Brandywine, Pennsylvania

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Brandywine, Pennsylvania

BRANDYWINE, PENNSYLVANIA. The Battle of Brandywine, on 11 September 1777, opened the British army's Philadelphia campaign with a major defeat for the American rebels. Nevertheless, some revolutionaries—both within, and to a lesser extent without, the Continental Army—saw in the character of the engagement limited signs of progress toward military parity with the enemy. The battle demonstrated the challenges soldiers on both sides faced trying to execute traditional strategic or tactical operations while surrounded by civilians of divided loyalties and diverse cultural characteristics in a charged revolutionary polity. It also shows us civilians beginning to teach themselves how to survive during warfare.


The British commander in chief, William Howe, launched his effort to occupy and pacify Pennsylvania relatively late in 1777. On 25 August, about fourteen thousand British troops left warships at the navigable head of the Chesapeake Bay, near the modern town of Elkton, Maryland. After they were refreshed from five harrowing weeks at sea, they began cautiously probing toward Philadelphia, and more immediately, toward the positions of George Washington's main Continental army at Wilmington, Delaware. A sharp skirmish at Cooch's Bridge in Delaware on 3 September suggested Howe's intention to fight aggressively in 1777 after a tentative and ultimately costly end to the campaign the year before. Washington withdrew his force of about eleven thousand Continentals and some Pennsylvania militiamen into southern Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was determined not to let the Continental Congress be driven from Philadelphia for a second year in a row, but he also needed to protect critical fabrication and storage areas for Continental war materials and weapons in the upper Schuylkill River valley, above the town of Reading. The lower reaches of the Brandywine Creek represented a tactical and metaphorical fork in the road for that objective. If Howe's troops passed that obstacle unharmed, they would be able to campaign against either the American capital or against the Reading supply bases with relative ease.


While the Brandywine was not a major, and certainly not a navigable, waterway, its flow was considerable enough to power a number of large "merchant" gristmills at Wilmington that ground fine flours for sale throughout the Caribbean and Mediterranean worlds. This trade had during the previous three generations turned southeastern Pennsylvania's farmland into the "best poor man's country in the world." The Brandywine was fordable at a series of named sites between Wilmington and its division into eastern and western branches just southeast of the modern town of West Chester. On 10 September, Washington placed the main part of his army behind the Brandywine at Chads Ford. All outward appearances suggested that Howe—whose troops were camped six miles away at Kennett Square—would cross the Brandywine at Chads Ford. Washington attempted to reconnoitre the terrain in the Brandywine Valley, but he was later criticized for having an inadequate knowledge of its geographical complexities. His army was composed largely of new recruits, and services like intelligence—which required agents well-known to the commanders—were being belatedly rebuilt. Local civilians, especially the pacifist or neutral Quakers who dominated Chester County, were distrusted in American military camps. Pennsylvania's own revolutionary government was in turmoil. It had been created in June and July of 1776, following the forcible overthrow of that colony's provincial government. A year later its inexperienced leaders were still struggling among themselves over power and constitutional authority. This made it a challenge for the state to fill its regular army quotas or even to keep its militia in the field. The same cultural factors that had tempted Howe to come to Pennsylvania to try to end the rebellion, therefore, confounded efforts by revolutionary civil and military leaders to fight an effective war on that terrain.

Washington established his headquarters in a farm-house near Chads Ford. Behind the ford itself he installed the division commanded by his trusted subordinate, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Greene was joined there by General Benjamin Lincoln's division, temporarily commanded in Lincoln's absence by general Anthony Wayne. Wayne, a Pennsylvanian, lived in nearby Paoli. The inexperienced Pennsylvania militia guarded the left wing of Washington's line at Pyle's Ford, just south of Chads, a place not considered to be vulnerable to attack. The right wing was commanded by troops under general John Sullivan of New Hampshire. They concentrated at Brinton's Ford; Jones's Ford; Wistar's Ford; and Buffington's Ford, six miles to the north, which lay in the forks of the Brandywine. Washington's informants the previous night had told him that there were no fordable places on the creek for twelve miles above the forks. To secure the right wing, Washington deployed small mounted parties of regulars and militia who crossed the Brandywine to watch the countryside for British movements. These forces reported to Washington through Sullivan. Behind Greene and Sullivan, as reserve forces, respectively, were the divisions commanded by Adam Stephen of Virginia and by William Alexander, also known as Lord Stirling, of New Jersey. Washington kept an artillery corps at Chads Ford, and finally he sent skirmishing parties under General William Maxwell across the Brandywine to make contact with and report on the activities of approaching British forces there.

