George Washington Papers

General Orders for Attacking Germantown, 3 October 1777

General Orders for Attacking Germantown

[3 October 1777]

The troops to be ready to march this evening at six OClock.

The divisions of Sullivan & Wayne to form the right wing and attack the enemy’s left; they are to march down Monatany road1—The divisions of Green & Stephen to form the left wing and attack the enemy’s right; they are to march down the Skippack road.2 General Conway to march in front of the troops that compose the right wing and file of to attack the enemy’s left flank. General McDougall to march in front of the troops that compose the left wing and file off to attack the enemy’s right flank.3

General Nash & General Maxwell’s brigade[s] form the corps de reserve and to be commanded by Major General Lord Stirling. The Corps De reserve to pass down the Skippack road.

General Armstrong to pass down the ridge road [&] pass by Leverings tavern & take guides to cross the Wessahiecon creek up4 the head of John Vandeering’s mill-dam so as to fall above Joseph Warners new house.5

Smallwood and Forman to pass down the road by a mill formerly Danl Morris’ and Jacob Edges mill into the White marsh road at the Sandy run: thence to white marsh Church, where take the left-hand road, which leads to Jenkin’s tavern on the old york road, below Armitages, beyond the seven mile stone half a mile from which [a road] turns off short to the right hand, fenced on both sides, which leads through the enemy’s incampment to German town market house.6

General McDougall to attack the right of the enemy in flank. General Smallwood & forman to attack the right wing in flank & rear. General Conway to attack the enemy’s left flank & General Armstrong to attack their left wing in flank & rear.

The militia who are to act on the flanks not to have cannon.

Packs & blankets to be left, the men are to carry their provisions in their Haversacks, or any other manner least inconvenient.

All the pioneers of each division who are fit to march are to move in front of their respective divisions, with all the axes they can muster.7

Pickets on the left of Vanderin’s mill to be taken off by Armstrong: one at Allen’s house on Mount-Airey by Sullivan—One at Lucans Mill by Greene.

Each Column to make their disposition so as to attack the pickets in their respective routs, precisely at five OClock, with charged bayonets and without firing, and the columns to move on to the attack as soon as possible.

The Columns to endeavour to get within two miles of the enemy’s pickets on their respective routs by two OClock and there halt ’till four and make the disposition for attacking the pickets at the time above mentioned.

The Columns of Cont: troops & militia to communicate with each other from time to time by light horse.

Proper flanking parties to be kept out from each Column.

D, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, PHi: Wayne Papers; copy, NHi: McDougall Papers. The text within square brackets is taken from the copy in DNA:PCC. For other significant variations in the wording on that copy and the copy in the Wayne Papers, see notes 4 and 7.

GW docketed the manuscript in DLC:GW: “Order of March and Battle German Town 4th Octr 1777.” Although the battle occurred on that date, the context of the orders indicates that they were issued the previous day, 3 October.

Lt. James McMichael of Greene’s division wrote in his diary entry for 3 Oct.: “Early this morning orders were issued for the troops to be furnished with two days cooked provisions, and each man served with forty rounds of ammunition. At noon the sick were sent to Bethlehem, which indicates that a sudden attack is intended. At 6 P.M. the whole army marched, with Gen. Greene’s division in the advance” ((“McMichael’s Diary,” description begins William P. McMichael. “Diary of Lieutenant James McMichael, of the Pennsylvania Line, 1776–1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 16 (1892): 129–59. description ends 152).

The following general orders of 3 Oct., signed by Timothy Pickering as adjutant general, appear in Muhlenberg’s orderly book: “Twenty men from each Brigade who are not fit to endure the Fatigues of a March either for want of Shoes or otherwise with a Sub. from each Brigade, to parade at the Park of Artillery at 5 o’clock this afternoon. Two field Officers will be there to take the Command of them who will receive their instructions from the Major Genl of the Day. Three empty waggons from each Brigade with good horses to parade in the Road in rear of the 2d Line and move on in the rear when the Army marches.

“The whole Army to be under arms this evening at 6 o’clock they are to leave their packs, Blankets and everything except arms, accoutrements ammunition and provision they are to take their provision in their Habersacks, such as have not Habersacks are to take their provision in their Pockets, or in such other manner as may be most Convenient. All the Pioneers of each Regt & Division who are fit to march are to move in front of their respective Divisions with all the Axes they can muster” (“Muhlenberg’s Orderly Book,” description begins “Orderly Book of Gen. John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, March 26–December 20, 1777.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 33 (1909): 257–78, 454–74; 34 (1910): 21–40, 166–89, 336–60, 438–77; 35 (1911): 59–89, 156–87, 290–303. description ends 35:63).

