Battle of Germantown



Battle Summary
Details Stats Colonists/Allies British/Allies
Name: Battle of Germantown (Philadelphia Campaign) Total Forces: 11000 9000
Date(s): 10/04/1777 Killed: 152 71
Location: Germantown, Pennsylvania Wounded: 521 448
Duration (days): 1 Captured: 438
Victory: British Total Ships:
Col./Ally Cmdr.: George Washington Ships Lost:
Brit./Ally Cmdr.: William Howe Ships Captured:


The Battle of Germantown, a battle in the Philadelphia campaign of the American Revolutionary War, was fought on October 4, 1777, at Germantown, Pennsylvania between the British Army led by Sir William Howe and the American army under George Washington. The British victory in this battle ensured that Philadelphia, the capital of the self-proclaimed United States of America, would remain in British hands throughout the winter of 1777–1778. Now part of the city of Philadelphia, Germantown was an outlying community in 1777.

After defeating the Continental Army at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11 and the Battle of Paoli on September 20, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and seized Philadelphia, which was the capital of the rebellious colonies. Howe then split his army, keeping the bulk of it near Germantown while occupying Philadelphia with over 3,000 troops. Learning of the division of the British army, Washington was determined to attack it. The American plan called for four columns to converge on the British position at Germantown. The right and left flank columns were composed of 3,000 militia, while John Sullivan’s center-right column, Nathanael Greene’s center-left column, and William Alexander, Lord Stirling’s reserve were made up of American continentals (regulars). Howe spread out his light infantry and the 40th Foot as pickets. In the main camp, Wilhelm von Knyphausen led the British left wing while Howe personally commanded the right wing.

A heavy morning fog caused much confusion. After a sharp fight, Sullivan’s right-center column routed the British light infantry opposed to him. Unseen in the fog, about 100 men of the 40th Foot took refuge in the Chew mansion. When the American reserve appeared before the Chew house, Washington made the erroneous decision to launch attacks on the position, all of which failed with serious losses. Penetrating a few hundred yards beyond the Chew mansion, the men of Sullivan’s wing became demoralized when they ran low on ammunition and heard cannon fire behind them. As they pulled back, Anthony Wayne’s division collided with part of Greene’s late-arriving wing in the fog and, after firing on each other in the gloom, both units retreated. Meanwhile, Greene’s left-center column pressed back the British right flank. With Sullivan’s column out of the fight, units of the British left wing joined the fight against Greene and defeated his column also. The two militia columns succeeded in diverting the attention of the British flanking units, but made no progress before they withdrew.

Despite the defeat, the Americans were encouraged by their initial successes. France, impressed by the American victory at Saratoga and the attack at Germantown, decided to lend more assistance to the rebellion. Having repelled the American attack, Howe turned his attention to clearing the Delaware River of obstacles at Red Bank and Fort Mifflin. After an unsuccessful attempt to draw Washington into battle at White Marsh and Edge Hill, Howe withdrew into Philadelphia while the American army wintered at Valley Forge.


The campaign for Philadelphia had begun quite badly for the American forces. George Washington and the Continental Army had suffered successive defeats at Brandywine and the Paoli that left Philadelphia defenseless. After the seizure of the revolutionary capital by Charles Cornwallis on September 26, 1777, William Howe left 3,462 men to defend it and moved 9,728 men to Germantown, {convert|5|mi|km} north, determined to locate and destroy the American forces. Howe established his headquarters at Stenton, the former country home of James Logan.

With Howe’s forces thus divided, Washington saw an opportunity to confront the British. He decided to attack their garrison in Germantown as the last effort of the year before the onset of winter. His plan was to attack the British at night with four columns from different directions with the goal of creating a double envelopment. Washington hoped to surprise the British and Hessian armies in much the same way he had surprised the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.

==Setting and movement to battle==

===British and Hessian positions===

Germantown was a hamlet of stone houses spreading from what is now known as Mount Airy on the north to what is now Market Square in the south. Extending southwest from Market Square was Schoolhouse Lane, running {convert|1.5|mi|km} to the point where Wissahickon Creek emptied from a steep gorge into the Schuylkill River. General Howe had established a base camp along the high ground of Schoolhouse and Church lanes. The western wing of the camp, under the command of the Hessian general Wilhelm von Knyphausen, had a picket of two jaeger battalions at its left flank on the high ground above the mouth of the Wissahickon. A Hessian brigade and two British brigades camped along Market Square, and east of there were two British brigades under the command of Gen. James Grant, as well as two squadrons of dragoons, and the 1st Light Infantry battalion. The Queen’s Rangers, a New York loyalist unit, covered the right flank.

