Cliveden: Cliveden: A House of Resistance
In the early morning of October 4, 1777, General George Washington along with two of his best commanders-General John Sullivan and Nathaniel Greene - led four columns of troops towards the British occupying Germantown. Philadelphia had just been captured. These proud patriots were more than ready to resist. And as soon as Washington learned British commander Sir William Howe split his forces and was sending a smaller contingent to Germantown, Washington acted on what he thought was a golden opportunity-and at first it was.
According to General Henry Knox, the Americans fought extremely well causing “the enemy to retreat in great disorder.” But then, a heavy fog set in so thick that “it caused one part of our army to take the other part as an enemy.” Bewildered by the fog, patriots began fighting each other instead of the British! Communication within Washington’s army became embroiled. Orders were not carried out directly.
In the midst of such chaos, British forces took refuge in an unusual mansion, situated along the grounds on which they were fighting, to strengthen their position. Fearful of defeat, Knox ordered a bombardment on the house. This was both his best and worst decision of that day. The bombardment lasted two hours and inflicted heavy casualties on the patriots while the mansion and the men inside remained, for the most part, unharmed. With so much “Rebel” energy directed towards the attack on the mansion, Howe was able to reorganize his forces and ultimately crush Washington’s army leaving the patriot cause with yet another defeat. However, impressed by the fierce assaults performed by the Continentals, France began to seriously consider joining the Patriots as they sought their own revenge against the British.
So what about the house caught in this earth-shaking event?
The house was known as the Chew Mansion and belonged to a prominent lawyer, Benjamin Chew. Mr. Chew’s ancestors were among the first of the early settlers to land in Virginia with the hope of striking it rich in the New World-and they did. As a result, the Chew family developed a close relationship with that of William Penn, which quickly brought them into Philadelphia’s circle of elites. Young Benjamin Chew even practiced law under the famed Alexander Hamilton. Later, Chew became Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania province and the President of the High Court of Errors and Appeals. As it was customary for men of his status to own a summer retreat, Benjamin Chew decided to purchase land in the outlying areas of the city. Germantown was perfect. It was far enough to escape the bouts of yellow fever and chaotic atmosphere of the city but close enough to see friends and get supplies. On the orders of Benjamin Chew, the mansion was constructed between 1763 and 1767. Remarkably, it was home to seven generations of the Chew family, and even served as a temporary home for the Marquis de Lafayette in July 1825.
Like all homes, the closets within the Chew Mansion hold a few skeletons as well. During the Battle of Germantown, Benjamin Chew was not present on his estate. Instead, he was being held under house arrest at an iron works facility in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. His close friendship with the Penn family made others suspicious of his loyalties, although he was never confirmed a Loyalist. After being released, Chew and his family kept a low profile for the rest of the war. Cliveden was sold and the family moved to Delaware for some time.
Anywhere the Chew family moved, they were accompanied by their slaves. The Chew family papers have been a great help in piecing together their stories. Richard Allen, founder of the first African Methodist Episcopal Church, was probably the most famous slave to have worked for the Chews. In Philadelphia, slaves had the opportunity to interact with free blacks as well as whites, leading some to develop the courage to defend themselves or even run away when mistreated by their masters. Others managed to keep their families connected even in the face of adversity. The Chew family’s opinion on slavery wavered, mostly, however, they maintained the institution because it had always been an integral part of the family business.
While the Chews repurchased the house in 1797, they no longer inhabit the mansion. The house was considered a national landmark in 1966. By 1972 ownership of the Chew house passed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and since then, has been preserved, largely in its original state. Each year reenactments of the Battle of Germantown are performed on its grounds to remind buffs and community members alike of its glorious spot in our nation’s history.