It was a critical time for George Washington. He had just been soundly defeated in New York and morale was very low. His writings to the Continental Congress tell us so. Although there was not much to be gained through a victory here in a territorial sense, it was one of the many crucial moments in the American Revolution. This victory was essential to give the soldiers hope that a group of rag-tag soldiers could indeed be victorious in their struggle for independence.
Many of the 15,000 British troops spent the night in Kennett Square — population 2,000 — unwinding and carousing, while a battle loomed. General Howe’s flanking strategy was devised two days earlier. While General Knyphausen attacked at Chadd’s Ford, as Washington expected, Cornwallis would stealthily move north, cross the Brandywine, and flank Washington’s right.
By the night of September 10th, the American troops were extended along a six-mile line covering the east side of the Brandywine Creek. Washington knew that the British army would have to ford the Brandywine if they were to get to their target — Philadelphia. He discounted the possibility of being flanked, assuming that Howe would rely upon his his greater troop strength and superior artillery to press a direct attack. Washington believed that the British would have to ford the Brandywine at one of eight fords. Washington chose Chadd’s Ford as his defensive stronghold, as this was along the road where the British were camped.
Washington positioned his troops along the creek. Congress even sent four deputies to inspect and they approved of where Washington had placed his men and urged a staunch defense. They knew that if the Americans failed here, it was likely Philadelphia would fall. Washington felt a battle of major consequence was coming. A newspaper of the day quoted the general as saying: “Should they push their designs against Philadelphia, on this route, there all is at stake. They will put the contest on the event of a single battle. If they are overthrown they are utterly undone. The war is at an end. Now, then, is the time for our most strenuous endeavors. One bold stroke will free the land.” Washington’s army seemed well-positioned and well-prepared to meet the British thrust.
At 4 A.M. on the morning of September 11, 1777, a long line of redcoats quietly flowed out from Kennett Square. They were led by General Howe who personally took command of Cornwallis’s column. At the van of the column were “pioneers,” soldiers employed to clear the road of any obstructions the Americans might have thrown in their way. If all went well, in six miles they would reach their destination, Jeffries’ Ford, without being detected by American scouts. Once across this deep ford located on a branch of the Brandywine Creek, Howe and his troops would have a good chance of flanking and trapping General Washington’s army.
At 5:45 A.M., after Howe’s division had cleared out, General Knyphausen’s division began moving along the Great Nottingham Road directly toward Chadd’s Ford seven miles away — exactly where Washington expected the entire British Army to attack. The first to leave was a 496-member vanguard which consisted of Queen’s Rangers, Ferguson’s riflemen, and a squad from the 16th Light Dragoons. Behind them were the 1st and 2nd British Brigades, followed by the artillery, supply wagons, and a herd of rustled livestock. Serving as the rear guard were the 71st regiment. If was a formidable force.
American General Maxwell, too, had been up early on the foggy morning of the 11th. Maxwell had been ordered to scout the vicinity in the area of Kennett Square. At Kennett Meeting, a Quaker house of worship located about a mile east of Kennett Square, Maxwell sent out a mounted scouting party. After heading up the road about a half a mile, the scouts paused to refresh themselves at Welch’s Tavern. The group tethered their horses out front and bellied up to the bar.
At about 9 o’clock, one of the scouts saw a vision which might have been chalked up to excessive drinking. Headed straight for the tavern, and less than 100 yards away, were Ferguson’s Riflemen and Queen’s Rangers — the vanguard of Knyphausen’s Division. The Americans fired off a round of shots from the bar and bolted out the back door leaving their horses behind. The battle had begun.
After bolting from the bar, the battle was underway. The tasks were clear: Knyphausen was under orders “to amuse the Americans,” convincing them that “all the other world” was with him. Maxwell’s orders were to delay the advance. Maxwell would fire from cover and fall back toward the river. The British advanced slowly amid a cloud of musket fire and at great expense in lives.