===American march===

After dusk on October 3, the American army began the {convert|16|mi|km} march south toward Germantown in complete darkness. As the attack was to occur before dawn, the soldiers were instructed to put a piece of white paper on their hat to identify friend from foe. The Americans were not detected by the jaeger pickets, and the British and Hessian forces remained unaware that American troops were advancing on them. For the Americans, it seemed their attempt to repeat their victory at Trenton was going to succeed. The darkness made communications between the American columns very difficult, and progress was slower than expected. At dawn, most of the American forces were well short of their intended attack positions, and they had lost the element of surprise.

One American column, however, consisting of militia, had managed to reach the British camp. These troops halted near the junction of Wissahickon Creek, and the Schuylkill River, after they arrived at Chestnut hill, led by two guides, of one whom was George Danenhower. The troops fired a few rounds from their cannon at Knyphausen’s camp before withdrawing. The three remaining columns continued their advance. The column under the command of General John Sullivan moved down Germantown Road, the column of New Jersey militia under the command of Brigadier General William Smallwood moved down Skippack Road to Whitemarsh Church Road and from there to Old York Road to attack the British right flank, and the column under the command of General Nathanael Greene, which consisted of Greene’s and General Adam Stephen’s divisions and General Alexander McDougall’s brigade, moved down Limekiln Road.


A thick fog clouded the battlefield throughout the day. The vanguard of Sullivan’s column, on Germantown Road, launched the battle when they opened fire on the British pickets of light infantry at Mount Airy just as the sun was rising at around 5:00 am. The British pickets fired their guns in alarm and resisted the American advance. Howe rode forward, thinking that they were being attacked by foraging or skirmishing parties, and ordered his men to hold their ground. It took a substantial part of Sullivan’s division to finally overwhelm the British pickets and drive them back into Germantown.

Howe, still believing that his men were facing only light opposition, called out, “For shame, Light Infantry, I never saw you retreat before. Form! Form! It is only a scouting party.” Just then, three American cannons came into action and fired a blast of grape shot. Howe and his staff quickly withdrew out of range. More than one British officer was shocked to see his soldiers rapidly falling back before the powerful attack.

Now cut off from the main British and Hessian force, British Colonel Musgrave ordered his six companies of troops from the 40th Regiment, around 120 men, to fortify the stone house of Chief Justice Chew, called Cliveden. The Americans launched furious assaults against Cliveden, but the greatly outnumbered defenders beat them back, inflicting heavy casualties. General Washington called a council of war to decide how to deal with the distraction. Some of his subordinate officers favored bypassing Cliveden and leaving a regiment behind to deal with it. However, Brigadier General Henry Knox recommended to Washington that it was unwise to allow a garrison in the rear of a forward advance to remain under enemy control, and Washington concurred.

General William Maxwell’s brigade, which had been held in the reserve of the American forces, was brought forward to storm Cliveden, while Knox, who was Washington’s artillery commander, positioned four 3-pound cannons out of musket range and opened fire against the mansion’s defenders. However, the thick stone walls of Cliveden withstood the bombardment from the light cannons. American infantry assaults launched against the mansion were cut down, causing heavy casualties. The few Americans who managed to get inside were shot or bayoneted. It was becoming clear that Cliveden was not going to be taken easily.

Before Knox and Maxwell launched their futile attacks against the Chew mansion, Sullivan’s division pressed past the place in the fog. Sullivan deployed Brigadier General Thomas Conway’s brigade to the right and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne’s brigade to the left and drove forward against the British left center. As Sullivan’s 1st and 2nd Maryland Brigades advanced, they paused frequently to fire volleys into the fog. This tactic was effective in suppressing enemy opposition, but it caused the troops to quickly run low on ammunition. Wayne’s brigade to the left of the road moved ahead and became separated from Sullivan’s line. Suddenly, from the rear, the men began hearing the disquieting racket from Knox’s bombardment of the Chew mansion. To their right, the firing from Sullivan’s men died down as the Marylanders ran low on ammunition. Wayne’s men began to panic in their apparent isolation, so he ordered them to fall back. Sullivan was forced back also, although the regiments fought a stubborn rear guard action. Since the British units following up their retreat were redirected to fight Greene’s late-arriving column, Sullivan’s men fell back in good order.

