Germantown Journal of Colonel Timothy Pickering

Journal of Colonel Timothy Pickering.

October 3d [1777].—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 Caroline 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 I attack the enemy's left wing and rear. The attack was to begin upon at five in the morning.

This disposition appears to have been well made; but to execute such a plan requires great exactness in the officers conducting the columns, as well as punctuality in commencing the march, to bring the whole to the point of I action at once; and for this end it is absolutely necessary that the length and I quality of the roads be perfectly ascertained, the time it will take to march them accurately calculated, and guides chosen who are perfectly acquainted with the roads. It is also necessary to assign proper halting-places,either column would arrive before the appointed hour. All these points, I believe, I were attended to in the present case; but yet I understood that the guide to the left wing mistook the way, so that, although the right wing halted a considerable time, yet it attacked first, though later than was intended; that
halt being occasioned by information from a prisoner that half a battalion of the enemy's light infantry had the preceding evening advanced on the same road a considerable way beyond their picket. It was necessary, therefore, to make a disposition to secure that party of light infantry, that their opposition might not frustrate the principal design. Such a disposition was in fact made; but the enemy had retired about midnight to their camp.

General Conway's brigade formed the advanced guard, and in the morning, October 4th, attacked and drove the enemy's picket at Beggarstown ~which is the upper end of Germantown). The rest of the right wing folio\~ed to support Conway. In a little time the whole got engaged, save the North Carolina brigade, which was not brought on to the attack at all. The other brigades drove the enemy before them a mile or two to the very centre of Germantown. All this time we could not hear of the left wing's being engaged, for the smoke and fog prevented our seeing them, and our own fire drowned theirs. (General Washington went with the right wing, attended by his aides-de-camp and myself.) But the left wing had engaged, and both wings met almost in the same point, which was at Mr. Chew's house, into which the enemy had thrown a party (we since find them to have been si\ companies, with a colonel to command them) that annoyed us prodigious) and absolutely stopped our pursuit—not necessarily, but we mistook our true interest; we ought to have pushed our advantage, leaving a party to watch the enemy in that house. But our stop here gave the enemy time to recollect themselves and get reenforced, and eventually to oblige us to retreat; for this period was all suspense, and the brigades not well collected and turned in the mean time. Indeed, this would have been, perhaps, impracticable, for the troops were greatly broken and scattered, great numbers having, left their corps to help off the wounded, others being broken by other means, or by carelessness; for officers and men got much separated from each other, neither (in numerous instances) knowing where to find their own.

This house of Chew's was a strong stone building and exceedingly commodious, having windows on every side, so that you could not approach it without being exposed to a severe fire; which, in fact, was well directed and I killed and wounded a great many of our officers and men. Several of our pieces, six-pounders, were brought up within musket-shot of it, and fired round balls at it, but in vain: the enemy, I imagine, were very little hurt; they still kept possession. It was proposed (for our advanced brigades had driven the enemy some way beyond it to send a flag to summon the enemy posted theirs to surrender, it being urged as dangerous to leave them in our rear. A proposal was made to leave a party to watch them, and for the rest of the army to push on. But a flag was sent, Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, Deputy Adjutant-General, offering himself to carry it. I did not expect to see him returning alive. I imagined they would pay no respect to the flag, they being 'ell posted, and the battle far enough from being decided. The event justified my apprehensions: in a few minutes Mr. Smith was brought back with his leg broken and shattered by a musket-ball fired from the house.

During this time there was a cessation of firing; but soon the enemy advanced, and our troops gave way on all sides and retired with precipitation.


This retreat surprised every body (all supposing victory was nearly secured in our favor); but I think the facts before mentioned will tolerably well account for that event. Another circumstance also contributed to it: the foggy, still morning (the air moving very little, but what there was bringing smoke and fog in our faces) and the body of smoke from the firing absolutely prevented our seeing the enemy till they had advanced close upon us. This also prevented the two wings, and even the different brigades of the same wing, from seeing each other and cooperating in the best manner; nay, I am persuaded they sometimes fired on each other, particularly at Chew's house, where the left wing supposed the cannon-balls fired by the right at the house came from the enemy. In a word, our disaster was imputed chiefly to the fog and the smoke, which, from the stillness of the air, remained a long time, hanging low and undissipated. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the fog blinded the enemy as well as ourselves, though it certainly injured us most.