The ‘Fighting Fortieth’ at the Battle of Germantown, 4th October 1777
By John Downham
A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History
The old ‘Fighting Fortieth’, forebear of 1st Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment, had more Battle Honours than any other single-battalion regiment, and was unique in the world in earning them on every inhabited continent – a distinction which it bequeathed to each of its successor regiments, up to and including today’s Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.
Yet there is one action, of which they were immensely proud, for which there is no battle honour, and which has never appeared on any version of the Colours – because their famous action at Germantown took place during what was, quite rightly, considered to be a civil conflict – the War of American Independence.
Having beaten George Washington at the battle of Brandywine, 11th September 1777, and out-manoeuvred him to cross the River Schuylkill without opposition, on the 26th General Sir William Howe occupied Philadelphia, from which the American Congress had fled with ‘the utmost precipitation and greatest confusion’. With him marched the 40th Regiment of Foot, a regiment which had spent all but nine of the previous 60 years in North America, where they had pioneered light infantry tactics in the French and Indian wars.
Local Loyalists turned out to watch the weathered brick-red columns parade rank upon rank into the captured city. To Philadelphians, used to the variable standards and appearance of the rebel Continental Army, these soldiers looked remarkably clean, healthy, well-fed and disciplined. A Loyalist lady particularly noted their demeanor: ‘A remarkable solidity was on their countenances, no wanton levity or indecent mirth, but a gravity well becoming the occasion, seemed on all their faces.’
One youngster never forgot his meeting with the veteran British infantry: ‘Their tranquil look and dignified appearance have left an impression on my mind that the British Grenadiers were inimitable . . . I went up to the front rank of the Grenadiers when they had entered Second Street, when several of them addressed me thus – “How do you do, young one – How are you, my boy” – in a brotherly tone that seems still to vibrate on my ear; then reached out their hands, and severally caught mine and shook it, not with the exulting shake of conquerors, as I thought, but with a sympathizing one for the vanquished.’
Howe’s triumphant entry to the second largest city of the British Empire brought prestige but precious little strategic gain. His immediate concern was to open the Delaware estuary, still in rebel hands, to British shipping, and meanwhile he was obliged to detach 3,000 men to maintain his overland supply line from the Chesapeake River.
This temporary weakening of Howe’s strength (reduced to 9,000 men) was noted by Washington, who decided to make a surprise attack on the British camp at Germantown, then a straggling village of stone-built houses about six miles from Philadelphia. It was an ambitious plan, requiring a 16-mile night approach march followed by a coordinated assault at 5 a.m, by 13,000 men in four separate columns, to achieve a double envelopment. Washington himself was to mount a frontal attack down the Germantown Road with three divisions, those of Sullivan, Wayne and Stirling, while Armstrong was to move against the British left and Greene, Stephen, McDougall and Smallwood were to turn Howe’s right. Washington set out at six o’clock on the evening of 3rd October.
Writing to Lord Germain on 10th October, Howe described his deployment at Germantown: ‘This village forms one continued street for two miles, which the line of encampment, in the position the Army then occupied, crossed at right angles near a mile from the head of it, where the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry [a composite battalion which included the Light Company 40th Regiment] and the 40th Regiment were posted.’
The Regiment was encamped in a field to the east of ‘Cliveden’, better known then and forever afterwards as the Chew House, a substantial stone Palladian mansion, set in parkland and orchards, which dominated the road into Germantown. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Musgrave had his headquarters in this house.
At three o’clock on the morning of 4th October British patrols detected the enemy’s approach. The army was at once ordered under arms.
In the foggy dawn the leading brigade of Washington’s central column struck the British picket on Mount Airy, at the head of the village. The 2nd Light Infantry sustained the first attack, and a sharp fight ensued as increasing numbers of Americans advanced with cries of ‘Have at the bloodhounds! Revenge Wayne’s affair’ – which referred to a brilliantly successful British night attack at Paoli on September 20th. The Light Infantry returned their fire, cheered and charged, but were at length outflanked and driven back by weight of numbers, retreating slowly down the long village street. The Pennsylvanian rebels, bent on revenge, were taking no prisoners.
