Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of

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Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of

GERMANTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA, BATTLE OF. The very name, "Germantown," says much about the social complexities of the military task that William Howe accepted in agreeing to bring his army to Pennsylvania in 1777 to try to fatally wound the rebellion. When the former Pennsylvania assembly speaker and then Loyalist, Joseph Galloway, assured Howe that Pennsylvanians were eager to return to their allegiance to their king, he was referring primarily to Quakers and other Englishmen, not to the province's German-speaking inhabitants, supposedly nostalgic for George, the former elector of Hanover. As both captured and deserting Hessian mercenaries would discover to their dismay between 1776 and 1783, the colony's Germans were for the most part firmly committed to independence.

Germantown was not named for the hordes of Rhineland migrants who flooded through Philadelphia between 1720 and 1750, creating a Germanic belt in the near-western counties of Northampton, Berks, and parts of Lancaster and York. Its name, rather, derived from the old German Township, settled by people from Frankford and Crefeld in the Roman Empire who were contemporary with and recruited by William Penn in the 1680s and 1690s. Settling compactly about fifteen miles northwest of Philadelphia, north of the Schuylkill Valley, these people had created an artisanal and craft village by the mid-eighteenth century. The town had a linear streetscape, stretching for a mile mostly along the Germantown Road. Its small houses had backyards, gardens, and orchards, tightly fenced and covered with outbuildings, along a handful of intersecting roads and lanes. These structures were mixed after 1750 with a few large summer houses for members of the provincial gentry, who made the half-day drive from town to escape the heat, noise, and occasional return of pestilence.


Shortly after the Battle of Brandywine, General Washington moved the Continental army to Germantown before striking up the Schuylkill Valley in an unsuccessful effort to keep the British out of Philadelphia. Thus, he had a much better sense of the ground than he had possessed at Brandywine three weeks before. The army moved by small steps down the Schuylkill between 29 September and 2 October until the troops were within about twenty miles from Philadelphia. Washington drew small reinforcements from the reserve kept in the middle Hudson River Valley in late September. In doing so, he potentially exposed General Horatio Gates—north of Albany and facing British General John Burgoyne's invading force—to attack from behind by any rescue force sent north from New York City by General Henry Clinton to extricate Burgoyne. On 28 September, Washington called a council of war to discuss the possibility of taking offensive action. His generals advised against an immediate attack but urged watching for a favorable opportunity.

General Howe, meanwhile, moved cautiously to take possession of Philadelphia. He sent a garrison force of five thousand troops there directly across the Schuylkill on 26 September but left the bulk of his army at Germantown until he could prepare the city for occupation. He had witnessed civil-military tensions during the previous two years in both Boston and New York. His main objective after Brandywine was to clear obstructions from the Delaware River below Philadelphia so that Admiral Richard Howe's transport fleet could reach the city docks with provisions. Howe's commissary general, Daniel Weir, managed to feed the army from the countryside between Head of Elk and the Schuylkill, reaching Philadelphia with slightly more provisions than he had carried away from the fleet in August. But those supplies would now diminish, and the British would be held politically responsible for any shortages that civilians faced in competition with soldiers. The rebels still held forts at Red Bank in New Jersey and at Mud Island on the Pennsylvania side, near the mouth of the Schuylkill River, and they had obstructed the channels between those positions by placing partially sunken wood and metal barriers called chevaux-de-frise across the river. The latter were chained together and threatened to damage British warships. Washington learned that Howe was making detachments from his force in the city to the lower Delaware as part of an effort to seize the forts and to clear these river obstructions. He informally communicated this news to his general officers, who on 2 October advised Washington to execute an attack on the British garrison at Germantown.

