Cliveden (Chew) House & Its Role in Battle of Germantown
The Americans advanced in force caving in pickets, outposts and all resistance. One hundred British regulars, outnumbered with shot canisters full and plenty of powder, streamed inside the stately country mansion of wealthy Quaker loyalist Benjamin Chew, Pennsylvania supreme court justice. The British commander, battle hardened Lt. Colonel Thomas Musgrave of the 40th regiment of foot , was determined to hold his position at all costs. Thus began the Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777, that early foggy morning just north of Philadelphia.
Historian Sir George Trevelyan describes the action around Cliveden house, an island of resistance at the center of the American offensive: Three American cannon were immediately run forward and blew in the hall-door at the first discharge. The English captain who commanded the ground-floor barricaded the entry with a pile of furniture. Brown Bess muskets poked out through the barricade and closed shutters. The Republicans [Americans] advanced to the attack with spirit and resolution, ducking behind trees and stone walls. Soon Cliveden was in the midst of tremendous musket fire and smoke. One officer had his horse killed under him within three yards of the house. Another, who got close beneath the wall with an armful of straw and a lighted torch was mortally wounded by a shot fired upwards through the cellar-grating. Cannon balls pounded the house and property.
Colonel John Laurens, with fruitless daring, led a storming-party of New Jerseymen against the principal entrance and were stabbed with bayonets through the windows. The marble statues and vases, which ornamented the Chief Justice’s lawn, were chipped and scarred by the English bullets; but nothing made of flesh and blood could remain erect on that bare plot of turf, and under that deadly shower. The American infantry and artillery made a circle about the building, and scourged it with a tempest of round-shot, grape, and musketry. The roof was pierced, and all the glass and woodwork shattered ; but General Knox’s three-pounders could make no impression whatever upon the well-laid brick walls and the massive stone copings.
Washington would, from the very first, have done well to have neglected [Colonel] Musgrave, [commander of British troops within the mansion] and continued his forward movement in the direction of Philadelphia. The bombardment had, in one important respect, a decisive influence upon the result of the battle; for the roar of the guns exerted a fatal attraction over those American generals and colonels who were painfully and blindly groping their passage through the fog as they pressed the attack against General Howe’s main body of troops.
The colonial village of Germantown, 8 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was founded by Quaker and Mennonite Germans from Krefeld in 1681. It was the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America with the signing of the 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery; a clear and concise argument against slavery. By the mid eighth century it became a haven of lavish country estates and summer homes for the wealthy residents of Philadelphia. It also became a retreat for well to do Philadelphians who vacated Philadelphia during the numerous outbrakes of yellow fever. Peter Kalm, professor of economy at the University of Abo in Finland, wrote about Germantown in his Travels into North America that he published in 1771. “The dwellings, with their quaint gables and ponderous cornices… built of a stone which is mixed with glimmer, and roofed with shingles of white cedarwood… were disposed well apart from each other in pretty gardens, with orchards and paddocks extending back into the adjourning country. The straggling grass-bordered highway, which was called a street, measured two miles in length and halfway down it stood, and stands, the house of Benjamin Chew…”
BENJAMIN CHEW (1722-1810)
Benjamin Chew built his summer home in Germantown between 1763 and 1767. He called it Cliveden after the summer estate of Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne. Born of Germanic heritage, Frederick was the estranged son of King George II and father of future king, George III. Chew was born in Anne Arundel County, Maryland to Quaker parents. Samuel Chew, his father, a physician, was Chief Justice of the ‘lower counties,’ or what became Delaware. Mary Galloway, Samuel’s first wife, was Benjamin’s mother.
Chew studied law in the Middle Temple in London. He returned to Philadelphia and was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Because of his friendship with the Penn family and a member of te Governor’s Council, he became a staunch loyalist and was often in opposition to Benjamin Franklin.
Chew was appointed Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1774. His position was destined to be short lived as within two years he had fled to New Jersey; returning briefly during the British occupation of Philadelphia in late 1777 until the spring of 1778. By the end of his first term, the office was abolished.
