I left off Part I with the battles of Brandywine and Paoli in September 1777. Barely two weeks later, Samuel found himself preparing for battle again, still in Pennsylvania. This time they were in Germantown, a small settlement.
A thick fog clouded the battlefield throughout the day. At the front of the army was John Sullivan’s column. They opened fire on the British pickets of light infantry at Mount Airy just as the sun was rising at around 5 AM. The British pickets resisted the American advance. William Howe rode forward, thinking that they were being attacked by foraging or skirmishing parties, and ordered his men to hold their ground. It took most of Sullivan’s division to finally overwhelm the British pickets and drive them back into Germantown.
Howe, still believing that his men were facing only light opposition, called out, “For shame, Light Infantry, I never saw you retreat before. Form! Form! It is only a scouting party.” Just then, three American cannons came into action and fired a blast of grape shot. Howe and his staff quickly withdrew out of range. I guess that changed his mind. More than one British officer was shocked to see his soldiers rapidly falling back before the powerful attack.
Now cut off from the main British and Hessian force, British Colonel Musgrave ordered his six companies to fortify the stone house of Chief Justice Chew, called Cliveden. The Americans furiously assaulted Cliveden, but the greatly outnumbered defenders beat them back, inflicting heavy casualties. General Washington called a council of war to decide how to deal with the distraction. Some of his subordinate officers favored bypassing Cliveden and leaving a regiment behind to deal with it. However, Brigadier General Henry Knox recommended that it was unwise to allow a garrison in the rear of a forward advance to remain under enemy control, and Washington agreed.
General William Maxwell’s brigade, which had been held in reserve, stormed Cliveden. Knox positioned four 3-pound cannons out of musket range and opened fire against the mansion’s defenders. However, the thick stone walls of Cliveden withstood the bombardment. Soldiers launched against the mansion were cut down, causing heavy casualties. The few who managed to get inside were shot or bayoneted. It was becoming clear that Cliveden was not going to be taken easily, if at all.
Before Knox and Maxwell attacked the Chew mansion, Sullivan’s division pressed past the place in the fog. Sullivan deployed Brigadier General Thomas Conway’s brigade to the right and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne’s brigade to the left and drove forward against the British. As Sullivan advanced, his troops paused frequently to fire volleys into the fog. This tactic effectively supressed enemy opposition, but they quickly ran low on ammunition. Wayne’s brigade moved ahead and became separated from Sullivan’s line. Suddenly, from the rear, the men began hearing the disquieting racket from Knox’s bombardment of the Chew mansion. To their right, the firing from Sullivan’s men died down as the Marylanders ran low on ammunition. Wayne’s men began to panic in their apparent isolation, so he ordered them to fall back. Sullivan was forced back also. Since the British units were moved to fight Greene’s late-arriving column, Sullivan’s men fell back.
Meanwhile, General Nathanael Greene’s column on Limekiln Road caught up with the American forces at Germantown and engaged the British pickets at Luken’s Mill and drove them off after a savage skirmish. Adding to the heavy fog that already obscured the Americans’ view was the smoke from cannons and muskets, and Greene’s column was thrown into disarray and confusion. One of Greene’s brigades, under the command of Brigadier General Adam Stephen, veered off course and began following Meetinghouse Road instead of rendezvousing at Market Square with the rest of Greene’s forces. The wayward brigade collided with Wayne’s brigade and mistook them for the redcoats. The two American brigades opened heavy fire on each other, became badly disorganized, and both fled. The withdrawal of Wayne’s reserve New Jersey Brigade, which had suffered heavy casualties attacking the Chew house, left Conway’s right flank exposed to the enemy.
In the north, an American column led by General Alexander McDougall came under attack and was forced to retreat, suffering heavy losses. Still convinced, however, that they could win, Greene’s column launched an attack on the British and Hessian line as planned, managing to break through and capturing a number of prisoners. However, they were soon surrounded by two arriving British brigades led by General Cornwallis. Greene, upon learning of the main army’s defeat and withdrawal, realized that he stood alone and he withdrew.
With night rapidly falling, the British had repulsed all attacks, but gave up the chase, and Washington decided to withdraw. Yet another defeat. How many could the Continental Army, and the cause, endure?