Battle of Germantown, Part 1

Brandywine Creek

Ill-armed, still worse clothed, mostly unshod, scantily fed, discipline lacking, and poorly officered; these and more were accurate descriptions of the American Army that fled to the outskirts of Philadelphia in the fall of 1777 after their disastrous defeat at Brandywine Creek, Maryland.  However, many saw evidence of hope among all this despair, especially those foreigners who flocked to join the American cause in its courageous effort for self-governance.  The Marquis de Lafeyette was one such man.  Having recently joining the Continental Army, he wrote while encamped at the Henry Hill farm, thirty miles outside of Philadelphia:  “In spite of these disadvantages, the soldiers were fine, and the officers zealous; virtue stood in the place of science, and each day added both to experience and discipline.”  And improve they did.

No matter how many battles the Americans lost, the Continental Army survived.  Not just survived, but had the capacity, after a major defeat, to turn right around and effectively strike back at their enemies; each time improving their proficiency in both tactics and skills.   Many historians conclude that each battle and subsequent retreat was but a slow learning curve; a necessary process for an army of amateurs to cast aside their doubts and embrace the professional soldier.  The Americans were discovering what it took to earn the right to establish a new nation of independent thinkers; those determined to command their own destiny.

Similar to the battles of Long Island and Brandywine Creek, the Battle of Germantown was considered a defeat for the American army.  But it was a defeat that offered new hope.  But for circumstances in weather and individual decisions and actions, the Americans came close, very close to routing Howe’s main army.  This did not occur without notice.  The French, upon receiving the details of the battle, combined with the British General Burgoyne’s loss of his army at Saratoga, were convinced that their best interest was to enter the war as allies with the Americans.  Money, supplies, and manpower were promised and to the steadfast patriot, and especially the neutral colonialist, what was at first a dream, a cause, an incredible long-shot – was fast becoming a reality.

Map of the Battle of Germantown
Map of the Battle of Germantown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier that year, May of 1777, Howe tried to draw Washington out from his strong position in the hills around Morristown, NJ.  He faked a withdrawal of his main force to Staten Island.  When Washington took the bait and left his stronghold to follow Howe’s retreating forces, General Howe sent for General Cornwallis.  He ordered his Lieutenant General of the corp of reserve, which included the four battalions of grenadier, 33rd & 42nd regiments, along with the Brigade of Guards (a special detachment of ten companies taken from the sixty four companies of the Royal Guards), and a strong detachment of Hessians, to take a circuitous route northwest to turn Washington’s left flank.  They fell in with Lord Stirling and General Maxwell’s forces.  It was a hotly contested encounter which resulting in the Americans retreating, but not before Washington was alerted and moved his main body of troops back safely behind his defenses around Morristown.

Daniel Morgan rifleman

After what became known as the Battle of Short Hills, General Howe decided to send a considerable force against Philadelphia, again with the intent to draw Washington out onto the field of battle where the better trained and equipped British would be victorious in one, decisive action.  He embarked from Sandy Hook, New Jersey on July 23, 1777 with two hundred and sixty seven ships under the command of Lord Howe (General Howe’s brother) and set sail for Delaware Bay.  This time he was successful for Washington, upon learning of the strength of Howe’s force, immediately brought his army south to defend Philadelphia.

Lord Admiral Richard “Black Dick” Howe, Commander of the British Fleet

The British fleet arrived the Delaware on the 29th, but finding they could not proceed up the river due to its shallow passage, set sail once more.  With the departure of the fleet, there was great speculation among the American generals as to which destination Howe had in mind.  Some thought he would head south while others thought he would remain along the northeast coast.  Washington was convinced of the later and started his army marching north.  An army already fatigued by countless marching and counter marching began, once more, trudging north towards New England.  When word reached Washington that the fleet was seen entering the Chesapeake, he immediately turned his army around and force marched them towards Philadelphia.  The British fleet anchored between the mouths of the Sasafras and Elk Rivers on August 22, 1777.

Battle of Germantown
Battle of Germantown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Washington, with 20,000 troops,  took up a position from Head of Elk, Maryland, to Philadelphia.  Howe landed his forces on Aug. 25 on the north shore of the Elk River opposite Cecil Courthouse, Maryland.  They marched to Iron Hill on the third of September then gradually approached Brandywine Creek, about twenty miles south of Philadelphia .  Washington deployed his troops in a defensive position at Chad’s Ford on the Brandywine.  On September 11th, Howe detached two columns.  One column of 5,000 troops under Hessian General Knyphausen attacked the ford directly while the second column, over 12,000 troops under General Cornwallis, flanked the American right, (similar to the flanking maneuver on Long Island that brought Howe’s main force in the rear of Washington’s army).  They crossed the west branch of the Brandywine at Trimble’s Ford and attacked from behind the American right.  The entire American Line collapsed and retreated north.

Instead of aggressively following up his victory, Howe remained camped near Chad’s Ford while he waited for additional wagons to carry the wounded and baggage.  During this delay, he began to lay plans for a cautious advance towards the Continental Army.  When he learned on September 16th that his enemy had set up camp in the area surrounding present day Malvern, Pennsylvania, just ten miles away, he decided to press for another victory.  Washington was informed of the British advance and prepared for battle.  Before the two armies clashed in earnest, skirmishing had led to about a hundred casualties on both sides, a torrential downpour soaked most of the powder and cartridges.  The battle was adverted and Washington retreated further north; this being referred to as the ‘Battle of the Clouds.’

