Battle of Philadelphia



The Congress was not dispirited by the defeat of the battle of Brandywine Creek. Expecting to be again compelled to fly from Philadelphia, they reinvested Washington with a portion of the power with which they had clothed him nine months before.

They authorized him to direct General Putnam to send him fifteen hundred troops from the Hudson Highlands, and to summon continentals and militia from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Nor was Washington dispirited. Allowing his troops to rest only one day, he recrossed the Schuylkill and sought Howe to offer him battle. They met on the Lancaster road, about twenty miles from Philadelphia, and were about to engage in battle, when a storm of lightining, wind, and rain fell suddenly upon them, spoiled their ammunition, and prevented a severe fight. The rain continued all night, and before the dawn Howe withdrew and pushed on toward Philadelphia. Perceiving this, Washington crossed the Schuylkill at Parker's Ford, hoping to confront Howe at the crossing of the river below. The British eluded the Americans by a deceptive movement, and crossing the Schuylkill between Norristown and Valley Forge pushed on to Philadelphia and took possession of the city. Howe stationed the main division of his army at Germantown, and Washington encamped near Skippack Creek, about twenty miles from Philadelphia.

During the march of the Americans after the dispersion of the belligerents by the storm, General Wayne, at the head of a large body of republicans with two pieces of cannon, was engaged in striking British detachments and in endeavors to destroy Howe's baggage and supplies. While encamped on the night of the 20th, near the Paoli Tavern, he was attacked by General Grey with a strong British detachment, and in the desperate fight in the darkness that ensued, he lost nearly three hundred men, his cannon, and many small arms. As usual, the friends of Gates in the Congress blamed Washington for these losses, and for his later movements. Again John Adams, whose fault-finding pen was seldom idle, wrote concerning his crossing to the eastern side of the Schuylkill: "It is a very injudicious manoeuvre. If he had sent one brigade of his regular troops to have headed the militia, he might have cut to pieces Howe's army in attempting to cross any of the fords. Howe will not attempt it. He will wait for his fleet in the Delaware River. O Heaven, grant us one great soul! One leading mind would extricate the best cause from that ruin which seems to await it." While Adams was writing, Howe did "attempt it," and crossing the Schuylkill, took possession of Philadelphia. The frightened Congress had again fled from that city. After being seated at Lancaster a few hours, they crossed the Susquehanna River to York, putting that stream between themselves and the enemy. There they remained until the British evacuated Philadelphia the following summer.

After the battle on the Brandywine, Lord Howe took his ships around to the mouth of the Delaware, to co-operate with his brother in the attempt to capture Philadelphia. He sent some light-armed vessels up the river, which found obstructions in the channel at Byllinge's Point, several miles below Philadelphia, and a strong redoubt there to cover them. Other obstructions in the form of a strong chevaux-de-frise (sunken crates of stone with heavy spears of timber pointed with iron to receive vessels) were observed in the channel above, with forts near to protect them--Fort Mercer on the New Jersey shore, and Fort Mifflin on Mud Island near the mouth of the Schuylkill. General Howe had taken Philadelphia without the aid of the ships; but an open water communication, by which he might receive supplies, was of vital importance to him. His brother informed him that if the general would assist, with land troops, in the reduction of the post at Byllinge's Point (now Billingsport), he could clear the channel of obstructions. Sir William accordingly sent a strong detachment from his army for the purpose. The garrison at Byllinge's Point spiked their guns on the 2nd of October, and the militia on the Jersey shore dispersed in alarm. Even from armed vessels above the chevaux-de-frise there were many desertions. Perceiving this weakening of the main British army at Germantown, and the importance of prompt action to prevent public despondency, Washington resolved to attack that army at once.

Howe's force stretched across the country at right angles with the main street at Germantown. On the front of the right were a battalion of light infantry and Simcoe's Queen's Rangers, a corps of American Loyalists. In advance of the left were other light infantry to support pickets on Mount Airy, and the extreme left was guarded by Hessian Yagers (riflemen). Near the large stone mansion of Chief Justice Chew (yet standing) at the head of the village, was a strong British regiment under Colonel Musgrave.

Washington, as we have observed, was then on Skippack Creek, about twenty miles from Philadelphia. It was arranged for the divisions of Sullivan and Wayne, flanked by Conway's brigade, to advance by way of Chestnut Hill, while Armstrong, with Pennsylvania militia, should make a circuit and gain the left and rear of the enemy. The divisions of Greene and Stephen, flanked by Macdougall's brigade (two-thirds of the whole army), were to make a circuitous march and attack the front of the British right wing, while the Maryland and New Jersey militia, under Smallwood and Forman, should fall upon the rear of that wing. Lord Stirling, with the brigades of Nash and Maxwell, were to form a reserve.

During the night of the 3d of October [1777], the American army made their march of fourteen miles, for Germantown, very stealthily. They tried to reach Chestnut Hill before daylight, but the roughness of the road prevented, and it was near sunrise when they emerged from the woods on that eminence. The whole country was then enveloped in thick fog. Unperceived, until the critical moment, Washington's advance surprised the British pickets, and the troops of Sullivan and Wayne fell, with heavy force, upon the British infantry battalion in front. Before a storm of grape-shot, they were pushed back to their main line in much confusion. The cannonade startled Cornwallis, who was soundly sleeping in Philadelphia unsuspicious of an enemy being so near. Howe, too (near the army), was awakened by the great guns, and arrived near the scene of conflict in time to meet his flying battalions. He turned from the front of the tempest, and hastened to his camp to prepare his troops for action. Musgrave sent a part of his regiment to support the retreating battalions, and with six companies he took refuge in Chew's strong house, barricaded the doors and lower windows, and made it a castle. From upper windows he delivered such fearful volleys of musketry upon Weedon's brigade, who were in pursuit of the fugitives, that the march of the pursuers was checked. The fire of the American small arms upon the building was ineffectual.

A young officer bearing a flag with a message demanding a surrender of the "castle" was shot, when Maxwell's artillerists brought cannon to bear upon the building, but its strong walls resisted the heavy round shot. Then an attempt was made to burn the house, but failed. The check in the pursuit brought back Wayne's division which had advanced far beyond the house, and so left Sullivan's flank uncovered. This event, and the failure of Greene to attack at the time he was ordered to, disconcerted all the plans of the commander-in-chief. Very soon, however, Greene's troops, which had fallen into great confusion in the fog, in their march over the broken country which they passed, fell upon the British right, but their hopes of success were weakened by the failure of other troops to co-operate with them, by turning the British left; so the golden opportunity was lost.

The fog still continued. Parties of Americans frequently attacked each other as foes in the confusing mist. Each army was ignorant of the strength and real position of the other on the field; and it was afterward ascertained that while the attack on Chew's house was going on, the whole British army were on the point of giving up the fight, and crossing the Schuylkill to rendezvous at Chester. At that moment, General Grey discovered that his flanks were secure, and Knyphausen with his whole force marched to the assistance of the beleaguered garrison, under Musgrave, and the contending regiments in the village. For a short time a severe battle was maintained in the heart of Germantown. The patriots were unable to discern the number of their assailants. The cry of a trooper that they were surrounded produced a panic, and the Americans retreated in great confusion. This occurred after a very severe struggle for the mastery for almost three hours, and at a moment when the British general was contemplating a similar movement. The republicans lost in the battle over six hundred men killed, wounded and missing, and the British about eight hundred. The Americans returned to their camp on Skippack Creek, which they had left the evening before, and the British resumed their former position. Washington resolved to drive the British from Philadelphia before the winter should set in, but he was prevented, and his plans were frustrated, by the interference of Gates's friends in Congress.





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