I was hired as the museum educator at Brandywine Battlefield State Historic Site on 2005. I quickly learned that there were only two book-length treatments on the battle. One written during the bicentennial and now outdated, and the other one written 15 years ago that was not well-researched. I always knew that a new book was needed, it just took my while to get around to it.
Well, quite frankly, the Americans lost at Brandywine. There just has not been much written about American losses during the war at places like Long Island, Brandywine, Germantown, and Camden. Conversely, much has been written about American victories at Saratoga, Trenton, and Yorktown.
I agree. Howe’s one-sided mind set during 1777 caused him to ignore directives from London, not support Burgoyne, and pursue the capture of Philadelphia.
Gen. William Howe, Washington’s opponent in the New York Campaign. (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection)
Ah, one of the great mysteries of the campaign. Howe’s stated reason for landing in Maryland rather than along the Delaware River was to threaten American supply depots in the backcountry at places like York, Lancaster, and Reading. However, once the army landed, his British army marched nowhere near any of these places.
On the eve of the battle, the Continental Army was in a very strong, natural defensive position and outnumbered Howe’s army. If Washington had properly defended the various fords along the Brandywine, they should have been able to resist the British advance.
Howe’s plan for the battle of Brandywine was very similar to his plan at the battle of Long Island the previous year. A little less than half of Howe’s army would march directly against Washington’s very strong position at Chads’s Ford to hold him in place and to act as a diversion. Meanwhile, the rest of the British army would conduct a 17 mile flank march through most of the day to come into the Continental Army’s right rear east of the Brandywine River.
Howe did not keep it from Washington’s prying eyes. At least three reports came into headquarters that day from various scouting parties confirming the presence of the flanking column. Washington misread the intelligence and failed his army. In fact, you are correct, Howe had used this same flanking tactic at least five times prior to Brandywine and Washington should have been prepared for it.
The fight for Birmingham Hill
You are correct, the fighting on Birmingham Hill would prove to be the climatic phase of the battle. The British prevailed here for two reasons. One, that local numerical superiority on the portion of the battlefield. Second, one of the three American divisions that fought here never got into position before being overwhelmed by the British attack.
All things considered, the Continental Army fought remarkable well at Brandywine. Remember, this battle took place before their transformation at Valley Forge. Several units fought toe-to-toe with the elite British troops before being outmanned and outflanked through no fault of their own. However, Washington utterly failed his army at Brandywine. His poor reconnaissance prior to the battle and his inability to understand the intelligence reports the day of the battle doomed his army.
The capture of Philadelphia would prove to be a hollow victory. The hoped for uprising by Pennsylvania loyalists never occurred. Also, Continental patrols limited supplies into the city to a trickle. Ultimately, the British were forced to abandon the city in the spring of 1778.
Memorial to the American and British soldiers that fell near Birmingham Hill on the Brandywine Battlefield (Rob Shenk)
Today, much of the Brandywine battlefield is an ongoing preservation battle. Washington’s headquarters is preserved by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some of the sites associated with the fighting around Chads’s Ford are preserved by the Chadds Ford Historical Society. Portions of Birmingham Hill are protected by Birmingham Township. However, much of the battlefield has already been lost to development or remained in private hands.
Michael C. Harris is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and the American Military University. He has worked for the National Park Service in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Fort Mott State Park in New Jersey, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at Brandywine Battlefield. He has conducted tours and staff rides of many east coast battlefields. Michael is certified in secondary education and currently teaches in the Philadelphia region. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Michelle and son Nathanael.