If General Howe's battle plan for Brandywine was loosely modeled on the one that he had used successfully the year before on Long Island, Washington's thinking about Germantown reflected his successful counterstroke four months later at Trenton and Princeton. The action would begin overnight, it would involve a surprise attack on an exposed outpost, and it would be elaborately timed and conceived, requiring very careful coordination among diverse army units. Washington divided his army, with its militia reinforcements, into four separate columns. The outside wings of the attack would be executed by militiamen, who in some cases were led by regular army officers. The interior columns would be composed of regular troops and led by the officers in whom Washington had the greatest confidence. The army was about fifteen miles above the outer positions of the British force at the northern end of Germantown. The troops were ordered to leave their packs behind to foster mobility, and they carried substantial but finite supplies of ammunition, which amounted to about forty rounds per man.

The largest Continental column, about five thousand troops under General Nathanael Greene, pushed off at mid-evening on 3 October. They marched down Skippack Road, then filed off into Limekiln Road and approached their target from the northwest. Shortly after Greene left, the second Continental column, commanded by General John Sullivan and accompanied by Washington, followed down Skippack Road then turned into Germantown Road, the main street through town. Greene would form the left and Sullivan the right wing of the main Continental attack. Washington ordered about two thousand Pennsylvania militia troops, commanded by the aging but highly regarded John Armstrong, to approach Germantown along the Manatawny or Ridge Road, which followed the Schuylkill, until he reached the junction of the Wissahickon Creek with that river. This force would serve as the right wing of the overall attack. It was intended be in a position to support the action if the regulars were successful. A smaller group of about one thousand Maryland and New Jersey militia, under Maryland General William Smallwood, took a much more circuitous (and very poorly described in its instructions) route, designed to bring it out to the north of Germantown, to add force to an effort to drive the British downhill toward the Schuylkill River.

As had been the case at Trenton the previous year, the plan assumed that a diverse group of poorly trained units would be able to arrive at the point of battle almost simultaneously. To achieve this end, it was expected that each column would maintain mobile peripheral parties and that couriers would cross back and forth between them, maintaining frequent communications. The columns were instructed to arrive at their battle positions, within two miles of the enemy's watchmen, by 2 a.m. on 4 October, and then to rest for about two hours. Then they would organize their units and strike at 5 a.m. against the enemy pickets or watchmen. Washington wanted the latter to be quietly overwhelmed with bayonets or, if necessary, captured, to avoid signaling the sleeping encampments at Germantown of the impending attack.


Major aspects of this attack plan went awry from the beginning, although the operation initially appeared to succeed. Most divisions were late getting to their halting points, although the built-in interval for rest absorbed some of this delay—possibly at the cost of tiredness and confusion after daybreak. Toward dawn, a typical mid-Atlantic early morning autumn fog arose, thicker than the one that had benefited Howe's flanking detachment at Brandywine three weeks before. Somewhere between Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy, well short of the British lines at Germantown, Sullivan's advance units encountered parties of British infantrymen. Thus, the action began not with muffled or bayoneted guardsmen, but rather with a small, sharp, and noisy skirmish. The defenders resisted, then gave ground to an attack force whose size they could not estimate. Both attackers and defenders groped in the murky first light. Retreating British forces set fire to small fields of mature buckwheat plants, ready for harvest, and to hay stubble, both of which burned eerily and smokily. As American troops reached the edges of Germantown proper, the webs of fencing and other agricultural infrastructure that littered the small fields and garden plots behind the houses presented difficult obstacles that had to be passed or dismantled at great risk to the men.

Washington was concerned and confused as much by silences as by familiar battle sounds coming out of the obscure light. He expected noise telling him that Greene's, Armstrong's, and Smallwood's columns had joined or were about to join the battle, but he heard none. He also inferred from the retreat of musket fire in front of him and from its subsequent increase closer in that the British were indeed withdrawing under American pressure, but that Sullivan's troops were discharging their weapons too freely and risking the exhaustion of their limited ammunition supplies. Washington quickly ordered that those troops be restrained from undisciplined firing. On several occasions he moved up right behind the first lines of attackers and had to be urged by his own aides and officers to stand back and avoid exposing himself unnecessarily to gunfire. Again and again he was unable to resist trying to move to the heart of the battle itself.