General Howe, at Kennett Square, hoped to execute a reversed version of the flanking maneuver he had employed to overwhelm the American forces at Brooklyn Heights on Long Island just over a year before. September mornings were often foggy in the region. Before dawn on 11 September, Howe sent between five thousand and seven thousand of his troops directly forward to Chads Ford under the command of the Hessian general, Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Knyphausen was instructed to make the appearance of preparations for a charge across the Brandywine to hold Washington's troops there. Meanwhile, Howe and his subordinate, general Charles Lord Cornwallis, with between seven thousand and nine thousand troops, marched to their left and headed upstream behind the creek, guided by local Loyalists and seeking unguarded fords. Howe had been informed that there were a pair of fords just above the forks of the creek.

Many later accounts of the battle suggested that Washington was again caught flatfooted by this maneuver, as he had been the previous year, and beaten for that reason. Actually, he both anticipated a possible flanking maneuver and even devised a plan to try to exploit it to his own advantage. If, as he thought, the nearest fords above Sullivan's positions were fifteen or more miles away, he could cross the Brandywine after Howe and Cornwallis departed and overwhelm Knyphausen's detachment before Howe could relieve him. At 8 a.m. Maxwell's troops engaged the forward elements of Knyphausen's force, and sharp clashes developed in obscured terrain. Maxwell was gradually driven back across the stream, but he reported, inaccurately, that his men had inflicted significant casualties on their opponent. After Knyphausen reached the Brandywine, artillery on both sides dueled noisily across the water for several hours, but the British made no concerted move to attack across the stream. The fog still lingered, and Washington could not tell whether he was facing all or just a part of the enemy's force.


As the morning went on, the sun burned through and the day became very hot. Late in the morning, scouts began to report evidence of Howe's and Cornwallis's flanking maneuver through Sullivan, but the evidence was at best fragmentary and contradictory. First Washington learned that a large body of redcoats had been observed marching north along the Brandywine toward the forks. His knowledge of particular fords and distances was partial and flawed, but Washington knew that if the British did cross the creek anywhere above Sullivan they would march against his right wing along a road that ran past the Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse. He ordered Stephen's and Stirling's reserve divisions to fall back and move toward that position to be ready to block such an attack. Then he ordered Greene's and Sullivan's divisions to cross the Brandywine to attack the diminished force that had presumably been left there by Howe.

The next intelligence reports confirmed the first ones, that at least five thousand British troops were marching toward the forks. This account named two fords immediately above that point, much closer than the twelve to fifteen miles previously believed. Almost immediately, however, Sullivan forwarded another report from Pennsylvania militia troops who said that they had scouted all morning but had seen no enemy troops above the forks. If this news was true, Washington realized, he risked sending a part of his army into battle with the whole of Howe's, with a treacherous watercourse at their rear. Confused by these contradictions, he countermanded his orders to Greene and Sullivan and ordered Stephen and Stirling to halt their march to Birmingham. Early in the afternoon, as Washington tried to reconcile his intelligence, the Howe and Cornwallis column crossed Jefferis' Ford over the east branch of the Brandywine and then rested for an hour, with only empty and hilly farmland between it and the American flank.

At about this time, a local farmer who called himself Thomas Cheney argued his way into Washington's presence with the news that Howe's column, in motion once again, was closing in on the unprepared Americans. Washington questioned the report, but confirmations of its basic tenor began to arrive quickly, and the commander in chief resumed preparations to defend his army on its right flank. Stephen and Stirling were ordered to resume their march toward Birmingham, and Sullivan—having been with-drawn from crossing the creek—was told to wheel around and join Stephen and Stirling. When he had formed a solid connection with them, Sullivan would assume command of the battlefield on the right flank. Washington decided to remain near Chads Ford, where he continued trying to piece together a coherent picture of the action as a whole.


