Sunday, July 19, 2020

ARP158 Battle of Brandywine

Last week, I left off with the British Army commanded by General Howe, having landed in Maryland, skirmished with the continentals in Delaware, and then moved westward into Pennsylvania in a march toward Philadelphia.  The Continentals under General Washington pivoted from Delaware into Pennsylvania.  They deployed along Brandywine Creek, prepared to confront the British advance there.

Brandywine Creek is a relatively small waterway that begins with the merger of two smaller creeks about thirty miles west of Philadelphia.  It then flows down to Wilmington, Delaware, before merging with the Christiana Creek and then into the Delaware River.  It is not big enough to sail ships, but was deep enough in most places during this era to prevent men from fording across.

Continental Defenses

That said, there were a number of fords along the creek where an army could cross. The Continentals deployed around those fords and planned to force the enemy to cross that water in the face of enemy fire if it wanted to advance.

Battle of Brandywine
General Washington believed the most likely crossing point would be at Chadds Ford, a small village in Pennsylvania, about two miles north of the border with Delaware.  By September 9, 1777, his Continentals had secured the Chadds Ford, as well as two other fords just upstream from Chadds.

They also secured Pyle’s Ford to the south in Delaware.  This left flank of the Continental Army included divisions commanded by Major Generals Anthony Wayne and Nathanael Greene, along with Pennsylvania militia.  Major Generals John Sullivan, Adam Stephen, and Lord Stirling took command of the heights above Chadds Ford which covered the army’s right flank.  Beyond their divisions further north, Colonel Moses Hazen covered two smaller fords further upriver, Buffington’s Ford and Wistar’s Ford (aka Shunk’s Ford).  In the event of enemy movement toward those fords, the nearby reinforcements of the army’s right flank could be deployed there.  Buffington’s Ford was actually north of the place where the Brandywine splits into two smaller branches. To reach that, the enemy would have to ford both the west branch and the east branch of the creeks to reach the Continental’s side.

British Lines

On the British side General Wilhelm von Knyphausen and marched his Hessians to Kennett Square, only a few miles from Chadds Ford where the Americans were already deployed.  General Howe did not realize that Knyphausen would move so quickly and expected him to camp several miles further back.

Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen
(from Wikimedia)
By the time Knyphausen received Howe’s orders, he had already set up camp in Kennett Square and had no interest in marching backward several miles that night.  Instead, he ordered his army to camp without campfires in hopes of keeping their position a secret from the enemy.  By the morning of September 10, Howe’s Regulars also reached Kennett Square.  The entire army of about 15,000 Regulars and Hessians was united and ready.

General Howe was not going to charge into battle without getting the lay of the land.  Although he landed in Maryland with few detailed maps or intelligence about the area, He had been working with local Tories to get what he needed.

Joseph Galloway, who had opted to confirm his loyalty to the King after attending the First Continental Congress, had fled from his home near Philadelphia to join the British in New York City.  He had traveled with Howe to Maryland and served as a local guide. Howe also received guidance from other local residents, including many Quakers, who lived in the area and knew the area well.  On top of that, Howe sent out scouts to determine enemy positions.  So the two armies sat on September 10, as Howe gained intelligence and finalized his plans.

The Battle Begins

On the morning of September 11, General von Knyphausen marched an army of about 6800 mostly Hessian soldiers toward Brandywine Creek.  Although the day would be a hot one, the morning was still chilly and a dense fog hid much of the two armies from each other.  The hilly terrain also made it difficult to track the enemy.  Leading the column was Ferguson’s riflemen and the Queen’s Rangers, a loyalist militia regiment.  Both Ferguson’s riflemen and the Queen’s Rangers wore green coats, resulting in them being mistaken for Hessians during much of the battle.

Brandywine Battle map (from Wikimedia)
That same morning, as the British and Hessians began their march, American General William Maxwell had sent scouts across the Brandywine to track enemy movements.  An American company was eating some breakfast at Welch’s Tavern when Ferguson’s riflemen and the Queens Rangers approached. The two sides exchanged fire as the Americans withdrew. These first shots were fired around 9:00 AM.

Maxwell’s Continentals continued to harass the advancing British in a series of ambushes as the column moved toward the Brandywine.  The few hundred Americans could not halt the British advance.  Their intent was to harass the enemy until they reached the Brandywine, where the Americans would make their stand.  As the battle moved slowly toward the creek, both sides took casualties.  Ferguson’s riflemen proved their worth as they picked off retreating Americans.  Among those wounded was a young captain from Virginia named John Marshall, the future Chief Justice.