A British soldier made the following diary entry:
[The Queen’s Rangers and Ferguson’s riflemen] fell in very early with large Bodies of the Enemy who form’d upon ev’ry advantageous Post & behind Fences fired on the Troops as they advanc’d – This galling fire was sustain’d the whole way by the Queen’s Rangers commanded by Capt. Weyms of the 40th & Rifle Men by Capt. Ferguson of the 70th – who encouraged by the Example of their Leaders behav’d with a degree of perseverance & Bravery which would have done Honor to the best Established Corps.]
After a series of heavy skirmishes, in which dense smoke often choked off the morning sunlight, the British forced Maxwell back to the east bank. At about 10:30 the firing died down, save for an occasional artillery exchange across the creek. The Americans and British now were face-to-face on opposite sides of the Creek. But the British kept busy. Knyphausen was under orders not to let on his true troop strength, but rather make it appear as if the entire British army were with him. To achieve this sham effect, the Hessian general ordered marches and countermarches up and down and in and out of the hills. He also positioned great numbers of soldiers from his columns in the fields that opened from the Nottingham Road onto the creek. He also left the British baggage train in plain sight.
Knyphausen had successfully made his way to the west bank of the Brandywine and had bought time for Howe and Cornwallis. Maxwell delayed the British advance, thus fulfilling his orders. British casualties numbered about 300 — a lot for an “amusement,” while American casualties were few. But among the American wounded was a young officer from Virginia who would go to become Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall.
Washington directed the Americans from the Ring House, a residence about three quarters of a mile east of Chadd’s Ford. Viewing the battle through a telescope, he must have been a little suspicious that something was afoot. He knew that Howe had all morning to bring his army in position to attack and yet he still hadn’t. Washington had also seen the busy movements of the British troops in the hills and their impressive baggage train. Something was in the air. But what exactly?
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Battle of Brandywine is the great number of conflicting reports Washington received throughout the morning and early afternoon regarding whether Howe was moving troops north — towards the supply depots up at Reading? To ford the Brandywine elsewhere? To conduct a major flanking movement?
Washington heard a preliminary report at around 7 A.M. and a 10 A.M. report saying that Howe’s troops were moving north. He heard a report at 9:30 A.M. and one from Major Spear at 1 P.M. that made him feel confident that it was just a feint and not a major troop movement. But the subsequent reports from Major Eustace, Colonel Bland, and a patriotic local squire named Thomas Cheyney finally convinced Washington that the reports of significant northern troop movement were real.
Surgeon Ebenezer Elmer traveling with the American army, put it most succinctly: “the reports were so Contradictory that it was difficult to make a proper disposition.”
About noon, having received the reports from Ross and Bland that a large British column was moving north, Washington deduced that Howe had split his army. Washington felt he could deal a decisive blow to the divided British. He launched an assault aimed at Knyphausen’s troops across the Brandywine. Washington ordered part of Greene’s troops and Maxwell’s light infantry across the Brandywine at Chadd’s Ford. The vanguard of this charge attacked an entrenching party from the British 49th regiment. They drove the British from their ground and in the process inflicted 30 casualties and killed a captain. Maxwell’s infantrymen took possession of “a number of Entrenching Tools with which they [the British] were just throwing up a Battery.”
Upstream, a regiment from Sullivan’s command crossed the creek and started skirmishing with a British foot regiment. Downstream a group of Pennsylvania militia stationed at Pyle’s Ford crossed the river and joined the fray. At this time, Washington had dispatched Lord Stirling’s and Stephen’s brigades farther north on the east side of the creek toward Birmingham Meeting House in case Howe was indeed planning an attack from the north and not heading up to Reading.
Just before Washington was going to send the remainder of the army across the creek, he received a “definitive” message from Major Spear that there was no northern British troop movement. Washington decided “that the movement of the enemy was just a feint” and that they were returning to reinforce Knyphausen at Chadd’s Ford.
Assuming that this was the case, he knew it would be folly to abandon his defensive position on the east side of the Creek to launch a full assault. Washington recalled his attacking troops back to the east side of the Creek. He also removed his defense against the flanking movement by recalling both Lord Stirling’s and Stephen’s brigades. This faulty report was very damaging, as it gave Howe the extra time he needed to march south into the flank of American forces.
By around 1:15 P.M., Howe’s 8,000 troops had crossed the two fords along the upper Brandywine and were now on the east side, about 8 miles north of Washington’s troops.