General Howe, meanwhile, became involved in directing the defense on the other side of the fog. Howe made his quarters at Stenton, the country house of the prominent Logan family of Pennsylvania, situated about halfway between Germantown and Philadelphia proper. When the action began, Howe was awakened by messengers who could not say for sure whether the army was under sustained attack or merely facing a limited series of tactical probes. Until evidence proved otherwise, he chose to presume the latter. He dressed, mounted his horse, and rode northwest toward the center of Germantown. Arriving near the lines he chastised his troops, saying that he "never saw you retreat before," and he claimed that the attackers were "only a scouting party." Howe's privates knew better, as did, presumably, his dog, who accompanied the general, then wandered out of line in the fog and quickly became a Continental prisoner of war.

As the British retreated into the fog, one hundred members of an infantry regiment somewhat impulsively took shelter in a large stone house sitting back from the Germantown Road by several hundred feet and began barricading its lower doors and windows. This was the summer country home of Benjamin Chew, a Philadelphia gentleman and the late chief justice of the defunct provincial supreme court of Pennsylvania. The redcoats withdrew to the second floor, from whose windows they could pour deadly fire on passing American troops. Washington's aides and generals debated what to do about this situation. Several of them advocated leaving a guard party near the building to prevent the embedded soldiers from escaping and then diverting the flow of the attack out of range of its sniper fire. However, the commander of Continental artillery, General Henry Knox—a soldier whose somewhat doctrinaire military ideas reflected his earlier career as a colonial bookseller and an avid reader of military histories and treatises—invoked an old aphorism about the dangers of leaving a fortified "castle" in the army's rear. Washington accepted Knox's judgment and ordered American artillery to try to reduce the "fort." The building's thick stone walls were impervious to cannon fire, however, and the fierce firing kept up by the redcoats prevented their dislodgement by any other means. Washington eventually acceded to the more conservative wisdom of the dissenters and ordered a guard thrown around the house. But a large number of Americans died in the Chew House's capacious front yard that morning, and valuable time was lost forever. Washington then threw the reserve troops that he had held back from the initial assault on Germantown into the chase. He soon allowed himself to imagine that his enemies were abandoning the field in a disorderly retreat.


Something like the opposite was instead happening. As General Howe relinquished the convenient fiction that his forces had been attacked by a "scouting party," he began to regain control over his shaken troops. At about the same time, Washington lost a measure of control over his own men. The fog, gunsmoke, and smoke from burning fields, fences, and outbuildings was a disadvantage to troops on both sides, but it was easier for the British to retreat through it than for numerous separate attacking bodies of men to advance while trying to form a unified line. Despite Washington's orders to conserve ammunition, many of Sullivan's men began to run out and in the process were losing confidence in their own safety. The other three columns of which the initial American attack consisted had either not become involved in the action at all or had stumbled into it in problematic ways. Down the Wissahickon Ridge toward the Schuylkill River, John Armstrong's Pennsylvania militia companies had probed their way hesitantly along the riverbank. Upon reaching its junction with Wissahickon Creek, above the Falls of Schuylkill, their only route into the action was uphill and through the mist. It is difficult to conclude that they were very anxious to make that climb into what must have sounded like noisy chaos.

The other body of militia, forming the left wing of the Continental thrust, had been given a very circuitous marching itinerary, with written instructions to guides that invoked local names for mills, lanes, and houses—some of them referring to the names of long-departed owners. Even General Smallwood's guides had difficulty making sense of these directions, and his forces floundered around ineffectively in the mist on the north side of the town and thus of the battle. More problematic than the units that did not join the clash was the dilemma of the largest single section of the army, under the command of general Greene, that did in fact become belatedly involved. Greene's column had missed one turn because of a confused guide, and the distance it had been assigned to cover had been miscalculated, preventing it from reaching its staging area on time.

