October 4th, 1777
The Continental Army was licking its wounds after their defeat at Brandywine Creek on September 11, 1777. However, with the arrival of militia from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, including Wayne’s six hundred men who had rejoined the army after trailing the British, his army was larger than what he had at Brandywine. The Americans had taken a position to defend Philadelphia and their supply depot at Reading, PA. When Howe’s army moved upon Philadelphia, Washington forfeited the city and stationed his army along the Schuylkill River on the Henry Hill farm in Roxborough Township, a little over thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia, later moving to Pennybaker, about twenty eight miles from the city. Howe marched his army to Germantown on September 25th, about 6 miles northwest of Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River. The next day, September 26th, he and Lt. General Cornwallis entered Philadelphia leading a procession of two brigade of grenadiers and a brigade of Hessian grenadiers. Cornwallis and his troops were left to occupy Philadelphia and Howe returned to Germantown.
In early October, 1777, part of Lord Howe’s fleet came up the Chesapeake with stores for the army. American forts and fortifications along the Delaware River prevented the fleet from supplying Philadelphia directly. Three regiments were detached from Germantown to Chester, Maryland, to convey the supplies to headquarters. Troops were also sent to Billingspoint, NJ to secure the area from local militia. This left approximately eight thousand British and Hessian troops in camp in and around Germantown. When Washington learned of this, he decided to take advantage of the situation and ordered 11,000 men forward. On September 29th, he marched from Pennybacker’s Mill down to Skippack, about twenty five miles from Philadelphia. On Oct. 2nd, he advanced five miles further to Worcester Township and prepared his attack. Noon, October 3rd, 1777, General George Washington, Commander in Chief of American forces announced at Matuchen Hills his purpose to move upon Germantown. The attack was to be made at dawn the next morning, October 4, 1777.
Germantown and Region
Germantown, in 1777, was basically built along a two mile single street; Market House. It ran from Philadelphia, through Germantown, six miles to the north, and continued north towards Reading, Pennsylvania, where it became the Skippack Road. At the time Germantown was mostly country estates for the wealthy of Philadelphia who sought refuge from the city, especially during times of malaria and small pox outbreaks. The homes were gabled with ponderous cornices, stone that was locally quarried, and roofing made of white cedar wood. They were close to the main highway with neatly groomed lawns, fences, handsome gardens, paddocks and orchards that extended to either side and back a considerable distance from the residence.
In an open space in the center of town was the Market House for which the street was named. There was a crossroad at this center. Market House continued north, the road that cut a right angle and ran eastward from the center was Church Lane, (named for a German Church near Market House on the north side of Church Lane), and the road that ran westward from the intersection was Schoolhouse Lane. An Academy was located on the southern side of this lane near the center of town. A little more than half a mile north of the center of town was Clivendon1, the home of Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Chew, otherwise known as the Chew House. It was to play an important role in the upcoming battle.
North, about one mile from the Market House, the street ran through Beggarstown. A small rise called Mt. Pleasant ran east to west just north of Beggarstown. A little beyond that was the Allen House on another hill called Mt. Airy. Further north was Chestnut Hill. Here the road branched; the left fork leading toward Reading and the right fork to Bethlehem. Three quarters of a mile along the Reading branch was Paul’s Mill, one of several along the Wissahickon River that flowed southeast, near parallel with Market House until confluence with the Schuylkill River. Here the road crossed the Wissahickon and further along, near a mile, was Barren Hill2. About a mile from the right fork, the road ran through Flour Town. Just beyond, a side lane lead to the Daniel Morris’ and Jacob Edge’s Mill on the Wissahickon. West of the Wissahickon River was Manatawny Road or Ridge Road that ran south, parallel with the Wissahickon. It crossed Wissahickon at Vandeering’s Mill3 where the Wissahickon flowed down a deep gorge into the Schuylkill River.
To the west of the center of Germantown, Schoolhouse Lane rolled away from the intersection at Market House. It was three quarters of a mile to the high bluffs of the Wissahickon River where the fore mentioned Ridge Road crossed at Vandeering’s Mill. About a quarter mile north of Schoolhouse Lane, on the east bank of the Wissahickon, was Rittenhouse’s Paper Mill.