By around 10:30 AM, Knyphausen’s main column had reached Brandywine Creek.  Rather than attempt to cross, he brought up his artillery and simply fired across the creek at the enemy.

General Washington was observing the battle through a telescope from a house a short distance from the battle.  It became clear that the force attacking them was not the entire British Army.  Many of his generals feared that the army in front of them was simply meant to amuse them while another force marched around in a flanking maneuver to attack them from a different direction. This was exactly the same tactic Howe had used against them on Long Island.

Washington sent out scouts in search of another enemy column, but received frustratingly inconclusive intelligence.  In fact, General Howe had left camp before dawn and before General Knyphausen began his march.  Howe moved his regulars north.  Washington considered several options.  One was that Howe was attempting a flanking maneuver on the Continental right flank. Another was that Howe was simply keeping the Continentals busy while he marched his army out to Lancaster to seize food and supplies that were stored there.  A third possibility was that Howe had marched north in order to get Washington to send part of his own army north to find Howe.  Then, Howe could double back, join Knyphausen, and crush Washington’s divided army.

By noon, Washington had decided that if Howe’s army really had marched north, they would not participate in the day’s battle.  It would take them too long to find an unguarded ford upstream and march back south.  Washington maintained a strong right flank in case they did show up there, but also began to send regiments across the Brandywine to engage with the enemy.  If he could defeat Knyphausen’s division before Howe arrived, he could then focus all of his army on Howe’s division and defeat the divided army in detail.

Before he could commit his army to the attack, General Sullivan sent intelligence which he received from Major Spear, that there was no sign of the enemy to the north.  If that was true, Howe was likely doubling back to meet up with Knyphausen.  Fearing that, Washington opted not to commit his army to an attack across the creek, but held in his defensive positions.  Washington also recalled Lord Stirling and General Stephen’s divisions to move from the right flank back to the center so that the army could be united against an expected full-on British assault across the creek.

Howe’s Flanking Maneuver

Washington’s intelligence, however, proved incorrect.  General Howe had, in fact, marched more than half of his army north, leaving in the pre-dawn hours before von Knyphausen began his march to the Brandywine.  As many officers guessed, von Knyphausen’s attack was a feint to distract the Continentals while Howe’s larger force could move into position to attack the American right flank.

Washington, Lafayette at Brandywine (from British Battles)
Howe took advantage of local information from Tories to march his army six miles to the north on back roads.  He crossed the Brandywine north of where it forked into two branches.  He crossed both the west branch and east branch of the Brandywine at unguarded fords.  One of the Hessian officers leading his column, Johann Ewald, noted that the army had to pass through a narrow ravine where a few hundred defenders could have held the army at bay for hours.  He was concerned about a possible ambush as he marched his men through.  But the Americans were nowhere to be found.  General Howe had moved his entire division of about eight thousand soldiers onto the east bank and prepared to attack the American right flank from the north.  Howe had marched north about eight miles north to get around the army.

By the time Howe had gotten his army across the Brandywine, it was a little after 1:00 PM.  A local, who supported the patriots, spotted the army and galloped down to inform General Washington.  At first, Washington was convinced of his earlier intelligence that said the British were not to his north, and brushed off the information as an excited local who was exaggerating what he saw.  However, after receiving several more reports, Washington realized he was in trouble, that Howe was about to crash into his right flank and crush the. Continental Army.

Washington redeployed the divisions under Stephen and Stirling to move back to the north and reinforce the right flank.  He ordered General Sullivan to advance on Howe’s army and engage the enemy.  The Continental divisions that had been recalled earlier, had to run back to their positions to the north in order to meet the enemy.  Stephen and Stirling marched their men over three miles in less than half an hour.

The American defenses were still in chaos when the British advance corps came within eyesight of the Americans, less than a mile away.  General Howe could have ordered a charge and scattered the disorganized Continentals.

Regulars rest before going into battle (from history on net)
Instead though, Howe ordered his army to rest and have lunch.  Howe sat with his officers for half an hour to an hour.   They enjoyed tea and talked over their options.  Instead of taking advantage of the surprised and disorganized American defenses, Howe gave them time to organize their lines.  This is just another example of General Howe taking a pause just when he is about to deliver the death blow, and why some of his detractors argue that Howe had no intention of winning this war.

Again, I don't think Howe deliberately sabotaged the British cause.  His men had just marched a grueling seventeen miles and were tired and hungry.  Giving them a short rest before charging into battle might help them to fight better.  Further, it is unclear whether Howe appreciated how disorganized the American lines were, and how much that time would give them to set their defenses.