Although Greene's troops were at first able to push the British units that they encountered back with little difficulty, their lateness in arriving at the center of Germantown prevented them from forming a smooth juncture with Sullivan's men—some of whom were already retreating as they pushed forward. The confusion was not diminished by the fact that one element of Greene's party, David Forman's troop of New Jersey regulars, was wearing captured red British uniforms. At some point, Greene's troops and elements of Anthony Wayne's division attached to Sullivan's column over-lapped and began firing at each other in the confusion. One division of Virginia soldiers under Greene's command was the victim of its own aggressive activity. It fought its way to the Germantown Market Square, at the center of the British encampment, after the American units in the center column had already withdrawn from that area. While the Virginians had taken a number of prisoners, they were eventually themselves surrounded and thus captured en masse.


By shortly after 9 a.m., a general panic began to sweep the American lines, as first individuals and then whole groups of men withdrew in an undisciplined mass. Officers tried to stop the retreat and Washington threw himself into the action behind the lines, trying—as he had successfully done at Brandywine—to shore up a shaky situation. This did no good, and eventually the artillery division and even some of the officers were abandoning the field. By 10 a.m. it was clear to Washington that the only realistic step was to try to extract the army from a hopeless situation. Howe and Cornwallis again did not seem disposed to run a defeated adversary into the ground, and the American retreat became relatively more orderly and gradual with every mile that it moved away from Germantown. The army followed the same general route to the northwest by which it had arrived that morning, up the east side of the Schuylkill River to well-known places in the northwestern part of Philadelphia County. By nightfall, the exhausted American troops—some of them literally sleeping on the backs of slowly ambling horses—came to a halt at Pennypacker's Mill, about twenty miles north of the Chew House.

The Americans casualties were 152 men killed, over 500 wounded, and more than 400 missing. British sources admitted a total of about 387 casualties, but subsequent estimates are closer to 500, including about 70 men killed and nearly 400 wounded.

Washington began drafting yet another rueful, analytical announcement to Congress conceding an unsuccessful endeavor, this time one in which he firmly believed that victory had been thrown away. His staff and field officers in some cases slept in their clothes that night. Over the next several days they too began to pick through the shards of bitter memory, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.


Washington believed, probably sincerely, that victory had been "declaring itself in our favor" before the unaccountable American panic turned the tide. While we can and should be impressed by the American ability to drive substantial British-trained units back with the benefit of surprise, there is little evidence that Howe was anywhere near to "taking to his ships" that morning (as another American officer believed). The British gave their adversary full credit for its willingness to mount a major offensive a few weeks after having been soundly beaten at Brandywine. Without abandoning his intention to reopen the lower Delaware River as soon as possible, Howe quickly made plans to begin building earthwork redoubts across the neck of land between the Delaware and Schuylkill just north of Philadelphia. He also pressed his aides to complete inventorying available officers' quarters and building barracks in the city so that he could remove the troops at Germantown from harm's way by placing them in the garrison.

Eighteenth-century contemporaries and later historians have picked elements of the Germantown battle and battle plan apart in search of either an explanation for the result or for a scapegoat. Washington's decision to have largely unreliable militia forces operate on the wings of the attack while the center was comprised of units tested at Brandywine has been questioned. Critics have suggested that instead of wandering on the periphery of the battle, militia might have been "stiffened" by their placement between sturdier regular columns. But—given the finite nature and number of approaches to Germantown from the north and west—it is hard to imagine what could have been accomplished by irregulars as the opening battering ram of the surprise. Washington's decision to treat the problem of the Chew House as a priority item—rather than as an annoyance that could have been isolated and dealt with later—has seemed to many analysts to have been a substantial error of judgment. His initial battle plan, which depended on the ability of multiple columns marching in the dark to time their arrival at the point of attack to within close ranges, now seems almost quixotic. Whatever tribute that plan paid to the resourceful performance of the "old" army at Trenton ten months before, it was ill adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of its "new" successor. Two months later, in the first days at Valley Forge, Washington would once more envision a complex descent by the whole of what was left of the army on Howe's lines north of Philadelphia, a movement entirely at odds with his concurrent depiction to Congress of the army's immobility. Thankfully, he thought better of the idea, and it was quietly shelved.