Howe's and Cornwallis's troops had marched for seventeen miles since daybreak, and they took some time on Osborne's Hill to organize for the coming assault on the American wing. This delay gave Stephen and Stirling time to reach the area of the Birmingham Meetinghouse, where they formed a strong line across the top of a hill facing Osborne's Hill, using the Quaker Meetinghouse itself as a strong point. Sullivan's march to the same place was more problematic. As his regiments appeared in the vale between Osborne's Hill and the hill behind Birmingham, Sullivan had difficulty locating the left wing of Stirling's impromptu line. He had to order the Americans to shift out of the way so that he could try to move his troops into the gap. While he was groping at this task, the British assault on the combined American position, which had begun at about 4:30 in the afternoon, intensified. Washington tried to assess the significance of the increasingly sharp small arms and artillery fire that he heard from the Birmingham area. At five o'clock he drafted a brief—and somewhat matter-of-fact and noncommittal, though vaguely hopeful—report on the action to Congress in Philadelphia.

As Sullivan's forces crumbled and Stephen's and Stirling's troops came under heavier pressure, Washington concluded that the attack on his army's right wing represented the main action of the day, and he decided to leave the skirmishing across Chads Ford to supervise the battle. Accompanied by a civilian guide, he rode as quickly as he could toward Birmingham. Before he could reach the meetinghouse, Stephen's and Stirling's divisions began to break and retire toward yet another piece of high ground in their rear. Washington had also directed General Greene's division to abandon the front on the Brandywine and rush to reinforce the right wing. Those troops came at a dead run just behind the commander in chief. The hastily formed front carried out a surprisingly effective delaying action, and shadows were beginning to gather on the battlefield. Washington left Sullivan in operational command on this front and personally attended to calming and rallying the inexperienced American troops. He was accompanied by his young French volunteer aide, the Marquis de Lafayette, who this day earned the commander's ungrudging respect. Lafayette rode back and forth close to the front until he received a musket ball in the thigh. A concerned Washington ordered that he be escorted to a field hospital, anxiously proclaiming—as Lafayette later insisted in a memoir—that the young Frenchman was like his own son.


The first elements of Greene's reinforcing units arrived near Dilworthtown, a village behind Birmingham Meeting, just as the battered elements of the American line gave way. They had covered a distance of about four miles in nearly three-quarters of an hour. General George Weedon's brigade opened their line to allow the retreating Americans through and then closed ranks to receive the British attack. Greene's troops fought valiantly as darkness gathered, exhausting their ammunition and retiring repeatedly to seek new defensible positions. The American retreat was jeopardized by renewed action on the Brandywine itself. As predetermined with his commander in chief, General Knyphausen prepared to fall on the American front at Chads Ford as soon as it was weakened by the withdrawal of forces to sustain the flank defense. At about four p.m., the British artillery bombardment across the creek suddenly intensified. With Greene's troops away toward Birmingham, the responsibility for the creek front fell to Anthony Wayne, commanding General Lincoln's division in his absence. Knyphausen sent his forces across the ford, where they used their bayonets to intimidating effect to drive the Americans away from the creek. The rebels abandoned their valuable and hard-to-replace artillery pieces that had been used effectively since daybreak. Wayne's lines disintegrated, although individual pockets of men kept up a hot fire, slowing the advance and giving Washington time to organize the retreat of both the broken units from the Birmingham clash and those from the ford.


Darkness brought the engagement to a conclusion. If Washington was later criticized for his imprecise reconnaissance of the ground and for his troubled intelligence system early in the day, William Howe was predictably chastened for a lack of aggression in following up on a successful battle plan. The complaint was trite, and probably unjustified. Howe's conduct of the war since 1775 had long made it clear that he did not have a killer instinct or an ingrained disposition to crush a soundly defeated foe. There was as yet no developed mid-eighteenth-century doctrine about pursuing a broken foe and running him into the ground in conventional combat. It was also evident that Howe—and probably the vast majority of the British military establishment—did not really view American revolutionaries as being on the same moral plane as Scottish Jacobite rebels in 1715 or 1745 or as Irish warriors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—that is, the Americans were not seen as savages to be exterminated if possible. Gaining solid footing beyond the Brandywine had probably guaranteed Howe the possession of Philadelphia whenever he wanted it. Beyond that objective, his plan was to break the rebellion and its military instruments piece by piece.

