With two thunderous cannon blasts, the battle was underway. The British and the Americans began firing at one another from across historic Germantown Avenue, just like the battle which was fought during the Revolutionary War on October 4, 1777.
On Saturday, more than 200 years after the Battle of Germantown, an estimated 150 actors re-enacted the historic battle at the annual event held at the Cliveden estate in Germantown. The event was about both the past and the present.
“Germantown is a thriving community, made up of many, many different people, and preserving the history is always a challenge,” said Tom McGuire. “It draws the public and lets them become aware of what’s going on around them.”
McGuire has narrated the event for 14 years but has been involved in the battle reenactment for more than three decades. In the beginning, he was an actor until he began to research and write about history. At that point, he made the transformation to narrating the event.
The Battle of Germantown was fought on a foggy October morning. George Washington led his troops the night before from almost 20 miles away. They took four different paths in an attempt to surround the British.
The American troops were caught moving on one of the paths, alerting the British that a battle might be coming. After cannon shots were fired in nearby Mt. Airy, British Colonel Musgrave led the 40th regiment, a group of around 120 men, to fortify the stone house of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew, a mansion known as Cliveden.
Across Germantown Avenue, in the front lawn of Cliveden, the American and British troops opened fire at one another, mostly with rifled muskets. However, the American muskets had grooves inside, while the British muskets did not. The grooves made the ball come out like a football, whereas the British shots resembled knuckleballs, said Ed Kitlowski, an actor for the 84th Regiment of Foot, a Scottish Highlanders group that fought on the side of the British. The oddly shaped muskets made it tough for soldiers to have accurate shots, which in turn led to fewer casualties, according to historians.
Slowly, the Americans begin to push the British back up the lawn towards the house. There, 120 British soldiers locked themselves into the house and shot at the Americans in the yard.
The British ended up taking control of the grounds and pushed the Americans back into Montgomery County, winning the battle. Despite the loss in Germantown, American forces eventually went on to defeat the British.
For Cliveden, the day of events did not just stop at the reenactment of the battle. The first Saturday in October is always reserved for this event, and every year, it expands. Throughout the day, many events around Germantown commemorated the historic battle.
Across the street from Cliveden, neighborhood non-profit groups maintained booths under tents. A puppet show entertained children racing around the spacious grounds.
Joe Becton occupied one of those tents. He is an actor and a historian who studies and promotes African American involvement in the early American wars. Becton has studied African- American soldiers from the Revolutionary war, the Civil War and some 20th century battles.
“When you look at the story of the African American,” says Becton, “every step of the story tells what freedom is.”
The reenactment of the Battle of Germantown is different than most of the other battles that are reenacted in the area in that most events do not occur on the actual ground where the battle took place.
“There is no other reenactment like this that uses the historic house at the site. This is really unique in that it is at the actual house,” McGuire said.
Donah Beale came to the “friendly neighborhood event” as a spectator to watch her husband and her youngest son, who is 19, act in the reenactment.
“A lot of times we do reenactments near the battlefield. This is the actual battlefield,” Beale said. “Therefore, it is a very hallowed ground.”
Special to NewsWorks from Germantown Beat.