British General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe spent thirty-three days at sea from the day their armada embarked from Staten Island, New York on July 23, 1777. During that time, General George Washington, who had no reliable intelligence, desperately tried to anticipate where the Howes were going. The Hudson Highlands? To Albany to assist British General John Burgoyne’s army? To take the American’s supply depots in Pennsylvania?
Finally, he received intelligence that the British armada was sailing up the Chesapeake Bay. Howe’s exhausted army disembarked at Head of Elk, Maryland on August 25, 1777. The army rested, foraged, and scouted. On September 9, they began their slow march north and to the west of the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania.
Washington gathered his army at Chadd’s Ford on the steep thickly wooded east bank of the Brandywine to defend what he perceived as an attempt to take Philadelphia. Howe’s objective was just that. There were numerous fords at one mile intervals northward along the Brandywine: Brinton’s Ford, Wistar’s Ford, Jone’s Ford and Buffington’s Ford. These names were not thoroughly familiar to Washington and his generals. They had not taken the precaution of having at hand someone who knew the countryside.
By September 10, the British army was encamped at Kennett Square, six miles west of Chadd’s Ford and twenty-six miles from Philadelphia. Here Howe and his major generals Lord Charles Cornwallis and German Wilhelm von Knyphausen laid out their strategy and employed local scouts. Knyphausen would keep Washington’s army occupied in the center over Chadd’s Ford while Howe and Cornwallis marched north along the Great Valley Road to unguarded fords at the fork of the Brandywine and perform a right flanking maneuver on Washington’s army just as they had at the Battle of Long Island.
Washington formed his army into three wings. Nathanael Greene with his division and Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvanians were in the center while John Sullivan’s division anchored the American right to guard Brinton’s Ford. Lord Alexander Stirling’s and Adam Stephen’s division formed a second line behind Sullivan’s men. Colonel Moses Hazen, guarding Jone’s Ford on Sullivan’s right, was ordered to scout to the north and west. Henry Knox set up an artillery park at Chadd’s Ford.
Washington and his staff settled in the Ring House and setup headquarters. Unless something completely unforeseen intervened, the stage was set for one of the largest battles of the American Revolution. Nearly 30,000 troops were within a few miles of one another and prepared for action.
September 11 dawned cool, gray, and dreary. In the pre-dawn hours William Howe’s army moved out. Knyphausen’s division left at the same time and marched directly eastward toward the Brandywine. British and Hessian brigades, Royal Artillery, dragoons, and two battalions of Highlanders rumbled toward Chadd’s Ford. About a mile beyond where Howe and Cornwallis filed off, Knyphausen’s van came upon Welch’s Tavern.
Washington sent General William Maxwell’s regiment across the Brandywine to harass the enemy’s vanguard. Maxwell opened fire on Major Patrick Ferguson’s rifles and Captain James Wemy’s Queen’s Rangers as they approached the tavern. The British van was brought to halt. British field guns began a cannonade. Knox’s gunners returned fire. For two hours the cannons kept up a deafening roar.
After having been ambushed three times, the troops marching at the head of Knyphausen’s column were more cautious. British General James Grant moved up with his Regiments of Foot. The Queen’s Rangers attacked the rebels with bayonets. Maxwell’s flank was turned by the Hessians. His left collapsed and retreated.
Captain Patrick Ferguson had only 10 casualties. He credit the small number to his new rifle, a rifle that could be loaded lying on the ground by way of a screw plug that passed vertically through the barrel instead of having to stand to muzzle load the weapon. A well-trained rifleman could fire up to six times a minute. Maxwell, on the other hand lost close to fifty men.
The Battle of Brandywine had begun.
Near Wayne’s division, Colonel Thomas Proctor’s Pennsylvania artillery unit slid into place and lobbed balls across the creek at the enemy. While the artillery exchanged rounds Knyphausen did his best to convince Washington that he was opposing Howe’s entire army. To accomplish this, Knyphausen marched his units one way and then back again, using the hills and swales to show them or hide them as he saw fit.
On the east side of the river, Washington sorted through verbal reports in an effort to determine who Maxwell had spent the morning fighting. Did his light infantry harass and fall back in the face of Howe’s entire army? If not, then a large portion of Howe’s command was no longer in his front. Exactly what was happening? Around 9:30 a.m., Sullivan’s aide, Major Lewis Morris arrived at the Ring House with a message from Sullivan.
Maj. Jamison came to me at nine o’clock and said that he had come from the right of the army, and I might depend there was no enemy there.
Washington sent scouts north of Colonel Hazen’s position to reconnoiter. However, the first warning arrived shortly afterward around 10:00 a.m. from Colonel Hazen near Buffington’s Ford.
