Celebrating 17 years

Mysterious Defeat: A Study of the Patriots' Tactical Loss at Germantown during the American War of Independence

HIS. 3920: United States Military History
Dr. Charles Titus, Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, IL — March 2, 2010

On the morning of October 4, 1777 the American Continental Army under the command of General George Washington attacked a sizeable portion of the British army under the command of Major General William Howe at the hamlet of Germantown, Pennsylvania. The attack was intended by Washington to act as a form of retaliation for the Patriot's recent defeat at Brandywine, Pennsylvania and the subsequent occupation of Philadelphia (the American capital at the time), by British forces. Although the initial surprise attacks met with some success, the Patriots were eventually defeated due to a number of complex and complicated tactical errors.

In order to understand why the Patriot forces were defeated at Germantown, a battle described as "strange and mixed up",[1] it is necessary to examine the tactical decisions made by the various Patriot commanders during the battle. That analysis will reveal that there were a total of four main tactical errors that led to the Patriot defeat. It will also be shown that these errors are not unique to the time period, but are indeed timeless problems that armies of all centuries have and do encounter in a variety of military campaigns. By understanding the errors committed during this engagement it will likely become easier to identify and correct future problems on the battlefield.

It can be logically argued that the very first tactical error of the Patriot high command was committed before the battle had even begun. The first error revolved around the planning and preparation for the attack. Washington was eager to strike the British camp and due to the recent arrival of reinforcements in the form of militia and some Continentals who had strengthened his army to a total of 11,000 men[2], he was confident that an attack was feasible. Planning the operation at Skippack Creek Washington and his subordinate officers modeled their attack off of the classic Battle of Cannae.[3] Envisioning a "great pincers movement of four converging forces,"[4] Washington ordered that General John Armstrong and his Pennsylvania militia were to attack a Hessian guard station on the far left of the British line. Washington along with Generals Sullivan and Wayne were to lead the attack on the British center. General Greene, with approximately two-thirds of the army[5] was ordered to attack the right side of the British line. General Adam Stephen was to support Greene with his troops. Finally, Generals Smallwood and Foreman with their militia would attack down the Old York Road and engage the Queen's Rangers guarding the extreme right of the British line.[6] Washington wanted all four of these converging forces to launch their attack on the British camp "precisely at 5 o'clock with charged bayonets and without firing."[7] This vision however was not to be realized. Before the various Patriot units began their march towards Germantown under the cover of darkness, Washington issued very confusing and obscure directions to the locations of attack.[8] This error resulted in Generals Smallwood and Foreman, both of whom did not know the area very well, to become hopelessly lost with their men and thus absent from the attack. In addition, a guide inadvertently led General Greene's men down the wrong road which wasted valuable time, especially considering the fact that Greene and his troops had the farthest to go.[9] A final factor in regards to the poor execution of the march consisted of the limited ability of the four columns to communicate with one another. All communication was to be done by various light horse dispatch riders. These riders would indeed have their work cut out for them as the four columns were at the very least a mile apart from one another. Given the heavy fog and rough topography of the area the duty of dispatch riding would be a slow and dangerous job.[10] At five in the morning three of the four advancing Patriot columns were well short of their assigned positions. Only Sullivan and Wayne had made it on time and they would be attacking without support due to the poor execution of the overall march.[11]

Unaware that only his column was in position for the attack, Washington ordered a general advance of Sullivan and Wayne's forces. At this point the "Fog of War", as the great Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz called it, came into play, both figuratively and literally. The fog was figurative in that Washington was not informed that his column was attacking alone, unsupported by the others. Literally however the heavy fog made the morning in the words of one soldier, "so dark we could not see a hundred yards before us."[12] This darkness made it very difficult for both sides to locate the enemy.

The battle finally commenced when the American advanced guard under Brigadier General Thomas Conway slammed into the British pickets.[13] Although forced to flee, the pickets had not been totally caught off guard as local Tories had informed the British camp of an impending Patriot attack.[14] Soon the drums were beating the call to arms and reinforcements were coming up in support. Despite the initial confused encounter between the two forces the beginning of the Patriot attack was going remarkably well. Sullivan and especially Wayne who was in a very aggressive mood during the engagement due to the recent ambush his men had suffered at Paoli Tavern[15] pushed the British center back approximately two miles from their original positions into the very heart of Germantown.[16] This resulted in the capture of various tents, baggage, and cannon from the British camp.[17] It appeared at this point that with the arrival of Greene's division and the various units of militia victory would be a certainty. However, a foolish and entirely unnecessary tactical error would quickly reverse the early fortunes of the Continental Army.

Frederick the Great of Prussia, one of the greatest European military minds of the 18th century once wrote that, "The most certain way of insuring victory is, to march briskly and in good order against the enemy, always endeavoring to gain ground."[18] It was this crucial bit of advice that would be forgotten by the Patriots at Germantown, leading to a serious tactical blunder. As the Patriot forces under Sullivan and Wayne continued their advance, six companies (approximately 120 men) of the British 40th Regiment of Foot under Colonel Musgrave took shelter from the onslaught in a large stone building called, "The Chew Mansion."[19] Sullivan and his men easily bypassed the mansion and continued on with the attack.[20] However, a number of Patriot troops under General Maxwell who were supposed to provide support for Wayne became preoccupied with the house. In the words of Colonel Timothy Pickering, the Chew Mansion "absolutely stopped our pursuitÉwe ought to have pushed our advantage, leaving a party to watch the enemy in that house."[21] To make matters worse Wayne was not aware that Maxwell and his troops had stopped. Already the energy was being sapped from the attack.

