Battle of Brandywine – History
Read about the history below, pens made from trees at the site can be found here .
Brandywine Creek calmly meanders through the Pennsylvania countryside today, but on September 11, 1777, it served as the scenic backdrop for the largest battle of the American Revolution, one that encompassed more troops over more land than any combat fought on American soil until the Civil War. Long overshadowed by the stunning American victory at Saratoga, the complex British campaign that defeated George Washington’s colonial army and led to the capture of the capital city of Philadelphia was one of the most important military events of the war.
General Sir William Howe launched his campaign in late July 1777, when he loaded his army of 16,500 British and Hessian soldiers aboard a 265-ship armada in New York and set sail. Six difficult weeks later Howe’s expedition landed near Elkton, Maryland, and moved north into Pennsylvania. Washington’s rebel army harassed Howe’s men at several locations including a minor but violent skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware on September 3. Another week of hit-and-run tactics followed until Howe was within three miles of Chads’s Ford on Brandywine Creek, behind which Washington had posted his army in strategic blocking positions along a six-mile front. The young colonial capital of Philadelphia was just 25 miles farther east.
Obscured by darkness and a heavy morning fog, General Howe initiated his plan of attack at 5:00 a.m. on September 11, pushing against the American center at Chads’s Ford with part of his army while the bulk of his command swung around Washington’s exposed right flank to deliver his coup de main, destroy the colonials, and march on Philadelphia. Warned of Howe’s flanking attack just in time, American generals turned their divisions to face the threat. The bitter fighting on Birmingham Hill drove the Americans from the field, but their heroic defensive stand saved Washington’s army from destruction and proved that the nascent Continental foot soldiers could stand toe-to-toe with their foe. Although fighting would follow, Philadelphia fell to Howe’s legions on September 26.
An understanding of the Battle of Brandywine is difficult at best and is often laced with far-flung myths. However, an examination of the 18th century accounts paints a vivid and graphic picture of the fighting along the Brandywine. The morning phase of the battle featured stubborn fence to fence fighting west of the Brandywine as a detachment of Continentals and Pennsylvania militia desperately sought to slow the advance of the British diversionary column. The middle part of the day featured skirmish fire and artillery exchanges in the Chads’s Ford vicinity while the British flanking column completed a grueling seventeen mile march on a hot and humid late summer day. Several British soldiers in this column collapsed from heat exhaustion. Meanwhile, confusion reigned at Washington’s headquarters as the commander-in-chief attempted to decipher the conflicting reports of British intentions. Washington failed in this regard and was forced to rush nearly half his army to confront the British flanking force at the last possible minute. Desperate fighting ensued as these Continentals fought the elite grenadiers and light infantrymen of the British army. Outnumbered and outclassed, the Americans were forced off Birmingham Hill and were pursued south across farm fields and through woodlots. Rushed to the collapsing American right, Nathanael Greene’s division caught the pursuing British off-guard in a late evening attack and managed to hold the roads open along with Anthony Wayne’s division farther south as the American army retreated to Chester.
Some of the most famous Americans of the early Republic participated in the fighting at Brandywine. Two future presidents were involved. In addition to George Washington who commanded the Continental Army, James Monroe served as a divisional aide during the battle. The army’s artillery chief (Henry Knox) and a Washington aide (Alexander Hamilton) went on to serve Washington in the first presidential cabinet. The army’s adjutant general, Timothy Pickering, would go on to become Postmaster General and then Secretary of State for the first two presidents. Lastly, John Marshall served as a young officer in the army at Brandywine prior to becoming Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
The lack of attention the Battle of Brandywine usually receives is wholly undeserved and rather shocking given that more troops fought along the Brandywine (nearly 30,000) than during any other battle of the entire American Revolution, its 11 hours of fighting make it the longest single-day battle of the war, and it covered more square miles (10) than any other engagement. Invariably people are surprised when they hear those facts about Brandywine. And yet, it remains one of the least known or understood large-scale engagements of the Revolution.