“The misfortune which ensued”: The defeat at Germantown

Saverio Xavier della Gatta, an eighteenth-century Neopolitan painter, painted this scene of the Battle of Germantown in 1782, possibly for a British officer. Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

This was originally written in October of last year when I was a research fellow at the Maryland State Archives. It has been reprinted from Academia.edu.

On the morning of October 4, 1777, Continental troops encountered British forces, led by Lord William Howe, encamped at Germantown, Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia’s outskirts. George Washington believed that he had surprise on his side. [1] He had ordered his multiple divisions to march twenty miles from their camp at Perkeomen, with some of the soldiers having neither food or blankets. [2] Washington thought that if the British were defeated he could retake the Continental capital of Philadelphia and reverse his disaster at Brandywine.

Among the men who marched with Washington were 210 Marylanders, including many veterans of the Maryland 400. [3] The seven Maryland regiments, commanded by General John Sullivan, were at the lead of the Continental attack. After marching most of the night, like the rest of the Continental Army, they arrived at Chestnut Hill, three miles from Mount Airy, and encountered a British picket. [4] Later, Sullivan’s division advanced and fought British light infantry in a 15-20 minute clash in an orchard. [5] The Marylanders progressed on the road to Germantown, pushing down fences as they moved forward during this “very foggy morning.” [6] As Enoch Anderson of the Delaware Regiment described it, the scene became bloody in the thick fog:

“Bullets began to fly on both sides,–some were killed,–some wounded, but the order was to advance. We advanced in the line of the division,—the firing on both sides increased,—and what with the thickness of the air and the firing of guns, we could see but a little way before us.” [7]

As the battle moved forward, many Continentals fought at the house of Benjamin Chew, also called Cliveden. The Marylanders advanced upon a small breastwork in Germantown, leading to an intense fight with many lying dead, and they  later captured British artillery. [8] Later on, Sullivan ordered the Marylanders, within 400 or 500 yards of the stone house, to retreat since this obstacle had stopped their advance. [9] In response to the hundred or so British troops who came out of the house and a British advance from Lord Charles Cornwallis‘s reinforcements, some Marylanders fired a volley in response. After a British officer was killed, they did not pursue Sullivan’s men. When the smoke cleared, Colonel John Hoskins Stone and General Uriah Forest were wounded while two Marylanders were missing. [10]

Regiments from New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania also fought in the battle. Like the Marylanders, these Continentals were initially successful in pushing back the British. [11] They were even successful against the Hessian Jägerkorps who had soundly defeated them at the Battle of Brandywine, 24 days earlier. [12] As George Washington recounted, the Continental troops were part of his plan to flank the British, advancing at sunrise, but that they

“retreated a considerable distance, having previously thrown a party into Mr Chews House, who were in a situation not to be easily forced, and had it in their power from the Windows to give us no small annoyance, and in a great measure to obstruct our advance…The Morning was extremely foggy, which prevented our improving the advantages we gained so well, as we should otherwise have done. This circumstance…obliged us to act with more caution and less expedition than we could have wished, and gave the Enemy time to recover from the effects of our first impression…It also occasioned them [the Continentals] to mistake One another for the Enemy, which, I believe, more than any thing else contributed to the misfortune which ensued.” [13]

Clearly, the successes of these Continentals were reversed because they attempted to take the well-defended stone house, which was “shot to pieces” in the intense fighting and friendly fire. Some, such as Connecticut Lieutenant James Morris III recalled that in the “memorable battle of Germantown,” the Continental Army’s victory “in the outsetting seemed to perch on our standards.” [14] He also wrote that the day’s success turned against them due to, in his view, the “misconduct” of General Adam Stephen and “undisciplined” soldiers scattering.

