Lose the Battle, Win the War: The Battle of Germantown

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When looking back at the causes of victory for the colonists in the American War of Independence, it is easy to focus on the successes – the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown. However, one of the most vital clashes of the conflict came in the form of an American defeat at Germantown in late 1777, where a combination of poor communication, bad weather and inexperience led to the humiliation of Washington and his forces. Yet, this crushing defeat proved a turning point in the course of the conflict: only five months afterwards, it led to the Treaty of Alliance with France, providing the Americans with a valuable ally, as well as much-needed financial support, in their ultimately successful campaign.

Following the capture of New York City by the British General Howe, and Washington’s first pitched-battle successes at Trenton and Princeton, the two armies settled into an uneasy stalemate during the early months of 1777. Prior to this, in the autumn of 1776, Howe had laboured considerably in setting up the platform for a British campaign the following year. He had recommended to his superior, the American Secretary, Lord George Germain, that the British should concentrate on controlling New England, the hotbed of the rebellion.

Howe’s initial plan on 30 November 1776 had been a two-pronged assault on New England; one force would move from Rhode Island to Boston, with the other ascending the Hudson River to Albany, splitting the colonies in two. This would allow the redcoats to follow through into Philadelphia in the spring of 1777 – one of the most important cities for the Patriots.

As well as being the largest city in North America, Philadelphia was also the most influential. The city hosted the meetings of the Continental Congress, was where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and was the home of some of the rebellion’s most well-known advocates, most notably Benjamin Franklin, the political philosopher, scientist and Founding Father. Philadelphia was the heart of revolutionary America, and so its protection was vital to the spirit of the rebellion.

However, Howe’s planned pincer movement was based on the assumption that he would receive considerable reinforcements in the form of Hessians (German mercenaries). He soon realised this help would not be immediately forthcoming, leading him to lower his sights to a less sophisticated and more realistic plan. Instead, Howe planned to attack Philadelphia alone. With his reduced force, he estimated that an invasion of all New England was unlikely to prove decisive or even beneficial. By contrast, he believed Philadelphia’s capture was an achievable objective, needing only 10,000 troops and anticipating that he would be able to exploit loyalist sentiment in Pennsylvania.

As Howe schemed, little changed during the spring of 1777. The British remained immobile in their winter quarters, while Washington gradually rebuilt his forces without British interference. However, Howe had a reason for his quiescence, and in late May, long-awaited ships docked at New York City harbour with the supplies Howe’s army needed – tents, kettles, uniforms, boots, and muskets. To complete these preparations, on 11 June Howe and his staff assembled their force of nearly 15,000 British and German soldiers in eastern New Jersey. He was now ready to begin the invasion.

In late August, Howe landed his troops at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, about 55 miles southwest of Philadelphia. On 11 September, Washington’s force of 11,000 was outflanked and driven back at the Battle of Brandywine, and on 26 September, Howe finally outmaneuvered Washington and marched into Philadelphia unopposed.

However, the British did not control the Delaware River, an important supply line for Philadelphia. Howe therefore decided not to risk bringing his entire army into the city, instead posting 9,000 soldiers in nearby Germantown, five miles north of Philadelphia. Washington was well informed of the British position, and, having learnt that Howe had divided his troops, he determined to strike at the Germantown contingent, which he saw as an opportunity to divide and conquer the British army.

Germantown was a hamlet of stone houses along a single street of about two miles. The town itself could be accessed by one of the four roads leading to it. Washington devised a plan to send four columns in a pincer movement to surprise and surround the British. The strongest column, under Major-General Nathaniel Greene, would attack the right wing of the British army; a second powerful column, led by General John Sullivan, would advance down the main Philadelphia Road and attack the British vanguard’s centre, while two militia forces would attack the left and rear of the British force respectively.

On the evening of 3 October 1877, the American army left its encampment on the Metuchen Hills and began the 16 mile march southward toward Germantown in complete darkness. Having remained undetected by the redcoats, the American force seemed poised to repeat their victory at Trenton of December the previous year. Yet the darkness had confused the Americans too: greatly inhibited communication between the columns had caused most of the American forces to fall short of their intended positions by dawn, losing the element of surprise for which they had been hoping.

