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By Edward G. Lengel
The Battle of the Brandywine on September 11, 1777, marked the apparent end of a long period of frustration for the British in North America. For Lieutenant-General Sir William Howe, commander of the British forces in North America, it was the first chance he had to come fully to grips with General George Washington's army since the British victory of Long Island in August 1776. That battle resulted in the loss of New York City to the United States for the remainder of the war. Since then, however, the only serious engagements between the armies had been the inconclusive affair at White Plains, N.Y. in October 1776, and the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, N.J. in December 1776 and January 1777, when Washington inflicted minor but stinging defeats on Howe's forces.
The British commander spent the first part of the summer campaign of 1777 in New Jersey, trying to lure Washington into the open for another major engagement that would finally wipe out the main American army while Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne's northern expedition severed New England from the rest of the colonies. Washington's stubborn refusal to risk a major engagement forced the British commander to find another means of forcing battle, and on July 8 he began embarking his 16,500 men on board his brother Admiral Richard Howe's armada at Sandy Hook, N.J.
General Howe's intention was to sail via the Delaware Bay to the Delaware River, threatening Philadelphia and preventing Washington from reinforcing Major-General Horatio Gates's northern army against Burgoyne. In the process he might force the pitched battle he had sought unsuccessfully in New Jersey. The fleet set sail on July 23 and reached the Delaware Bay on July 30, where Howe received misleading intelligence of American obstructions in the Delaware River that seemed to make an approach from that direction impracticable.
He decided in view of this to enter the Chesapeake Bay, landing at the northernmost point possible and approaching Philadelphia overland. The Americans were meanwhile kept guessing about Howe's destination. The sighting of the British fleet in the northeast Chesapeake Bay on August 22 and the subsequent British landing at Turkey Point, 8 miles below Head of Elk, Md., on August 25 finally put an end to all speculation.
Unexpected as the landing was, the American main army, numbering roughly 16,000 men, was not in a bad position to defeat or at least contain it. Marching from positions along the Neshaminy Creek in Pennsylvania, the Americans passed through Philadelphia to Darby, Pa., reaching Wilmington, Del. just as the British commenced landing. Morale among the Continental troops was high, as John Adams and others who watched them march through Philadelphia attested. Though lacking the smartness of professional soldiers they were, Adams noted, "extreamly well armed, pretty well cloathed, and tolerably disciplined." The general orders for the day had demanded the strictest march discipline, threatening any soldier who broke ranks with "thirty- nine lashes"; though Washington was not above stopping for refreshments with his entourage at the City Tavern.
Although Howe's landing was unopposed, his soldiers were seasick and exhausted. Their horses were in a wretched state, many having died on the voyage; and although the local Tory inhabitants and deserters from the American dragoons helped to re-equip the British, this took some time. A concentrated American attack, given the disorganized state of the militia and the distance of the main army, was however clearly impossible, and Howe was left to rest and reorganize his command in peace.
The British moved forward on September 3 in two divisions, one commanded by the Hessian Lieutenant-General Baron Wilhelm Knyphausen and the other by Major-General Earl Charles Cornwallis. The two columns converged at what is now Glasgow, Delaware, whereupon Cornwallis's division took the lead on the road leading north. Here they met an advance guard of Brigadier- General William Maxwell's light infantry, which had been sent forward to observe and if possible harass the British advance. After a brief, running engagement ending at Cooch's Bridge a short distance north, Maxwell's men were driven off and Howe settled down to rest his troops.
Washington ordered Maxwell's corps to take up positions on White Clay creek after this engagement, while the main army encamped behind Red Clay Creek just west of Newport, Del., on the direct route to Philadelphia. Howe threw his army to motion again on September 8 to the accompaniment of what one of his officers called "a remarkable borealis." A small force marched to demonstrate against the American front while the main army marched around Washington's right. Although a general alarm was beat in the American camp, by early the next day Washington had seen through Howe's plan and ordered a redeployment to Chad's Ford on the Brandywine. The American movement commenced on the afternoon of the 9th. Howe, meanwhile, proceeded to Kennett Square, reaching it on September 10.