When Washington arrived at the Chew Mansion he was initially advised by his officers to leave a small party of troops to guard the mansion at a distance and to send the rest of his men along with the artillery forward as quickly as possible.[22] This strategy would be in keeping with the words of Frederick the Great. But it was not to be. General Henry Knox, one of Washington's closest and most trusted commanders argued vigorously against bypassing the mansion. Knox was well educated in European military theory and as the Chief Commander of Artillery he wanted to lay siege to the building.[23] The argument over what course of action to take at the Chew Mansion went on for half an hour. One eyewitness to the event even claimed that some of the Patriot officers believed that their own men were in the mansion as opposed to the British, causing more confusion and delay. [24] Finally Washington yielded to Knox's assertion that it would be unwise and dangerous for the army to leave such an armed "castle" in its rear.[25] Washington gave up an entire brigade for the taking of the property. Here is where the critical error was made. By taking troops away from the attacking force to conduct a pointless siege Washington had put a halt to the momentum and had lost the initiative. After having little success from firing volleys of musketry at the mansion Knox brought up artillery which had been intended for the support of Wayne and Sullivan. This too proved ineffective. The sturdy house absorbed the cannon balls. An attempt was even made to burn the building down. After an hour of wasting valuable ammunition Knox finally realized his error and chose to let most of the brigade continue on with the advance into Germantown. Of the approximately 1100 casualties suffered by the Continental Army that day, 35% of them occurred during the siege of the Chew Mansion.[26] In contrast Howe's army lost only four men at the Mansion out of their 534 casualties.[27] The 120 British troops inside the Chew mansion had proven to be immovable.

During the time that the siege was in action the third major tactical error of the battle was made on the American left. General Greene had finally come up with his men and was attacking fiercely against the right line of the British Army. As he and his troops advanced forward however it became apparent that General Stephen and his division (who had orders to provide Greene with support) were not with them. Hearing the firing from the Chew Mansion Stephen (who was accused after the battle of being intoxicated)[28] feared that Washington and Knox were in trouble. He then proceeded to intentionally disobey his orders and ignore the proper chain of command by swinging his men to the right to aid in the attack of the Chew Mansion.[29]

This costly mistake left Greene unsupported and susceptible to a British counterattack which eventually occurred forcing them to flee.[30] As Stephen and his division hurried to the right they suddenly came upon the rear side of a large group of soldiers. In the heavy fog and lingering smoke it was very difficult to see who these soldiers were. Unfortunately Stephen's men assumed they had come upon part of the British Army's flank and began to fire their weapons haphazardly into the fog. The large body of men proved to be, in reality, Wayne's division still carrying on its mission of attacking down the center. As Wayne's men turned around to see the flashes of muskets going off at them a sudden panic arose in the ranks. One officer, assuming that the British were closing in on them shouted, "We are surrounded! We are surrounded!"[31] Despite Wayne's attempt to keep his men calm and in line his entire division broke and ran in a panic. Stephen's men now confused more than ever did likewise. This final tactical error was in effect the final blow to the Continental Army. Sullivan's men broke and ran due to a counterattack led by Howe[32] who had had enough time to reorganize his men. General Wayne later lamented that had his men not panicked at that critical moment the American Revolution may have even been won that very day.[33] The British had even been given orders for a general retreat towards Chester.[34] However the four critical errors of poor execution, loss of speed and momentum in the attack, the disobeying of orders given by superiors, and the so called "friendly fire" caused by the literal "fog of war" undid what in all probability should have been a Patriot victory that could have served a decisive purpose in shortening the war. It must be remembered that these tactical errors are not unique to this battle alone, but are common mistakes that have been made throughout the centuries. Commanders must guard against the temptations of going against the chain of command and falling prey to the "Fog of War" either figuratively or literally. 


[1]    Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of 'Seventy Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 625.

[2]    John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 253.

[3]    Commager and Morris, The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, 624.

[4]    Ibid.

[5]    Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 254.

[6]    Thomas Boyd, Mad Anthony Wayne (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929), 82.

[7]    Richard K. Showman et al., ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol.2 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 173.

[8]    Ibid.

[9]    Ibid., 174

[10]  Ibid., 173

[11]  Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 254.

[12]  Diary of Lieutenant Sir Martin Hunter, in The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 625.

[13]  Journal of Colonel Timothy Pickering, in The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 627.

[14]  Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 254.

[15]  Boyd, Mad Anthony Wayne, 86; Paul David Nelson, Anthony Wayne: Soldier of the Early Republic (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985), 59.

[16]  Journal of Pickering, 627.

[17] Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 254.

[18] Ed Allen, ed., "The King of Prussia's Military Instructions to his Generals," Air University, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/readings/fred_instructions.htm (Accessed March 1, 2010).

[19]  Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 254.

[20]  Nelson, Anthony Wayne, 61.

[21]  Journal of Pickering, 627.

[22]  Boyd, Mad Anthony Wayne, 88.

[23]  Showman et al., ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 175. 

[24]  T. Will Heth, a Continental Officer, to Colonel John Lamb, Camp Paraoman, October 12, 1777, in The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 630.

[25]  Showman et al., ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 175.  

[26]  Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 256.

[27]  Ibid; Commager and Morris, The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, 625.

[28]  Commager and Morris, The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, 625; Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 256.

[29] Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 255.

[30]  Nelson, Anthony Wayne, 61.

[31]  General John Armstrong to General Gates, Camp, October 9, 1777, in The Spirit of 'Seventy Six, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 628.

[32]  Nelson, Anthony Wayne, 61.

[33]  Ibid.

[34]  Heth to Lamb, 630.