In 1933 Alphonse B. Miller wrote a review in the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. It critiqued Burton Alva Konkle’s text Benjamin Chew, 1722-1810. Miller is far from flattering Benjamin Chew’s character and place in history as related by Konkle’s research and presentation labeling him as one of ‘sapless virtues.’ He goes on to write: “In his [Chew] long career, he contributed nothing enduring either to our history or to his profession. He belonged to that top flight among mediocrities who have ever been the ornament of the Pennsylvania metropolis. Burton Alva Konkle, has proved himself admirably fitted to give Chew exactly the biography he deserves. Mr. Konkle evidently has the keenest appreciation for precisely those somewhat sapless virtues which pass for the highest good in the circles wherein Chew moved.”
During the American Revolution, the pacifist Chew sided with the Crown and his principal clients, the Penn family. As a result, the Continental Congress placed him under house arrest in New Jersey. As the war progressed and it appeared the American forces would be successful, Benjamin Chew feared for his vast property holdings and social status in Philadelphia and expressed patriotism towards the American cause. Despite questions about his loyalty, George Washington and John Adams had immense respect for him. After the war, friendships such as these allowed Chew to reclaim his position in the Philadelphia power structure. He was allowed to return to his successful legal practice and resume benefiting financially from his plantations. Back on his feet, Chew repurchased and restored his beloved summer house, badly damaged by artillery fire during the 1777 Battle of Germantown.
Cliveden was originally built on eleven acres of land which Benjamin Chew had increased to sixty. Though Chew had no architectural training, it appears he had a hand in planning the construction of the mansion as his designs were found in the home years later. The estate had manicured gardens, wooded groves, and several outbuilding, including a large carriage house. Raymond Shepherd gave a detailed description of Cliveden in his 1976 article published in the American Art Journal. He states that Cliveden remains one of the most elegant and essentially unaltered of Philadelphia’s Colonial structures. Chew had incorporated elements of the English Neo-Palladian modified by his taste and means in the Middle Georgian period. Cliveden’s two and one-half story rectangular central block is flanked by kitchen and wash-house. [It is] centrally located on the five-bay facade of cut, native Germantown schist stone… the small, projecting pedimented pavilion [is] ornamented with a classic Doric entablaturea. A raised water table, horizontal belt course, modillion cornice, paired dormers with scrolled brackets and massive clustered brick chimneys at the ridge complete the exterior ornamentation.”
The architectural woodwork of Cliveden was created by Germantown carpenter Jacob Knor who also made some of the furniture. Much of the house was furnished from the workshops of some of the best known craftsmen and artisans who worked in Philadelphia: Affleck, Gostelowe, Evans, and looking glasses and girandoles attributed to Reynolds. Thomas Affleck (Quaker who died 1795) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and trained in London. He was brought to Philadelphia by Governor John Penn. His style was rich in the English tradition of the time which gave more importance to ornamentation than form.
BATTLE OF GERMANTOWN
During the Battle of Germantown in which a major portion took part in and around his estate, Benjamin Chew, because of his loyalty to the crown, was already being held in confinement in New Jersey. I have found no sources that support Chew and his family were removed from Cliveden by the Penn. Committee of Safety just prior to the battle as Washington’s plans were unfolding daily. Secrecy in an attack against General Howe’s forces at Germantown that somewhat mirrored that of Trenton was paramount to any concern over the well being of a loyalist, no matter he be a friend of Washington’s.
In May of 1777, Howe tried to draw Washington out from his strong position in the hills around Morristown, NJ in what became known as the Battle of Short Hills. In failing to do this, he decided to sail a fleet up the Delaware Bay and capture Philadelphia. Because Delaware bay was too shallow, he sailed further south to the Chesapeake and landed his forces on August 25, 1777 along the north shore of the Elk River. He marched his troops inland and on September 11th, met Washington’s army in what became the Battle of Brandywine Creek. After routing Washington’s forces, Howe, in a slow, customary pace, pursued Washington, forcing him northwest of Philadelphia which fell to the British on September 26, 1777. Howe marched his main army in two columns northwest to Germantown where he established his headquarters.
Washington got word that three British regiments were detached to Chester and Billings Point to convey supplies to headquarters. This was an opportunity to make a bold strike against Howe’s lesser force of eight thousand against his eleven thousand troops. Washington’s plan called for the main attack to be made in the center down Skippack Road and directly towards Howe’s headquarters. It was to be a surprise attack similar to Trenton in which his troops would proceed throughout the night and launch a coordinated assault with three other wings at dawn.
