On October 4 1777, the Continental Army under George Washington did something they had not yet had the opportunity to do—they would attack. The plan was to execute a classic double pincer maneuver. This was straight out the war manual and first utilized by Hannibal to defeat the Roman legions. The Continentals would impetuously take the initiative and drive the Colonials from the field. Winter was coming, and a Washington had to make a statement.
Washington, along with the entire country, needed positive news going into their winter encampment. The newly reinforced Continentals had over 11,000 soldiers to the British main force of 9,000. With the rare numerical advantage, Washington would act on one of his mantras, “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.” He was going to pick a fight.
The best battle plan only last until the first shot is fired, that was the case at Germantown. Even before the opening shots rang out, a mist had settled in the area. That mist soon became a dense fog. When the flintlock rifles began to sing, the black powder smoke mixed with the fog made it virtually impossible to see. The British broke first and retreated into town. However, Washington’s right flank failed in its envelopment maneuver as one of his generals, Nathanael Greene, was over two hours late to the party.
This allowed the British troops to fall back in order. Approximately 120 British troops barricaded themselves in the home of a Chief Justice, Benjamin Chew. American General Henry Knox believed that it was unwise to bypass the Chew house. The battle for the Chew house would be a turning point for the British. Washington should have bypassed the house completely, but instead, momentum was lost.
A battle raged at the Chew house with no further British error. The error would come on the side of the Continental Army. Around 10:00 am, a group of Americans began firing through the smoke and fog at friendly forces to their rear. A full-scale retreat began, since the Americans believed that they had been outflanked. The Generals on horseback waved their sabers and tried to rally, but the troops retreated in full.
The British would have the field that day. However, an army can win a battle while losing a war on days such as this. The Germantown engagement was a tactical victory, but a strategic loss for the British. Later, it would end up costing them the war. Washington needed the French to come into the war on the side of the Americans. The French, impressed by the audacity of the American army, finally advised Washington they would enter the war on the side of the American cause.
The Armies would then go into hibernation for the winter. Washington and his army spent the last months of 1777 encamped at Valley Forge. What the American army endured that winter would have spelled doom for most causes. However, the name Valley Forge became synonymous with endurance and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity. If not for the knowledge that a major world power was going to back his army, one only wonders where Washington’s thoughts may have gone. Without the leadership of Washington and his encouragement, the army may have folded and the cause would have been lost.
While not a Yorktown, Bunker Hill, or Cowpens, the battle of Germantown was truly the beginning of the end for the British and one of the darkest hours before the dawn for the American nation.