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Posted on Sun, Sep. 29, 2002
Capital of the Rebellion
Philadelphia and the Revolution, 225 years ago
Americans' attack at Germantown melts into panic

Inquirer Staff Writer
At Cliveden, Americans hit 2-foot-thick walls with cannonballs that just bounced off. More than 100 Redcoats were in the house.
At Cliveden, Americans hit 2-foot-thick walls with cannonballs that just bounced off. More than 100 Redcoats were in the house.

Sixth in a series of articles recounting Philadelphia's days in the Revolutionary War.

The grandest house in Germantown is under siege.

American soldiers fire volley after volley at Cliveden, the elegant Georgian summer home of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew.

Six-pound American cannonballs slam against the house's 2-foot-thick front wall of Wissahickon schist, only to bounce harmlessly away.

More than 100 British soldiers have barricaded themselves inside the sturdy house and are frustrating all attempts to blast or burn them out. These Redcoats, from the 40th Regiment, have a special reason for not wanting to surrender: They may well be killed, because they were part of the British force that stabbed its way through Gen. Anthony Wayne's camp at Paoli two weeks ago in a fierce bayonet attack that Americans are calling a massacre.

The date is Oct. 4, 1777. American and British troops, blindfolded by thick fog, are fighting their second pitched battle in a month on Pennsylvania soil.

This time the Americans, who have long played a defensive game, are the attackers. Gen. George Washington, so cautious earlier in the year, has devised an ambitious, four-pronged attack to envelop and smash Gen. Sir William Howe's British army, camped at Germantown.

The plan looks good on paper, but for Washington's partially trained army, it will be difficult to execute.

A lot can go wrong - and will.

 

The attack begins at 6 a.m.

American soldiers, veterans of Paoli eager for revenge, surge down the hard-packed dirt of the Great Road (Germantown Avenue) shouting "Have at the bloodhounds!" as they drive the British light infantry - tough, hardened fighters - before them.

So fierce is the American charge that it sends the Redcoat light infantry reeling - "the first time we retreated from the Americans," British Lt. Martin Hunter writes in his diary.

"The enemy were driven quite through their camp," leaving their breakfast cooking and some of their clothes on the ground, recalls Joseph Plumb Martin, a young soldier from Connecticut who comes along in the wake of the initial assault.

Howe himself appears out of the fog to rally his troops, angrily shouting: "For shame, Light Infantry! I never saw you retreat before. Form! Form! It's only a scouting party."

The British commander in chief soon finds out otherwise, when the Americans send a load of grapeshot his way, to Hunter's amusement and satisfaction. The general rides off "immediately, full speed," Hunter recalls, and the British resume their retreat. Meanwhile, six Redcoat companies of foot that had been supporting the light infantry slip into Cliveden and go unnoticed until they open fire on American troops marching past.

American commanders ponder this new and unexpected situation. They can attack the house, or they can go around it, leaving a detachment behind to make sure the British stay inside. Alexander Hamilton, one of Washington's principal aides, recommends bypassing the house. Gen. Henry Knox, the commander of the Continental Army artillery, urges an attack, and Washington agrees.

The day is about to unravel quickly.

 

In the six weeks since Howe landed his army on the Elk River in Maryland on Aug. 25, the British have defeated the Americans at the Battle of the Brandywine, bloodied them with the infamous night raid at Paoli, and occupied Philadelphia.

Through it all, Washington's troops have stayed itchy to fight.

Washington knows from two intercepted letters that Howe has divided his force, sending 3,000 men into Philadelphia on Sept. 26 to secure the city. Another 3,000 British troops have been detailed to attack the American forts on the Delaware River and protect the British supply lines.

Howe himself remains with 9,000 men at Germantown, a pleasant and prosperous village about six miles from Philadelphia.

Washington's force of 8,000 Continental regulars and 3,000 militiamen, for once, outnumbers the enemy.

The cautious Howe is still in Germantown because he doesn't want to risk moving his entire army into Philadelphia before his troops have properly fortified the approaches to the city and opened the Delaware River.