Illustration of the battle at the Chew House by American artist Christian Schussele

Regardless of who is blamed, the heavy fighting undoubtedly resulted in the death and wounding of many soldiers, leading to a withdrawal. [15] Soldiers were disoriented and confused by heavy morning radiation fog, caused by a 34 degree temperature and humidity, along with the thick black powder smoke from cannons and muskets. This annulled any chance for victory, even though some claimed that they were near to “gaining a compleat Victory.” [16] Washington said that his army would have gained victory if “the fogginess of the Morning” hadn’t prevented the Continental Army “from seeing the advantage we had gained.” [17] In later letters he told General William Heath, his brother John Augustine Washington, and Virginia politician John Page a similar story. He wrote that the hazy day was “overcast by dark & heavy fog,” was “extremely foggy,” and “a thick Fog rendered so infinitely dark at times.” [18] From his viewpoint, this prevented the enemy from sustaining “total defeat” with complications including the Continental Army’s right wing lacking ammunition as the battle dragged on.

After the battle, the Continental Army moved twenty miles way to collect their forces and care for the wounded as the British still held on to Philadelphia. [19] While wounded Marylanders were sent to Reading, Pennsylvania, the Continental Army camped beside the Delaware River before returning to Perkeomen, where they had been stationed before the battle. [20]

George Washington, with the help of other officers and informers, repeatedly tried to assess their losses and that of the British. Washington claimed that the Continental Army suffered “no material loss of Men.” His estimates of those killed, wounded, and missing ranged from 300 to 1,000. [21] He also said that only one artillery piece was lost, along with some captured due to the foggy conditions. In his memoirs, in early nineteenth century, Connecticut Lieutenant James Morris wrote that “many fell in battle and about five hundred of our men were made prisoners of War, who surrendered at discretion.” [22] While the number of casualties from the battle is not known since the official return of Continental causalities from the battle has been lost, the Annual Register, a British parliamentary publication, may be the most reliable, as they reported that 200-300 Continentals were slain, 600 wounded and more than 400 were taken prisoner. [23]

The estimates of British casualties are also not clear. Through the month of October, informers, who were often deserters, told George Washington and other high-level generals that hundreds of wagons came into the city of Philadelphia with wounded soldiers. [24] Those that were wounded reportedly included British army general William Erskine and Hessian general William von Knyphausen, along with 300 to 2,500 British killed and wounded on the bloody day. [25] The Annual Register said that the British losses of wounded, killed, and captured numbered 535, but only 75 were killed and 54 officers taken prisoner. [26] Hence, the estimates by deserters that 2,500 British were casualties may have been exaggerated.

The Continental prisoners from the battle did not fair well. James Morris described how he was captured ten miles away from Germantown after being “continually harassed” by British light infantry and dragoons. [27] Morris, like many others, was taken prisoner, and held in Germantown from October 4 to 5th. He was moved to Philadelphia, where he was a prisoner in Walnut Street Jail. [28] He remained there along with 400 to 500 Continentals in squalid conditions until May 1778. The jail was cold, dark, and desolate, and many prisoners had no bedding, blankets, or general provisions, while others became sick or died. [29]

As the Continentals languished in Philadelphia, officers were accused of being responsible for the defeat and court-martialed as a result. While some believed that the battle reflected “honor upon the General and the Army” and that General Sullivan was a “brave Man,” not everyone agreed. [30] He was partly criticuzed for the friendly fire between Sullivan’s division and Nathaniel Greene‘s troops during the battle, due to the fog. [31] He was likely seen as part of the reason for the  “real Injury to America” caused by the defeat: the continued British occupation of Philadelphia. Sullivan defended himself by writing to Washington that after the battle “the field remained his [Howe’s,] the victory was yours” and that Howe could only be defeated by “a Successful General Action.” [32] Others accused of improprieties during the battle included Pennsylvania militia general Thomas Conway, accused later of conspiring against Washington, Captain Abner Crump of Virginia, Nathaniel Greene, Captain Edward Vail of North Carolina, and Captain Adam Stephen of Connecticut. [33] Of these men, Vail, Crump, and Conway were court-martialed and removed from the Continental Army.