Chad's Ford, where the American army now took up positions, was at the point where the Nottingham Road crossed the Brandywine Creek on the route from Kennett Square to Philadelphia. It was the last natural line of defense before the Schuylkill River, which could be forded at so many points that it was practically indefensible. The Brandywine, a shallow (knee to waist-high) but fast-flowing creek, was fordable at a comparatively small number of places that could, so it seemed, be covered fairly easily. At Chad's Ford, really made up of two fords about 450 feet apart, the creek was 150 feet wide and commanded by heights on either side. The surrounding area was characterized by thick forests and irregular but low hills surrounded by prosperous farms, meadows and orchards. Many of the local Quaker inhabitants were sympathetic to the British cause, a fact that would prove to be important in the efforts of both armies to secure accurate intelligence.
Washington concentrated the American defenses at Chad's Ford, but also prepared to prevent possible British flanking movements to the south or north. Pyle's Ford, an easily defensible crossing and the only practicable one south of Chad's Ford, was covered by two brigades of Pennsylvania militia under Brigadier General John Armstrong. Nathaniel Greene's 1st Division, composed of the 1st and 2d Virginia Brigades under Brigadier Generals Peter Muhlenberg and George Weedon, was entrusted with the primary defense of Chad's Ford. Greene's troops straddled the Nottingham road leading east from the Brandywine. To Greene's right was Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's 4th division containing two brigades of Pennsylvania Continentals. Colonel Thomas Procter's Continental Artillery Regiment was placed on some heights commanding Chad's Ford to Wayne's right.
On the right, Major General John Sullivan's 3rd Division consisting of the 1st and 2d Maryland brigades was posted opposite Brinton's Ford about a mile above Chad's Ford. Major General Lord Stirling's 5th Division, containing a Pennsylvania brigade under Brigadier General Thomas Conway and a New Jersey brigade, was placed in reserve a short distance behind Sullivan. Major General Adam Stephen's 2d Division, made up of the 3rd and 4th Virginia brigades under Brigadier Generals William Woodford and Charles Scott, was also in reserve, apparently in a position to move to the support of either the right or left of the army. Finally, Maxwell's light corps was posted to the west of the Brandywine along the Nottingham Road and on some hills on the western side of Chad's Ford.
The most vulnerable point of the American position, as Washington and his generals were well aware, was on the right. Sullivan was therefore ordered to provide adequate cover at the three known fords above Brinton's, namely Painter's, Wistar's, and Buffington's Ford, each about two miles apart. Buffington's Ford was on the east branch of the Brandywine, just above where the creek forks about six miles above Chad's Ford. Sullivan detached for this purpose a Delaware regiment and Colonel Moses Hazen's mixed "Canadian" Regiment, the latter unit being divided to cover the two upper fords. The area north of Buffington's Ford on both sides of the Brandywine was the responsibility of the light horse under the general command of the Virginian Colonel Theodorick Bland. Sullivan assumed that his responsibility went no further north than Buffington's, and relied on Bland to watch this area. Only a mile further upstream, however, another ford known as Jeffries' provided in conjunction with Trimble's Ford on the west branch of the creek an entirely unguarded route around the American right flank. Washington and Sullivan appear to have been unaware of the existence of this critical ford, of which neither Bland nor any locals had informed them.
As dawn broke on the morning of September 11th, Sir William Howe was in the process of dividing his army. At six o'clock, Knyphausen marched with 6,800 men along the Nottingham Road directly toward Chad's Ford. His mission was to engage Washington's attention while Howe marched at five o'clock with 8,200 men northeast from Kennett Square up the Great Valley Road, turned east across the Brandywine at Trimble's and Jeffries' fords, and then proceeded south around the American right flank. A dense fog cover initially shielded Howe's march, and locals kept him well informed of his route.
Knyphausen's Tory vanguard of the Queen's Rangers and Major Patrick Ferguson's Riflemen advanced only three miles before running into Maxwell's outposts near Welch's Tavern. The Americans took advantage of the numerous defiles and woods along the road, as Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of the British 49th Foot wrote, to keep up "a running fire, mixed with regular volleys for 5 miles, and they still retreating to their main posts, until they got almost in gun shot of the Ford." At the hills before Chad's Ford, Maxwell's men unleashed an ambuscade from wooded and marshy ground on either side of the road, taking the Tories by surprise and leaving "nearly half of the two corps . . . either killed or wounded," according to a Hessian witness.