The British are making a flanking movement. A strong British column is to the west headed toward the forks of the Brandywine near Trimble’s Ford.
By 11:00, the conflict had lulled and there was no movement from Knyphausen. Washington began to worry that they were facing a repeat of Long Island. Indeed, Howe and Cornwallis had reached Trimble’s Ford on the west branch of the Brandywine about five miles from where they began their march at Kennett Square. The British column picked up its pace and marched toward Jeffries’s Ford on the east branch of the Brandywine.
Washington ordered Stirling’s and Stephen’s divisions to shift north to protect the army’s right flank. Greene and Maxwell were to reinforce their position behind the morass near the river in preparation to assist Stephen and Stirling. At noon a report came in from Colonel James Ross.
A large body of the enemy from every account 5000, with 16 or 18 field pieces, marched along this road just now. This road leads to Trimble’s and Jeffrie’s ferries on the Brandywine. We are close on the enemy’s rear and skirmishing with some of their elements.
While Washington’s generals executed his orders, another message arrived from John Sullivan at 12:30.
Since I sent you the message by Major Lewis Morris, I saw Major Joseph Spears of the Militia who came this morning from a tavern called Martins in the Forks of the Brandywine—he came from thence to Welches Tavern and heard nothing of the enemy about the Forks of the Brandywine and is confident they are not in that Quarter. So Colonel Hazen’s information must be wrong. I have sent to that Quarter to know whether there is any foundation for the Report and shall give Yr. Excy the earliest information.
At 1:00 p.m., the vanguard of Cornwallis’ column arrived at Jeffries’s Ford. Just east of Jefferies’s Ford, the road to Birmingham intersected with the road coming from Jeffries’s Ford at right angles, cutting through a sharp defile. It was the perfect avenue to march troops behind. Hessian Captain Johann Ewald, leading Cornwallis’ van, filed his Hessians into the defile. Cornwallis followed. Ewald rode back to Cornwallis and said, “I do not understand why the pass has been left wide open for us where a hundred men could have held up either army the whole day. Washington should have defended this spot.”
At 2:00 p.m., a message arrived from Colonel Bland forwarded by Sullivan.
Colonel Bland has at this moment sent me word, that the enemy are in the rear of my right, about two miles, coming down. There, he says, about two brigades of them. He also saw a dust back in the country for above an hour.
While Washington was digesting Bland’s report, Cornwallis’ main flanking column was pressing through the defile and Sconneltown. The local Quakers watched as the British poured across the Brandywine. Young Quaker, Joseph Townsend wrote:
Our eyes were caught on a sudden by the appearance of the army coming out of the woods into the fields belonging to Emmor Jerfferis, on the west side of the creek above the fording placed. In a few minutes the fields were literally covered with them, and they were hastening towards us. Their arms and bayonets being raised shone as bright as silver, there being a clear sky and the day exceedingly warm.
Cornwallis divided his army into three columns before continuing the advance. Washington concluded that Stirling’s and Stephen’s division would not be sufficient to check the flanking column. He ordered Sullivan to pull his infantry out of line and shift his division north. After an hour of traversing difficult terrain consisting of hills, woods, thickets, marshy streams, and farm fields, Sullivan and his 1,400 men mostly from Maryland and Delaware were still trying to get into position. He finally rendezvoused with Stirling and Stephen on Birmingham Hill. Colonel Moses Hazen added his regiment to the forces.
Cornwallis fanned part of his force out on Osborn’s Hill two miles north of Birmingham Hill. Now halted, the solders dropped where they stood. “The troops were both sultry and dusty and rather fatigued, many remaining along the road on that account,” Captain John Montresor wrote in his journal. Generals Howe and Cornwallis had a commanding view from their position on Osborn’s Hill including the distant views of the Americans’ changing front to meet their advance.
Cornwallis ordered Ewald to form the advanced guard. It was 4:00 p.m. As Cornwallis’ front lines began to move, the Americans opened fire with solid cannon shot. Finally, the Americans switched to grapeshot and canister rounds. The Royal Artillery responded. Grapeshot ripped through the American ranks of both Stirling’s and Stephen’s divisions. Hot chunks of iron dismembered some, and crushed and killed others.
Sullivan was trying to get into a line of battle. He left his division under a French officer temporarily in charge of the Marylanders, to establish his overall command of Stirling’s and Stephen’s divisions and confer with them. The French officer, General Philippe de Borre, spoke no English and promptly led the Marylanders in circles. The sound of beating drums and fifes and boots thudding alerted them to the approach of the British Brigade of Guards. Instead of sliding to the right to align with Stirling’s left, de Borre attempted a complicated wheeling maneuver. A strong line of the enemy troops appeared directly in front of them and fired into their faces at pointblank range.