While the main American force continued north with Howe’s army in pursuit, Washington had left behind Pennsylvanian General Anthony Wayne with a force of approximately 1,500 men, most Pennsylvania regiments.  Also Brigadier Smallwood had remained with about 2,100 inexperienced Maryland militia.  What ensued would prove to have a direct effect on a major portion of the upcoming Battle of Germantown.


Wayne was ordered to harass the British and attempt to capture all or part of their baggage train.  Wayne pursued the British.  Assuming he had remained undetected, he camped at the Paoli Tavern, close to the British line.  On September 19th, the British heard rumors that Wayne was in the area and spies reported he was in a relatively exposed position at the tavern ,just four miles from the British camp at Tredyffrin.  The next day, September 20, 1777, Howe ordered Major General Charles Grey to launch a surprise night attack on Wayne’s camp.  Grey’s command consisted of the 2nd Light Infantry, a regiment made up of the light companies from 13 regiments which Howe formed while still in Halifax prior to the New York invasion, and the 42nd & 44th foot; about 1,200 men in total.

British General Grey had flints removed from muskets and ordered the attack to be led by the  light infantry using bayonet only.  They surprised Wayne’s force while they were sleeping killing fifty three Americans, wounding one hundred thirteen, and capturing seventy one.  The British came upon Smallwood’s force who were camped a mile away at the White Horse Tavern and  routed them.  Americans who escaped reported that soldiers were bayoneted and burned while trying to surrender making martys of those killed.  The affair became known as the Paoli Massacre.   Wayne’s men declared revenge.  During the upcoming battle at Germantown, the 2nd Light Infantry  and 40th foot would be posted in front of the British center – the first to feel the blow of Wayne’s attacking troops.  They believed surrender to Wayne’s men was not an option and took action that subsequently helped to alter the prospect of victory for the Americans.

Meanwhile, the American army made its way into Pennsylvania and camped at the Henry Hill farm.  It was a large tract of land in Roxborough Township, thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia and east of the Schuylkill River.  From here the army set up its defenses on an elevated plateau of several hundred acres.  Washington had hoped from this position to be able to move either to defend Philadelphia or Reading, Pennsylvania, where the main army supplies were stored.

By September 25th, the British forces crossed the Schuylkill at Fatland Ford and marched in two columns to occupy Germantown, a villa of neat and wealthy stone residences about six miles northwest from center Philadelphia.   The next day Howe and Cornwallis, with the Brigade of Grenadier and two battalions of Hessians took control of Philadelphia.

Burgoyne surrenders at the Battle of saratoga

Congress had fled and took refuge in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Of all the colonies, Pennsylvania was among the least enthusiastic about the patriotic cause.  What little support there was was waning as the war dragged on.  With their capitol in the hands of the enemy, the locals were distraught to offer assistance to the fledgling Americans.

Once more there was great despondency in the American army.  News of Burgoyne’s surrender had not arrived.  Their one and only frigate on the Delaware had grounded and surrendered.  The British crossed the Delaware into New Jersey.  The guns at Billingsgate were spiked and the New Jersey militia that was to defend the forts around Red Bank, fled while others held back.  Dispair spread all along the river and within the ranks of the Continental army, especially the militia.   There were frequent desertions from privates to officers.  Washington actively sought an opportunity to not only strike a blow against the British, but to salvage his army’s and nation’s moral.

Camp Life

On September 28th, while in council with his generals, Washington proposed an attack be made against the British camp at Germantown.  The majority of the officers said no.  Those who supported the idea were:  Brigadiers Smallwood, Wayne, Scott, Porter, and Irvine.  Those who opposed were: Major Generals Sullivan, Greene, Stirling, Stephen, Armstrong, including Brigadiers McDougal, Knox, Muhlenber, Nash, and Conway.  They did recommend the army move closer to the enemy in case an opportunity presented itself.  Arrangements were made to move to Matuchen Hills about eight miles southeast.

The opening Washington desired came in  early October in the form of two intersected letters addressed by Howe.  William Howe’s brother Lord Howe brought part of the fleet up from the Chesapeake to the Delaware River with stores for the army.  In the letters were Howe’s orders to detach three regiments from the main army to Chester and Billingspoint to convey the supplies to headquarters.  This left approximately eight thousand men in camp.  Washington decided to take advantage of Howe’s diminished numbers and immediately drew up plans for an attack on October 3rd while at Matuchen Hills.  It called for eleven thousand men to advance in four columns and after a sixteen mile march through the night, assult the British camp simultaneously at dawn.

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Bancroft, George.  History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent Vol. 9. 1875:  Little Brown and Company, Boston, MA.

Lamb, Alfred C.  Battle of Germantown.  The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1877), pp. 368-403.

Lincoln, C. H.  Washington’s Plan for the Attack at Germantown.  The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 26. No. 3 (1902).  pp 387-388.

Pickering, Octavius.  Life of Timothy Pickering, Vol. 1. 1867:  Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, MA.

Tompkins, Hamilton B.  Contemporary Account of the Battle of Germantown.  The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Oct. 1887), pp. 330-332.

Trevelyan, Sir G. O.  The American Revolution Vol. 4.  1922:   Longman’s Green & Company, New York, NY.

Ward, Christopher.  The War of the Revolution.  2011:  Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY.

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