Pickering says in his journal entry for 3 Oct.: “The troops were got ready for marching, it being intended to make an attack upon the enemy the next morning. In the evening, about eight o’clock, the troops were on the march, in the following disposition: General Sullivan, commanding the right wing, was to move down, with his and Wayne’s divisions, on the direct road to Germantown, preceded by Conway’s brigade, which was to take off the enemy’s picket, file off to the right, and fall upon the enemy’s left flank and rear, while Sullivan’s and Wayne’s divisions attacked them in front. Maxwell’s and the North Carolina [Nash’s] brigades were to form a second line in rear of Sullivan and Wayne. General Greene, with the left wing, was to move down the North Wales road to attack the enemy’s right, the front line of this wing being composed of Greene’s and McDougall’s divisions, and the second line, of Stephen’s; while Smallwood, with his Maryland, and Forman, with his Jersey militia, were to attack them on their right flank and rear. At the same time General Armstrong, with his division of Pennsylvania militia, was to move down the old Egypt or Schuylkill road, and take off a Hessian picket posted there, and attack the enemy’s left wing and rear. The attack was to begin upon every quarter at five in the morning” (Pickering and Upham, Life of Pickering description begins Octavius Pickering and Charles W. Upham. The Life of Timothy Pickering. 4 vols. Boston, 1867–73. description ends , 1:166–67; for the disposition of the attacking American troops, see also GW to Hancock, 5 Oct., and John Sullivan to Meshech Weare, 25 Oct. 1777, in Hammond, Sullivan Papers description begins Otis G. Hammond, ed. Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army. 3 vols. Concord, 1930-39. In Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, vols. 13–15. description ends , 1:542–47).

To execute this complicated four-pronged plan of attack, GW had available about eleven thousand men, of whom about eight thousand were Continentals and about three thousand were militia (see Council of War, 28 Sept.). The Continentals composed the two principal attacking columns commanded by Sullivan and Greene and the reserve forces supporting them. Including the reserves, Sullivan’s column, which attacked Howe’s left wing along Germantown Road, apparently had a strength of about three thousand men, and Greene’s column, which attacked the British right wing along Lime Kiln Road, apparently included about five thousand men. “The Reason of our Sending So many Troops to attack their right,” Sullivan wrote Meshech Weare on 25 Oct., “was because it was supposed That if This wing of the Enemy could be forced their army must have been pushed into the Sculkill or have been compelled to Surrender. Therefore Two Thirds of the Army at Least were Detached to oppose the Enemys Right” (ibid., 543). The militia were assigned to the two outside flanking columns that advanced respectively along the Schuylkill River about two miles west of Germantown and the Old York Road a similar distance east of the town (see notes 5 and 6).

Howe’s army at Germantown had been depleted by the detachment on 26 Sept. of Cornwallis with the British and Hessian grenadiers and two squadrons of light dragoons to occupy Philadelphia about five miles to the southeast and the departure three days later of the 10th and 42d Regiments to attack the Billingsport fort on the Delaware River, deployments of which GW was aware and which prompted his decision to attack on 4 Oct. (see GW to Hancock, 5 Oct.). On that date there probably were seven to eight thousand British and Hessian troops in the vicinity of Germantown, but the effective combat strength may have been less. A report to Hessian general Ditfurth says that “had General Washington’s attack been as well carried out as it had been planned, our army which did not consist of more than 5000 combatants would have been in a very critical position, for twelve of the strongest battalions were detached” (cited in McGuire, Surprise of Germantown description begins Thomas J. McGuire. The Surprise of Germantown, or, The Battle of Cliveden, October 4th 1777. Gettysburg, Pa., 1994. description ends , 103 n.48; see also ibid., 31, and Chastellux, Travels in North America description begins Marquis de Chastellux. Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782. Translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. 2 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963. description ends , 1:137).

Howe’s army was well posted, however, in terrain that strongly favored the defenders. Germantown consisted of a series of mostly stone houses scattered for about two miles along Germantown Road, which ran northwest from Philadelphia toward Reading. Most of the houses faced the road, and behind them stretched a multitude of enclosed fields and orchards divided by walls, fences, hedges, and lanes perpendicular to the main road. Any attack along Germantown Road would inevitably be disorganized by the necessity of crossing those man-made obstacles as well as the area’s numerous creeks, ravines, and low hills (map 4).

