Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER V.

SIR William Howe, having passed the Schuylkill on the 23d, continued by easy marches on his route to Philadelphia.

On the 26th he took a position in the village of Germantown, seven or eight miles distant from the city, which was on the following day possessed by lord Cornwallis with one division of the army. The position of Germantown has some advantages, mingled with many disadvantages. Its right is accessible with ease; and its centre presents no obstruction from superiority of ground, to the assailant. Its chief, if not sole advantage, consisted in the safety of the left, and its proximity to Philadelphia, which city it was necessary to secure. A few miles more remote is Chesnut hill, which sir William might have occupied, and have defied annoyance. This ground probably did not escape his observation; but it was not so near to Philadelphia, and, what was more to be regarded, too remote to permit him to give his undivided exertions towards the opening of the Delaware to his fleet, on whose propinquity depended the safety of his army.

The possession of Philadelphia, however anxiously desired, and highly rated by the British ministry, did not produce any of those advantageous results, so confidently expected: nor indeed could the discriminating statesman have justly calculated upon extensive benefit from the achievement. The American nation is spread over a vast region; the great body of whose population live upon their farms, pursuing exclusively the occupations of agriculture. The loss of a town, though the first, is not felt by a people thus situated, as it is in Europe, where whole countries resemble a continued village; and where the commercial and manufacturing interests have spread and ramified themselves to a considerable extent. However the loss of Philadelphia may have advanced the hopes of the British nation and government, it was slightly regarded by the states and congress. This body of virtuous sages had discerned, by deep examination of the resources of the United States, that the nation’s safety was not endangered by such fleeting occurrences: they placed, under God, their confidence in the fidelity of their fellow citizens, in the courage of their armies, in the purity and wisdom of their general in chief, and in the fiscal ability of the nation;[note 14] on all of which they had a right to count with certainty, dreadfully as the latter failed from the imbecility of the government.

Experience too had not withheld its chastening
admonition.[note 15] New York had before fallen, after having been held too long, from the influence which, in a free country, the public wish will ever possess, even over the stern soldier. By obedience to the impulse flowing from this cause, the main body of the American army had been risked improvidently in the bold attempt to hold that city; and with much difficulty and much loss, did the commander in chief extricate his army from the perils in which it had been consequently involved.

Washington, following sir William Howe with a view to place himself in a strong position at a convenient distance, ready to seize the first fit opportunity to measure swords with his antagonist, encamped on the western side of Skippack creek, about sixteen miles from Germantown.

Both generals now turned their attention to the river impediments: the one, to open a passage for his fleet, which, after disembarking the army, returned to sea, destined for the Delaware; the other, to impede, as long as was practicable, this much desired junction. The American general had neglected no means within his power to stop the advance of the fleet, by preparing to maintain the defence of the various obstructions fixed in the channel of the river. With this view, two fortresses had been erected: one on Mud Island, denominated Fort Mifflin, after general Mifflin, since governor of Pennsylvania; and the other at Billingsport, on a point of land, opposite to the lower line of chevaux-de-frise, of which three rows, formed of the heaviest timber, strengthened and pointed with iron, had been sunk across the channel. Billingsport was abandoned on the approach of a detachment, under colonel Stirling, sent to dislodge the American garrison; and a high bluff on the same side of the river, opposite to Mud Island, called Red Bank, was fortified, which with Fort Mifflin protected the two upper lines of chevaux-de-frise. Above, and near to these, was stationed our maritime force, consisting of row-galleys, floating batteries, fire-ships, and rafts. The fortification of Red Bank consisted of an intrenchment and redoubt, called Fort Mercer, in commemoration of brigadier general Mercer of Virginia, who died of his wounds received at the battle of Princeton, nobly sustaining his beloved commander, in consummating the masterly movement made by him from his position in front of lord Cornwallis at Trenton; by which single stroke was liberated nearly the whole state of New Jersey.

Officers were selected to command at these particular posts, high in the confidence of the commander in chief; and the naval force was committed to commodore Hazelwood.

Great were the exertions of sir William Howe to restore the navigation; and equally great were the efforts of Washington to hold it occluded. Aware that the necessary operations to reduce the forts, Mercer and Mifflin, would call for considerable detachments from the British army, the American general continued in his position at Skippack Creek, within reach of his enemy, still encamped in the village of Germantown, patiently watching for the opportune moment, to strike the meditated blow.