To the east, just outside the center of town and a little ways north was Kelly’s Hill. Three quarters of a mile along Church Lane was Lukens Mill at Mill Creek. Just east of that, the road forked. The road to the northeast was Limekiln Road with Betton’s Woods about a quarter of a mile north and to the west. The southeast fork led to Old York Road.
At the southern end of Germantown, approximately a quarter mile, was Naglee’s Hill. Market House forked just before this rise; the main road to Philadelphia continued south – the other fork, Fisher’s Lane, cut around Naglee’s Hill to the west. On the southern side of Naglee’s Hill was the Stenton estate otherwise called the Logan Mansion4.
Position of British Forces
The British and Hessian forces were camped along the general line of School House and Church Lanes, running west to east and crossing the town at its center that intersected Market House. Advanced posts were positioned a mile north of Germantown on the main road with pickets thrown in front. Hessian regulars and Jaegers constituted the left wing. The center was made up of British Brigades. The far right was posted with Brigade of Guards and Queens Rangers were positioned on the extreme right, south along the Old York Road.
The left wing was commanded by Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. It comprised seven British battalions of the Third and Fourth Brigades under Major General Grey and Brigadier General Agnew. There were three Hessian battalions under Major General von Stirn. Colonel Donop’s regiment was the furthest to the right of the Hessians position, posted next to the British 4th Battalion. Also mounted and dismounted chasseurs and Yagers under Colonel von Wurumb extended west to the Schuylkill River. The Yagers were in front and on the extreme left flank. There was a small redoubt on the high bluff at the mouth of the Wissahickon where Schoolhouse Lane joined the Ridge Road that ran to the north. The 4th British battalion was stationed along Schoolhouse beside the Hessians and next in line was the 3rd battalion extending to the Academy and the center of town.
The right wing spread east along the Church Lane about a mile to the woods near Lunkens’ Mill. It was commanded by Major General Grant with six battalions and two regiments of dragoons (16th & 17th) , including Brigadier General Matthew(5) who commanded three brigades of guards. He placed the 3rd Brigade of Guards to the right of Grant’s forces, positioning a large detachment further west at Lunken’s Mill. The 1st and 2nd brigades were stationed south and just west of Naglee’s Hill near Fisher’s Lane. Early in the battle General Howe ordered the 1st and 2nd Brigade of Guards forward in support of Matthew when he realized they were under a full scale attack. The 1st Light Infantry were posted as pickets about a half mile north and northeast of the right wing on Limekiln Road near Benton’s Woods. The Queen’s Rangers, a regiment of New York loyalists commanded by Captain Wemyss (of the 49th Foot), was thrown out on the extreme right flank toward Branchtown on the York Road.
Note: Many internet articles and recent texts state that Simcoe had command of the Queen’s Rangers during this action. Captain Simcoe, 1st Battalion of Grenadiers, was wounded at Brandywine. He was not given a Lt. Colonel commission and command of the Queen’s Rangers until October 16th, after the battle.
The 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry, with a battery of artillery, occupied the extreme north center. They were posted at Mt. Pleasant to the east of the main road, about a mile and a half from the center of town. A little further north, on Mt. Airy, were outlying pickets with two six pounder cannon at Allen’s House. A mile south and a half mile in advance of the main British line was the Fortieth Regiment commanded by Col. Musgrave. They were camped in a field opposite the Chew House.
Note: these two Light Infantry battalions took part in what had become known as the Paoli massacre in which fifty three Pennsylvania troops under General Anthony Wayne were killed and over a hundred dreadfully wounded in a surprise bayonet attack on their camp. The British pickets and outposts knew they were facing some of these same Pennsylvania regiments who vowed revenge. They believed if captured, they would be given no quarter and consequently offered stiff residence when they were attacked. For three nights prior to the battle, American scouting parties and cavalry under Col. Pulaski had repeatedly approached the lines and driven them in.
