On This Date in History: Following its victory at the Battle of Brandywine, the British Army captured Philadelphia and the troops camped in Germantown just north of the city. American General George Washington decided a little counter-attack was in order as part of an attempt to surprise the British in their camp. It seemed to be a grand opportunity since Washington was in the rather fortunate position of outnumbering his foe with about 11,000 men under his command while, his counterpart, General William Howe, commanded about 8,000 British and Hessian soldiers. Thus, we have the outline for the Battle of Germantown which proved to be an engagement of note in the American Revolution.
Now, Washington’s plan called for 4 columns to attack the British and “precisely 5 oclock with charged bayonets without firing.” Basically, General Washington was trying to duplicate the surprise attack that he successfully initiated against the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 25, 1776. However, things didn’t work out so well because on the morning of October 3, 1777 the American columns were all well short of their respective planned starting positions. The surprise element went by the wayside when a British piquet discovered one of the columns and fired some shots to warn of the impending attack. That particular piquet was reinforced by a light infantry battalion that required great effort to push back. Howe rode up to take a look for himself but his view was impeded by an early morning fog. His initial notion was that his piquet had simply encountered an American raiding party.
British Colonel Musgrave was in charge of the light infantry battalion and had them fall back and establish a strong position at the home of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew. The Americans made a strong assault on the stone home, complete with artillery support. Well, American General Adam Stephen was supposed to follow orders and continue an attack on the British right wing. Instead, he heard the commotion going on at the Chew House and ordered his men to turn and attack there. That was not part of General Washington’s plan.
In the Meantime, American General Nathanael (Nathaniel) Greene had his men attack the British line as ordered and he broke through. Stephen, for his part, went on beyond Chew House to continue the attack where, in the fog, he ran into a brigade commanded by Brigadier General Wayne. The two forces took up arms against one another. The trouble was, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania Brigade was on the same side as the men under Stephen. I suppose the Americans must have put up a pretty good fight with one another because both forces withdrew and fled. A result of the Battle of Germantown was that the Americans determined that General Stephen was incapacitated by drunkeness and he was drummed out of the service with his command given to the Marquis de Lafayette even though Lafayette had just had his 20th birthday! That in itself holds some importance but there were more significant aspects to the outcome of the battle.
In the end, the British suffered 500 casualties and the Americans lost 1000. 50 Americans were killed while assaulting the Chew House, which ultimately was a diversion from the original plan. The Americans were forced to withdraw and most histories report the Battle of Germantown as a British victory since they held the field. In fact, General Washington had to withdraw some 16 miles to escape the harrassment by British light dragoons. However, sometimes a loss can be a victory. In Vietnam, the TET Offensive was a total military disaster for the North Vietnamese but it was the turning point in the war as the American people withdrew their support for the war effort. In the same way, while Washington’s effort was a big flub-a-dub at Germantown, the French were pretty impressed by the American’s ability to raise and army and mount an attack and were less concerned about the results. Many historians point to the American failure at Germantown as providing profound influence on the French Court to support the American independence effort. But, the British weren’t entirely successful either. General Howe did not follow up and destroy Washington’s army. Instead, he let General Washington flee to fight another day. Maybe Howe was looking for his dog.
You see, General Howe had a dog that had wandered onto the battlefield and, as the Americans withdrew, the dog followed with them. He ended up in the camp of General Washington. Now, Washington was a lover of all dogs and when he saw that the dog’s collar had the name of his counterpart on it, on this date in 1777, he had a messenger ride all the way back to the British camp with the dog and a courteous note from General Washington related to the returning of the pooch. Some say that its an indication of just how much Washington loved dogs and of the honorable and magnamimous nature of General Washington. However, while it may have been all that, it was also a pretty shrewed move on the part of George Washington. The note which was delivered to the British read, “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.” The story may have softened the view of British regulars toward General Washington but, no doubt, Washington’s courier most likely was able to report British and Hessian troop stregnth and positions back to headquarters. Many of Washington’s men wanted to keep the dog in order to taunt the enemy but Washington knew that his act of kindness not only was a good bit of propaganda but also a great source of intelligence.
You see a seen similar to this true story in the fictionalized Mel Gibson movie called The Patriot. In that film, the Gibson character of Benjamin Martin returned two Great Danes to British General Cornwallis. I suspect that Gibson took the real story and simply used it as a model for their story. That is not unusual in “historical” movies. They often borrow parts of other stories and then add them to their movie to make it more compelling for the audience. The scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they use too much dynamite to rob a train car probably came from the real-life misadventure of Al Jennings who really did use too much dynamite when he blew up the entire mail car in his 1898 train robbery attempt. The Patriot was not well receieved by my historical academic bretheren for many similar items. The main character, Martin, was not a real person but instead was based on different people, the principal being Francis Marion with other contributors being Thomas Sumter, Elijah Clarke, Andrew Pickens and Daniel Morgan. The problem that I have with all of that is that all or any one of these men have true stories that could be extremely compelling.
The bad guy in the movie was William Tavington who was based on the real life British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Apparently some in Britain were not too enthused with the way in which the Tavington/Tarleton character was portrayed. The UK Ambassador to the US didn’t have kind words for the entire movie. For some reason, Gibson even made General Charles Cornwallis 10-15 years older than he really was and I have yet to figure out the rationale for that except that actor Tom Wilkinson was available. I liked the movie but I am always afraid that people will think that its all a true story and that is how come Americans become ignorant of their own history. It is suprisingly full of technical mistakes as well as historical inaccuracies. Just remember, when Hollywood makes a story based on “history” it is usually loosely based on fact and full of “artistic license.”
Weather Bottom Line: Beautiful weather will continue. I saw today at one point the dew point was running in the 30’s which is awfully dry. That means the temperatures will drop at night nicely and warm up nicely in the afternoon. Look for upper 70’s for Wednesday and Thursday and low 80’s into the weekend. We’ll probably nudge into the mid 80’s by Sunday afternoon. A cold front will slip through on Monday and take temperatures down a peg but its so dry I doubt that there will be much in the way of rain. I had to remove my sunflowers which just killed me but they were done. The squirrels have been enjoying their bounty. It’s really amazing how strong those 13 foot sunflowers are and the breadth of their root systems. Then again, its not really all that amazing when you consider that they have to be able to support themselves with the weight of a flower full of seeds thats over a foot across and the windy weather they have to put up with. But…the stalks are still pretty formidable. I raised them from babies, protected them from critters and watered them dutifully only to put them in their final resting place. Always sad.