Germantown is a considerable village, about half a dozen miles from Philadelphia, and which, stretching on both sides of the great road to the northward, forms a continued street of two miles in length. The British line of encampment crossed Germantown at right angles about the centre, the left wing extending on the west from the town to the Schuylkill. . The centre, being posted within the town, was guarded by the Fortieth Regiment, and another battalion of light infantry, stationed about three-quarters of a mile above the head of the village. Washington resolved to attack the British by surprise, not doubting that if he succeeded in breaking them, as they were not only distant but totally separated from the fleet, his victory must be decisive.
He divided his troops, so as to make a double attack, with the purpose of separating the right and left wings of the British army. Parties of cavalry were sent out to scour the roads, to prevent any one from notifying Howe of the movement intended. A silent and rapid night march was made.
At three o'clock in the morning the British patrols discovered the approach of the Americans: the troops were soon called to arms; each took his post with the precipitation of surprise. About sunrise the Americans came up. General Conway, having driven in the pickets, fell upon the Fortieth Regiment and the battalion of light infantry. These corps, after a short resistance, being overpowered by numbers, were pressed and pursued into the village. Fortune appeared already to have declared herself in favor of the Americans; and certainly, if they had gained complete possession of Germantown, nothing could have frustrated them of the most signal victory. But in this conjuncture Lieutenant-Colonel Musgrave threw himself, with six companies of the Fortieth Regiment, into a large and strong stone house, situated near the head of the village, from which he poured upon the assailants so terrible a fire of musketry that they could advance no further. The Americans attempted to storm this unexpected convert of the enemy, but those within continued to defend themselves with resolution. They finally brought up cannon to the assault; but such was the intrepidity of the English and the violence of their fire that it was found impossible to dislodge them.
Meanwhile, General Greene had assailed the left flank of the enemy's right wing; but the columns which were to aid his movement by turning the right and left flanks of the British army failed to perform the work expected of them.
The consequence was that General Grey, finding his left flank secure, marched, with nearly the whole of the left wing, to the assistance of the centre, which, notwithstanding the unexpected resistance of Colonel Musgrave, was excessively hard pressed in Germantown, where the Americans gained ground incessantly. The battle was now very warm at that village, the attack and the defence being alike vigorous. The issue appeared for some time dubious. General Agnew was mortally wounded, while charging, with great bravery, at the head of the Fourth Brigade. The American colonel Matthews, of the column of Greene, assailed the English with so much fury that he drove them before him into the town. He had taken a large number of prisoners, and was about entering the village, when he perceived that a thick fog and the unevenness of the ground had caused him to lose sight of the rest of his division. Being soon enveloped by the extremity of the right wing, which fell back upon him when it had discovered that nothing was to be apprehended from the tardy approach of the militia of Maryland and Jersey, he was compelled to surrender with all his party: the English had already rescued their prisoners. This check was the cause that two regiments of the English right wing were enabled to throw themselves into Germantown, and to attack the Americans who had entered it in flank. Unable to sustain the shock, they retired precipitately, leaving a great number of killed and wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel Musgrave, to whom belongs the principal honor of this affair, was then relieved from all peril. General Grey, being absolute master of all Germantown, flew to the succor of the right wing, which was engaged with the left of the column of Greene. The Americans then took to flight, abandoning to the English throughout the line a victory of which in the commencement of the action they had felt assured.
The principal causes of the failure of this well-concerted enterprise were the extreme haziness of the weather, which was so thick that the Americans could neither discover the situation nor movements of the British army, nor yet those of their own; the inequality of the ground, which incessantly broke the ranks of their battalions; . . and, finally, the unexpected resistance of Musgrave, who found means, in a critical moment, to transform a mere house into an impregnable fortress.
The American loss was about twelve hundred in killed, wounded, and prisoners; that of the English, about five hundred in killed and wounded. Washington retreated immediately to Perkiomen Creek, while in a few days after the battle the British army was removed from Germantown to Philadelphia. Congress expressed warm approbation of the plan of action and the courage shown in its execution, and passed a vote of thanks to the general and the army. Washington quickly advanced again to a threatening position at Skippack Creek.
Thus the British general might have seen that he had to grapple with an adversary who, far from allowing himself to be discouraged by adverse fortune, seemed, on the contrary, to gain by it more formidable energies; who, the moment after defeat, was prepared to resume the offensive; and whose firmness and activity were such that even the victories obtained by his adversaries only yielded them the effects of defeat. Nor was the taking of Philadelphia attended with those advantages which were expected from it.
The inhabitants of the country were not in the least intimidated by that event; and the victorious army, surrounded on all sides by enemies, found itself, as it were, immured within the precincts of the city. Washington, posted on the heights of the Schuylkill, maintained a menacing attitude: he employed his cavalry and light troops in scouring the country between the banks of that river and those of the Delaware. He thus repressed the excursions of the English, prevented them from foraging with safety, and deterred the disaffected or the avaricious among the people of the country from conveying provisions to their camp.
Howe, thus rendered unable to supply himself from the surrounding country, diligently endeavored to remove the obstructions from the Delaware, that his fleet might come up. Arrangements were made for attacks in force on the batteries of Fort Mifflin, on the Pennsylvania side, and of Fort Mercer, at Red Bank, on the Jersey shore.
According to these dispositions, the English put themselves in motion on the evening of the twenty-first of October. Colonel Donop, a German officer, who had distinguished himself in the course of the campaign, passed the Delaware from Philadelphia, with a strong detachment of Hessians, at Cooper's Ferry. Then marching down the Jersey shore, along the bank of the river, he arrived at a late hour the following day in the rear of Red Bank. The fortifications consisted of extensive outer works, within which was a strong palisaded intrenchment, well furnished with artillery. Donop attacked the fort with the utmost gallantry. The Americans, after a slight resistance in the outer intrenchment, finding their number too small to man it sufficiently, withdrew into the body of the redoubt, where they made a vigorous defence.
Their intrepidity and the want of scaling-ladders baffled all the efforts of the Hessians. Colonel Donop was mortally wounded and taken prisoner. Several of his best officers were killed or disabled; Colonel Mingerode himself, the second in command, received a dangerous wound. The Hessians were then severely repulsed; and Lieutenant-Colonel Linsing drew them off with precipitation; but even in their retreat they suffered extremely by the fire of the enemy's galleys and floating batteries. The loss of the Hessians was estimated at not less than four or five hundred men. Donop expired of his wounds the next day. The Americans owed much of their success to the Chevalier du Plessis, a French officer, who directed the artillery with great ability and valor. The vanquished returned to Philadelphia.
The attack on Fort Mifflin was at first unsuccessful, but a new attack rendered the fort untenable. Fort Mercer was soon after so injured by a severe bombardment that it was necessarily abandoned. The navigation of the Delaware was thus opened to the British ships. Washington's army at this time numbered over twelve thousand regulars, and three thousand militia. Howe had about twelve thousand men. The former took up a strong position at White Marsh, while Howe faced him on Chestnut Hill. Various unsuccessful efforts were made by Howe to draw Washington from his intrenchments. Finally, as it appeared that the American general could not be induced to give battle, Howe withdrew to place his troops in winter-quarters in Philadelphia. Washington marched his army for the same purpose to Valley Forge. With these movements the campaign of 1777 ended.
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