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While the Battle Raged by George Stern

October 3, 2013

October 4, 1777, wasn’t the best day for the Patriots here in Philadelphia. On that day the Battle of Germantown, fought around the house at the corner of what we know as Germantown Avenue and Johnson St., put a halt to Washington’s hope of retaking Philadelphia, the “capital” of the now rebelling colonies. The battle was the prelude to the infamous winter at Valley Forge.

Once again this year – on Saturday, October 5, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – the building which as kids we called “the Chew House” (members of the Chew family lived there until the early 1970s) and which is now known by its formal name, “Cliveden” – will once again host activities for all ages and two hundred Revolutionary War buffs re-enacting the battle. The Patriots will undoubtedly try hard to take the house from the Brits ensconced there. Whether nor not they will be confused by fog as were their predecessors 236 years ago remains to be seen. But it’s a pretty sure bet they will once again be forced to retreat.

Recently I chatted with Carolyn Wallace, the Program Coordinator at Historic Germantown and Museum Coordinator at Cliveden. In preparing for this blog, I told her that I really didn’t want to write about the battle itself. Plenty of ink—and artists’ paints – have been spilled doing that (there are two paintings in Cliveden depicting the battle, one romantic, the other probably a bit more realistic). But, I wondered, how were Cliveden and the other historic buildings along the Great Road (Germantown Avenue) affected by the battle? What do we know about how the people in the area fared?

 The American troops tried to flush the Redcoats out of Cliveden by pummeling it with cannon balls. They even tried to set fire to the house, but to no avail. (Last year I was stationed in the house during the “attack,” and I can tell you I am very much alive.) The house did sustain damage, however, as witnessed by the cannon ball marks still visible on the exterior. In addition, once they returned to the house, the Chew family actually preserved some interior damage done on the first floor, holes that you can see when you visit the house today. On the second floor there is also a faint trace of what purports to be blood of a British soldier who was stationed there – a tall tale, perhaps, but a reminder that war is real, and dangerous.

 What else was going on as the battle raged? Most of the Chews themselves, wealthy Philadelphians for whom the house on Germantown Avenue was but a summer home, were already back in the city. But Benjamin, scion of the family and suspected loyalist, was under house arrest in Union Forge, NJ, at the home of an uncle-in-law (yes, even then the well connected were treated with more deference than others – even if their patriotism was suspect). 

Imagine the fright felt by the Johnson family, hidden in the basement of their home (the Johnson House, 6306 Germantown Avenue, at Washington Lane), as a musket ball penetrated the door and walls upstairs. A fence on display at the Germantown Historical Society (5501 Germantown Avenue, on Market Square at School House Lane) shows the pockmarks of musket balls allegedly from the battle itself.


(The fence from outside the Johnson House)

Wyck (6026 Germantown Avenue, at Walnut Lane) served as a hospital for the wounded of both sides. Continental dead were buried in the cemetery next to the Concord School (6309 Germantown Avenue, between Johnson St. and Washington Lane).

 The stain on the parlor floor at Grumblethorpe (home of the Wister family, at 5267 Germantown Avenue, at Queen Lane) is said to be the blood of British General James Agnew, who had bivouacked there, left for the battle, was wounded, stumbled back, and died.

 Stenton (4601 N. 18th St., at Windrim Avenue) was used as headquarters by British general Sir William Howe. He also occupied the Deshler-Morris House (5442 Germantown Avenue, between School House Lane and Coulter St.).

 Philadelphia was home to many Loyalists as well as Patriots. It is interesting to note that Musgrave St., east of Germantown Avenue, is named after Colonel Thomas Musgrave, bivouacked with his men in the orchard behind Cliveden.

 Fifty-seven Continentals and 71 British and their allies lost their lives during the Americans’ assault on Cliveden. Civilians seem to have escaped unharmed, though one can only imagine their trauma. Little did they know that the war would rage on for six more years.




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