"All the woods were full of enemy troops," wrote the Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister, shouting "Hurrah" at the work their musketry had done among the Tories. Proctor's artillery on the other side of the Brandywine was now firing on the British as well, shredding trees but doing little real damage due to poor siting. Some of Greene's men splashed across the creek to support Maxwell, who began building breastworks on a hill overlooking the road on Knyphausen's right. The Hessian general rallied the Tories and ordered Ferguson's riflemen to take position behind a house on his right. He also dispatched the 28th and 49th Foot along with two heavy and two light artillery pieces to an elevation behind them. The British cannon promptly began pummeling the American breastwork, which apparently mounted nothing more than a couple of light field pieces. At the same time the Queen's Rangers and the 23d Foot filed off to the left, and by musket and bayonet "quickly drove the rebels out of their woods and straight across the lowland." On his right, Knyphausen then pushed the 28th Foot in a flanking march around Maxwell's left, to an eminence slightly behind the breastwork. Maxwell had had enough. Once his breastwork had been outflanked, he ordered a withdrawal across the creek, a maneuver carried out in good order despite close pursuit by Knyphausen's troops. By 10:30 A.M., the British and Hessians had cleared the west bank of the Brandywine and taken up positions overlooking the Ford. Aside from some halfhearted British feints and random artillery fire, this part of the battlefield lapsed into inactivity.
Washington had moved his headquarters to the heights where Procter's guns were stationed in order to observe the commotion. From there he was heard to "bitterly lament that Coll Bland had not sent him any information at all, & that the accounts he had received from others were of a very contradictory nature." Bland's silence forced Washington to rely on reports passed on by Sullivan, who was becoming nervous about his flank and had sent scouts of his own to look for signs of the British upstream. Major John Jameson reported to Sullivan at nine o'clock A.M. that "he came from the Right of the Army & I might Depend there was no enemy there"; another officer sent in the same direction returned to say that "no Enemy had passd that way." Close on the heels of these reassuring reports, however, an officer arrived at Proctor's battery with a letter from Sullivan stating that Colonel Moses Hazen, stationed by Sullivan at Buffington's Ford, had sighted a body of the enemy across the creek. Although this was actually a detachment of Knyphausen's troops taking positions along the river, Washington could not afford to ignore the possibility that it was the first indication of a flanking attack and ordered Bland to investigate it.
A more substantial report arrived shortly before noon in the form of a letter from Lieutenant Colonel James Ross, who with a mixed force of militia and dragoons was scouting the Great Valley Road. Ross, writing at eleven o'clock, reported that he had skirmished with "a large body of the enemy--from every account 5000, with 16 or 18 field pieces" led by Howe himself and on its way northeast to "Taylor's and Jeffries ferries on the Brandywine." Certainly no clearer proof could be offered than this of Howe's having split his forces. If true, the American right might be in peril; at the same time, however, an immediate attack on Knyphausen might cripple half of the British army before Howe had a chance to bring his force to bear. It was a risk worth taking.
Washington seized the opportunity offered him, ordering Sullivan "to cross the Brandywine with my division and attack the enemy's [Knyphausen's] left, while the army crossed below [Sullivan] to attack their right." Sullivan promptly put the orders into effect, and elements of his division had already "crossed the river, and skirmished with and drove the Yagers" before orders arrived for their immediate recall. New intelligence had arrived.
Some time between noon and one o'clock, a Major Joseph Spear of the militia arrived at Sullivan's headquarters and reported that he had just returned from a morning reconnaissance along the Great Valley Road without detecting any sign of the British. The major was, indeed, "confident they are not in that Quarter." How Spear had contrived to miss any sign of Howe's column, marching along this very route, has never been determined. Sullivan was suspicious of the report and hesitated before sending it along to Washington, understanding it might mean an end to the attack on Knyphausen. If, however, Howe's move up the Great Valley Road was only a feint followed by a countermarch back to Chad's Ford, Washington's planned attack across the creek might well end in disaster. Sullivan sent the report and Washington called off the attack.