A Light Infantry officer described this phase of the action: ‘On our charging they gave way on all sides, but again and again renewed the attack with fresh troops and greater force. We charged them twice, till the battalion was so reduced by killed and wounded that the bugle was sounded to retreat . . . This was the first time we had retreated before the Americans, and it was with great difficulty to get our men to obey our orders.
‘By this time General Howe had come up, and seeing the battalion retreating, all broken, he got into a passion and exclaimed “For shame, Light Infantry! I never saw you retreat before. Form! Form! It’s only a scouting party.” However, he was soon convinced it was more than a scouting party, as the heads of the enemy’s columns soon appeared. One, with three pieces of cannon in their front, immediately fired at the crowd that was standing with General Howe under a large chestnut tree. I think I never saw people enjoy a charge of grape before, but we really all felt pleased to see the enemy make such an appearance and to hear the grape rattle about the Commander-in-Chief’s ears, after he had accused us of having run away from a scouting party. He rode off immediately full speed.’
The 40th Regiment, posted on a slope to the west of the main road, now moved forward in support of the Light Infantry, and by its resolute action retrieved a dangerous situation. The Light Infantry, who had now been in action for near two hours, were running low on ammunition, so two companies of the 40th covered their withdrawal towards the village centre, beyond which Howe’s main force was deploying.
With his remaining six companies (200 men at most), Colonel Musgrave made a fighting retirement to the Chew House – even though, it was reported, ‘the rebels pressed so close upon their heels that they must inevitably have entered the house at the same time if he had not faced the regiment about and given them a fire, which checked them enough for him to get his regiment into the house and shut the door.’
He at once put the building in a state of all-round defence, barricaded the doors and lower windows, posted musketeers at the upper floor windows, and prepared to hold his ground. The Chew House had become an isolated bastion in the path of Washington’s main thrust.
Knowing that the rebels had vowed to give no quarter, Musgrave is reported to have told his men: ‘That their only safety was in the defence of that house; that if they let the enemy get into it, they would undoubtedly every man be put to death; that it would be an absurdity for any one to think of giving himself up, with hopes of quarters; that their situation was nevertheless by no means a bad one, as there had been instances of only a few men defending an house against numbers; that he had no doubt of their being supported and delivered by our army; but that at all events they must sell themselves as dear as possible to the enemy’ (The London Chronicle, January 3-6, 1778).
The 40th opened a sharp fire on all comers, checking the American advance and causing the leading divisions, those of Sullivan and Wayne, to deploy prematurely over one thousand yards short of Howe’s main position. These eventually bypassed the stronghold and, having extended either side of Germantown Road, struggled on across country to engage the British along the line Schoolhouse Lane – Market Square – Church Lane. To their left, both Greene and Smallwood had got lost, but the former eventually closed with Howe’s line and his left-hand brigade began to push back the British right. Even the sanguine James Grant had to admit that ‘I was uneasy for ten minutes.’
The battle now became general, and powder smoke thickened the morning fog, reducing visibility to less than one hundred yards and causing several American brigades to lose direction. This occasioned considerable confusion, which for the leading rebel units was compounded by the sound of tremendous combat behind them, around the Chew House.
When Washington and his staff reached this area, musketry from the upper windows of the mansion attracted their attention. What should be done about it? Washington was inclined to mask and by-pass Musgrave’s troublesome strongpoint, but Brigadier-General Knox, his artillery commander, eventually convinced him that such a threat should not be left in his rear, and so Maxwell’s brigade was ordered up from reserve to capture the building.
Musgrave disregarded a summons to surrender, so the Americans brought up six cannon and bombarded the building from the front and rear. However the 6-pounder balls made little impression on the house’s stout walls, while the ‘overs’ are said to have caused casualties among the besiegers. The Americans then fired grapeshot at the windows, but again to little effect, and after an hour’s bombardment they launched a series of infantry attacks.
