We must now go back and take up the thread of the story of the war in America. During the year 1777 the military operations were carried on in two parallel lines. The one we have traced to its culmination in the surrender at Saratoga. The other lay in a different field and with different surroundings, and although no brilliant victory rewarded the American commander his generalship was this year, as usual, superior to that of any of his fellow- commanders.
We left Washington encamped for the winter at Morristown. With the opening of spring new recruits began to arrive, and when the commander broke camp on the 28th of May his army numbered some eight thousand men. General Howe had spent the winter at New York, and his plan now seemed to be to dash across New Jersey, capture Philadelphia, and return in time to assist Burgoyne. Washington, divining this, planted his army stubbornly in the way. His army was but half the size of Howe's, and he refused to be drawn into open battle; but he harassed his enemy from every side, and after eighteen days of this watchdog policy, actually drove Howe back to Staten Island.1 Washington, supposing that Howe would proceed up the Hudson, prepared to cooperate with Schuyler. But Howe embarked upon the sea and sailed for the mouth of the Delaware. Finding that river too well guarded, as he supposed, he sailed around the peninsula and up Chesapeake Bay, landing near Elkton, Maryland, the last of August.
Washington was amazed to discover that Howe had abandoned Burgoyne; such a military blunder was almost inconceivable. And besides, the possession of Philadelphia could be of little advantage to the British, as the city was not a military, nor even an administrative, center. Congress could easily fly to a neighboring town and continue its business. But Howe acted as though the goal of the war was to take the "rebel capital." Soon after he landed at the head of the Chesapeake, however, Washington was there to confront him with an army now raised to eleven thousand. Howe's army was much larger and better drilled, but Washington determined to risk a battle. He was driven to this, it may be said, by public sentiment. The people could not understand the Fabian policy, of which he was such a master; and had he given up Philadelphia without striking a blow, he would have been severely censured by the public. As Fiske says, he saw that it was better to suffer a defeat than to yield the city without a struggle, and he met Howe in southern Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Brandywine.
Washington took a strong position at Chadd's Ford, his center protected in front by artillery under General Anthony Wayne, while Greene remained in the background as a reserve.
The right wing under Sullivan was then thrown up the stream for two miles. A portion of the British army, under Knyphausen, the ablest of the Hessian commanders except Riedesel, occupied Washington's front, while Cornwallis, with great skill, made a flank movement by marching up the Lancaster road, crossing the Brandywine, and striking Sullivan in the rear. Washington had expected this movement, but was thrown off his guard by a false report. Sullivan made a desperate fight at the church, but was slowly forced back. Knyphausen then crossed the creek to attack Wayne, who, fighting as he went, made an orderly retreat upon Chester, as Sullivan and Greene had done. The loss on the American side exceeded one thousand men, while the enemy lost nearly six hundred. The British were justified in claiming a victory, as they drove the patriot army from the field.
Brandywine decided the fate of Philadelphia. Washington knew that the capital must be given up, but he determined to harass and detain the enemy as much as possible, his chief object being to prevent aid being sent to Burgoyne on the Hudson. There were frequent skirmishes, in one of which Wayne lost three hundred men, and a regular battle was prevented at Chester Valley only by a violent storm. So vigilant was Washington in retarding the British that it required fifteen days for them to march twenty-five miles. They entered the capital on September 26. Congress had fled to Lancaster, after again making Washington dictator--this time for sixty days. Howe encamped his main army at Germantown, then a village of one long street a few miles north of Philadelphia; and here, on the 4th of October, Washington again gave battle.
This battle might have proved a glorious victory for the Americans but for an unfortunate accident caused by a dense fog. Washington had planned the battle admirably. His army was to advance by four different roads, and to meet at daybreak and open the battle at different points. Sullivan, in command of the main army, swept down from Chestnut Hill and met the British advance guard at Mount Airy, a slight elevation between Chestnut Hill and Germantown. Joining with Wayne at this point, Sullivan charged the guard, pressing them back on the light infantry, and both were soon put to flight. A portion of the British took refuge in Judge Chew's stone mansion, which the Americans bombarded for some hours without effect. Sullivan had passed on down the main street, and was now supported by Greene, who had come up with the American left wing. The British were thrown into confusion, and there was every promise of a brilliant American victory, when, in the dense fog that enveloped the entire surrounding country, General Stephen, who commanded a brigade of Greene's division, fired on Wayne's men, mistaking them for the enemy. A panic soon spread through the army, and a general retreat was ordered. The British saw their sudden advantage, re-formed, and pursued the Americans for several miles. The latter, however, retreated in good order, saving their wounded and their artillery. The respective losses were nearly the same as at the battle of Brandywine.2
This battle, which occurred thirteen days before the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, though resulting in a defeat, came so near being a victory that the American army was rather elated than depressed by the result. The British general, after opening the Delaware to his brother's fleet by reducing forts Mercer and Mifflin at the cost of half a thousand men, settled snugly in Philadelphia for the winter; while Washington, after hovering threateningly about for some weeks, led his army to Valley Forge.
1John Fiske, our ablest writer on the Revolution, pronounces this feat of Washington's as remarkable as anything he ever did, and I do not hesitate to agree with him. Return
2General Stephen was accused of drunkenness during the battle, was tried by court-martial, and was dismissed from the service. As to the losses at Germantown, as in most of the battles, the records are incomplete, and it is difficult to get at the exact truth. Return
History of the United States of America, by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIII p. 280-283
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh
The Revolution--From Saratoga to Monmouth
Created September 24, 2000
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