Washington’s Plan & Position of Troops
Washington was well informed of enemy movements and prepared his battle plans carefully. He decided to surprise the British camp at early dawn with a four-pronged attack along the entire enemy line. A reserve was to support the main attacking force against the enemy’s center. The goal was to drive the British back while caving in both flanks to get into their rear. Forty cannon were to take part in the attack under the overall command of General Knox. The troops were to parade the evening of October 3rd at 6 PM. Each column was to advance approximately sixteen miles(6) and halt at 2 AM; two miles from the enemy’s pickets. There they were to rest and make dispositions for line of battle. At 4 AM they were to advance and attack the pickets. The attack was to be coordinated along the entire front at precisely at 5:00 AM with “charged bayonets and without firing.” During the march, the columns were to communicate by light horse and the flanking parties were to be kept out from each column. Another attachment of militia, entirely separate, was to advance southwest of the Schuylkill with orders to make a feint attack at Middle Ferry, near Philadelphia at Market Street – this to draw the attention of the enemy’s city troops and keep them from reinforcing those at Germantown.
It was ordered that every officer and rank and file wear a slip of white paper in his cap, this to distinguish friend from foe (ultimately proving ineffectual). Each man was to carry 40 shots and all packs and blankets were to be left behind, haversacks allowed. Pioneers were to move in front of divisions with all the axes they could muster.
General Washington hoped this plan would afford the same kind of success that he enjoyed at Trenton, but on a much larger scale. Perhaps considered, but unavoidable, were the extensive number of farms, mills, residences, fences, enclosed areas, creeks, marshlands, and forested areas that would hinder a coordinated advance, especially at night. Add a fog that by morning, was incredibly thick, and it would be a wonder that any simultaneous attack could be made. The surprise Washington had hoped for along the entire British line proved to be unobtainable. The American forces would be left to depend on their own dogged determination to press the attack forward knowing the enemy would have ample time to form in defense. Battle lines were almost impossible to maintain as the men struggled over and around the many obstacles before them.
Right of Center: The divisions of General John Sullivan and General Anthony Wayne, flanked on the left by Brigadier Thomas Conway’s brigade, were to proceed by way of Chestnut Hill and drive south down the main road into Germantown. They would initially face the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion as pickets and the 40th regiment under Col. Musgrave at an advance post. They would come up against part of Knyphausen’s Hessians and the 3rd & 4th Brigades under Major General Grey and Brigadier General Agnew.
Right Extreme: General John Armstrong, with the Pennsylvania militia, would comprise the extreme right and ‘fall’ down Ridge Road. They were to drive in the Jaegers and Hessians stationed on the British extreme left and continue on by Vandeering’s Mill to ‘get upon’ the enemy’s left and rear.
Left of Center: The divisions of Major General Nathanael Greene and General Adam Stephen, flanked on their right by Brigadier Alexander McDougall’s brigade, were to proceed southeast then down Limekiln Road and attack the enemy’s right wing. Initially opposing them would be 2nd Light Infantry as pickets. They would then swing southwest and face forces under Major General Grant and ultimately Brigadier Matthews’s three Brigades of Foot Guards. McDougall was to veer off and attack the British far right flank. General John Morin Scott and Brigadier John Muhlenberg were to attack the center.
Left Extreme: The militias of Maryland and New Jersey, commanded by Generals Smallwood and Forman, were to head south along the Old York Road and attack the Queen’s Rangers stationed along the Old York Road. Then, similar to General Armstrong’s orders on the enemy’s extreme left, they were to get in the rear of British forces.
Reserve: Lord Stirling’s division, with Nash’s and Maxwell’s brigades, followed Sullivan and Wayne’s divisions to further press the attack. Washington was to accompany the reserve into the battle.
Pickets: The enemy’s pickets were to be “taken off”, not driven in. General Armstrong was to deal with the Yager pickets before Vandeering’s Mill. Mount Airy pickets (2nd Light Infantry) were to be handled by Sullivan. Those along Limekiln and at Luken’s Mill (1st Light Infantry and 3rd Foot Guard) on the enemy’s right were to be dealt with by Greene.
Role of the extreme right and left columns during the battle
Because the two columns on both the American extreme right and left flanks had little if no role in the battle’s outcome, they will be mentioned here and not within any further description of the battle. Both forces never came fully to grips with the enemy, the New Jersey and Maryland militia not at all, and retired having not accomplished their goals. The main battle was fought entirely by Continental regular troops.
