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October 4, 1777: Battle of Germantown; the patriots fail to retake their capitol, Philadelphia

Posted on: January 1st, 2019 by hauleymusic No Comments

At the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, British forces in Pennsylvania defeated the American Continental Army under General George Washington (1732-99). After capturing Philadelphia in September 1777, British General William Howe (1729-1814) placed a large group of his troops at nearby Germantown. Washington launched a surprise attack on the poorly defended British camp, but his army failed to pull off his complex battle plan. The British drove away the Americans, inflicting twice as many casualties as they suffered. The defeat at Germantown, which came soon after a similar loss at Brandywine, led some prominent Americans to question Washington’s leadership. However, despite the losses, many of his soldiers had performed well, and Germantown demonstrated that Washington’s once-unskilled army was on its way to becoming the well-trained force that could win the war.

Four roads led to Germantown. Washington decided to send a separate force along each route, hitting the British from all four sides at once. Like many of the plans Washington drew up in the early years of the war, his plan for Germantown was better suited on paper than for an actual 18th-century army composed in part of raw troops and poorly trained militiamen. Coordinating separate assaults from far-removed positions was always tricky; an attempt to coordinate four separate assaults, without modern technology, was likely to fail. Washington’s army divided into four columns on the night of October 3 and marched toward the four separate staging areas from which they were to launch their simultaneous attacks at dawn on October 4. One column had trouble finding its way and didn’t reach the battlefield. A second column fired at, but did not charge, the enemy camp. The column tasked with attacking the center of the British camp, led by General John Sullivan (1740-95), was the first to engage the British in spirited combat. Sullivan’s column caught the British pickets by surprise and succeeded in driving back the startled British army. The tide of the battle turned, however, when the last column, commanded by General Nathanael Greene (1742-86), entered the fray. Greene’s column had had farther to travel than the center column and by the time it reached the British camp, the field was obscured by a thick fog and gun smoke, and Sullivan’s column had already pushed well into the British camp, into Greene’s path. The two American columns stumbled into each other and, unable to make visual contact, fired upon one another. It did not help that the commander of one of Greene’s divisions, General Adam Stephen, was noticeably intoxicated when he brought his men into the battle. By the time the two columns realized what had happened, they faced a punishing counter-assault from the British that drove them from the field.

The Battle of Germantown was Washington’s second defeat in less than a month. As at Brandywine, his army suffered twice as many casualties as it inflicted–approximately 1,000 Continentals (including those injured, killed and missing) to 500 Redcoats–raising questions about Washington’s fitness for command. While Washington was losing to Howe around Philadelphia, another Continental general, Horatio Gates (1728-1806), was repeatedly besting British forces under General John Burgoyne (1722-92) in upstate New York, culminating in the surrender of Burgoyne’s entire army at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. A vocal minority in Congress and in the military began to whisper that Washington should be relieved of overall command of the Continental Army and Gates appointed in his place.
However, despite the defeat at Germantown, Washington could take solace in the fact that the soldiers of his Continental Army conducted themselves well in the heat of battle. The professionalism and discipline displayed by the American army had improved noticeably since the American Revolution began. Shortly after the Battle of Germantown, Washington’s army retired to a winter camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where–with help from the Prussian General Von Steuben–it was able to further hone its skills and emerge the next year a superior force.

Additional Reading:

The Guide Book to Historic Germantown, Innes & Sons, 1904.

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol. II: Germantown and the Roads to Valley Forge, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2006.

Trussell, Jr., John B.B. The Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.