Meanwhile, General Nathanael Greene’s column on Limekiln Road caught up with the American forces at Germantown. Its vanguard engaged the British pickets at Luken’s Mill and drove them off after a savage skirmish. Adding to the heavy fog that already obscured the Americans’ view of the enemy was the smoke from cannons and muskets, and Greene’s column was thrown into disarray and confusion. One of Greene’s brigades, under the command of Brigadier General Adam Stephen, veered off course and began following Meetinghouse Road instead of rendezvousing at Market Square with the rest of Greene’s forces. The wayward brigade collided with Wayne’s brigade and mistook them for the redcoats. The two American brigades opened heavy fire on each other, became badly disorganized, and both fled. The withdrawal of Wayne’s reserve New Jersey Brigade, which had suffered heavy casualties attacking the Chew house, left Conway’s right flank exposed to the enemy.

In the north, an American column led by McDougall came under attack by the Loyalist troops of the Queen’s Rangers and the Guards of the British reserve. After a brutal battle between the two, McDougall’s brigade was forced to retreat, suffering heavy losses. Still convinced, however, that they could win, the Continental 9th Virginia of Greene’s column launched an attack on the British and Hessian line as planned, managing to break through and capturing a number of prisoners. However, they were soon surrounded by two arriving British brigades led by General Cornwallis, who launched a devastating countercharge. Cut off completely, the 9th Virginia Regiment was forced to surrender. Greene, upon learning of the main army’s defeat and withdrawal, realized that he stood alone against the whole British and Hessian force, so he withdrew as well.

The main attacks on the British and Hessian camp had been repulsed with heavy casualties. Washington ordered Armstrong and Smallwood’s men to withdraw. Maxwell’s brigade, still having failed to capture the Chew House, was forced to fall back. Part of the British Army rushed forward and routed retreating Americans, pursuing them for some {convert|9|mi|km} before giving up the chase in the face of resistance from Greene’s infantry, Wayne’s artillery guns and a detachment of dragoons, as well as the coming of night.

Eight Army National Guard units (103rd Eng Bn, A/1-104th Cav, 109th FA, 111th Inf, 113th Inf, 116th Inf, 175th Inf and 198th Sig Bn) and one active Regular Army Field Artillery battalion (1-5th FA) are derived from American units that participated in the Battle of Germantown. There are only thirty currently existing units in the U.S. Army with lineages that go back to the colonial era.


Of the 11,000 men Washington led into battle, 152 (30 officers and 122 men) were killed and 521 were wounded (117 officers and 404 men). The official casualty report{By whom|date=February 2010} said that “upwards of 400 were made prisoners, including Colonel George Mathews and the entire 9th Virginia Regiment. A Hessian staff officer wrote in his diary that 438 Americans were in fact captured Brigadier General Francis Nash, whose North Carolina Brigade covered the American retreat, had his left leg taken off by a cannon ball, and died on October 8 at the home of Adam Gotwals. His body was interred with military honors on October 9 at the Mennonite Meetinghouse in Towamencin. Major John White, who was shot at Cliveden, died on October 10. Lt. Colonel William Smith, who was wounded carrying the flag of truce to Cliveden, also died from his wounds. In all, 57 Americans were killed in the attack on the Chew House.

British casualties were 71 killed, 448 wounded and 14 missing, only 24 of whom were Hessians. British officers killed in action included Brigadier General James Agnew and Lt. Colonel John Bird. Lt. Colonel William Walcott of the 5th Regiment of Foot was mortally wounded.

==Historical assessment==

===Assessment of Washington’s plan===

Washington’s plan was a failure because of several factors:

* Washington mistakenly believed his troops were well trained and sufficiently experienced to launch a complicated attack.
* The attack plan required constant coordination between the columns of his army, which did not occur and was handicapped by the fog.
* When the British 40th Foot put up stubborn resistance, Stephen disobeyed orders and attempted to attack Chew House, to no avail. (Stephen was later court-martialed and cashiered from military service when it was discovered he was intoxicated during the battle).

Washington’s plan, if it had been executed successfully, might have brought the war to a sudden end. Coupled with Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, the defeat of Howe at Germantown “would probably have been too much for Lord North’s ministry.”

===Impact on the American cause===

Sir George Otto Trevelyan, in Volume IV of his History of the American Revolution, concluded that although the Battle of Germantown was a defeat for the Americans, it was of “great and enduring service to the American cause,” particularly in persuading Comte de Vergennes and the French to weigh in on behalf of the United States against Britain.