Howe’s main line of defense, located a short distance southeast of the town’s market square, also lay at right angles to Germantown Road. The left wing, which was commanded by General Knyphausen, extended southwest parallel with School House Lane from Germantown Road to the Schuylkill River, where Lieutenant Colonel Wurmb’s Hessian jägers occupied a small redoubt on Manatawny Road near the mouth of Wissahickon Creek. The rest of Knyphausen’s wing consisted of General Stirn’s Hessian brigade and the British 3d and 4th Brigades commanded respectively by generals Charles Grey and James Agnew. The right wing, which was commanded by Gen. James Grant, paralleled Church Lane, which ran northeast from the square to Luken’s Mill near the junction with Lime Kiln Road. It consisted of Gen. Edward Mathew’s corps of guards, six regiments of British regulars, and two squadrons of light dragoons. Outer security to the north and west was provided by the Queen’s Rangers on the Old York Road, the 1st Light Infantry Battalion on Lime Kiln Road, and the 2d Light Infantry Battalion and Lt. Col. Thomas Musgrave’s 40th Regiment on Germantown Road. The 2d Light Infantry was on Mount Pleasant, a small hill about two miles northwest of the market square, with pickets posted a short distance up Germantown Road at Mount Airy, the country seat of former Pennsylvania chief justice William Allen, Senior. The 40th Regiment, which was camped near Benjamin Chew’s country estate Cliveden about halfway between Mount Pleasant and the square, was in position to support either of the light infantry battalions in case of need (see Howe to Germain, 10 Oct. 1777, in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 14:202–9; John Eager Howard to Timothy Pickering, 29 Jan. 1827, in Md. Mag. description begins Maryland Historical Magazine. Baltimore, 1906—. description ends , 4:314–20; and McGuire, Surprise of Germantown description begins Thomas J. McGuire. The Surprise of Germantown, or, The Battle of Cliveden, October 4th 1777. Gettysburg, Pa., 1994. description ends , 15–16).

For accounts of the Battle of Germantown on 4 Oct., see GW to Hancock, 5 Oct., and the notes to that document; see also Anthony Wayne to GW, 4 Oct., and GW to Benjamin Harrison, 5 October.

1This column, which was commanded by Sullivan, marched southeast down Skippack Road and attacked the British left wing along Germantown Road. Manatawny or Ridge Road, which ran along the Schuylkill River roughly parallel to Germantown Road about two miles to the southwest, was used by Gen. John Armstrong’s Pennsylvania militia to attack the far left end of the British position (see note 5).

2This column, which was commanded by Greene, apparently marched southeast down Morris Road, which ran parallel to Skippack Road about two miles to the northeast, and then attacked the British right wing along Lime Kiln Road.

3At the end of the copy of these orders in the McDougall Papers, McDougall wrote: “the same Road we Came about 4 Miles to Markey’s, then the first left hand Road to Shulers ⟨Sworts⟩ or Stouffers on the North⟨ward⟩ Road, then the ⟨Short⟩ Road to the Baptist Road on the Bethlem Road near the Neshaminy.”

4The copies in DNA:PCC and the Wayne Papers read: “above.”

5Gen. John Armstrong, who commanded the Pennsylvania militia, wrote Horatio Gates on 9 Oct. that in the plan of attack on Germantown, “my Destiny was against the foreigners, rather to divert than with the Militia fight their Superior body, however we attempted both” (Gates Papers, NHi). John Vanderen’s mill, located on Wissahickon Creek near its confluence with the Schuylkill River and next to the bridge where Manatawny or Ridge Road crossed the creek, was at the far left end of the main British line where the Hessian jägers were posted (see Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 91, 93). The tavern apparently was near Levering’s Ford on the Schuylkill a short distance northwest of Vanderen’s mill.

6Maj. Asher Holmes of the 1st Regiment of the Monmouth County, N.J., militia wrote his wife Sarah Watson Holmes on 6 Oct.: “The Jersey Militia and Red Coats under Gen. Forman, and the Maryland Militia, with some ’Listed troops under Gen. Smallwood, were on the left wing of the whole army” (N.J. Hist. Soc. Proceedings description begins Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society. 84 vols. Newark, N.J., 1845–1966. description ends , new ser., 7:34–35). Forman’s “Red Coats” apparently were soldiers who had been enlisted for his additional Continental regiment and were clad in captured British uniforms.

Forman’s and Smallwood’s convoluted route apparently required them to march southeast down Morris Road to the Bethlehem Road and then south on that road to its junction with Skippack Road at Whitemarsh. Daniel Morris’s and Jacob Edge’s mills were on Wissahickon Creek near its confluence with Sandy Run a short distance north of Whitemarsh. St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church at Whitemarsh was occupied by both armies at various times during the war. From Whitemarsh the route went southeast on Church Road to a tavern on the Old York Road owned by William Jenkins (d. 1778) and then south on the Old York Road past Benjamin Armitage’s tavern to a junction with Church Lane, along which the right wing of Howe’s army was posted.

7The copy in DNA:PCC includes the following sentence at the end of this paragraph: “Every Officer & Soldier to have a piece of White paper in their Hatt.” A similarly worded sentence appears on the copy in the Wayne Papers. British officer Maj. John André says in his journal entry for 4 Oct.: “The Rebels were each equipped with a piece of white paper in his hat, which made us imagine they meant a surprise by night” (André, Journal description begins John André. Major André’s Journal: Operations of the British Army under Lieutenant Generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, June 1777 to November 1778. 1930. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 57).

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