Chapter Two: The Battle of Brandywine
“Should [the British] push their design against Philadelphia, on this route, their 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 exertions. One bold stroke will free the land from rapine, devastations and burnings, and female innocence from brutal lust and violence.”
-General George Washington, September 5, 1777
Neither General George Washington nor General William Howe expected a battle to occur near the narrow Brandywine River, but on September 11, 1777 the largest land battle of the American Revolution occurred twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia in the quiet farming community of Birmingham Township (modern-day Chadds Ford). During the Battle of Brandywine, 30,000 soldiers gathered in Chester County, Pennsylvania (modern-day Delaware County) and fought for control of the rebel capital. General Howe believed if he captured Philadelphia, he could deliver a crushing moral and tactical blow to the American war effort.
On July 23, 1777, General Howe departed from northern New Jersey with 18,000 men on board 260 ships. Originally, he planned to sail up the Delaware River and attack Philadelphia by sea. Fearing Fort Mifflin and other American defenses on the river, however, Howe choose instead to sail his fleet up the Chesapeake Bay and attack the city by land. Washington responded by marching his Continental Army towards Wilmington, Delaware to intercept the approaching British, but an unexpected turn north by Howe’s troops forced Washington to bring the war into Chester County.
Since its founding in 1682, Chester County had been home to thousands of conservative Quakers who practiced strict pacifist beliefs. Although they welcomed neither army onto their soil, local Quakers in September 1777 found themselves in the middle of a civil war. Besides refusing to fight, the Quakers were very reluctant to share vital information with either of the two armies. Both General Howe and more so General Washington had great difficulty in gathering reliable intelligence once they arrived in Pennsylvania.
Upon arriving in Birmingham Township on September 9, 1777 Washington immediately began to fortify the area. Realizing the British needed to cross the Brandywine, he concentrated part of his 12,000-man army around the largest crossing point on the river; Chad’s Ford and deployed men around six smaller fords along the Brandywine. “We were led to believe, by those whom we had reason to think well acquainted with the Country,” Washington wrote after the battle, “that no ford above our picquets could be passed, without making a very circuitous march.” Local Quakers, however, had failed to tell the Continentals of two other fords, so both Trimble’s Ford and Jeffries’ Ford, only six miles above Chad’s Ford, were left undefended. Washington confidently waited for Howe’s next move.
Since leaving northern New Jersey in July, the British had struggled against thunderstorms, strong winds, and extreme heat. “If I could own the whole of America,” a German Hessian wrote, “I would refuse if I had to live in these hot regions.” Arriving in Kennett Square, the British caught their first break when local Loyalists informed them of the two undefended fords. The morning of September 11th greeted both armies with uncomfortably high temperatures. Hoping to catch Washington off guard, General Howe, despite the extreme heat, ordered General Charles Cornwallis to lead a seventeen-mile forced march from Kennett Square to outflank the Continental Army. At 4am Cornwallis led 8,000 men north towards Trimble’s Ford. [Battle of Brandywine (Army Divides)] Two hours later, at 6am, Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, whom Howe had left behind, began to march his 7,000 men from Kennett Square east towards Chad’s Ford.
Howe was confident that he could defeat the Continental army by a rapid flanking movement. In July 1776, he had successfully used a similar strategy at the Battle of Long Island that had forced General Washington to evacuate New York City. Howe hoped that the wooded areas of the Brandywine Valley would make it difficult for Washington to recognize where his 8,000-man force was moving.
As Howe and Cornwallis led the main body of the British army towards Trimbles and Jeffries Fords, Knyphausen’s troops advanced against Continental Army General William Maxwell’s light infantry division to the west, reached the river by 11am, and stopped their advance. They remained there for the next five hours because Knyphausen had been ordered to wait for confirmation that Cornwallis and Howe reached their destination, before he crossed the Brandywine and renewed his advance.
During this mid-day lull, Washington confidently believed that he halted the entire British Army at Chad’s Ford, despite conflicting reports of British movements near Trimble’s Ford. Conflicting reports about the exact position of the British Army would continue to confuse Washington all afternoon. It was not until Colonel Theodorick Bland at 1pm spotted the British to the north that Washington knew his army was in danger.
Washington responded by sending three divisions under generals Alexander Stirling, Adam Stephen, and John Sullivan to defend the Continental right flank three miles north, near the Birmingham Friends Meeting House. The three divisions quickly assembled to defend Birmingham Hill, but the Continental Army was not prepared to defend against Howe’s two-pronged assault.
At 2:30pm, Cornwallis and Howe stopped near Sconnelltown to provide their exhausted men a brief rest. Had they pressed on they might have been able to surprise and rout the Continental Army, but after the long march from Kennett Square in the blazing heat the British soldiers needed to regain strength before combat. Howe and his staff then rode to the top of Osborne Hill, the highest point in the region; he established a command post from which he would watch his plan unfold.
At 4pm, Howe launched the main British attack from Osborne Hill against the three Continental divisions defending Birmingham Hill to the south. There, the Continental right wing under generals Stirling, Stephen, and Sullivan fought bravely, but their makeshift defenses could not hold. Washington attempted to reinforce his collapsing right flank by moving General Nathaniel Greene’s division from Chad’s Ford to the north, but Greene’s departure enabled Knyphausen to advance his 7,000 quickly across the river and open a path to Philadelphia.
When Greene’s division halted the British advance at 7pm, near Dilworthtown, General Howe finally called off his troops. After a seventeen-mile forced march that had begun at 4am and intense combat during the day, the British Army was exhausted. The Battle of Brandywine ended with the British “masters of the field.”
That night Washington and his Continental Army retreated southeast to Chester, Pennsylvania, some fourteen miles from the field of battle, where they regrouped and assessed the damage. Stories of patriotic and heroic actions during the day’s fighting echoed throughout camp. Many of the young soldiers had exhibited immense bravery, including twenty-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, who had helped rally troops at the end of the day even after suffering a serious leg wound. Another young man who earned a reputation for heroism on the field was Edward Hector, a free black resident of nearby Conshohocken, who served in an artillery unit that had defended Chad’s Ford, and helped save valuable ammunition during the retreat. General Anthony Wayne also gained respect throughout the Continental Army for his stiff resistance under tremendous odds against Knyphausen’s advance.
For the next few days the British remained in the area, assessing the damage, and taking care of the wounded. On September 16th, Howe began the final advance towards Philadelphia, and entered Philadelphia on September 26th. The British would remain there for the next nine months.
When all of the numbers are tallied, the Battle of Brandywine ranks as the the third bloodiest battle of the Revolution. According to some historians the battle in the Brandywine Valley and the Battle of Germantown, which took place just north of Philadelphia a few weeks later, produced more than 35 percent of all of the casualties of the American War for Independence.