Howe had fooled Washington again. The methodical British general had pulled off a 14-mile march while successfully hiding an 8,000 man column. After Howe crossed the west branch of the Brandywine at Trimble’s Ford, he moved north on the road toward Martin’s Tavern. From there, he took a road to Jeffries’ Ford and there crossed the east branch of the Brandywine. Jeffries’ Ford was two miles north of Buffington’s Ford, the furthest point north the Americans had posted soldiers.
Howe sent Jaegers from the British 42nd out to scout, under the leadership of Captain Johann Ewald. They recognized that they’d have to pass through a narrow gorge “where a hundred men could have held up either army the whole day.” Ewald, wary of a trap, asked Cornwallis for permission to proceed, which was granted. It was fortunate for Ewald that they were able to proceed without opposition. Once through the ford, Cornwallis ordered the remainder of the army to move as quickly as possible. The column took a wide right turn and headed through the village of Sconneltown where Howe halted so his tired, hungry and thirsty men could rest.
It was at this point that Squire Cheyney (whom you read about in Conflicting Reports), who had taken it upon himself to reconnoiter the British, discovered Howe’s column. He frantically rode seven miles to the Ring House to deliver a manic message of warning to Washington which was greeted with skepticism. Cheyney’s message, along with several other reports, finally convinced Washington — Howe was now to the rear of the American right. By about 2:00 P.M., after receiving these new reports of Howe’s movements that Washington recognized the dreadful truth: Howe had successfully moved around him and was positioned to attack from the north.
Responding to the threat from Howe’s forces to his north, Washington once again ordered the divisions of Lord Stirling and Major General Stephen to move back north toward the Birmingham Meeting House. These brigades covered about three miles in a half hour, and started forming their lines along Birmingham Road. After ascertaining for certain that Howe’s column was substantial in size, Washington ordered General Sullivan who was in charge of the entire right, to move north and meet the threat. Generals Wayne and Maxwell, with the support of Proctor’s artillery, would have to face Knyphausen alone. General Greene’s troops remained in reserve — positioned to fight either Knyphausen or Cornwallis.
As Stirling and Stephen formed their troops, they could see the British advancing over Osborne Hill less than a mile to their north. The Redcoats progressed slowly as “it was extremely difficult to move the artillery over the heights.” Once the artillery had crested the hill, Howe ordered a break of a half-hour for lunch and tea. After marching for nearly eleven hours and 17 miles, Howe’s troops were safe for the moment and took time to rest and refresh. Howe, as was his pattern, did not follow up on what might have turned into a rout; Instead the picnicking general permitted the panicking Americans to form lines about a mile to his south.
After their tea break, the British broke their column into an eight-pronged attack in which they hoped to either outflank or overrun the American line. Meanwhile the Americans had tried to form a solid defensive line with the center at the heights around Birmingham Meeting House. They were thwarted in this attempt, in part because General Sullivan had marched his troops too far north and left a gap in the American line. Further complicating matters, was the behavior of a proud French Brigadier General named Prudhomme DeBorre who insisted that he be given the position of honor of commanding the right of General Sullivan’s Division. Parts of the American line were in disarray. The British launched a furious attack. The British scooped up several artillery pieces along the way. While the Continental Army fought valiantly, the British attack was too overwhelming, and the Americans had to fall back to new defensive line 400 yards to the southwest.
The Americans rallied the scattered regiments into a second defensive line about 800 yards southwest of the initial encounter. Fierce fighting resumed. General Howe rode to Birmingham Hill form Osborne Hill, and directed the battle from the newly-taken eminence. The British launched a new line of attack. The fighting here was the fiercest of the entire battle. The American line gave way five times, ever re-forming pushed farther back. The officers “exerted themselves beyond description to keep up “the troops morale,” recalled Sullivan. “Five times did the enemy drive our troops from the hill, and as often was it regained, the summit often disputed muzzle to muzzle.”
