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The Battle of Germantown 1777


War: American Revolution

Date: 4th October 1777

Place: North of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the USA.

Chew House at the Battle of Germantown
The British 40th Foot occupying the Chew House from which they resisted all efforts to dislodge them during the Battle of Germantown

Combatants: The American Continental Army against the British and Hessian forces

Generals: General George Washington against Major General Howe

Size of the armies: 11,000 Americans against 8,000 British and Hessians.

Map of the battle of Germantown - American Revolution
Map of the Battle of Germantown

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men. The two regiments of light dragoons serving in America, the 16th and 17th, wore red coats and leather crested helmets. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate. The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing. Both sides were armed with muskets and guns. The Pennsylvania regiments carried long, small calibre, rifled weapons.

Winner: The British won the battle although failing to follow up the success, permitting Washington to withdraw and reform his army behind fortified positions.

British Regiments: The only British Regiments that can be identified at the battle are:
Light Dragoons (not clear which regiment 16th or 17th)
Two Composite battalions of grenadiers
Two Composite battalions of light infantry
Two Composite battalions of Foot Guards (1st, 2nd and 3rd Guards)
5th Foot later Northumberland Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
25th, now King’s Own Scottish Borderers
27th Foot later the Inniskilling Fusiliers and now the Royal Irish Regiment
40th Foot later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment
55th Foot later the Border Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment

American Units:
Wayne’s Pennsylvania Brigade
Weeden’s Virginia Brigade
Muhlenburg’s Virginia Brigade
Maxwell’s Light Infantry
Colonel Bland’s 1st Dragoons
Stephen’s Division
Stirling’s Division
Pennsylvania Militia
Maryland Militia
New Jersey Militia

Following the British capture of Philadelphia after the Battle of Brandywine, Howe’s troops encamped in Germantown to the North of the city. The camp stretched in a line astride the main northern road.

American Troops Attack
American troops attacking the 40th Foot in the Chew House

Washington determined to surprise the British army in camp.  His plan required a strong column under Major General Nathaniel Greene (with McDougall, Muhlenberg, Stephen and Scott) to attack the right wing of the British army comprising Grant’s and Donop’s troops, the second column which he commanded (with Stirling and Sullivan) to advance down the main Philadelphia road and launch an assault on the British centre, while forces of militia attacked each wing of the British force comprising on the right the Queen’s Rangers and on the left near the Schuylkill River, Hessian Jagers and British Light Infantry.

Washington’s plan required the four attacks to be launched “precisely at 5 o’clock with charged bayonets and without firing”. The intention was to surprise the whole British army in much the way the Hessians had been surprised at Trenton.

The American columns started along their respective approach roads on the evening of 3rd October 1777. Dawn found the American forces well short of their start line for the attack and there was an encounter with the first British picquet which fired its guns to warn of the attack. The outpost was supported by a battalion of light infantry and the 40th Foot under Colonel Musgrave. It took a substantial part of Sullivan’s division to drive back the British contingent.

General Washington at the Battle of Germantown bringing the gun up to fire into the Chew House
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General Howe rode forward, initially thinking the advanced force was being attacked by a raiding party, his view impeded by a thickening fog that clouded the field for the rest of the day.

During the fighting Musgrave caused 6 companies of the 40th to fortify the substantial stone house of Chief Justice Chew and use it as a strong point. The American advance halted while furious attacks were launched against the house aided by an artillery barrage.

Hearing the firing, Stephen heading the other main attack, ignored his orders to continue along the lane to the attack of the British right wing, swung to the right and made for the Chew House. His brigade joined the attack on the house which was assailed for a full hour by the infantry and guns of several American brigades. The rest of Greene’s division launched a savage attack on the British line as planned and broke through, capturing a number of British troops.

In the meantime Sullivan and Wayne had continued past the Chew House and begun their attack. In the fog Wayne’s and Stephen’s brigades encountered each other and exchanged fire. Both brigades broke and fled.

Sullivan’s brigade was attacked on both flanks, by Grant with the 5th and 55th Foot on his left and by Brigadier Grey on his right. Sullivan’s brigade broke. The British then turned on Greene’s isolated division capturing Colonel Matthews and his 9th Virginia Regiment.

Attacked by the British Guards, the 25th and 27th Foot, Greene withdrew up the main road to the North West, assisted by the efforts of Muhlenberg’s brigade. As the American army retreated its condition deteriorated and Washington was forced to withdraw some sixteen miles, harried by the British light dragoons. The American militia forces did not develop their attacks and finally retreated.

The British suffered 500 casualties and the Americans suffered 1,000. 50 Americans were killed attacking the Chew House.

It is said that Germantown was a profound influence in convincing the French Court that the American cause was worth supporting by a declaration of war on England. The French were more impressed by the ability of the Americans to raise their army and deliver an attack on the British than by its lack of success.
The noteworthy feature of the battle was the failure of the British commanders to exploit their battlefield success by pursuing and destroying the defeated American force.

Anecdotes and traditions: General Stephen was discovered by the American authorities at the end of the battle incapably drunk. He was cashiered and his command given to Lafayette.
The Americans particularly suffered at Germantown from the perennial difficulty of 18th Century armies to re-supply their troops during battle, many of the regiments running out of ammunition.