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Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark CHEW HOUSE (Cliveden)

Location: Germantown Avenue between Johnson and Cliveden Streets, Germantown.

Ownership and Administration (1961). Private.

Significance. This fine Georgian home is the most important surviving landmark of the hard-fought battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777. In this action Washington's army narrowly missed winning a significant victory over a large contingent of the British Army guarding the north western approaches to newly occupied Philadelphia. Although not decisive in its immediate military results, the battle of Germantown had vast political implications. Combined with the victory at Saratoga in the same month, it proved a major influence in the consummation of the French alliance that spelled final victory for the new American Nation.

Following his victory over Washington's army at Brandywine (see pp. 139-140) on September 11, 1777, Gen. Sir William Howe occupied Philadelphia on September 26. He dispersed his forces to cover the city, stationing some 9,000 men in Germantown on the north, 3,000 in New Jersey, and the remainder in Philadelphia and on the supply lines into the city. Washington concluded that the situation was favorable for a blow against the enemy at Germantown, then a small village stretching for 2 miles along the Skippack Road, which ran from Philadelphia to Reading. The American plan of attack called for a complicated four-column movement, resembling the earlier pincers movement against Trenton but more intricate in timing and maneuver. In the early fighting on the foggy morning of October 4, the Americans drove the redcoats back until six British companies took refuge in the stout stone house of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew, on the outskirts of the village. They harassed the American advance from this fortress. Units of Washington's forces marched to the sound of the firing at the Chew House, throwing the carefully arranged battle plan into disorder. In the fog and smoke, American troops fired on one another and fled panic stricken from the field. The British counterattack threw them back exhausted and confused, and Washington withdrew about 25 miles to an earlier camp at Pennypacker's Mill.

Chew House
A determined stand by British troops in the Chew House wrecked Washington's plan of attack at Germantown on October 4, 1777. The house had been completed in 1763 by Benjamin Chew, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. (Courtesy, Samuel Chew.)

The battle had been a near thing for the British. But for the fog and, more importantly, the confusion created in the American ranks by the stubborn enemy stand in the Chew House, Germantown might have been a decisive victory for the patriot forces. As it was, despite their defeat, the Americans derived a significant advantage. John Adams, American Commissioner to France, writing to a member of the Continental Congress about the Battles of Saratoga and Germantown, said: "General Gates was the ablest negotiator you had in Europe; and next to him General Washington's attack on the enemy at Germantown. I do not know, indeed, whether this last affair had not more influence upon the European mind than that of Saratoga. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, the military gentlemen in Europe considered it as the most decisive proof that America would finally succeed." [52]

Affirming Adams' interpretation of the significance of Germantown, the British historian, Trevelyan, wrote: "Eminent generals and statesmen of sagacity, in every European court, were profoundly impressed. * * * The French Government, in making up its mind on the question whether the Americans would prove to be efficient allies, was influenced almost as much by the Battle of Germantown as by the surrender of Burgoyne." [53]

Present Appearance (1961). The two-story Chew Mansion was built by Benjamin Chew in 1763 at Cliveden, his country estate. The house was constructed of Germantown stone quarried a short distance from the site. The front wall is built of regular ashlar masonry; the other walls are of stuccoed rubble masonry grooved to resemble ashlar. The belt course, window sills, and lintels are of dressed sandstone. Five huge urns adorn the roof. The house has an imposing entrance hall, brightened by windows of 24 lights and separated from the stair hall by a screen of 4 columns—an unusual feature. Small office rooms open on either side of the entrance hall, with the two main rooms, dining and drawing rooms, at the back. The kitchen and servants' rooms originally were in detached wings at the rear. An early barn, part of which now houses the office of the private owner, stands at the rear of the house. Benjamin Chew's commission as chief justice of Pennsylvania is displayed in the office. The house is not open to the public except on special occasions. [54]

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Last Updated: 09-Jan-2005