The Battle of Germantown and the Grosh Family


Battle of Germantown

Battle of Germantown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In late September, 1777, the Continental Army was headquartered near Pennypacker’s Mill in Pennsylvania, located some thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia.  The Commander-in-Chief of the American army, General George Washington, in council with his subordinate commanders on September 29, was spoiling for a fight.  Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, on September 11, the British army, commanded by General Sir William Howe, had beaten the Americans along the banks of the Brandywine Creek.  But it was the American leadership, not the soldiers, who failed at Brandywine.  Now, as the calendar turned from September to October, Washington was looking for another chance at the British and to save Philadelphia.


Morale within the ranks of the Continentals was good, despite the defeat at Brandywine.  “Notwhithstanding the misfortune of the day,” wrote Washington, “I am happy to find the troops in good spirits.”[1]  One American captain from Delaware noted:


“I saw not a dispairing look, nor did I head a dispairing word.  We had our solacing words already for each other – ‘ Come, boys, we shall do better another time’ – was sounded throughout our little army.”[2]


That time would come on October 4.  “Having received intelligence” that Howe had divided his forces, sending General Lord Cornwallis with several battalions to Philadelphia , and another three thousand troops to Elkton, Maryland, to secure the British supply line from the top of the Chesapeake Bay, Washington thought the moment was right to strike Howe’s force of “probably not more than 9,000 men” at the hamlet of Germantown.  Re-enforced by Continentals from Peekskill, and militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, Washington convened his second council of war of the week sometime between September 29 and October 3, where this time his general officers were “unanimously of opinion that a favorable opportunity offered to make an attack upon the troops which were at and near Germantown.”[3]


* * * *


Like all battles, the impact of the battle of Germantown would reverberate well beyond the field upon which it was fought.  Some 120 miles to the southwest, near Frederick, Maryland, John Conrad and Maria Grosh must certainly have been thinking of their sons on October 4, 1777.  The youngest of their six children, Adam Grosh, was twenty-three.  He had joined the army at the outbreak of the war, serving in the Frederick County Militia and the Maryland Flying Camp, then remaining with the Maryland Line as a regular officer in the Continental Army.  He would resign as a Major in 1780, but at Germantown, Adam was a Captain in the Maryland 7th Regiment.[4]


Michael Grosh was five years older than his bother Adam.  He was a middle child – the fourth overall in birth order, and the second of Conrad and Maria’s three sons.  Michael was also the first member of his family to be born in America, the Grosh family having emigrated from Mainz, Germany, sometime after 1745.  Like many Germans arriving in Maryland in the mid-eighteenth century, the Grosh family settled in the vicinity of Frederick Town in the western part of the province.  Michael is thought to have been a shoemaker by trade, based upon the inventory list made upon his death.  In 1770 he married the former Christiana Roemer and had two daughters, Sophia and Charlotte.


All the Grosh men were supporters of the War for Independence.  Conrad and his eldest son, Peter, gave money to the local militia in 1775.  Conrad served on the Committee of Observation for the Middle District of Frederick County, and all three of his sons served in the militia, but, as noted above, Adam went on to serve in the regular army as well.  This is consistent with the findings of John Resch in his book, Suffering Soldiers, in which he explains how families contributed to the war effort by sending younger sons or by “rotating” the burden of soldiering between fathers and various sons.  Resch’s study of the war-time activities of the citizens of Petersboro, New Hampshire, also shows how participation in the war increased or decreased according to the proximity of the events and campaigns.  In the case of the Grosh family, Adam, being the youngest son and unmarried, was more naturally drawn to the active life of a full-time soldier, while his brothers mobilized with the militia as crisis dictated.[5]


The continuing campaign around Philadelphia in 1777 constituted just such a crisis for the

William Smallwood, 1732-1792 by Charles Willso...

William Smallwood, 1732-1792 by Charles Willson Peale, from life, painted 1781-1782 Oil on canvas. H 24, W 20 in (H 61, W 50.8 cm), location: Independence NHP INDE 14148 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Americans.  Following the defeat at Brandywine, Washington dispatched Brigadier General William Smallwood and Colonel Mordecai Gist to their native Maryland to raise the militia.  By late September, Smallwood had returned with about one thousand men, which included the Maryland 34th Battalion of Militia from Frederick County and with it Second Lieutenant Michael Grosh.