Howe's column was at that moment nearing the end of a grueling seventeen-mile march in sweltering heat, the fog having burned off early that morning. The British crossed the west branch of the Brandywine at Trimble's Ford at about 11 o'clock and then marched east, crossing the east branch at Jeffries' Ford about three hours later. They had to "cross these two branches in up to three feet of water." At 2:30 P.M. the tired men were given leave to throw themselves down on some heights to the east of the ford and rest for an hour. Bland sighted an advanced party of Howe's column about two miles southeast of Jeffries' Ford at a quarter after one o'clock, but his scribbled note conveying this information to Washington came too late.
By this point, with the British already moving toward his rear, Washington had no choice but to make defensive dispositions. He therefore ordered his reserve of Stirling's and Stephen's divisions to take up positions near Birmingham meeting- house, a small Quaker church on the east side of the road leading southeast from Jeffries' Ford and about two miles north of Chad's Ford. Directly across the road to the west was Birmingham Hill, a small eminence that was nevertheless reasonably well-suited for defense.
Sullivan had meanwhile received another report from Bland of British movements "in the Rear of my Right about two miles Coming Down." The colonel added that he had seen "Dust Rise back in the Country for above an hour." The situation demanded swift measures, and Washington responded by ordering Sullivan to abandon Brinton's Ford and join Stirling and Stephen near Birmingham meeting-house, where Sullivan would take overall command of the three divisions. While putting his division into motion, Sullivan encountered Col. Hazen, who declared that the enemy were "Close upon his Heels," testimony backed up by the almost immediate sighting of the British advance guard. Sullivan rushed his men to take up positions to Stirling's left on Birmingham Hill, with Stephen's division already in place on the right. Inadequately trained as the Americans were in drill, this nevertheless took some time, especially given the rough terrain.
Howe knew his dominating position and could afford to show a "Cheerful Countenance" to his officers, with whom he chatted amiably as he observed the American deployments. His troops meanwhile formed into line for the critical assault on Birmingham Hill. The attack began at about four o'clock, before Sullivan's division had a chance to take up proper positions on the American left. On the right, Stirling and Stephen's well-sited 3 and 4 pounder guns, which had been dragged up the hill with tremendous effort, tore holes with canister and grape shot in the ranks of the advancing Hessian jägers and British grenadiers. The British were forced to halt and take cover a short distance from the base of the hill. "The small arms fire was terrible," wrote one jäger, "the counter-fire from the enemy, especially against us, was the most concentrated."
Sullivan's men hurried to take up their positions but were forced to march "through a narrow lane," where Hessian grenadiers who had clambered up the slope picked them off by the dozens. On this side of the hill, the Hessian grenadiers and the Guards were to their delight able to advance out of the line of fire of the American artillery. Their assault threw Sullivan's men into utter confusion. Sullivan himself was away on the right conferring with Stirling and Stephen, but Brigadier General Preudhomme de Borré, the French commander of the 2d Brigade who commanded in Sullivan's absence, fled with his men (he was forced out of the service after the battle). On the way down the hill Borré showed Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Smith of the 4th Maryland "some scratches on his cheek, which he said had been done by the English firing fish-hooks, but more probably by the briars." Sullivan had meanwhile returned to rally his men, but "no Sooner did I form one party but that which I had before formed would Run off."
The fight for Birmingham Hill was nevertheless far from over. Hazen's Regiment, still in good order, formed up on Stirling's left facing the Hessian grenadiers. The British at the base of the hill had meanwhile brought up cannon to bombard the American artillery, but though outgunned the American gunners returned fire as long as possible. "The Enemy Soon began to bend their principal force against the Hill," Sullivan later wrote, "& the fire was Close & heavy for a Long time & Soon became General . . . five times did the Enemy drive our Troops from the Hill & as often was it Regained & the Summit often Disputed almost muzzle to muzzle." Several companies of the British 1st Light Infantry, hoping to gain the east slope of the hill, attempted to bypass the Birmingham Meeting-house, but here they were met by a withering fire from Colonel Thomas Marshall's Virginia Regiment stationed behind the meeting-house wall. The British infantry sustained severe casualties before they were able to gain a blind spot on the slope out of sight of both Marshall's men and the artillery on the hill. At this point Howe and Cornwallis ordered a series of attacks on the left, right and center of the hill, gradually forcing the Americans off with substantial casualties on both sides. Hazen's regiment was all but shattered by the Hessian grenadiers while Stirling's division retreated in fairly good order; most of Stephen's division was disorganized if not routed altogether, a fate that was prevented by a gallant rearguard action of Woodford's Virginians. After an hour and forty minutes of what General Conway called the most "Close & Severe a fire" he ever saw, the British had possession of the hill; but not, Sullivan claimed, "till we had almost Covered the Ground between [the hill] and Bremingham [sic] meeting House with The Dead Bodies of the Enemy."
