A Brief History of The Battle of Germantown

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

It may have been a defeat, but in the end the battle helped the American cause

Provided courtesy of the Cliveden House staff

In late September 1777, after victorious encounters with American troops at Brandywine and Paoli, British soldiers occupied Philadelphia, capital ofthe Revolutionary government. The occupying army quartered several thousand troops in the nearby village of Germantown, about 6 miles northwest of the city.

In early October, from his headquarters at the Peter Wentz farm in Skippack, General George Washington plotted to recapture the capital as quickly as possible. His elaborate battle plan called for an assault on Philadelphia from the northwest, aimed through the heart of Germantown. Overnight and through the early morning hours of October 4th, as many as twelve thousand men moved south towards Germantown by several different routes, hoping to catch the British by surprise. Washington himself was with the column attacking on the Germantown Road through Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.

Advancing Americans on the Germantown Road encountered a British picket outpost near what is now Allen’s Lane in Mt. Airy. The resulting burst of artillery fire from nearby alarm cannons alerted British Colonel Thomas Musgrave’s 40th; Regiment which had camped in the fields around Cliveden, the 10-year old summer home of Justice Benjamin Chew. Musgrave’s men had time to barricade themselves inside the thick stonewalls of Cliveden and turn it into an impregnable fortress from which they could fire on the advancing Americans with impunity.

The intricate choreography of Washington’s plan was spoiled by the combination of unexpected British opposition and characteristic autumn weather – heavy fog shrouded most of the area during the morning. Washington’s column, stalled in front of Cliveden by heavy fire from inside the house, was unable to rendezvous as intended with the other segments ofhis army at Germantown’s Market Square. In fact, the confusion was so great that at one point two American units were firing on each other.

After several hours of intense fighting in and around Cliveden, for reasons still unclear, the American attack simply fell apart. The Americans retreated back into Montgomery County, and eventually to a long winter at Valley Forge. They left behind more than 150 dead soldiers at Germantown, 75 of them on the grounds of Cliveden. British casualties were less severe, but a visitor after the battle described the interior of Cliveden as looking “like a slaughterhouse.”

The bottom line: the Americans lost the battle, but not for lack of trying. The combination of a valiant effort at Germantown and a victory at Saratoga secured French support for the American cause. Cliveden was heavily damaged in the battle, sold, and then repurchased before 1800 by Benjamin Chew’sson. It remained in the hands of the Chew family until 1972 when it becamea National Trust Historic Site.