General Armstrong’s column, advancing along Ridge Road on the enemy’s extreme left, succeeded in positioning themselves at the appointed time. However, instead of advancing to ‘fall’ upon the enemy and getting into their rear, he later admitted that “destiny was against the foreigners, rather to divert them with the militia than fight their superior body.” He advanced as far as necessary to send shell over the Wissahickon River. There was a brisk but short fight with Jager troops before he retired from the conflict. About the only thing General Armstrong accomplished was to keep a considerable Hessian force initially out of the battle for the early part of the day.
The Maryland militia under General William Smallwood and New Jersey militia under General David Forman did far worse than Armstrong’s minimal effort. They became lost during the night and came up in time to join in the American retreat.
For men ill shod and ill equipped, and already fatigued from weeks of marching and countermarching, it was a long and arduous night traversing rough roads in complete darkness. Sullivan’s and Greene’s divisions did not reach Chestnut Hill, their original 2 AM destination until dawn. As they descended the valley and approached Mount Airy, the sun rose, but was soon blanked by a thick low fog. Conway’s brigade led the way with Sullivan and then Wayne’s division in the rear. One regiment from Conway’s brigade and one from Maryland were advanced in front. A detachment commanded by Captain Allen McLane of Delaware was sent to take the enemy’s advance picket at Allen’s house on Mt. Airy. His men killed the double sentries with the loss of one man. The outpost discharged both six pounders alarming the entire British army and fell back upon the 2nd Light Infantry who were soon forming in line of battle at Mt. Pleasant. Conway assembled his men to sustain the attacking light infantry while Sullivan drew up his division on the right of Allen Lane.
A heated fight took place for several minutes until the light infantry gave way. But they did so doggedly, fighting behind every ditch, fence, and wall. As the light infantry retreated, Colonel Musgrave of the 40th, who had been posted by the Chew House, brought his men up and formed line. At this time General Howe had come upon the field. He had mounted his horse at the first sound of alarm. As he viewed the retreating light infantry it is reported he cried out “For shame, light infantry! I never saw you retreat before.” He was still under the impression that it was just a raid. At that moment a shot of grape scattered the leaves above his head convincing him that it was anything but a small incursion. He immediately turned his horse around and galloped back to the main British line and prepared for the attack.
Meanwhile British Col. Musgrave’s men met Conway and stopped him in his tracks. Sullivan deployed his men in line of battle to the west and right of the main road, but Musgrave refused to give way. Sullivan then called up Wayne’s troops who attacked from the east and left of the road. These men, recalling the atrocities afflicted upon their comrades at Paoli by the very same men they faced, came on with a vengeance. Cries were heard by the British, “At the bloodhounds,” as Wayne’s men came forward with the bayonet. The British fell back, contesting the ground vigorously as several fell prey to American bayonets.
Because of the heavy mist and fog, Musgrave was able to retreat with most of his command, but ordered six weak companies (about 120 men) into the Chew House. Here he had his men barricade the doors and close shutters, determined to make a stand. As Sullivan passed to the west of the house and Wayne to the east, they were shot at by Musgrave and his men. Sullivan, leaving the Chew house behind, sent word back to Washington that he was advancing on the British left while Wayne was doing so on the right.
General Washington came up with the reserve and halted at the Chew House that was barricaded by Musgrave and his men. An initial cannonading had no effect on the thick stone structure. Colonel Pickering writes in his memoirs that he found “a council of officers discussing in the General’s presence [Washington] the propriety of moving the remainder of his troops forward, without regard to this impudent obstacle, against which a fruitless attack had already been made…” However General Knox, as chief of artillery and one, whose opinion was highly respected by Washington, insisted that it was contrary to all military rule to leave a castle in one’s rear. He insisted that the garrison should be summoned to surrender and if not, taken by force. Knox’s view prevailed and a flag of truth was sent with the summons. Lieutenant Colonel William Smith, of Virginia, volunteered to carry the flag. No sooner did he step out into the open than shots rang out and he collapsed onto the lawn. He died of his wounds twenty days later.