Initially all went as planned. Washington and Sullivan drove in pickets and outposts and pressed down the main boulevard of Germantown. General Greene did likewise on the American left. However, the militias on the extreme left and right had little or no affect on the battle. There was a considerable amount of fog that morning which hindered the progress. Lt. Colonel Musgrave of the British 40th had offered a strong resistance in the center. Seeing that he was strongly outnumbered, he ordered most of his force to retreat and reform with the bulk of Howe’s forces. He then led four hundred men into the Cliveden mansion with the intent to hold the house at all costs. Sullivan’s main force pushed past the house to continue the drive against the Britsh who were beginning to stiffen their defense. It is at that moment that Washington made the fatal error of holding back his reserve forces to concentrate on dislodging Lt. Colonel Musgrave’s men from Cliveden.
Colonel Knox’s cannon balls bounced off the two foot thick stone structure. The courtyard and turf on all sides of the mansion were enfiladed with continual fire from both sides that no man could survive in a sudden rush. For nearly an hour this continued.
General Greene on the left, instead of following orders to continue pressing the right wing, he heard firing to his right and swung his force toward Sullivan’s men. He soon became engaged in trying to take Cliveden. Meanwhile, Sullivan pressed the attack, but became confused in the fog; his troops firing on their own men. He was soon assaulted on both flanks by Grant’s and Brigadier Grey’s forces.
By now the Americans were exhausted. James McMichael of the Pennsylvania Line later wrote in his diary that they “had previously undergone many fatigues, but never any so much overdone me as this. Had it not been for the fear of being taken prisoner, I should have remained on the road all night. I had marched in twenty four hours 45 miles, and in that time fought four hours, during which we advanced so furiously thro’ buckwheat fields, that it was almost an unspeakable fatigue.”
Add to all this the cannonade around the Chew House in Sullivan’s rear convinced his troops that they were being surrounded. They soon gave way to a protracted retreat back towards Cliveden. Washington saw that to continue the attack would result in disaster and ordered a general retreat. He pulled back sixteen miles to stronger defenses, all the while harassed by the British and Hessians. Though basically a defeat, the battle, soon after the American rout at Brandywine, in which Washington launched a bold attack that almost succeeded, helped to convince the French to enter the war as American allies.
CHEW PLANTATIONS AND SLAVERY
Much of Benjamin Chew’s wealth that supported his family’s lavish Philadelphia lifestyle came from the several tobacco and wheat plantations in Maryland and Delaware. Besides his legal practice, he was a shrewd land speculator acquiring vast estates of land and plantations throughout Maryland and Delaware. A great slaveholder and flesh-trader, his farms were worked by African Americans. Frisby’s Prime Choice, his plantations in Cecil County Maryland, was over a thousand acres and farmed by over seventy enslaved African Americans. Family documents indicate Chew gave free hand to his overseers in dealing with his slaves. One of his overseers wrote to him pleading for back up when two slaves named Aaron and Jim had beaten him after his brutal treatment of the work force during harvest season. Chew sent the reinforcements asked for and the uprising was severely put down. Recently, three boxes labeled “Whitehall,” one of the Chew plantations in Delaware and former residence of Benjamin Chew’s father, projected a story of violent altercations between Chew’s slaves and white overseers.
In general, Quakers did not support slavery and upheld that slaves be educated and eventually set free. Chew put personal greed before his fellow Friend’s doctrine in obtaining all his slaves until the year before his death. However, he did not do so out of passion for the plight of his bondsmen. He and his family decided to divest themselves in agriculture and invest in industry. Though he had promised his slaves their ultimate freedom, none of them saw freedom under his iron hand. All were sold to southern plantations. The last just before he died.
The Chew family papers that chronicled seven generations of economic and family affairs was donated by the family to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1982. They have since been opened to the public. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities paid for the meticulous archiving and conservation process. At the opening ceremony on October 14, 2009, representatives from NCOBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) demanded that the legacy of slavery play a prominent role in shaping the presentation of these documents. The Cliveden management has stated: “…[we] hope not only to bring about racial healing, but to more fully integrate the house museum into the predominately African-American Germantown neighborhood, [75% of Germantown are of African American decent] making [Cliveden] a catalyst for preserving and reusing historic buildings to sustain economic development for historic Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.”
The papers may be obtained on line: http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/c/Chew2050.xml#series2
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