Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Historical MarkerDuring the American Revolution, the fight for independence reached its most dire moment in 1777 when the British embarked on a campaign to capture the seat of American government in Philadelphia. After defeating the Continental forces of Gen. George Washington (1732–99) at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, Gen. William Howe (1729–1814) and his British army outmaneuvered Washington and took the city. Howe encamped at Germantown and planned to set up an outpost on this high point on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Washington devised a plan to launch a surprise attack on the encampment. On October 3, he ordered a rather complex four-pronged advance on Germantown from the north. Troops were to approach with bayonets but without firing. The inexperience and inadequate training of the troops, along with the inability of Washington’s four commanders to communicate, resulted in an unsuccessful assault. The Continental Army may have been able to achieve success if the battle had occurred after the troops received the training that followed at Valley Forge that winter.

Washington ordered two columns to advance toward the center of the British force and the other two to flank the British and attack from either side. The plan was for all to advance during the night and attack simultaneously at dawn. The distance of the march – 16 miles – was too long to coordinate a simultaneous attack. Also, some of the British on guard encountered the Americans early and began firing their guns to alert the main force. The day was foggy and the weather had a more detrimental effect on the Americans than on the British. One of the flanking columns lost its way and never made it to the battle. Two others, attacking from different directions at different times, began attacking each other, blinded in the fog and gun smoke. One of these was led by Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen (c. 1718–91), who was drunk during the battle and was subsequently dismissed from the Army. Another unit of Continentals pursued the British to the Chew House (Cliveden), which was made a fort. The building was damaged by gun and cannon fire, but it withstood the siege. The Redcoats knew it was unlikely that they could surrender and live, so they fought on. This assault wasted an hour of time and resulted in about 50 American casualties compared to negligible numbers on the British side.

 

The Storming of the Chew House, a c. 1790 painting of the 1777 Battle of Germantown by an unknown British artist. Courtesy of Cliveden, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Storming of the Chew House, a c. 1790 painting of the 1777 Battle of Germantown by an unknown British artist.
Courtesy of Cliveden, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

By the time the American forces fell back, they had lost about 1,000 men, twice that of the British. The British, however, failed to capitalize on their victory by pursuing the retreating Americans and demoralizing them even further. Surprisingly, despite the defeat, Washington’s strategic acumen and the boldness of the Continental Army are credited, along with the American victory at Saratoga, with persuading the French to enter the war on the American side.

The Battle of Germantown marker was erected at Cliveden in October 1996.

 

Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.