After the loss of Birmingham Hill, the American priority for the rest of the battle had to be the successful withdrawal of the remainder of the army. There could be no question of reforming either Sullivan's or Stephen's divisions, which were no longer effective fighting formations. Conway was, however, able to form a second defensive line out of his 3d Pennsylvania brigade on another small hill a short distance southeast of Birmingham Hill. The British came on quickly, routing in the process those remnants of Stephen's division which had been too slow to retreat. Unfortunately for the Americans, Conway's men initially resisted boldly but, lacking bayonets themselves, were averse to facing the British bayonet charge and broke very suddenly. The Marquis de Lafayette, who had come to observe the attack and attempted to rally Conway's men, received a British musket ball in the leg and had to be carried off the field.
What remained of the three divisions fled a mile further east to Dilworthtown, just north of which place Greene's division was forming up. Washington had dispatched Greene to this place after learning of the fall of Birmingham Hill, and he now arrived to supervise the positioning of Greene's troops. By this time the 1st division was the last fresh American division on the field. Knyphausen had assaulted Wayne's and Maxwell's positions around Chad's Ford at five o'clock, rapidly driving them back and capturing all of Procter's guns. The position at Dilworthtown was therefore critical if the rest of the army (including Armstrong's militia, which had not been engaged but was busy retreating eastward) was to be preserved.
That this position held until sundown was partly because of Washington's careful positioning, at Sullivan's suggestion, of Brigadier Generals Peter Muhlenberg's and George Weedon's brigades respectively on the front and flank of the British advance. As the Hessian grenadiers marched on Dilworthtown, Captain Johann Ewald wrote, they "received intense grapeshot and musketry fire [apparently from Muhlenberg's men] which threw [the Hessians] into disorder, but they recovered themselves quickly, deployed, and attacked the village." Brigadier-General James Agnew's brigade of redcoats, occupying at Ewald's suggestion a hill on the flank, "ran into several American regiments" of Weedon's brigade, preparing to fall upon the Hessians' flank. "At this point," Ewald wrote, "there was terrible firing, and half of the Englishmen and nearly all of the officers of these two regiments (they were the 44th and 64th regiments) were slain." Fortunately for the British, an English artillery officer arrived opportunely with two six-pounders on Weedon's flank, breaking up their attack. By this time it was growing dark and Greene's men could follow their compatriots to Chester while the British remained in Dilworthtown, tending the wounded of both sides.
Lieutenant James McMichael of the 13th Pennsylvania Continental Regiment wrote that "this day for a severe and successive engagement exceeded all I ever saw." The casualties reflected the bitterness with which it was fought. The official British casualty figure was 89 killed and 488 wounded, but was probably slightly higher. The American losses have never been conclusively ascertained, but are estimated at 1,100, including 200 killed, 500 wounded and 400 captured. The battle had clearly been an American defeat, and was to lead to the loss of Philadelphia on September 26. Had the attack on Birmingham Hill begun earlier, the defeat may have turned into a rout. Howe could thank fortune, his superior intelligence gathering and the efficacy of the British bayonet for his victory. The Americans, for their part, were beaten but not broken; they knew very well that in general they had stood up well to the professional British soldiers. It was not without reason that Washington wrote John Hancock from Chester shortly after midnight: "Notwithstanding the misfortune of the day, I am happy to find the troops in good spirits; and I hope another time we shall compensate for the losses now sustained."
Lengel is the editor-in-chief of The Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of General George Washington: A Military Life, which was a finalist for the 2006 George Washington Book Prize, and of Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory.
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