This Day In History: The Battle of Germantown was Fought (1777)

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On this day in 1777, the Battle of Germantown was fought in the American Revolutionary War. Washington had an army of 11,000 Patriots and he lined up near the British positions in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The battle was part of the Philadephia campaign. The British had slightly fewer men, approximately 9000 soldiers under General Howe. Washington decided to launch an early morning attack on the British at Germantown, who were guarding the approached to the British-occupied city of Philadelphia. Washington hoped that by defeating Howe at Germantown that he would be able to advance on Philadelphia.

Washington had a larger army but they were often only poorly trained militiamen, poorly fed and with no uniforms. However, the commander of the Continental army decided to organize the Patriots into four columns and they placed shreds of paper in their caps to identify themselves as Americans. The paper would also help the Patriots to see each other in the early morning darkness. However, bad luck thwarted Washington’s daring plan, as an unexpected fog descended on the area and the columns lost contact with each other. Washington still ordered his men on to the attack, but two of the columns got lost. This meant that only two columns actually attacked the British lines.  The two other columns did not even make contact with the British lines and instead got lost and eventually returned to the British lines. At first, the two columns surprised the British but the well-trained and experienced redcoats were quick to respond. They fired volleys of well-aimed shots into the ranks of the attacking Americans even though the battle was fought in the early morning’s half-light. The Patriots were able to fight their way into the town of Germantown, however, their attack was eventually beaten back. Fortunately, because of the poor light, Howe, did not order a counter-attack, because if he had he might have inflicted an even bloodier defeat on Washington’s army.

The battle was a decisive setback for the Continental Army.  The Americans lost over 150 dead, 500 wounded and several hundred men are captured. The British suffered far fewer casualties and had no men taken prisoner. The Americans were forced to retreat but the battle showed the growing capabilities of the Continental Army and their commanders growing strategic abilities.

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After this defeat, the Continental Army was led into North Philadelphia where they skirmished with Howe’s forces. Washington’s Philadelphia campaign was a failure and the British were in a strong position. The Americans then proceeded to winter quarters at Valley Forge. Here the morale of the Continental Army was to suffer greatly and many men sickened or deserted.  However, they were joined by the Prussian officer Friedrich Freiherr von Steuben,  who arrived at Valley Forge on February the 23rd, 1778. The Prussian military officer helped to retrain and to motivate the American Patriot army and turned it into a highly trained and disciplined force, that was able to match the British on the battlefield.

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