Washington had been receiving frantic messages from Sullivan concerning this new attack. Yet, Washington was skeptical — he still believed that only a fragment of the overall British force was attacking to the north. In the second of his required daily dispatches to Congress Washington explained that a “severe cannonade” was taking place to his north. “I suppose we shall have a very hot evening,” he continued. But he was curiously absent. He still believed the main British force was with Knyphausen.
At about 5 P.M., the noise of the cannon from the north combined with Knyphausen’s relative inactivity on the west side of the creek, finally convinced Washington that the main British force was indeed at Birmingham. He pressed a reluctant elderly farmer by the name of Joseph Brown into leading him over the shortest route to the battle. The elderly farmer demurred until an American officer dismounted from his horse and pointedly pointed the tip of his sword at Brown. Brown led the way. Brown raced Washington and his officers and at a breakneck pace for four miles. Washington urged them on jumping fences, hurtling ditches and urging the farmer “Push along, old man, push on!” Following them were two divisions of Nathaniel Green which had been held in reserve. Greene’s column moved at remarkable speed covering four miles in 45 minutes. What Washington saw as he rode up was the Americans in retreat from Battle Hill. A soldier from New Jersey recalled, “We broke and Rallied and Rallied & broke from height to height till we fell on our main Army who reinforced us & about sunset we made a stand.” This was Greene’s Division.
At this point Lafayette rode up and did all he could to make the men charge at the point of a bayonet but the Americans, little used to this sort of fighting did not care to do so, and this brigade fled like the rest of the army. Then, Amidst the confusion, Lafayette was wounded, as he would recount later in a letter to his wife: “the English honored me with a musket ball, which slightly wounded me in the leg.”
Greene opened his ranks to let the retreating Americans pass through and then re-formed his lines. Fierce fighting now took place in the area known as Sandy Hill. Charges and countercharges followed.
While the Americans were fighting the British near Dilworth, they could hear cannon fire from the vicinity of Chadd’s Ford. Knyphausen was attacking Wayne. If Wayne gave way, the British under Knyphausen would have a clear path to Greene’s troops fighting the northern attackers.
Knyphausen had begun bombarding the Americans across the creek with heavy artillery. The Prussian general was supposed to hold his attack until he heard the sound of Howe firing two cannon shots which was the signal that the the northern troops had forded the river successfully. Regardless, at 4:00 P.M., Knyphausen began a frontal attack without the signal. Fortunately for Knyphausen, American brigades under Generals Green and Nash had just been sent north to reinforce the American lines at Birmingham. Knyphausen sent his men across the Brandywine at several different fording spots, with four regiments alone crossing at Brinton’s Ford. Knyphausen’s main column pushed through at Chadd’s Ford in the face of heavy American resistance. A smaller British force moved south, and crossed the creek probably at Gibson’s Ford, which threatened the American militia posted farther south at Pyle’s Ford.
The Americans fought with verve — despite being outnumbered. They might have been able to endure the attack had not another British regiment — who had gotten lost earlier in the day at Birmingham Hill — entered the fray. These British Guards and Grenadier Brigades were supposed have part of the British force that attacked Sullivan’s second line of defense at Battle Hill. Instead, they became tangled and lost in the thickets of Wistar’s Woods, which allowed Sullivan’s men to hold their ground longer than they might have. After a couple hours, these lost troops emerged serendipitously to the rear of Wayne’s artillery position. Now, Wayne had to shift some of his men to defend against this new menace.
The British pushed the outflanked Americans back to the Chad House where the Widow Chads remained — and staunchly defended her property. Ultimately, the British got the best of Wayne’s men in a spirited duel. Besieged by the bayonets of the British 71st Battalion and the Queens Rangers, the Americans turned tail toward Chester, leaving their artillery behind. Eleven guns were abandoned by the Americans including two cannon which had been captured from the Hessians during Washington’s surprise attack of Trenton after crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776.
Among those besieging the British was Patrick Ferguson of Ferguson’s Rifleman. It was near the Chadd House that the inventor of the breech-loading rifle was wounded, which may have an effect on the war. Edward Hector, a Negro private in the 3rd Pennsylvania Artillery, valiantly saved a few wagon loads of ammunition and arms in the tumult. But most of the equipment was left behind. Fortunately, Washington had ordered the baggage removed to Chester the day before, so at least that was safe. Wayne posted a small brigade armed with four cannon, at Painter’s Crossroads to cover the troops retreating toward Chester. They kept the main road to Chester open not only for Wayne’s retreating men, but Nash’s North Carolinians, and the rear guard of Sullivan’s troops who were falling back from Dilworth.
