Cliveden, Germantown, Philadelphia


In the days before the Revolution there were many residents of Philadelphia who had, in addition to a sumptuous town house, a country house, to which they could resort in the summer or at other times when they wished relief from the cares of daily life. Germantown, the straggling village five miles from the town of William Penn, was one of the popular places for such establishments.

Samuel Chew’s town house was at Front and Dock streets when he built Cliveden at Germantown in 1761. At that time he was Attorney-General of Pennsylvania, though in 1774 he became Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Both in Philadelphia and in Germantown he maintained the hospitable traditions he had learned at Maid-stone, near Annapolis, where he was born, in 1722, of a family whose first American ancestor, John Chew, came to Virginia a century earlier.

During the days of the Continental Congress Judge Chew seemed to sympathize with the colonists in their protests against the aggression of Great Britain, but when independence was proposed, he let it be known that he was unwilling to act with the patriots. Accordingly he was arrested by order of Congress, together with John Penn, and when he refused to sign a parole, he was banished from the State.

During his absence the battle of Germantown was fought. On October 3, 1777, the British forces were disposed on nearly all sides of the Chew mansion. Washington planned to attack these scattered forces by four columns, which were to advance from as many directions. General Wayne’s column successfully opened the attack at daybreak October 4, driving before him the enemy encountered at Mount Airy. Colonel Musgrave checked the retreat of the soldiers at Cliveden. With six companies he took possession of the mansion, pre-pared to defend themselves behind hastily barricaded doors and windows. Wayne and the leaders who were with him pushed on past the house, continuing the pursuit of that portion of the enemy which had continued its retreat; he did not know that he was leaving an enemy in his rear. When Washington came to Cliveden, he was surprised by the fire of the entrenched enemy. After a hasty conference with others, it was decided not to pass on, leaving a fortress behind. Cannon were planted so as to command the door, but they were fired without much effect.

The next attempt was made by a young Frenchman who asked others to carry hay from the barn and set fire to the front door. Thinking they were doing as he asked, he forced open a window and climbed on the sill. From this position he was driven back, and he found that he had not been supported by those on whom he had counted.

In the meantime the artillery fire continued, but with little effect. General Wilkinson, who was present, afterward wrote :

” The doors and shutters of the lower windows of the mansion were shut and fastened, the fire of the enemy being delivered from the iron gratings of the cellars and the windows above, and it was closely beset on all sides with small-arms and artillery, as is manifest from the multiplicity of traces still visible from musket-ball and grape-shot on the interior walls and ceilings which appear to have entered through the doors and windows in every direction; marks of cannon-ball are also visible, in several places on the exterior of the wall and through the roof, though one ball only appears to have penetrated below the roof, and that by a window in the passage of the second story. The artillery seem to have made no impression on the walls of the house, a few slight indentures only being observable, except from one stroke in the rear, which started the wall. In a few minutes Washington, realizing that precious time was being lost in the attack on the thick walls of the house, ordered a regiment to remain behind to watch Cliveden, while his main force hastened on.

It has been claimed that this brief delay was responsible for the defeat at Germantown. Wilkinson, on the contrary, insists that this delay saved Washington’s army from annihilation, since he would otherwise have hurried on in the thick fog until he was in contact with the main body of the British army. The result, he thinks, would have been a far greater disaster than actually overtook the American arms that day.

The damage done to the house was so great that five carpenters were busy for months making repairs. Evidently Judge Chew was not satisfied with the result, for in 1779 he sold Cliveden for $9,000, only to buy it back again in 1787 for $25,000.

The property descended to Benjamin Chew, Jr., on the death of his father. During his occupancy of Cliveden Lafayette was a guest there in 1825.