie gras and truffles.

Washington had a taste for the fancy when it came to planning attacks, and the upcoming battle at Germantown, five miles north of Philadelphia, would be a classic example. Howe had stationed the bulk of his army here, with a subsidiary garrison in Philadelphia under Cornwallis. At the end of September Washington learned that the British commander in chief had sent off a sizable contingent for duties elsewhere, reducing his numbers at Germantown to approximately 9,000. In contrast, the patriot army had grown through various reinforcements and levies to 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia. Many of them were green, but Washington saw an opportunity and constructed a plan of impressive intricacy that depended on a degree of coordination that would have been remarkable for even the most experienced and trained troops.

As at Trenton, Washington would rely on separate columns converging on target more or less simultaneously. At Germantown he wanted a grand pincer movement involving four assault elements. Column one would consist of himself, Sullivan, and Wayne (with Stirling’s division in support) and would barrel down the Skippack Road (the main approach from the west) with 3,000 men to engage the British center head-on. Meanwhile, column two, the American left wing, under Nathanael Greene, with General Adam Stephen’s division and Brigadier General Alexander McDougall’s brigade, would come in from the northeast with about 6,000 men (two-thirds of the total army), down the Limekiln Road, and flank the British right wing.

About a mile farther east, off to Greene’s left, column three, composed of Brigadier General William Smallwood’s 2,000 Marylanders and New Jersey militia, was meant to sweep down the Old York Road, around the British right wing, and come in from the rear. Finally, way over on the American right wing (about eight miles away from Smallwood) Brigadier General John Armstrong was to lead his Pennsylvania militia down the Ridge Road (parallel to the Skuylkill River on Armstrong’s right) against the Hessians under Knyphausen, who were in a commanding position on a rise on the southeastern bank of the Wissahickon Creek as it runs into the Skuylkill.

If these dispositions were not complicated enough, Washington’s timetable for attack (to be carried out at night over unfamiliar ground) was, to put it mildly, optimistic: “Each column to make their dispositions so as to attack the pickets in their respective fronts precisely at five o’Clock with charged bayonets, the columns to move on the attack as soon as possible. The columns to endeavor to get within two miles of the enemy’s pickets on their respective fronts by two o’Clock and halt till four and make the disposition for attacking the pickets at the time mentioned.”

No sooner had Washington’s intricately designed machine moved off (at 7:00 PM on 3 October) than the wheels began to wobble. Greene’s group became lost and fell behind the timetable, and the consequence would have a significant impact on the outcome. At 5:00 AM, the hour for the concerted attack, Washington became uneasy. At 6:00 AM on the fourth Washington’s column made contact with the British pickets on Mount Airy and began to drive them back down the main road toward Germantown. The 2nd Battalion of the British light infantry came up in support, but they too were forced back, which, as an officer recorded, did not come easily: “We charged them twice till the battalion was so reduced by killed and wounded that the bugle was sounded to retreat. Two columns of the enemy had nearly got round our flank. But this was the first time we had ever retreated from the Americans and it was with great difficulty that we could get the men to obey our orders.”

As the early morning fog grew steadily denser, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Musgrave brought up his 40th Foot (he had become their commanding officer following the death of Lieutenant Colonel James Grant at the battle of Brooklyn), which carried on a skillful fighting retreat until Musgrave managed to get six companies, about 120 men, inside Cliveden (known in the battle as the “Chew House”), the handsome and stoutly constructed home of the Loyalist justice Benjamin Chew. For much of the remainder of the battle the Musgrave garrison heroically held off repeated American attacks, and fifty-six patriots would die in that action alone.

During Greene’s approach down the Limekiln Road, Stephen had veered off to his right, perhaps drawn toward the intense gunfire at the Chew House. In the swirling fog his command blundered into the left rear flank of Anthony Wayne’s division, which was part of the Washington-Sullivan column and at that time closely engaged with the British right-center near the Market Square, the keystone of the British positions. In the confusion American fired on American, and the now decidedly wobbly wheels of Washington’s battle plan started to fall off. Wayne’s men disengaged and began to withdraw, leaving Sullivan’s open to attack by the 5th and 55th Foot. Panic began to spread, exacerbated by the arrival of General Agnew’s division, which was able to be released from the British left wing only because Armstrong’s pincer had failed to exert any pressure whatsoever in that quarter. Sullivan’s men were also running out of ammunition, and men peeled off to the rear holding open their empty cartridge boxes to show any officer who might doubt their motives. Although Agnew was killed almost as soon as he arrived on the scene, his men pushed on, fanning the wildfire panic that was now racing through the regiments of the Washington Sullivan contingent.

Greene, unaware of Wayne and Sullivan’s withdrawal, successfully penetrated deep into the British right-center, where one of his units, the 9th Virginia of Muhlenberg’s brigade, broke into the Market Square and began plundering the British camp. While preoccupied with their loot they were counterattacked by the Guards and the 27th and 28th Foot and killed or captured to a man. Greene, now isolated, began an orderly retreat, as Tom Paine, who was in Greene’s division, recorded: “The retreat was extraordinary. Nobody hurried themselves. Everybody marched his own pace. The enemy kept a civil distance behind.” Others, however, remembered a mad panic, “passed the powers of description, sadness and consternation expressed in every countenance.”

Smallwood and Armstrong, out on their respective far-flung flanks, were left high and dry, their only option to join in the general retreat. Back they all went the way they had come, all the way back twenty four miles to their original camp at Pennypacker’s Mill. In twenty-four hours they had marched over forty miles and fought a pitched battle for about four hours. What should have been a demoralized rabble was in fact extraordinarily buoyant—“high in spirits and appear to wish ardently for another engagement,” wrote an unidentified officer. Far from falling from grace, Washington’s stock rose. Adam Stephen, on the other hand, was cashiered for being drunk and incompetent. He had been an adversary of Washington’s, in matters military, political, and commercial, long before the outbreak of war, and his disgrace would be one of the few satisfactions enjoyed by Washington that day.

Although Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington’s revered biographer, dismissed the importance of Musgrave’s stand at the Chew House in influencing the outcome, it does seem to have had an important impact in several ways. It sucked in a good number of Washington’s reserves that otherwise would have been engaged in the main battle; it drew off Stephen’s division, which, in turn, triggered the friendly fire incident with Wayne’s division and the escalating panic that followed. Some of Sullivan’s and Wayne’s men were also spooked by the rumor that the firing behind them indicated that they were surrounded. Washington, although he had come close to victory, was robbed by a series of mishaps and miscommunications that in their accumulation cost him the battle. He was left with that bitterest of dreg of consolation—“if only…”