Breaking Down Xavier della Gatta's Battle of Germantown PaintingNovember 18, 2019
For the past 60 years, the image shown below has puzzled historians. Created by Italian artist Xavier della Gatta in 1782, the painting vividly and accurately depicts the 1777 Battle of Germantown, part of the Philadelphia Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. Della Gatta, however, never set foot in America. Why did Xavier della Gatta choose to paint this battle and how was he able to depict it so accurately? Careful detective work has revealed answers in the life of Richard St. George, who fought with the British Army at the battle. St. George also provided the eyewitness details for della Gatta's Battle of Paoli painting.
Richard St. George worked with Italian artist Xavier della Gatta to create the painting of the Battle of Germantown. The painting, which is part of the Museum's collection and on display in the Museum's special exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier through March 17, merges different actions into one scene, including the moment Richard St. George was carried off the battlefield after he suffered a devastating head wound.
1. Washington's Army
Regiments from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware led the attack at Germantown. Washington’s total assault force included about 8,000 Continental Army troops and 3,000 militiamen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey.
2. Lieutenant Richard St. George and Corporal George Peacock
Corporal George Peacock is rescuing the wounded Richard St. George from the battlefield. For his heroic effort, St. George presented Peacock with 50 guineas (gold coins), the equivalent of three years’ pay for a corporal.
3. General Sir William Howe
This officer on horseback is believed to be General Sir William Howe. According to Martin Hunter, when General Howe saw the British light infantry retreating from Washington’s army, he exclaimed “For shame, Light Infantry! I never saw you retreat before!” Howe eventually rallied his 8,000 troops, called up reinforcements from Philadelphia, and forced the American Army to retreat.
Northwest of Germantown is the village of Beggarstown (now the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia). Washington’s army attacked the British on Oct. 4 on the main road that connected Beggarstown and Germantown, now called Germantown Avenue.
5. African American Trumpeter
This light infantry trumpeter may be a man who ran away from slavery to follow the British Army. Many enslaved men and women saw the British Army as a path to freedom. Those who followed the army worked in various positions, including officers’ servants, laundresses, and wagon drivers (shown above to the right). A few men served as musicians, such as this trumpeter, to help the British Army communicate its orders in camp and on the battlefield.
6. British Wounded
This wagon driver of African descent is evacuating British light infantrymen to Philadelphia for medical treatment. After being rescued from the battlefield at Germantown, Richard St. George was also carted into the city. Eyewitnesses reported that it took 200 wagonloads to bring the casualties from Germantown to the makeshift hospitals in Philadelphia.
This brick building is Xavier della Gatta’s representation of Cliveden, the home of Philadelphia lawyer Benjamin Chew. In reality, Cliveden (which is now a historic site, shown in the photograph below) is made of stone and is much larger. Della Gatta’s painting shows the 40th Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Musgrave entering the mansion and preparing to defend it. The 40th Regiment defended the house from intense artillery fire and 10 infantry assaults over a span of about two hours. One observer said the “Englishmen fought like lions.”
Learn more about Xavier della Gatta's Battle of Germantown painting in our collection as well as his Battle of Paoli painting that he produced with the help of Richard St. George. Explore more about Richard St. George and his work with Italian artist Xavier della Gatta in the Museum's special exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier, open through March 17, 2020. Tickets are on sale now!