“We Wish’d them a Merry Crismes”: A Skirmish on Christmas Eve in 1777

Everyone is familiar with the famous scene of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas. Indeed, only just last weekend was the annual dress rehearsal of the crossing (which takes place on Christmas every year at Washington Crossing Park. But did you know that after the British occupation of Philadelphia, a skirmish between a few hundred Pennsylvania militia and British regulars occurred just outside Germantown on 24 December 1777?

Oh yes. And it was glorious.

Colonel John Bull had written to the Supreme Executive Council, taking refuge in Lancaster, that he would command a small detachment of a few hundred militia and march towards the enemy:

John Bull Militia Germantown v1

Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 129.

That morning, Bull explains how he ‘wish’d’ them a ‘merry crismes’:

John Bull Militia Germantown v2

Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 133-134.

Not bad for a small detachment of militia and a handful of Continental soldiers.  Not bad at all.

Addendum 1: I found this report from the British perspective on the event in Major John André’s Journal:

“In the morning a few shots were fired by sentries of the 1st light infantry, at a party of the rebels who passed along their front. Several cannon shot were heard in the afternoon, towards Philadelphia. We afterwards heard the rebels had shewn themselves on the right of the lines, and fired a few shots into the town.”

He also reports that on Christmas day:

“Major-General Grant, with four battalions or infantry, the 17th light dragoons, and eight of the light companies, took post on the south side of Derby Creek, covering a quantity of meadowland from which the forage was taken. On approaching their ground they saw a command of the rebels, which soon dispersed, leaving a few killed and wounded on the field. Two or three were taken prisoners. At night General Grant returned to camp.”

As of yet I have not found any papers relating to this encounter in American correspondence, but I’ll keep looking!

Addendum 2: The units who participated in this event are hard to pinpoint. Colonel Bull was handling a lot of the responsibilities for General John Armstrong, in charge of some of the Pennsylvania militia, who was retiring from military service at this point (due to old age and frailty and a constant sickness he couldn’t shake). But Bull was also in command of the Pennsylvania State Regiment at the time, so he may have brought some of his own Continentals along (and he did, from what it sounds like, given the presence of artillery). Similarly, “Coll Lacy” is no doubt Colonel John Lacey, of the Bucks County militia, who just a few days later following this engagement, would be promoted to Brigadier General in charge of militia in the place of Armstrong.  “Coll Antes” is likely the same Colonel Antes in charge of the Chester County militia battalion deployed during that period.

Addendum 3: Found this clipping of the encounter in the Pennsylvania Packet, dated 31 Dec 1777, p. 3:

Christmas skirmish 3Addendum 4: Don Hagist was kind enough to provide me with another British reference to the event:

“24th [December 1777] At Dusk in the Evening a Party of Rebels came the German Town Road with Two Pieces of Cannon and fired 5 Shot over our lines into the Town. Our Field Pieces return’d some shot and the Rebels retired. The Troops within the lines kept Alert all night.”

[Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant General, Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America 1762-1780 (New York: New York Public Library, 1930) 162]


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