General William Maxwell, with his brigade and four three pounders, attacked the house vigorously. A siege that ultimately lasted an hour took place that resulted in over fifty Americans dead and countless others wounded. Every means was tried to dislodge those inside. When the front door was blasted in, the defenders piled up more furniture as a barricade. Two New Jersey regiments had attacked again and again receiving forty-six casualties. Bodies littered the lawn as John Laurens of South Carolina and the Chevalier Duplessis tried to fire the house. They got to a window, Duplessis actually leaping inside (the only American soldier to do so), however it proved unsuccessful. Both officers retreated; Laurens slightly wounded in the arm. During this continued attack on the house by the reserve forces, Sullivan and Wayne pressed the attack, moving on towards the center of town.
A half hour after Sullivan’s men engaged the light infantry on the right, Greene had completed his circuit of the Limekiln Road and attacked the pickets on the British right; 1st Battalion of Light Infantry. Greene formed his men in line. Stephens’ division was on the right and west of Limekiln Road; Sullivan’s own division of Muhlenberg’s and Scott’s brigades next to Stephens, and McDougall’s brigade on the extreme left flank. General Stephens later writes that “the two divisions formed the line of battle at a great distance from the enemy, and marched far through marshes, woods, and strong fences, [so that they were] mixed before we came up with the enemy.” Colonel Matthew detached his 9th Virginia regiment from Stephen’s division and hotly pursued the enemy.
General Woodford’s brigade from Stephen’s division (without Woodford who was recuperating from wounds received at Brandywine) turned sharply to the right when they heard the sound of fighting. They soon came opposite the Chew House. Here they halted, and while Maxwell, from the reserve, continued attacking the front of the house, Woodford’s men opened fire with artillery and muskets from the other side. Meanwhile the rest of Stephen’s division, also following the sound of fighting and not the initial plan, turned right and came upon the left flank of Wayne’s men. Wayne had heard the additional sounds of bombardment from his rear (Woodford’s men attacking the Chew House). Thinking Sullivan was in need of assistance, he had ordered a reversal. Wayne’s and Stephen’s men soon became entangled in the fog. Shots were fired and men fell. Soon both forces thought themselves outflanked. They broke off the attack and fled north in a panic. This left the British left wing free from assault and allowed them to support the right wing who was under attack by Greene’s men.
Greene, with his own division and Muhlewnberg’s, Scott’s, and McDougall’s brigades, had kept on as planned. They attacked the Guardsmen and light infantry at Lunen’s Mill and drove them back. Colonel Walter Stewart of McDougall’s brigade wrote afterwards, “I happened to be detached… I engaged the 5th and 38th [British regiments]; both ran lustily, and I took a little flush redoubt, with three pieces of cannon from them.”(7) Greene’s division turned upon the planned attack on the right of the British line. Finding the line greatly extended, and himself threatened of being outflanked, he counter- marched his men to the right and bore down on the Market House, attacking the British line with such determination that it gave way. Muhlenberg led a bayonet charge that pushed through the enemy’s tents taking prisoners.
Greene’s men continued the fight, but were running low on ammunition. General Grey, finding little or no threat on his right flank, brought up the 5th and 45th regiments from that direction. The left of the British line, including the Hessians, found little cause for alarm in their front, Sullivan’s men having run in panic, and pressed Greene from that side. Now engaged in his front and both flanks, they further became alarmed by the continued fighting going on behind them at the Chew House. When the British light horsemen on their right arrived shouting that they were surrounded, his men fell into a panic, many turning to run. Greene decided it was fruitless to continue the attack and ordered a retreat. By now Muhlenberg was far out in front of Greene’s main body, more than a thousand yards in the rear of the enemy. He turned around and forced a path through the encircling British troops and joined Greene with his entire command but for one regiment; Col. Matthews and the 9th Virginia. They had been far in advance of any other troops. They made their way to Luken’s Mill before the British right wing enveloped them. They lost all their prisoners as his entire regiment, four hundred men, were taken captive on Kelly’s Hill.
Greene, Muhlenberg, Scott, and McDougall had little fight left in them. Worn out from the long overnight trek and desperate battle, they now faced the divisions of Grey, Grant, and Agnew’s Brigade including Col. Donop’s regiment of Hessians. They fought a delaying, rearguard action as they retreated back through town fighting from behind fences, walls, and houses. Greene made sure he was able to secure all his guns and successfully removed them from the field.
