American Revolution: Battle of Germantown

Battle of Germantown
Fighting around Cliveden during the Battle of Germantown. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Germantown took place during the 1777 Philadelphia Campaign of the American Revolution (1775-1783). Fought less than a month after the British victory at the Battle of the Brandywine (September 11), the Battle of Germantown took place on October 4, 1777, outside the city of Philadelphia.

Armies & Commanders



The Philadelphia Campaign

In the spring of 1777, Major General John Burgoyne set forth a plan for defeating the Americans. Convinced that New England was the heart of the rebellion, he intended to cut the region off from the other colonies by advancing down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor while a second force, led by Colonel Barry St. Leger, moved east from Lake Ontario and down the Mohawk River. Meeting at Albany, Burgoyne and St. Leger would press down the Hudson towards New York City. It was his hope that General Sir William Howe, the British commander-in-chief in North America, would move up the river to aid his advance. Though given approval by Colonial Secretary Lord George Germain, Howe's role in the scheme was never clearly defined and issues of his seniority precluded Burgoyne from issuing him orders.

While Germain had given his consent for Burgoyne's operation, he had also approved a plan submitted by Howe which called for the capture of the American capital at Philadelphia. Giving his own operation preference, Howe commenced preparations for striking southwest.  Ruling out marching overland, he coordinated with the Royal Navy and made plans to move against Philadelphia by sea. Leaving a small force under Major General Henry Clinton at New York, he embarked 13,000 men on transports and sailed south. Entering the Chesapeake Bay, the fleet sailed north and the army came ashore at Head of Elk, MD on August 25, 1777.

In position with 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia to defend the capital, American commander General George Washington dispatched units to track and harass Howe's army. After initial skirmishing at Cooch's Bridge near Newark, DE on September 3, Washington formed a defensive line behind the Brandywine River. Moving against the Americans, Howe opened the the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. As the fighting progressed, he employed similar flanking tactics to those used at Long Island the previous year and was able to drive the Americans from the field.

Following their victory at Brandywine, British forces under Howe captured the colonial capital of Philadelphia. Unable to prevent this, Washington moved the Continental Army to a position along Perkiomen Creek between Pennypacker's Mills and Trappe, PA, approximately 30 miles northwest of the city. Concerned about the American army, Howe left a garrison of 3,000 men in Philadelphia and moved with 9,000 to Germantown. Five miles from the city, Germantown provided the British with a position to block the approaches to the city.

Washington's Plan

Alerted to Howe's movement, Washington saw an opportunity to strike a blow against the British while he had numerical superiority. Meeting with his officers, Washington developed a complicated attack plan which called for four columns to hit the British simultaneously. If the assault proceeded as planned, it would lead to the British being caught in a double envelopment. At Germantown, Howe formed his main defensive line along the Schoolhouse and Church Lanes with Hessian Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen commanding the left and Major General James Grant leading the right.

On the evening of October 3, Washington's four columns moved out. The plan called for Major General Nathanael Greene to lead a strong column against the British right, while Washington led a force down the main Germantown Road. These attacks were to be supported by columns of militia which were to strike the British flanks. All of the American forces were to be in position “precisely at 5 o’clock with charged bayonets and without firing.” As at Trenton the previous December, it was Washington's goal to take the British by surprise.

Problems Arise

Marching through the darkness, communications quickly broke down between the American columns and two were behind schedule. In the center, Washington's men arrived as scheduled, but hesitated as there was no word from the other columns. This was largely due to the fact that Greene's men and the militia, led by General William Smallwood, had become lost in the darkness and heavy morning fog. Believing that Greene was in position, Washington ordered the attack to commence. Led by Major General John Sullivan's division, Washington's men moved to engage British pickets in the hamlet of Mount Airy.

American Advance

In heavy fighting, Sullivan's men forced the British to retreat back towards Germantown. Falling back, six companies (120 men) of the 40th Foot, under Colonel Thomas Musgrave, fortified the stone home of Benjamin Chew, Cliveden, and prepared to make a stand. Fully deploying his men, with Sullivan's division on the right and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's on the left, Washington bypassed Cliveden and pushed on through the fog towards Germantown. Around this time, the militia column assigned to attack the British left arrived and briefly engaged von Knyphausen's men before withdrawing.

Reaching the Cliveden with his staff, Washington was convinced by Brigadier General Henry Knox that such a strongpoint could not be left in their rear. As a result, Brigadier General William Maxwell's reserve brigade was brought up to storm the house. Supported by Knox's artillery, Maxwell's men made several futile assaults against Musgrave's position. At the front, Sullivan and Wayne's men were exerting heavy pressure on the British center when Greene's men finally arrived on the field.

The British Recover

After pushing British pickets out of Luken's Mill, Greene advanced with Major General Adam Stephen's division on the right, his own division in the center, and Brigadier General Alexander McDougall's brigade on the left. Moving through the fog, Greene's men began to roll up the British right. In the fog, and perhaps because he was intoxicated, Stephen and his men erred and veered right, encountering Wayne's flank and rear. Confused in the fog, and thinking that they had found the British, Stephen's men opened fire. Wayne's men, who were in the midst of an attack, turned and returned fire. Having been attacked from the rear and hearing the sound of Maxwell's assault on Cliveden, Wayne's men began to fall back believing they were about to be cut off. With Wayne's men retreating, Sullivan was forced to withdraw as well.

Along with Greene's line of advance, his men were making good progress but soon became unsupported as McDougall's men wandered away to the left. This opened Greene's flank to attacks from the Queen's Rangers. Despite this, the 9th Virginia managed to make it to Market Square in the center of Germantown. Hearing the cheers of the Virginians through the fog, the British quickly counterattacked and captured most of the regiment. This success, coupled with the arrival of reinforcements from Philadelphia led by Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis led to a general counterattack all along the line. Learning that Sullivan had retreated, Greene ordered his men to disengage retreat ending the battle.

The Aftermath of the Battle

The defeat at Germantown cost Washington 1,073 killed, wounded, and captured. British losses were lighter and numbered 521 killed and wounded. The loss ended American hopes of recapturing Philadelphia and forced Washington to fall back and regroup. In the wake of the Philadelphia Campaign, Washington and the army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Though beaten at Germantown, American fortunes changed later that month with the key victory at the Battle of Saratoga when Burgoyne's thrust south was defeated and his army captured.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Germantown." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Battle of Germantown. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Germantown." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).