Twenty-six Marylanders were killed. The 1st Maryland Brigade was thrown into confusion. They poured down the southern slope of Birmingham Hill. With the 1st Maryland Brigade in full retreat, the 2nd Maryland Brigade assumed a retreat had been ordered. Colonel Samuel Smith’s Maryland men took to the cornfields. Except for Hazen, Sullivan’s division had been routed.
British grenadiers suddenly appeared within forty paces of Stirling’s line and a hot volley ensued. Confusion erupted in both armies when heavy black powder smoke billowed along the lines. The grenadiers fired another volley and then ran at the rebels with fixed bayonets. The momentum of the advancing Light Infantry Battalion, together with the Grenadier Battalion, carried them up the slope and into General Thomas Conway’s Pennsylvania brigade of Stirling’s division.
Stirling’s men fell down the southern slope. They were unable to survive the rout of Sullivan’s division on the left, withstand the heavy firing in front, and repulse the grenadier’s’ bayonet charge. All of them were retreating into Sandy Hollow. Despite Stirling’s retreat, Stephen and his men tried desperately to defend their position on Birmingham Hill, but their left flank was exposed. General Lafayette and his men were trying to mount bayonets on the muskets of Stirling’s men when Lafayette took a ball in his leg.
The thunder of cannon rolling to the north was the signal for Knyphausen to form his column to attack the sparsely manned American defense across the Brandywine which formed Washington’s center. Colonel Thomas Proctor’s gunners fired at the British as they waded across the river. From in front, Wayne’s divisional artillery fired at their right flank.
While Knyphausen’s men lead by General James Grant were crossing the river, Greene, under orders from Washington, with his brigade of Virginians and generals George Weedon and John Muhlenberg were marching north to stop the advancing British and Hessian troops and protect the fleeing survivors of the Birmingham Hill rout.
Night was falling over Pennsylvania when Washington and his staff arrived at the Brinton House north east of Birmingham Hill as the remnants of Sullivan’s three divisional commands were fleeing in disorder southeast. Henry Knox mounted his artillery on a small hill. When Greene came to the rescue, Sullivan was making an attempt to realign his disordered troops. Greene’s division moved to both sides of Wilmington Road a mile south of Dilworth
At Chadd’s Ford, the British succeeded in crossing the river under fire from Colonel Thomas Proctor’s artillery redoubt. They attacked the American artillery redoubt and poured in. British howitzers killed many American gunners. The surviving gunners fled abandoning their pieces and ammunition. The Queen’s Rangers and the 71st Highlanders marched northward to attack the American artillery park at Brinton’s Ford. The gunners fled toward a nearby buckwheat field, where they were pinned against a fence line and bayoneted.
Wayne’s division positioned on the Great Post Road on a rise with General William Maxwell’s regiment on their right flank offered some long distance enfilade. However, Knyphausen’s advancing lines opened fire. As the last remnants of light hung in the sky, most of Wayne’s men were running for their lives under heavy fire. With Cornwallis’ Brigade of Guards bearing down on him from the north and Knyphausen’s troops pushing the in front Wayne ordered a retreat.
To the north, Greene’s formed division draped across Wilmington Road on a hill outside of Dilworth to face British General James Agnew’s 4th Brigade, British Battalion of Grenadiers and Regiments of Foot, which included Ewald’s surviving Hessian jaegers who had attached themselves to the grenadiers.
Agnew and Ewald crossed Wilmington Road and marched up the slope in their front. The exhausted British and Hessians were surprised by Greene’s expansive front. On Greene’s right, Weedon’s men held their fire until Agnew’s flanking line was directly in front. They caught part of Agnew’s regiments in an open field. Agnew returned fire. Weedon’s men opened a sustained fire while Knox’s cannon crews did the same from the knoll near the Brinton House. The British officer corps was decimated in the firing. Both sides volleyed until dark. With ammunition almost spent, firing ceased on both sides. Greene and the others pulled back southeastward.
William Howe halted pursuit and the exhausted British and Hessian troops dropped where they stood. One of Howe’s Royal Engineers, Captain Archibald Robertson advised, “It being almost dark, unacquainted with the ground and the troops very much fatigued, it shall be impossible to pursue further the advantage we have gained.”
Washington’s army was in full retreat south toward Chester. The battle had scattered the army, flooding the roads and fields with exhausted troops from various commands whom stumbled on without the guidance of officers. The dead and wounded lay scattered across the countryside, British, German, and American alike, many of the survivors crying and begging for medical help, food and water.
The Battle of Brandywine had come to an end. Washington’s army was routed again because they could not hold the field.
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