It was at best with mixed feelings that Washington, shortly after extracting his army from Germantown, received notice (and had to announce to his troops) that Horatio Gates's northern army had won a second major engagement with John Burgoyne's invading force at Saratoga, New York, and that Burgoyne had agreed to a convention that removed his troops from the war. There would inevitably be invidious comparisons between Gates's successes in the north and Washington's bitter defeats in Pennsylvania. In preparing his soldiers for their nightlong march to Germantown, Washington had urged them to "Covet! My Countrymen, and fellow soldiers … A share of the glory due to heroic deeds." They would now have to wait for that share. The awkward way in which news of Gates's triumph was officially sent to Congress would play a part in the perhaps inevitable growth of tensions between Gates and Washington that—before the end of the winter—would threaten the military establishment with internal division.

That tension at the command level had its counterpart in the army in the field. Shortly after Saratoga, Washington ordered substantial reinforcements from Gates's force to join him in Pennsylvania to continue the campaign to hold the Delaware River. Most of Gates's soldiers were Yankees and New Yorkers, while many of the men in the main army came from places located from New Jersey through the Lower South. The northerners crossed the Delaware just as the Pennsylvania campaign stalled, and there were predictable personal and cultural tensions between two very different subcultures of Anglo-Americans. Yankees made the word "burgoyne" into a smug verb form to describe their humbling of a superior adversary. Many of them wondered why their new campmates had not done as much to William Howe. These tensions would somehow have to be reconciled at Valley Forge before the army could be "continental" in anything more than name.


For what it was worth, many if not most of Washington's commanders and field officers agreed with him that victory had been at hand at Germantown, and that it had been snatched away by a stroke of what was more fairly described as bad luck than enemy superiority. If only to console themselves, they quickly reduced these feelings to words in letters to their friends. William Alexander (Lord Stirling) wrote that "this affair will convince the world that we can out general our enemy, that we dare attack them, that we can surprise them, that we can drive them before us several miles." Benjamin Tallmadge of Connecticut insisted that the Americans had driven their adversaries "from post to post" on 4 October, and he recalled that he had "expected to have been in Philadelphia by ten o'clock." An army commissary official stationed in New Jersey heard about the "bloody and almost fatal to our enemy [action] at Germantown." A delegate to Congress in York, Pennsylvania, relayed reports that "a most compleat victory seemed in full prospect [un]till this unfortunate mistake occasioned by the fog snatched it out of our hands." General Weedon of Virginia rationalized that "tho[ugh] the enterprise miscarried, it was well worth the undertaking, "as … [the British] light infantry (the flower of their army) was cut to pieces." These accounts were at best highly selective, but the officer corps, at least, seems to have embraced them as real by mid-October. They were accompanied by insistent predictions that the army would soon have "another tryal," "another battle," "another attack," and "another brush" with the redcoats, in which the Americans almost universally expected to prevail.

These hopeful predictions were not to come to pass. But their failure to materialize owed more to supply and organizational failures, whose causes were largely invisible to officers and troops, than they did to failures of army nerve. The soldiers—especially the Yankee reinforcements joining the army from the Hudson Valley—saw the sheer abundance of Pennsylvania and wondered why they were going unsupplied in what they portrayed as a biblical Land of Goshen. They also wondered why the local militia was anxious to call it a campaign by November and go home for the winter. The results of these perceptions—set largely in reaction to the complex events of 4 October—shaped the Valley Forge winter.

SEE ALSO Alexander, William; Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Galloway, Joseph; Greene, Nathanael; Howe, William; Knox, Henry; Philadelphia Campaign; Smallwood, William; Sullivan, John; Tallmadge, Benjamin, Jr.; Wayne, Anthony; Weedon, George.


Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington, A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

McGuire, Thomas J. The Surprise of Germantown, or the Battle of Cliveden, October 4, 1777. Philadelphia: Cliveden of the National Trust and Thomas Publications, 1994.

Reed, John F. Campaign to Valley Forge: July 1, 1777 December 19, 1777. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Taafe, Stephen. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–1778. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. Urban Village: Population, Community, and Family Structure in Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1683–1800. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.

                            revised by Wayne K. Bodle

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Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of

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