Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Germantown’

Our drive back from Estes Park was good, and it’s good to be home, but it’s also a bit sad to see a vacation end.  It was like that back in August when we returned from a couple days in Phoenix.  I’m well aware of the need to come home…work awaits, and we’re not celebrities that possess bank accounts overflowing with disposable income.  But still, I wish vacations, wherever we enjoy them, didn’t have to end.


The fall of 1777 saw the Continental Army in a pretty bad state.  General Horatio Gates stunning victory at Saratoga (which I promise we’ll discuss at some point) was the lone high point in an autumn of despair and defeat.  For General George Washington, it was one defeat after another.  Losses at Cooch’s Bridge and Chadd’s Ford had left the capital of Philadelphia open to  General William Howe’s British Redcoats…and the Second Continental Congress booking the fastest flights out of town.

But as bad as their military results were, it was the general condition of Washington’s men that was most appalling.  The soldiers were destitute.  Many were sick, many more were hungry, and most all of them were inadequately clothed.  In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming recounts the Commander-in-Chief’s words to Alexander Hamilton, then a Lt. Colonel.  Writing in mid-September, Washington lamented, “The distressed situation of the army for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing is truly deplorable.”

There was no relief in sight.  The Congress, which was busy “committee’ing” itself to death, was broke.  Many Colonists, unwilling to accept I.O.U.’s from a bankrupt government while becoming increasingly convinced of eventual British victory, found it easier to sell their goods to the British, who actually paid for stuff.  So the Continental Army went without, which made it more difficult to fight, which made British success more sure, which made Colonists fearful of supplying its Army, which…well, you see the vicious circle.  General Washington was within his right to simply take from the people what his men needed, but Fleming correctly asserts that “he was always aware that he was fighting a war for the civilian hearts and minds as well as for military victory.”  Washington used this power very sparingly and with much delicacy.

Against this backdrop, it’s probably easy to understand how Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Germantown was almost inevitable.  Philadelphia had fallen in late September (just days after Washington’s lament to Hamilton), and General Howe had divided his forces, leaving some to defend the captured city while moving a sizeable group (about 9,000 strong) north to Germantown.  General Washington saw his opponent’s division of forces as a chance to strike back.

Early in the morning of October 4, 1777, he divided his 11,000 men into 4 columns and prepared for battle.  But just as at Chadd’s Ford, foggy conditions created confusion among the Continentals, and 2 of the columns got lost.  In a couple of hours, the fighting was over.  The Continental Army retreated from the field suffering 152 killed, 521 wounded, and 400+ captured.  The British held their positions at the cost of 71 dead and 450 wounded.

Washington had shown pretty good battlefield tactics, and a victory here (coupled with the victory at Saratoga) may have caused the British the reconsider their stake in the Colonies.  But his men lacked the necessary training (and they certainly lacked the necessary support and equipment) to deliver a knockout blow at this point.  And what’s more, members of Congress now began to doubt that their military leader had the moxie to successfully engage the British.  Whispers of a replacement, one General Horatio Gates (hero of Saratoga), were now being heard.

The Continental Army would engage the British in minor skirmishes over the next two months, but the Battle of Germantown left General Washington’s men with little choice but to find a place close enough to keep tabs on the British, but far enough to keep a major engagement off the table.  That place?…Valley Forge.

Recommended Reading:  Washington’s Secret War

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