The Battle of Germantown 1777
War: American Revolution
Date: 4th October 1777
Place: North of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the USA.
The British 40th Foot occupying the Chew House from which they
resisted all efforts to dislodge them during the Battle of
Combatants: The American Continental Army against the
British and Hessian forces
Generals: General George Washington against Major General
Size of the armies: 11,000 Americans against 8,000 British
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
25th, now King’s Own Scottish Borderers
27th Foot later the Inniskilling Fusiliers and now the Royal Irish
40th Foot later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s
55th Foot later the Border Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal
Wayne’s Pennsylvania Brigade
Weeden’s Virginia Brigade
Muhlenburg’s Virginia Brigade
Maxwell’s Light Infantry
Colonel Bland’s 1st Dragoons
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 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 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
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.
- History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
- The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward