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Battle of Germantown

As events worked out, the Army was on the move the following day, requiring Wayne to wait for his day in court. On September 28, the continental army shifted camp to Pennibacker’s Mill about 30 miles north west of Philadelphia. Over the next several days, Washington moved his army closer to the main British Camp at Germantown hoping to seize the opportunity to attack.

The British Light Infantrymen on outpost duty knew Wayne’s troops were out for blood. Lt. George of the 52nd Regiment Light Company, 2nd Light Infantry Battalion referred to the scene as quoted by McGuire:

‘They threaten retaliation, vow that they will give no quarter to any of our Battalion. We are always on the advanced Post of the army – our Present one is unpleasant…..

‘There has been firing this Night all round the Cetrys – which seems as if they endeavor to feel our situation – I am fatigued – must sleep – Coudst Thou sleep thus? … No, more than I … I wake once or twice … My Ear is susceptible of the least Noise.’

The British rightly feared retribution. Joseph Hancock and his regiment as well as his brigade had been spared heavy attack by the British steel that infamous night at the Paoli Camp. He was fit, well trained, battle hardened, armed and galvanized by a need to avenge the suffering of his fellow Pennsylvanians in arms. They were, as one might expect, predisposed to provide no quarter. As for Wayne, Washington demonstrated that he had not lost faith in his aggressive and ever-eager general allowing him the honor of leading one of a four part, planned attack against the British at Germantown on October 4, 1777.

Germantown was north and slightly east of Philadelphia. Howe had strung his forces from 2 miles north of Germantown into Philadelphia virtually dividing his forces in two. He could not put the entire army in the city, at least immediately, and thus left forces in Germantown to fend off any attack by Washington. Howe’s lust for Philadelphia and belief that its capture would break the resolve of the rebels persisted in his planning. Washington realized that he had his greatest opportunity since the beginning of the war to level a crushing blow against the British. He designed a daring and elaborate battle plan with four distinct frontal attacks and encirclement of Howe’s forces in Germantown. The plan of attack, broken into four main attack columns and a 5th diversionary force to draw off the pickets, would require marching 12,000 men between fourteen and twenty miles, depending on what assigned attack route they were to take.

In the time period just proceeding the attack on Germantown, Washington’s Main Army had been constantly on the move crossing the Schuylkill 3 times and marching over a 100 miles. The long march to take up battle positions was at least twenty miles and would take a great deal of time and exceptional physical strength. The first troops to deploy would begin their march at 6:00 p.m. on October 3, 1777 with some troops beginning their march at 9:00 p.m. All were to be in position by 2:00 a.m., rest till 4:00 a.m. and be ready to attack by 5:00 a.m. None were. The march lasted all night. Officers permitted no lights and enforced strict silence. The night was cloudy and the air chilly. Men were issued pieces of white paper to place in their hats so that they could see each other in the dark. By morning, patches of fog from the damp air hitting cold ground made visibility in places intermittently impossible. Later the fog became mixed with smoke from musket and cannon fire making visibility even worse. Some troops, getting lost along the way, would march nearly 45 miles to get into position with the fight still ahead. Wayne’s troops were to be in the main frontal attack on the left next to Sullivan on the right. General Greene was to be on the far left of Wayne’s division coming into Germantown from the west and comprising the largest force to be brought to bear against the British encampment.

At 5:30 a.m. October 4, 1777 two cannon shots were heard in the morning fog. They were from royal artillery 6-pounders stationed at Mount Airy, two miles north of the main British camp in Germantown. The picket post from which the shots were fired was manned by sentries from the 2nd Battalion of the British Light Infantry, the very same troops that comprised the first wave at Paoli only days before. The main body of the light infantry camped on Mount Pleasant 400 yards away from the picket where the cannon was fired. They were posted to give the British army ample time to assemble and defend against a rebel attack. The British troops spent several uneasy nights, were a bit nervous and greatly fatigued from the constant threat of danger. They were hyper alert and responded by firing the warning reducing the element of surprise.

Continentals from the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment assigned to General Conway’s brigade with fixed bayonets and a troop of light dragoons with drawn sabers, were approaching the British picket quietly when the cannon were fired. They intended to surprise and silence them without a sound. This did not happen announcing the attack all the way to Philadelphia. The light infantrymen were well aware they had been singled out to receive the vengeance of the Pennsylvania troops. They responded rapidly and were out under arms in a minute. Many remembering Paoli rushed out of the back of their huts. The sky would lighten briefly and darken again with cloud cover and fog. The British pickets fired several volleys and then fell back to rejoin the battalion. There was no support for them nearer than Germantown.

Conway’s four Pennsylvania regiments led the American column on Germantown Road. They fanned out to the immediate left and right of the road. General Sullivan’s division of Maryland and Delaware troops followed Conway’s brigade and moved to the right of the road forming battle lines. Next Wayne came through with two brigades eagerly deploying on the left side of the road in position to engage and seek revenge on the 2nd. Wayne’s forces thrust themselves forward and were heard shouting “Have at the bloodhounds! Revenge Wayne’s affair.” A volley was immediately fired at the British. The “bloodhounds” returned the fire and charged Conway’s men with bayonets. The Americans fell back, reformed, and counter attacked. The light Infantry again charged and drove Conway back, suddenly discovering that two American columns had nearly gotten around their flanks. The 2nd light Infantry Battalion was severely hit by Conway’s and then Wayne’s troops reducing them sufficiently so that for the first time since their inception, the pride and joy of Howe’s army sounded a bugle retreat. Had they not done so, the Pennsylvania troops would have killed them all. Wayne’s troops were showing no quarter and descended on the British hot for revenge. Wayne later claimed that Pennsylvania line officers tried to save many of the suffering crying for mercy but to no avail. In his own words, as quoted by McGuire: ‘The Rage and fury of the Soldiers was not to be restrained for some time – at least not until Great Numbers of the Enemy fell by our Bayonets.’ Joseph Hancock fought with the Pennsylvanians who nearly annihilated the British 2nd. They would pursue and kill them as they fled all the way into Germantown. The attack was of such severity, the panic so great, that the British Light Infantry lost all semblance of order, broke ranks, and ran for their lives.