Philadelphia in 1777 occupies what is really a peninsula, with the Delaware on one side and the Schuylkill on the other. Howe does not want to be bottled up between the rivers with no defenses against a land attack and no British fleet in the river.

And until the city is secured, he wants to have some open space behind him where he can regroup safely in the event of just such an attack as Washington is launching on this foggy morning.

 

The British are camped in a line that runs for about three miles from Van Deering's Mill on the Schuylkill, along School House Lane and Church Lane, to Luken's Mill.

Four American columns will hit that line.

Washington's plan calls for a detachment of Pennsylvania militia to move down the Manatawny Road (Ridge Avenue), cross the Wissahickon Creek, and strike Howe's army on its far left, near the Schuylkill.

A second column, under Gen. John Sullivan, accompanied by Washington himself, is to attack through Chestnut Hill and down the Great Road, while a third column - the largest, under the command of the reliable Gen. Nathanael Greene - is to move along the Lime Kiln Road.

The fourth column, made up of Maryland and New Jersey militia, will march by the Old York Road around the British right.

The battle plan requires all four columns to attack at the same time, after an all-night march of at least 14 miles from Methacton Hill, near Norristown. But Greene's column is late because, as Col. Timothy Pickering, of Massachusetts, writes in his journal, "the guide of the left wing mistook the way."

Then comes the delay at Cliveden, which just about every American officer regrets in hindsight. "We mistook our true interest," Pickering writes, lamenting that the attack on the Chew house "gave the enemy time to recollect themselves and get reenforced, and eventually to oblige us to retreat."

Revolutionary soldier Joseph Plumb Martin finds himself surrounded by American troops who are running out of ammunition and foolishly let the enemy know. "Some of the men unadvisedly calling out that their ammunition was spent, the enemy were so near that they overheard them, when they first made a stand and then returned upon our people," he writes in his journal.

Worst of all, troops under Gen. Anthony Wayne and Gen. Adam Stephen (who is found to be drunk and is later dismissed from the army) collide in the fog and mistake one another for the enemy. Stephen's men fire on Wayne's troops.

Panic breaks out among the American troops. Men run. And a promising enterprise quickly turns into an inexplicable retreat.

Nobody to this day knows what really started it, although Washington reports to Congress that he believes the friendly fire incident "more than any thing else, contributed to the misfortune which ensued."

The soldiers "began suddenly to retreat; and intirely left the Field, in spite of every effort that could be made to rally them."

The battle ends by midmorning.

Washington and his lieutenants are stunned. Despite the late arrival of Greene's column and the delay at Cliveden, the battle has gone well. Greene's troops, once they are on the scene, fight all the way to the center of Germantown.

The Americans are on the point of "a compleat Victory" when the panic begins, Washington writes to his brother, Jack.

Gen. John Armstrong (whose Pennsylvania militia never gets deeply involved in the fighting) laments that "a glorious victory fought for and eight tenths won, was shamefully but mysteriously lost, for to this moment no one man can or at least will give any good reason for the flight."

 

The cost of the battle is high for both sides. "It was a bloody day," Washington writes to his brother.

About 540 British troops are killed, including a brigadier general, and perhaps several hundred more are wounded.

Washington puts the American loss in killed, wounded and captured at about 1,000. The American dead include Gen. Francis Nash, for whom Nashville will be named.

For those who were there, the terrible memories last a lifetime.

William Hutchinson, a teenage Chester County militiaman who was wounded in the battle, recalls years later the "horrid sight" he found when he was taken to the field hospital:

"The floor was covered with human blood; amputated arms and legs lay in different places in appalling array, the mournful memorials of an unfortunate and fatal battle, which indeed it truly was."

Washington sets about regrouping. "My intention is to encamp the Army at some suitable place, to rest and refresh the Men, and recover them from the still remaining effects of that disorder naturally attendant upon a Retreat," he writes to Congress on Oct. 7 from Pennypacker Mills (Schwenksville). "We shall there wait for the Reinforcements coming on and shall then act according to circumstances."

The British, eager to open a water route to the city, are now free to concentrate on attacking the American forts guarding the Delaware.

It will not be easy.


Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

Continue to Part VII