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American Revolution: Battle of Germantown


American Revolution: Battle of Germantown

Battle of Germantown: The British 40th Foot at the Chew House

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Germantown - Conflict:

The Battle of Germantown took place during the 1777 Philadelphia Campaign of the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders:



Battle of Germantown - Date:

Fought less than a month after the British victory at the Battle of the Brandywine (September 11), the Battle of Germantown took place on October 4, 1777, outside the city of Philadelphia.

Battle of Germantown - Background:

Following their victory at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, British forces under General William Howe captured the colonial capital of Philadelphia. Unable to prevent this, General George Washington moved the 11,000-man Continental Army to a position along Perkiomen Creek between Pennypacker's Mills and Trappe, PA, approximately 30 miles northwest of the city. Concerned about the American army, Howe left a garrison of 3,000 men in Philadelphia and moved with 9,000 to Germantown. Five miles from the city, Germantown provided the British with a position to block the approaches to the city.

Battle of Germantown - Washington's Plan:

Alerted to Howe's movement, Washington saw an opportunity to strike a blow against the British while he had numerical superiority. Meeting with his officers, Washington developed a complicated attack plan which called for four columns to hit the British simultaneously. If the assault proceeded as planned, it would lead to the British being caught in a double envelopment. At Germantown, Howe formed his main defensive line along the Schoolhouse and Church Lanes with Hessian Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen commanding the left and Major General James Grant leading the right.

On the evening of October 3, Washington's four columns moved out. The plan called for Major General Nathanael Greene to lead a strong column against the British right, while Washington led a force down the main Germantown Road. These attacks were to be supported by columns of militia which were to strike the British flanks. All of the American forces were to be in position “precisely at 5 o’clock with charged bayonets and without firing.” As at Trenton the previous December, it was Washington's goal to take the British by surprise.

Battle of Germantown - Problems Arise:

Marching through the darkness, communications quickly broke down between the American columns and two were behind schedule. In the center, Washington's men arrived as scheduled, but hesitated as there was no word from the other columns. This was largely due to the fact that Greene's men and the militia, led by General William Smallwood, had become lost in the darkness and heavy morning fog. Believing that Greene was in position, Washington ordered the attack to commence. Led by Major General John Sullivan's division, Washington's men moved to engage British pickets in the hamlet of Mount Airy.

Battle of Germantown - American Advance:

In heavy fighting, Sullivan's men forced the British to retreat back towards Germantown. Falling back, six companies (120 men) of the 40th Foot, under Colonel Thomas Musgrave, fortified the stone home of Benjamin Chew, Cliveden, and prepared to make a stand. Fully deploying his men, with Sullivan's division on the right and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's on the left, Washington bypassed Cliveden and pushed on through the fog towards Germantown. Around this time, the militia column assigned to attack the British left, arrived and briefly engaged von Knyphausen's men before withdrawing.

Reaching the Cliveden with his staff, Washington was convinced by Brigadier General Henry Knox that such a strongpoint could not be left in their rear. As a result, Brigadier General William Maxwell's reserve brigade was brought up to storm the house. Supported by Knox's artillery, Maxwell's men made several futile assaults against Musgrave's position. At the front, Sullivan and Wayne's men were exerting heavy pressure on the British center when Greene's men finally arrived on the field.

Battle of Germantown - The British Recover:

After pushing British pickets out of Luken's Mill, Greene advanced with Major General Adam Stephen's division on the right, his own division in the center, and Brigadier General Alexander McDougall's brigade on the left. Moving through the fog, Greene's men began to roll up the British right. In the fog, and perhaps because he was intoxicated, Stephen and his men erred and veered right, encountering Wayne's flank and rear. Confused in the fog, and thinking that they had found the British, Stephen's men opened fire. Wayne's men, who were in the midst of an attack, turned and returned fire. Having been attacked from the rear and hearing the sound of Maxwell's assault on Cliveden, Wayne's men began to fall back believing they were about to be cut off. With Wayne's men retreating, Sullivan was forced to withdraw as well.

Along Greene's line of advance, his men were making good progress, but soon became unsupported as McDougall's men wandered away to the left. This opened Greene's flank to attacks from the Queen's Rangers. Despite this, the 9th Virginia managed to make it to Market Square in the center of Germantown. Hearing the cheers of the Virginians through the fog, the British quickly counterattacked and captured most of the regiment. This success, coupled with the arrival of reinforcements from Philadelphia led by Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis led to a general counterattack all along the line. Learning that Sullivan had retreated, Greene ordered his men to disengage retreat ending the battle.

Battle of Germantown - Aftermath

The defeat at Germantown cost Washington 1,073 killed, wounded, and captured. British losses were lighter and numbered 521 killed and wounded. The loss ended American hopes of recapturing Philadelphia and forced Washington to fall back and regroup. In the wake of the Philadelphia Campaign, Washington and the army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Though beaten at Germantown, American fortunes changed later that month with the key victory at the Battle of Saratoga.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1601-1800
  6. American Revolution
  7. American Revolution - 1777
  8. American Revolution: The Battle of Germantown

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