Cautious as Washington undoubtedly was, his caution was exceeded by his spirit of enterprise. He resembled Marcellus rather than Fabius, notwithstanding his rigid adherence to the Fabian policy during our war. Ardent, and impetuous by nature, he had, nevertheless, subjected his passions to his reason; and could with facility, by his habitual self-control, repress his inclinations whenever his judgment forbade their indulgence: the whole tenor of his military life evinces uniform and complete self-command.

Province Island, close to the Pennsylvania shore, and contiguous to Mud Island, had been possessed by general Howe, with a view to hasten the fall of Fort Mifflin. This service, with other accompanying claims on his force, compelled him to draw rather improvidently from his main body, already weakened by his occupation of Philadelphia, with a considerable detachment under lord Cornwallis.

Understanding the condition of his foe, Washington decamped on the evening of the third of October, and, moving with secrecy and circumspection, attacked the enemy in his camp at Germantown, early in the morning of the fourth. The commencement was favourable;[note 16] but, by the failure of punctual correspondent cooperation, and the brave stand of colonel Musgrave with the fortieth regiment at Chew’s house on the discomfiture of the British van, the flattering dawn was soon and sadly changed.

Washington was compelled to retire; which he effected with ease, the enemy showing no disposition to risk serious pursuit. Our loss was considerable, and unhappily augmented by the captivity of the ninth Virginia regiment and its brave colonel, Matthews, who had, with a part of the sixth, led by colonel Towles, victoriously pierced into the midst of the British army, where, gallantly contending unsupported, he was compelled to surrender.

Here, as at Brandywine, some of our corps greatly distinguished themselves. Major general Sullivan’s division, made up chiefly of the Maryland line, did honour to its general, and its state; especially the brigade commanded by Conway, who led unto battle on the right. Such partial efforts, however honourable to the particular troops, never can terminate in victory: this precious fruit is only to be plucked by the cooperating skill and courage of the whole body. The loss of the British in killed and wounded was nearly equal to that sustained by us, which did not exceed six hundred.[note 17]

The sudden change which we experienced was attributed to the delay of the left column’s entrance into action, to the fog of the morning which was uncommonly dense, and to the halt at Chew’s house. These certainly were the ostensible causes of the defeat; and some of them lightly contributed to our disaster. A critical examination of the operations of that day, however, will lead all impartial inquirers to one conclusion: namely, that although the fog withheld from us the important advantage, resulting to assailing troops, from a clear view of the enemy’s incipient measures to repel the assault; and although the halt at Chew’s house had cooled the ardour, which, at the beginning, success had infused into our soldiers; yet these incidents could not have produced the disastrous change in the fortune of the day.

But this turn must be ascribed to deeper causes: to the yet imperfect discipline of the American army; to the broken spirit of the troops, who, from day to day, and from month to month, had been subjected to the most trying and strength-wasting privations, through the improvidence, or inability of government; to the inexperience of the tribe of generals; and to the complication of the plan of assault: a complication said to have been unavoidable.

The halt at[note 18] Chew’s house was taken after some deliberation, (as the writer well recollects; being for that day in the suite of the commander in chief, with a troop of dragoons charged with duty near his person.)

Many junior officers, at the head of whom were colonel Pickering and lieutenant colonel Hamilton, urged with zeal the propriety of passing the house. Brigadier Knox opposed the measure with earnestness, denouncing the idea of leaving an armed force in the rear; and, being always high in the general’s confidence, his opinion prevailed. A flag of truce was instantly despatched to summon the British colonel, while appropriate bodies of troops were prepared to compel his submission. As had been suggested, the summons was disregarded by Musgrave, who persevered in his judicious defence; and captain Smith, of the first Virginia regiment, deputy adjutant general, bearing the flag, fell with it waving in his hands. Thirsting after military fame, and devoted to his country, he obeyed with joy the perilous order; advanced through the deadly fire pouring from the house, presuming that the sanctity of his flag would at length be respected: vain expectation! he fell before his admiring comrades, a victim to this generous presumption.

Unfortunate[note 19] as was the issue of the battle at Germantown, it manifested the unsubdued, though broken spirit, of the American army; and taught the enemy to expect renewal of combat, whenever adequacy of force or fitness of opportunity should authorize repetition of battle: it gave, too, animation to the country at large, exciting in congress, and in the people, invigorated zeal in the great cause in which they were engaged.

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