The Battle of Brandywine

by John Ebenreiter

As we think about the War for Independence, we remember the opening shots at Lexington and Concord, we remember Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas night, and we remember the surrender at Yorktown. But we often forget, or maybe we do not even know of the Battle of Brandywine. Yet it was the largest battle in terms of combatants during the entire War for Independence. There were over 30,000 combatants – somewhat more than 15,000 for the British and somewhat less than 15,000 for the Americans. The battle took place on September 11, 1777. It is an easy date to remember. We all remember September 11 for another reason; and the year, 1777, was just over one year after the Declaration of Independence.

Why was the battle fought? During the summer of 1777 British General William Howe was in New York City with a large force. General Washington did not know what Howe might be planning. There was a general suspicion that Howe would go up the Hudson River to join the British forces which were coming into upstate New York from Canada under General John Burgoyne. In July Howe started loading ships with men, horses, and supplies. Unbeknown to Washington, Howe had received permission to attack Philadelphia. When the 266 ship fleet, under the direction of General Howe’s brother Admiral Richard Howe, was spotted off the coast of southern New Jersey, Washington moved his forces south. When Washington learned that the fleet was in Chesapeake Bay, Washington now knew that Howe’s plan was to attack Philadelphia.

After Howe’s fleet landed at Elk Ferry (southwest of present day Elkton), Maryland, Washington chose the Brandywine Creek as his site to defend Philadelphia. There were several skirmishes between the British and American forces as Howe moved up from Elk Ferry. Of these skirmishes, the most major was Cooch’s Bridge near present day Glasgow, Delaware. Washington selected Benjamin Ring’s house, about a mile east of Brandywine Creek, as his headquarters, arriving there on September 9, 1777. (The Ring House is available for tours at the Brandywine Battlefield Park.) General Howe encamped at Kennett Square, about seven miles west of Brandywine Creek.

Washington had artillery, commanded by General Henry Knox, set up on both sides of the creek near Chads Ford. There were several fords on Brandywine Creek which needed to be used to cross the creek. Pyle’s Ford was defended by General John Armstrong. Chads Ford and Chads Ferry were defended by Generals Anthony Wayne and Nathaniel Greene. Brinton’s Ferry was defended by General John Sullivan. Three fords – Jones, Wister, and Buffington – were lightly defended by Colonel Moses Hazen’s Canadian Infernals. Washington was not aware of two more upstream fords – Trimble’s Ford on the West Branch and Jeffries Ford on the East Branch.

At roughly 5:00 AM on September 11th, Howe marched out of Kennett Square. Not surprisingly, having used the same tactic at the Battle of Long Island, Howe divided his forces. He sent the Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen straight east toward Brandywine Creek with approximately 7,100 men. General Howe, with General Charles Cornwallis, marched with approximately 8,500 men north on a flanking move to launch a surprise attack on Washington’s right flank. Howe was guided by Loyalist scouts to the unprotected fords – Trimble’s and Jeffries.

The first shots of the battle happened at Welch’s Tavern which was located near the present day entrance to Longwood Gardens. Von Knyphausen’s men had several skirmishes along the way toward the Brandywine. Included in the British force was Major Patrick Ferguson who had invented a breech loading rifle. This weapon could get off twice as many rounds per minute than the other weapons used at the time and was extremely accurate because it was rifled. Ferguson had General Washington in his sights across the Brandywine but decided that he could not shoot an officer in the back. This act of chivalry avoided a real re-write of history!

After traveling nine miles, Howe’s men completed the Trimble’s Ford crossing at 11: 00 AM. At noon they got to Jeffries Ford and were astonished that it was not defended. They then had to traverse a ravine on Birmingham Road. Captain Johann Ewald’s Hessian jägers led the way and could not believe that it too was undefended. When the forces got to Strode’s Mill, Howe ordered a rest so that his troops could partake of tea before the ensuing battle which would commence at 3:30 PM.

Earlier in the day Squire Thomas Cheney warned Washington that the British were engaging a flanking movement. Washington ignored the warning. Later Washington got word from his officers. With this news, Washington moved his troops that he was holding in reserve near his headquarters north to the vicinity of the Birmingham Meeting House. Sullivan’s move from Brinton’s Ferry brought him to the left of the American lines and right into the attacking forces. Being the ranking commander, he had to maneuver to the right. This created a lot of confusion and heavy losses occurred. The heavy fighting on Birmingham Hill, around the Birmingham Meeting House, and in Sandy Hollow was fierce and ferocious. In most places land changed hands several times.

When the American lines started to retreat, General Marquis de Lafayette was instrumental in turning the retreat. Lafayette was wounded in the area of Sandy Hollow. When Washington learned that Lafayette was wounded, he sent a physician and had James Monroe, who spoke French, accompany him. The battle ended at dusk. General Nathaniel Greene and Count Casimer Pulaski held off the British to allow an orderly retreat to Chester. When von Knyphausen heard the cannonade to the north, he had his forces attack at Chads Ford, eventually rolling up the Americans and crossing the creek.

Soldiers engaged in the battle comprised a who’s who of the War for Independence. On the American side, in addition to the aforementioned – Washington, Knox, Armstrong, Wayne, Greene, Sullivan, Lafayette, Monroe, Pulaski – there was Lord Stirling,  Alexander Hamilton, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, John Marshall, and Peter Muhlenberg. On the British side, in addition to those already mentioned – Howe, Cornwallis, von Knyphausen – there was Charles “No Flint” Grey, John Andre, James Grant, and Banistre Tarleton.

Casualty (killed, wounded, and prisoners) numbers are not precisely known. Best estimates are that the British lost 500-600 and the Americans 1,000-1,300. Many Americans were buried in a mass grave at the Birmingham Meeting House. It was used as a hospital after the battle. Howe informed Washington that he did not have enough physicians or surgeons to care for all the wounded. As a result, Washington sent Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, under a flag of truce through the British lines to the Birmingham Meeting House.

The British entered Philadelphia on September 26, 1777.

Click here to see units engaged: Brandywine Order of Battle

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