Greene’s men held the Sandy Hollow area. Fighting under Greene was brigadier General, Peter Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister who had once served in the Prussian army. As he rode along the defensive line rallying the Virginia troops, he was recognized by some Hessians who called him by his nickname, “Devil Pete.” Though the Americans fought well they were forced back. An aide-de-camp to General Howe wrote, “By six o’clock our left wing still had not been able to advance. Here the rebels fought very bravely and did not retreat until they heard in their rear General Knyphausen’s fire coming nearer….The Rebels found themselves between two fires. This probably caused them to leave their strong post and retreat from their right wing on the Road to Chester. After warring for nearly two hours the outnumbered Americans began to give way.
At about 7:30, some of General Weedon’s men and North Carolina troops under Brigadier General Nash surprised Howe’s troops and put a damper on the British victory party. They had come on in the rear and drew up in a semicircle just north and west o the Dilworth Crossroads. Here they surprised Howe’s victorious troops who had just taken the filed from Greene: “The heat of the Action fell chiefly on the 64th Regt who suffered considerably, enduring with the utmost steadiness a very heavy fire, which lasted till Dark, when the Rebels retreated in great Panick taking the road to Chester.”
The American’s last stand was supported by Casimir Pulaski who led a stunning cavalry charge. Pulaski had been present at Brandywine as an observer but received Washington’s permission to organize a group of horseman into an ad hoc unit. It was not enough and the Americans retreated toward Chester. This last American foray probably convinced Howe that it would be too dangerous to try and follow the Americans for a nighttime knockout. Besides which, the day had been exhausting. Howe’s troops marched 17 miles in 11 hours, and had fought three pitched battle in the space of six hours. A British lieutenant pointedly summed up the rigors the British had been recently exposed to: “We had the Honour & with our Fire closed the Day. The Fatigue of the Day were excessive; some of our best Men were obliged to yield, one of the 33 dropped dead [of heat stroke] nor had we even Daylight, we could not make any thing of a pursuit. If you knew the weight a poor Soldier carries, the length of time he is obliged to be on foot for a train of Artillery to move 17 miles, the Duties he goes thro’ when near an Enemy, that the whole night of the 9th we were marching, you would say we had done our Duty on the 11 to beat an Army strongly posted, numerous & unfatigued.”
Major John Andre, in a businesslike manner, summed up the battle from the British point of view: “General Knyphausen, as was preconcerted, passed the ford upon hearing the column engaged, and the troops under him pushed the enemy with equal success. Night and the fatigue the soldiers had undergone prevented any pursuit. It is remarkable that after reconnoitering after the action, the right of General Howe’s camp was found close on General Knyphausen’s left, and nearly in a line, and in forming the general camp next day scarce any alteration was made.”
Casualties at Brandywine were strewn across a 10-square mile area of the battlefield, making final determinations particularly difficult. General Howe in his official report to Parliament counted: 90 killed, 488 wounded and 6 missing in action. Howe, once again clearly underestimated casualty figures. Before the Battle of Germantown, an adjutant in the British army, reckoned British killed and wounded at 1,976. This is the exact same number arrived at by Jacob Hitzheimer, a civilian at Brandywine who recorded the number of British wounded in a diary entry. Some reports have the Queens Rangers losing 290 out of 480 men, while Ferguson’s Riflemen suffered 46 casualties out of 80. The 2nd Light Infantry and 2nd British Guards who were involved in some of the fiercest fighting at Brandywine (including hand-to-hand combat) are listed as having lost 612 of 1,740 troops.
Major General Greene estimated American losses at 1,200 men. He also reported the loss of 10 irreplaceable cannon and a Howitzer. A Hessian officer listed the American casualty and captured rate at 1,300. An American officer under Brigadier General Nash reported British losses at 1,960 and the Americans at 700.