General Howe heard the cannon fire and was riding out to the post to determine for himself what was going on when he saw, much to his surprise, the pell-mell flight of his most cherished and elite troops. Howe attempted to get the troops to re-form, shaming them by saying it was only a scouting party that they had encountered. It was said that it was one of the few times that cannon fired at them was welcomed when grape shot from the American army scatted about a chestnut tree next to Howe. Howe rode off immediately at full gallop.

One mile south of the 2nd Battalions camp was Colonel Musgrave with the 40th Regiment on foot, employed at Paoli to prevent Wayne’s possible escape to the east. They were posted at the entrance to Germantown and were placed to support the two light infantry outposts in case of attack. Musgrave saw the retreating infantry and detached half his regiment forward to support the retreating troops. Musgrave’s men were soon notified by the retreating troops that the Pennsylvanians were giving no quarter. Musgrave also learned that Wayne’s troops were already in their camp approaching the rear of a large and substantial mansion owned by Chew and named Cliveden. Musgrave ordered his remaining troops into the house. Wayne and Conway’s troops fired a few volleys at the house and then moved on to attack the main British camp a mile down the road.

Washington followed behind Wayne and after much debate among his staff, took the advice of his artillery commander; General Knox ordering a bombardment of the house. The 40th held on for approximately two hours from the bombardment, repeated infantry assaults, and attempts to burn the house down. The “no quarter” shown by the Pennsylvanians in the opening attack provided the necessary incentive for them to stand firm against overwhelming odds. The Americans became preoccupied and distracted by bombarding this house. It would have been more prudent to leave a detachment to keep the 40th holed up and get on with the main battle.

Wayne was in Germantown when he heard the cannon fire behind him coming from General Knox’s bombardment of Cliveden. With obscured visibility due to fog and smoke, Wayne mistook this for being British troops and after successfully pursuing the 2nd into the main camp, turned his division. During the turn in dense smoke and fog he presented what appeared to be a battle line to General Adam Stephen’s troops that were out of position and behind Wayne’s troops. General Stephen’s was inebriated, later judged incapable of command, and subsequently dishonorably discharged from service. General Stephen ordered his troops to halt, dress the line, lower their muskets and fire a volley at Wayne’s troops. Wayne returned the volley and after an undetermined number of exchanges, the friendly fire terminated. The fog and confusion left Sullivan’s left flank uncovered and Greene’s entire right wing was out of position. Worse yet, American reserves wasted their time trying to dislodge the 40th.

It has not been determined exactly what started the retreat. Some continental forces shouting for more ammunition were overheard by British who then formed an immediate assault. Some saw their flanks uncovered and thought it best to withdraw. Some faced the brunt of the British counterattack and did not have the men or ammunition to hold the line. In some parts rumors of counterattack, outflanking, and imminent capture caused an unstoppable retreat. The troops would not receive much needed training to hold the line and regroup until the following spring. Even though these were battle-hardened veterans, after three hours of heart pounding success, the attack rapidly disintegrated. It crumbled so fast that the British were cautious in their counterattack fearing a bait and trap ambush. The spirited American attack made a sudden collapse seem impossible. The British respect for the American attack and reluctance to believe that it had come undone so easily allowed the American army to escape. What was left of the 40th was liberated from the fortress of a home in which it had defended itself and joined in the pursuit of the American retreat, at a respectful distance.

Although the battle was a defeat for the Americans, it was seen as a bold, if not audacious move on Washington’s part and proved the American army was a force to be reckoned with. When the news was received in continental Europe there was a sense of celebration over the outcome of the battle, particularly in France where sentiments were still smarting from the British defeat in the 7 Years War. It convinced the French that Americans were worthy of further support that was subsequently forthcoming in the successful siege and surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Wayne and his Pennsylvanians were pleased with their exploits and didn’t share a sense of defeat. After all they had overcome some of the King’s finest and run them out of camp, killing and maiming many on the way. Had the weather been better or the timing of Green’s force – which included Stephan’s troops – been on schedule or the diversion of the bombardment of Cliveden been avoided, the British may have been completely overcome and crushed. Unfortunately, American victory would have to wait for another opportunity.

The engagement was conducted with 11,000 American actives against about 10,000 British actives of an army of 15,000. The edge appeared to be in favor of the Americans however the militia was almost useless. In addition, General McDougal was never engaged and General Stephan fought Wayne. Therefore the British had a superior force engaged. The losses at Germantown were unequal with the exception of Generals. The American lost 152, including 30 officers. 521 were wounded, including 117 officers, and 400 were missing, mostly from desertion. The British claimed they had buried 300 Americans and took 438 prisoners, an exaggeration. The British were ultimately estimated to have lost 58 men including 13 officers. There were 395 wounded. Since the American Army was the attacker, their losses would be expected to be greater.