The morning of 4 October was very dark; the air was filled with a thick fog, rendered denser by the smoke of the cannon and musketry, and it was practically impossible for the soldiers to see clearly as they advanced upon the two sides of the town. However, Sullivan’s column continued to progress, pushing through the British position at Mount Airy, and forcing them back into the heart of Germantown.

Having been cut off from the bulk of the British force, and with Sullivan’s column approaching imminently, Colonel Musgrave ordered his six companies of troops (roughly 120 men) to barricade and fortify the stone country house of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew, called Cliveden. Washington called upon General William Maxwell’s brigade, which had been held in reserve, to storm Cliveden and push out the British. Nonetheless, the walls of the house withstood the artillery bombardment while the infantry assault was easily repelled. Every effort to dislodge the British at Cliveden was ineffectual, while the Patriots suffered heavy casualties. This presented yet another disruption to the American battle plan.

During Maxwell’s siege of Cliveden, General Greene’s column, which had been delayed, finally caught up with the bulk of the Americans at Germantown. The vanguard engaged in a savage skirmish against the British forces; however, they too became disoriented owing to the fog encircling the field, and Greene’s column was thrown into disarray. Indeed, one of Greene’s brigades, under Brigadier General Adam Stephen, veered off-course and collided with a section of Sullivan’s column. They mistook each other for redcoats, resulting in the two American brigades opening fire upon each other, inflicting severe casualties, and leaving them extremely susceptible to a British attack. Moreover, as Sullivan had advanced his line far further than planned, the Americans were easily encircled by the forces of General Grey attacking their flank.

The American militias were soon surrounded by British forces, leaving only Greene remaining. Upon learning of the main army’s defeat and withdrawal, he too fled.

Despite the bad fortune the Americans encountered, Washington’s plan was fundamentally flawed from the start. He mistakenly assumed his troops were sufficiently well-trained to enact a complicated, coordinated attack that required precise timing and communication – a gross overestimation as many of his troops were untrained and unskilled. These issues were only exacerbated by the darkness and weather, admittedly out of the Americans’ control. Therefore, what seemed theoretically brilliant was practically unfeasible.

Of the 11,000 men Washington led into battle, 30 officers and 122 men were killed, along with 438 being captured. The British loss was reported to be 13 officers and 58 men, less than half of the Patriots’ total. Coupled with the defeat at Brandywine less than a month before, Germantown should have been a crippling blow. Yet the British failed to press the advantage, allowing Washington to escape and rebuild again at Valley Forge.

However, the most impactful result of Germantown was in the resulting Franco-American alliance. In the words of the Comte de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister at the time: “That the battle had been fought unsuccessfully was of small importance when weighed against the fact that it been fought at all … a new army, raised within the year, and undaunted by a series of recent disasters, had assailed a victorious enemy in his own quarters, and had only been repulsed after a sharp and dubious conflict.” The tenacity of the American troops in going toe-to-toe with a greater force, and the converse failure of the British to crush their opponents, convinced the French this was a war the British just might lose. This, when coupled with their imperial rivalry at the time, meant the French were more than willing to aid the colonists in their aims.

Despite being a definite military loss, the mettle and courage displayed by the American Patriots, combined with Howe’s failure to capitalise on the situation, allowed them to recover from Germantown very quickly, whilst also gaining international recognition across the Atlantic. By signing the Treaty of Alliance with the French, the Americans were provided with vital supplies, arms and ammunition, uniforms, and, most importantly, troops and naval support. Without downplaying the skill of Washington and his generals, it was French support that enabled the Americans to continue to fight, and eventually defeat, the British in 1781. Therefore, Britain’s triumph in battle turned out to be the most crucial American victory of the Revolutionary War.

Lambdin, A.C., 1877.  “Battle of Germantown.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 1, no. 4 (1877): 368–403. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20084306.

Murphy, O.T, 1958. “The Battle of Germantown and the Franco-American Alliance of 1778.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 82, no. 1 (1958): 55–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20089039.

Taaffe, S., 2003. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778. University Press of Kansas.