Despite the fact that the battle was a defeat for the Continental Army, it served a purpose for the revolutionary cause. John Adams wrote, in July 1778, that “General Washingtons attack upon the Enemy at Germantown” was considered by “the military Gentlemen in Europe” to be the “most decisive Proof that America would finally succeed.” [34]

In the following months, some Marylanders fought along the Delaware River in forts Red Bank and Mifflin. The British were trying to push the Continentals clear out the Delaware River in order to secure Philadelphia. [35] By the end of the campaign, however, their only victory was ensuring that the city was “a good lodging” for the British Army. The rest of Marylanders stayed in camp until they wintered in Wilmington, Delaware and the rest of the army wintered in Valley Forge. [36] In the following years, the First Maryland Regiment would fight in the northern colonies until they joined the Southern campaign in 1780 and 1781. [37]

Burkely Hermann, Maryland Society of the Sons of American Revolution Research Fellow, 2016.


Notes

[1] “To George Washington from Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, 23 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; The Annual Register, 135. The Annual Register says that British patrols found the Continentals by 3:00 in the morning, so their attack was no surprise.

[2] Mark Andrew Tacyn, “’To the End:’ The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution” (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 143-144; Pension of James Morris, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, National Archives, NARA M804, Record Group 15, Roll 1771, pension number W. 2035. Courtesy of Fold3.com; James Morris, Memoirs of James Morris of South Farms in Litchfield (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933), 18; Pension of Jacob Armstrong, Revolutionary War Pensions, National Archives, NARA M804, Record Group 15, pension number S.22090, roll 0075. Courtesy of Fold3.com; Stanley Weintraub, Iron Tears: America’s Battle for Freedom, Britain’s Quagmire: 1775-1783 (New York: Free Press, 2005), 116-117;  Andrew O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Command During the Revolutionary War and the Preservation of the Empire (London: One World Publications, 2013), 109; “Journal of Captain William Beatty 1776-1781,” Maryland Historical Magazine June 1908. Vol. 3, no.2, 110; John Dwight Kilbourne, A Short History of the Maryland Line in the Continental Army (Baltimore: Society of Cincinnati of Maryland, 1992), 14;  “From George Washington to Brigadier General Alexander McDougall, 25 September 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; Pension of James Morris, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, National Archives, NARA M804, Record Group 15, Roll 1771, pension number W. 2035. Courtesy of Fold3.com; James Morris, Memoirs of James Morris of South Farms in Litchfield (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933), 18; “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016. The reference to no food or blanket specifically refers to James Morris of Connecticut. Washington’s headquarters was on Pennibecker’s Mill on the Skippack Road from September 26-29 and October 4 to October 8th, 1777. The Continental Army had camped at Chester throughout late September, but Morris says they camped near the Leni River. However, a river of this name does not exist, so he may have meant a branch off the Schuykill River or maybe the Delaware River, since the Leni-Lenape indigenous group lived on the river.

[3] “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Page, 11 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016;  “From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; C.H. Lesser, The Sinews of Independence, Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 80.

[4] Tacyn, 4, 115, 144; Enoch Anderson, Personal Recollections of Captain Enoch Anderson: Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution (New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1971), 44; “From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[5] Tacyn, 145.

[6] Anderson, 45.

[7] Anderson, 45.

[8] Anderson, 45.

[9] Tacyn, 145-146; Anderson, 45; “Journal of Captain William Beatty 1776-1781,” 110-111.

[10] Tacyn, 15, 209-210, 289, 291;  Pension of James Morris, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, National Archives, NARA M804, Record Group 15, Roll 1408, pension number W. 11929. Courtesy of Fold3.com. Thomas Carvin and James Reynolds were said to be missing after the battle. Reportedly, a Marylander named Elisha Jarvis was ordered by William Smallwood to guard the baggage train at the Battle of Germantown.

[11] Thomas Thorleifur Sobol, “William Maxwell, New Jersey’s Hard Fighting General,” Journal of the American Revolution, August 15, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2016; “From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[12] David Ross, The Hessian Jagerkorps in New York and Pennsylvania, 1776-1777Journal of the American Revolution, May 14, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2016.

[13] “From George Washington to John Hancock, 5 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[14] Pension of James Morris; Morris, 18-19.