The plan of attack on October 4 was to divide the American army into four columns to approach Germantown from the four main roads leading there – Manatawney or Ridge Road, Skippack Road, Limekiln Road, and Old York Road – and engage the British in a classic double-envelopment (a la the great Carthaginian general Hannibal).  It was an aggressive and complex plan, and, as noted by historian Christopher Ward in his The War of the Revolution, a flawed plan, for Washington was relying upon the militia to serve as the “crushing pincer jaws of the maneuver – Pennsylvania militia under Armstrong on the right (Manatawney Road) and Maryland and New Jersey militia under Smallwood on the left (Old York Road).  Added to the complexity of the attack was the hilly terrain and thick fog, both conditions stymied communication between, and within, the American columns.  As a result, coordination broke down from the very onset of the attack.[6]


Captain Adam Grosh and the Maryland Continentals were with General John Sullivan’s column, which moved down the Skippack Road, attacking the British center in Germantown.  But in the fog and confusion, two of his divisions – Wayne’s and Stephen’s – ended up firing upon one another.  These two divisions broke and fled in the chaos, leaving Sullivan’s own division without support.  Running low on ammunition, engaged by the enemy on the front and both flanks, Sullivan’s remaining troops also fled when, upon hearing firing taking place at a stone house to their rear, though themselves surrounded.  Sullivan’s withdrawl would leave General Nathaniel Green’s column, approaching from the Limekiln Road, unsupported as well.  Now facing the British right as well as the troops from the center who had been engaged with Sullivan, Green was forced to retreat as well.  Soon the entire American force was in full retreat “men holding up their empty cartridge boxes to show [Washington] why they ran.”[7]


As for the two columns of militia forming the “jaws of the pincers,” neither had an impact.  Armstrong’s Pennsylvanians were engaged by Hessians at the bridge at Vendeering’s Mill, far from the main battle.  As for Smallwood and the force of Maryland and New Jersey militia, they became lost en route and arrived “too late for it to do anything but join in the retreat.”[8]


The result for Washington was yet another defeat.  Philadelphia was lost to the British.  Yet the little American army was showing that it could hold its own against the most powerful military on earth.  All was not dark.  In upstate New York, at Saratoga, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan and their combined force of Continentals and militia captured the entire army of General John Burgoyne.  The French court had decided, at last, that overt support of the Americans was in their interest.  Money, weapons, troops, and naval support from the French would start flowing in earnest to the former colonies.  Philadelphia, for Howe, proved to be a very hollow victory.  As Ward points out, the campaign to capture Philadelphia, “from its beginning…had been a sheer waste of time, of money, and of men.”  Thus, Sir William resigned his command and handed the responsibility for subduing the rebels to General Sir Henry Clinton, whose orders also included evacuating the American “capital” and returning to New York as the base for British operations.


* * * *


The result for the Grosh family was more personal and much more heart wrenching.  A friend of the family, Lieutenant Christian Weaver notified the family that Michael had been killed.   In 1778, Peter Grosh went before the Frederick County Orphans Court on behalf of his widowed sister-in-law to apply for a pension.  The notes from the court state that Michael Grosh, “second lieutenant under the command of Colonel Baker Johnson, died at the battle of German Town.”  The question is how?  Since he was part of the Maryland Militia, he would have been with General Smallwood’s column on October 4, and we know Smallwood never made it to the battlefield in time to join the attack.  Perhaps Michael has been detached to one of the Maryland Line units under Sullivan.  Was he with his younger brother?  Adam survived the battle and would serve for another three years.  One thinks that if he had known, Adam would have notified the family, not Christian Weaver.  More likely, Michel was killed in the action covering the American retreat, but more research is necessary.


What is certain is that just as he had been the first member of his family born in America, Michael Grosh was the first to die in America.


[1] The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (hereafter PGW), Philander Chase, et. al, editors (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994) Volume XI, 200.

[2] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), 354.

[3] PGW 393

[4] For sources on the Grosh Family, see Archives of Maryland (Bibliographic Series) MSA SC 3520-14384; MSA SC 3520-14385; MSA SC 3520-14386.

[5] John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 19-35.

[6] Ward, The War of the Revolution, 364

[7] Ward, 369

[8] Ward, 370


2 thoughts on “The Battle of Germantown and the Grosh Family

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Very Interesting. I moved to Düsseldorf Germany and I have visited some of the Grosch’s here. i am interested in finding out more about the Grosh family.

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