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Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, USA

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The American Revolutionary War in the Middle Atlantic States:
Battle of New York City | Washington's Retreat from New York City | Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River
Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey | British Capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania
The Paoli Massacre | Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania | Battle of the Barrels | The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey | Battle of Stony Point, New York | Battle of Springfield, New Jersey | General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne
Molly Pitcher | General Lord Charles Cornwallis

In October 1777, the British forces occupying Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were split into two groups - one in the city proper and another in a suburb called Germantown. On October 3, one of Washington's spies informed him that the British were moving a lot of troops out of Philadelphia and were heading into New Jersey.

Washington immediately called his commanders together and planned to attack the 9,000 British forces garrisoning Germantown. His plan called for an elaborate movement of four columns of infantry. They would simultaneously strike the red coats near their commander's headquarters

The next morning, dismounted Colonial cavalry snuck up and attempted to neutralise British listening posts like the one in Mt. Airy Mansion, just outside Germantown. However, the British managed to sound the alarm and quickly formed a skirmish line to meet the American attackers.

It was very foggy that morning, so the rebels pinned white paper to their hats to aid in identification. General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne's men charged out of the fog shouting 'Remember Paoli' and quickly forced the British to retreat.

British commanding General Howe arrived on the scene with reinforcements. A well-placed cannon shot into the fog frightened his horse, and forced Howe to leave in a hurry. In the meantime, the British were about to be overrun, and they fled into the mansion of an exiled Tory, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Benjamin Chew. About 200 members of the 40th Regiment made it to safety inside the mansion.

Generals John Sullivan and Wayne continued past the house in hot pursuit of the retreating British, but then something amazing took place. Washington, acting on the advice of General Henry Knox, halted half of the advancing Colonial army. Knox had told him that it was 'unmilitary to leave an unguarded "castle" to our rear.' Instead of leaving a small force to keep the British in the house bottled up, hundreds of men laid siege to the mansion.

After bombarding the men inside the house with little effect, the Americans sent Lieutenant Bill Smith of the 11th Virginia Regiment under a flag of truce to ask the British inside to surrender. Their response was to shoot Smith. Later, the British said they feared what the Colonials would do to them if they surrendered after the massacre at Paoli.

Next, the Americans tried a frontal assault on the house, but the Colonials were picked off from first storey windows. 56 were wounded and dead, including four on the front steps.

Frustrated, Knox fired cannons at point-blank range into the house. One cannon ball is said to have crashed through the front door, bounced down the main hallway, and banged out the back door.

Eventually crack British troops, including the Black Watch Highlanders, arrived and forced the besiegers to retreat.

And things were going equally poorly on other parts of the battlefield...

  • The Ninth Virginia Regiment was escorting some 100 British prisoners of war to the rear when they ran into a group of Hessians in the fog and were taken prisoner themselves.

  • Generals William Smallwood and David Foreman and their troops got lost in the fog and barely made it back to their lines before the Colonials retreated.

  • Hessians at the Wissahickon Creek prevented General John Armstrong's Pennsylvania Militia from joining the battle.

  • General Nathaniel Greene's local guide got lost in the fog and he and his men arrived an hour behind schedule. When they did arrive, Greene's men drove the British back until they ran out of ammunition and then retreated before a British counterattack.

  • General Adam Stephen got lost because he was drunk. He eventually led his men toward the noise at the Chew house and attacked General Wayne's forces. He was court-martialled for this lapse in duty.

  • General Casimir Pulaski's cavalry was assigned to run messages between the advancing American forces, but they never showed up. Their commander fell asleep in a farm house and missed the whole battle.

After all of these screw-ups, the Americans quit the field and ran north to Whitemarsh.

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