[15] Don N. Hagist, “Who killed General Agnew? Not Hans Boyer,” Journal of the American Revolution, August 17, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2016; Don N. Hagist, “Martin Hurley’s Last Charge,” Journal of the American Revolution, April 14, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2016; John Rees, “War as Waiter: Soldier Servants,” Journal of the American Revolution, April 28, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2016; Thomas Verenna, “20 Terrifying Revolutionary War Soldier Experiences,” Journal of the American Revolution, April 24, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2016; Thomas Verenna, “Explaining Pennsylvania’s Militia,” Journal of the American Revolution, June 17, 2014. Accessed October 3, 2016; “General Orders, 11 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016. Richard St. George and Martin Hurley of the British army were wounded and James Agnew, a British general, was killed.

[16] Pension of Jacob Armstrong; The Annual Register or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year 1777 (4th Edition, London: J. Dosley, 1794), 129-130; Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution: Saratoga and Brandywine, Valley Forge, England and France at War, Vol. 4 (London: Longmans Greens Co., 1920), 275; O’Shaughnessy, 110; “Journal of Captain William Beatty 1776-1781,” 110-111; Kilbourne, 17, 19;  “From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[17] “From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[18] “From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Page, 11 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Hancock, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[19] “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[20] “Journal of Captain William Beatty 1776-1781,” 111; Anderson, 45-46.

[21] “From George Washington to John Hancock, 5 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Hancock, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Page, 11 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016. In his letters he said that Grant was wounded while Nash (died after the battle from wounds) and Agnew were killed.

[22] Pension of James Morris; Morris, 19.

[23] “General Orders, 5 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; Annual Register, 136.

[24] “From George Washington to John Hancock, 5 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Major John Clark, Jr., 6 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016;  “From George Washington to John Hancock, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016;  “From George Washington to Major General Israel Putnam, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[25]  “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Major John Clark, Jr., 6 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Hancock, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016;  “From George Washington to Major General Israel Putnam, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith, 9 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016;  “From George Washington to John Page, 11 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Captain Henry Lee, Jr., 15 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 18 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; Annual Register, 137. One letter says fifty British were killed and another says fifty-seven. The British Annual Register confirms that Nash was killed.

[26] Annual Register, 136-137.

[27] Pension of James Morris; Morris, 19.

[28] Pension of James Morris; Morris, 19-25; “To George Washington from Pelatiah Webster, 19 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Thomas McKean, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016,

[29] Pension of James Morris, Morris, 23-29, 31; “To George Washington from Captain Henry Lee, Jr., 9 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel Persifor Frazer, 9 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Pelatiah Webster, 19 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016. He also said that he was then shipped to Philadelphia where he served a prisoner on Long Island as a farm laborer until May 1781.

[30] “To John Adams from Joseph Ward, 9 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[31] “The Committee for Foreign Affairs to the American Commissioners, 6[–9] October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To Benjamin Franklin from the Massachusetts Board of War, 24 October 1777: résumé,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[32] “To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 25 November 1777,”  Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “Major General John Sullivan’s Opinion, 29 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[33] “To John Adams from Benjamin Rush, 13 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016;  “General Orders, 19 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 24 November 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “General Orders, 22 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Captain Edward Vail, 22 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “General Orders, 13 June 1778,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from William Gordon, 25 February 1778,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Major General Adam Stephen, 9 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[34] Trevelyan, 249; O’Shaughnessy, 111; Christopher Hibbert, George III: A Personal History (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 154-155; “From John Adams to James Lovell, 26 July 1778,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[35] Annual Register, 137-141.

[36] Anderson, 53; Tacyn, 146; Thomas Thorleifur Sobol, “William Maxwell, New Jersey’s Hard Fighting General,” Journal of the American Revolution, August 15, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2016; “Journal of Captain William Beatty 1776-1781,” 110; Kilbourne, 14; “From George Washington to George Clinton, 15 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to Major General Israel Putnam, 15 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Major John Clark, Jr., 27 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Brigadier General Henry Knox, 26 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “To George Washington from Major John Clark, Jr., 6 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016; “From George Washington to John Hancock, 7 October 1777,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016.

[37] Journal and Correspondence of the Council of Maryland, April 1, 1778 through October 26, 1779 Archives of Maryland Online Vol. 21, 118; Kilbourne, 21-22, 24-27, 29-30, 31, 33; Tacyn, 241. Some argue that in the battle of Eutaw Springs parts of the battle of Germantown were repeated.