General Washington had remained at the Chew House. With all his forces retreating, he had no other choice. At approximately 8:30 AM, he ordered a general retreat.(8) It was not a rout. British and Hessian troops were in agreement that it was done in good military fashion. Washington was able to draw off all the cannon including his wounded. Colonel Musgrave and his 6 companies from the 40th Foot remained in the Chew House until General Grant’s Forces rescued them. The Americans were pursued north by the British who kept a respectable distance, occasionally throwing cannon shot and answered in kind by the Americans. They followed the Americans for about nine miles before retiring back to their original camp. Washington marched his army back to Penneybacker’s Mill, where, after twenty-four hours of hard continuous exertions, made accommodations for the wounded and resumed their camp.
According to General Knox’s watch, the battle lasted two hours and forty minutes. American losses, as listed in the Board of War, were thirty officers and one hundred and twenty-two rank and file killed, one hundred and seventeen officers and four hundred and four men wounded, and approximately four hundred prisoners that included fifty officers and Colonel Matthew’s regiment.
British losses were rarely accurately quoted. It was typical that none of the Hessians were ever recorded. It was reported that thirteen British officers and fifty-eight men were killed. Fifty-five officers and three hundred and ninety-five men wounded. The Americans lost their captives during the retreat.
Each army lost a major commander. Lieutenant Colonel Agnew, serving as brigadier general, was at the head of his column while pursuing the retreating Americans along the main road when he was felled by a volley sent by a party of citizens.(9) On the American side, General Nash of North Carolina was killed leading his brigade. It was said a solid shell passed through his horse and shattered his thigh. He was taken to the rear where he died.
Major General Stephens was reported drunk during the action. He was later court-martialed and cashiered from the army.
The battle, though considered a loss for the Americans, came on the heels of the capture of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, NY. The French, when learning of Burgoyne’s defeat along with the Americans ability to strike back at the British so decisively after a rounding defeat at Brandywine, helped convince them to enter the war as allies with the Americans. The armies remained as is for some time. Howe eventually moved his headquarters to Philadelphia where the bulk of his army went into winter quarters. Washington made camp at Valley Forge, PA.
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2 According to the Reverend Henry M. Muhlenberg, who lived near the American camp, who recorded in his diary on Oct. 3rd 1777, that “There is a report htat at daylight the British outposts, at Barren Hill and Germantown, will be attacked. Barren Hill, west of the Wissahickon on Ridge Road, was a mile and a half past any other British outpost at Mt. Airy or further east on Limekiln Road.
3 The spelling, according to the Bensall map of 1877, is given as Vandaren’s Mill. Most other spellings indicate it as von Deering’s Mill or simply Deering’s Mill.
4 Quaker James Logan, friend of Ben Franklin, one of the leading citizens of Pennsylvania (who died 25 yrs. Prior to the battle) used Stenton as his summer residence; named for Stenton, Scotland where his father was born
5 Several internet articles state that Col. Donop’s regiment was stationed on the right alongside General Grant. This is incorrect. Donop’s force was first held to protect the far right after American General Armstrong began cannonading that position. When Armstrong proved to be no threat, the regiment went into action alongside the 4th Brigade under General Agnew.
6 Many texts and internet differ as the distance from Washington’s camp at Pennybaker on the Skippack Road to Philadelphia. They range from 18 to 25 miles. Most sources put the distance at 25 miles including the Hill and Bensall maps.
7 Lambdin, pg. 386
8 Some texts and internet state that Washington left a regiment at the Chew house and with the remainder of the reserve, moved to the front. This is based on a letter by Sullivan published in the second edition of Marshall’s Life of Washington. In it he states that he saw “our brave commander exposing himself to the hottest fire of the enemy in such a manner that regard to my country obliged me to ride to him and beg him to retire…” Colonel Pickering made a statement in 1826, that he was with Washington and he never went past the Chew House. None of the diaries of the officers present at the Chew House mention such a movement by Washington. Also, since Sullivan came upon the rear of the Chew House during the retreat, he was not an eye-witness as to what occurred at the front of the house.
9 Philip Boyer is said to have shot General Agnew