Howe's troops—especially those from Cornwallis's column—were exhausted by nightfall. In addition to the length of their march, many of the cavalrymen were operating dismounted, as the loss of horses during the five-week sea voyage to the Chesapeake continued to take its toll. Also, Howe's commissary general, Daniel Weir, was obliged to begin feeding the army from the countryside after it entered Pennsylvania. His brother, Richard Lord Howe, was bringing the British fleet around into the Delaware River with its cargoes of provisions, expecting to meet the army at Philadelphia. Eighteenth-century doctrines of warfare also made the victors who controlled battlefields responsible for the immediate care of the wounded and the decent interment of the dead of both sides, as well as for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. On each of these fronts there was much work to be done. Casualties were heavy on both sides, and Americans were captured in growing bunches in the confusion of the day's end.

Washington's immediate duties were lightened by the realization that Howe could, and would, attend to the previous responsibilities. As soon as Knyphausen broke off his advance, Washington was able to shepherd the troops from the Brandywine front, together with those who had retreated from Birmingham and Dilworthtown, and to begin arranging for their retreat. The river port village of Chester, on the Delaware below Philadelphia, was designated as the initial rendezvous point for the stricken survivors of the battle. Washington himself reached that town at about midnight on the heels of most of his troops. His two previous messages of the day to Congress, from about noon and just after 5 p.m., respectively, had been either plainly optimistic or at least cautiously hopeful. By now it was clear that news of the late reverses would reach Philadelphia with stragglers and civilians, and in good conscience as well as self-interest, Washington owed his civilian superiors a candid official report. He felt too exhausted to draft one, however, and his aides-de-camp understandably wrangled over the disagreeable assignment.

At length, Adjutant General Timothy Pickering agreed to compose the message. That dour New Englander did not try to sugarcoat the bad news. The Americans had been "obliged to leave the enemy masters of the field," he acknowledged, before speculating that the British had paid a high price for this benefit in casualties. Washington read over the draft before he retired, and he insisted that the candor be leavened with at least an abstract expression of optimism. The American troops, Washington appended—probably accurately—were still "in good spirits," and he still hoped that "another time we shall compensate for the losses now sustained."

American casualties consisted of about 300 men killed, the same number wounded, and about 315 missing in action. The British lost 90 men killed, 448 wounded, and only a handful of missing.


The action of 11 September 1777 has other insights to disclose to modern observers. External constraints like terrain, heat, and sunlight had been critical to its outcome, but it should be remembered that Howe had chosen to campaign in Pennsylvania—at the risk, it turns out, of the entire British strategy for the year—on the hope of exploiting the good will of its population. Howe's far superior intelligence to that which Washington received suggested that his adviser, Joseph Galloway, was not completely wrong to promote that hope. But the civilian experience of the events of Brandywine was much more complex and subtle than any of the military professionals present that day would have acknowledged. Southeastern Pennsylvanians were as innocent as any late-colonial Americans of the costs and horrors of war, because Quaker political control of their colony had, until the late 1750s, kept it out of most imperial wars. Even the panic of late 1776 prior to Washington's Trenton reprisal had not changed that fact. Beginning with the red-coat and Hessian push into Chester County, however, and continuing for most of the following year, that innocence ended, and civilians had to accommodate themselves to calamity.

The day before the battle, Hessian Captain Johann von Ewald observed that local Quakers came to British camps "in crowds, and asked for protection." After the British victory, other civilians warned the British that the rebels were retreating toward Chester and effectively chided Howe for not pursuing them with more vigor. Other country people, less favorably disposed to the restoration of royal authority, abandoned their plantations, but foraging soldiers, especially Hessians, occasionally paid for their plunder with their lives at the hands of vindictive farmers. Most civilians neither fawned before nor ambushed soldiers, but rather scurried around trying to avoid getting caught between large groups of them. To their astonishment, many discovered that there were pockets within campaigns, and even on battlefields, where they could observe military actions in situations of remarkable intimacy with some degree of safety.

SEE ALSO Alexander, William; Cooch's Bridge; Cornwallis, Charles; Ewald, Johann von; Galloway, Joseph; Greene, Nathanael; Howe, William; Knyphausen, Wilhelm; Lafayette, Marquis de; Lincoln, Benjamin; Maxwell, William; Philadelphia Campaign; Pickering, Timothy; Stephen, Adam; Sullivan, John; Wayne, Anthony; Weedon, George.


Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington, A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Reed, John F. Campaign to Valley Forge: July 1, 1777–December 19, 1777. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Taafe, Stephen. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–1778. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Townshend, Joseph. The Battle of Brandywine. 1846. Reprint, New York: New York Times, 1969.

                         revised by Wayne K. Bodle