Through the dense yellow fog, reeking of gunpowder and the smoke of burning orchards and stubble, wave after wave of Washington’s men marched bravely up to the house, but each time they were sent reeling back with heavy losses. Those few who reached the house were bayoneted as they tried to force their way through the doors and windows. Several daring attempts were made to burn the defenders out. Washington’s ADC, Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, rushed up to the front door with a few volunteers and tried to set it ablaze, retiring without success but miraculously unharmed. Major White, ADC to General Sullivan, was less fortunate. Running forward with a firebrand, he reached a point under a window where shots from above could not reach him, but he was discovered and a soldier of the 40th, dashing into the cellar, shot him dead through a basement window. For over two hours the undaunted 40th, isolated but defiant, repelled a succession of furious assaults.
The noise of the bombardment, wrote the historian Trevelyan, ‘exerted a fatal attraction over those American generals and colonels who were painfully and blindly groping their passage through the fog … Before long three thousand Republicans were clustered and intermingled around the British stronghold and Musgrave’s seven score musketeers, like the Guardsmen at Hougomont, performed the inestimable service of detaining and paralysing, through the critical hours of a disputed day, a hostile force enormously out of proportion to their scanty numbers.’
As the Americans blundered through the fog, Stephen’s division veered to its right and fired into the rear of Wayne’s men, who returned the fire. The attack faltered, and, suddenly regaining the initiative, the British infantry counter-attacked all along the line. After a siege of some two hours Musgrave’s men were finally relieved by Grey’s brigade.
Major John André, then Howe’s ADC, took part in this general advance: ‘Seven battalions stemmed the torrent. Two of these drove them from the village, rushing up the streets and scrambling through the gardens and orchards under pretty heavy fire and not without some loss. As we went up the street we released Col. Musgrave with part of the 40th Regiment, who with great presence of mind and equal gallantry had maintained themselves in a house, strewing the yard, garden, avenue, etc with a prodigious number of the Rebel dead, who passed by it in their flight or were hardy enough to attempt assaulting. The house, pierced with hundreds of shot, both cannon and musketry, with dead and wounded within and without, told its own story without necessary comment.’
‘Upon our troops appearing’, a British officer reported in the London Chronicle, ‘the 40th reg. sallied out, and joined the pursuit.’
The Americans drew off, leaving behind them some 1200 casualties, and were pursued for some ten miles. Washington was mortified. ‘It was a bloody day’, he wrote, ‘would to Heaven I could add that it had been more fortunate for us.’
But in truth the Americans would have needed an unlikely sum of good fortune to have garnered success on this occasion, and we may rather incline to Fortescue’s judgment that ‘the plan of attack was too intricate for inexperienced officers and imperfectly disciplined troops, while the fog was an accident wholly to the advantage of the better disciplined army. In effect, the resolute defence of a single well-built house was sufficient to upset the whole of Washington’s combinations.’
British losses at Germantown totaled 70 killed, 423 wounded and 14 missing. The main body of the 40th had four men killed, Lieutenant and Adjutant John Forbes, Lieutenants John Doyle and James Campbell, three sergeants and 23 rank and file wounded, and three missing. The losses of the 40th’s Light Company are not known, but may have been considerable since the 2nd Light Infantry sustained 73 casualties, the highest number of any British unit in the battle. The Grenadier Company of the Regiment, who, according to Howe, ‘full of ardor, had run most of the way from Philadelphia’, arrived too late to join in the action.
In the annals of the ‘Fighting Fortieth’ it was a famous victory, long remembered in the Regiment. No Battle Honour now perpetuates the memory of Musgrave’s gallant stand, but Sir George Osborn, Colonel of the 40th, issued a special Regimental Medal to mark the occasion, and in so doing began a famous tradition in the British Army which has for long been copied by the rest of the world. It is believed to be the first British medal ever to be awarded to individual participants in a particular battle.
And Regimental tradition has it that the Americans were so upset by their defeat at Germantown that they vowed vengeance upon the men who had beaten them so soundly, and they tried to find out which regiment it was. On hearing this, the men of the Light Company of the 40th dipped their white cockades, or hackles, in cock’s blood and invited the Americans to look out for the men with the red hackles. This was apparently the origin of the red patch worn behind the cap badge of The South Lancashire Regiment, successors to the 40th Foot, – and has, more recently, been adopted by The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.