Birmingham Hill

Taking advantage of the short reprieve, the Americans deployed a defensive line along Birmingham Hill.  General Stephen commanded the right flank.  General Lord Stirling commanded the center.  General Sullivan commanded the left flank.  Stephen and Stirling got their men into place relatively easily.

Brandywine Battlefield (from British Battles)
Sullivan’s division had to march through heavily forested and rocky terrain, meaning that it took the soldiers longer to get into position and could not see the other divisions’ positions as they were forming.  By the time Sulllivan had established his line, he realized he was too far forward and had left a large gap between his division and the Stirling’s center.  Sullivan rode off to meet with Stirling and make sure they were coordinated in their defense.  He left his second in command, the French General Preudhomme de Borre in command of his division.  General de Borre did not speak English and did not really command the respect of his subordinates, leading to further command problems.

While Sullivan was still away from his division, General Howe launched his attack around 4:30 PM.  Stirling and Stephen’s divisions stood firm and repelled several assaults on their positions over the next hour and a half of intense fighting.  Howe had left most of his artillery with Knyphausen, meaning that this had to be primarily an infantry assault.  British grenadiers and others among Howe’s best regiments pushed back the soldiers from Sullivan’s division and threatened the American left flank.

During the fighting, General Washington, along with General Lafayette arrived on the scene and assessed the situation.

British Take the Field

At the same time Howe’s forces were storming Birmingham Hill, General Knyphausen, who had been distracting the Americans all day near Chadd’s Ford, heard the distant gunfire and understood that Howe was attacking.  With that, Knyphausen ordered his division, which was nearly half of the entire British Hessian force, to storm across the Brandywine and take the American position.  Since Washington had moved most of the defenders to Birmingham Hill, Knyphausen only had to contend with a smaller force, composed mostly of militia.  This force, under the command of General Anthony Wayne, and supported by Generals Maxwell and John Armstrong, could not hold off Knyphausen’s assault.

General Washington realized that the two pronged attack meant that both lines were about to fail.  He had held in reserve General Greene’s division to reinforce whichever line needed it.  But even if he deployed Green to one of these two lines, the other would certainly fall.  Instead, Washington ordered Green to move into a defensive position where he could form a rear guard action for the retreating army.  Greene rushed his men into position, marching about three miles in just over half an hour.

Continental lines at Brandywine (from British Battles)
As the American divisions defending Birmingham Hill gave way and retreated, Howe’s forces advanced.  At the same time, Wayne’s defenders along the Brandywine also retreated, giving Knyphausen control of the battlefield there.

As Howe continued his advance, hoping to capture the American army, he ran into Greene’s line, which had been reinforced by many of the soldiers retreating from Birmingham Hill.  Howe attempted to roll up the right flank of Greene’s defensive line as the soldiers put up a solid defense.  Casimir Pulaski, the Polish officer with the Continentals, saw this and organized an impromptu American cavalry charge into the British infantry advance, thus forcing the British to halt their attack.  Pulaski had only arrived in America a few months earlier.  Congress was still debating whether to give him a commission, so technically, he had no command authority.  But at Washington’s request, he organized and led this critical cavalry charge anyway.

With the surprisingly strong American defensive line and with dusk approaching, Howe called off his offensive and allowed the Continentals to retreat from the field.


With nightfall, the Battle of Brandywine ended.  With about 30,000 soldiers engaged on both sides, this would be one of the largest battles of the American Revolution.  The British reported nearly 600 casualties, which is probably an under count.  The Americans estimated they inflicted over 2000 British casualties, which is probably an over count.  The true number is probably closer to the British number, but likely a little higher.

Especially hard hit was Ferguson’s regiment and the loyalist regiment of Queen’s Rangers.  These units had led Knyphausen’s column and took the brunt of the American ambushes as the column advanced.  Captain Ferguson himself was shot in the arm and risked amputation for several weeks.  His arm never fully recovered.

There are no good records of the American casualties.  Most estimates are that they were about double that of the British, about 1200-1300.  About a third of those were captured prisoners, although almost all of those captured were also wounded on the field.  Thanks to General Greene’s rearguard action, almost all of the Americans who were able to walk, or run, were able to escape capture.  The Americans did lose quite a few cannons, including several that they had captured from the enemy at Trenton a few months earlier.

Wounding of Lafayette (from British Battles)
General Lafayette took a ball in the leg late in the day.  It proved to be a relatively minor wound that would allow him to return to duty rather quickly.  After the battle, Captain Ferguson reported that he had seen two American officers on the field whom we could have shot from his position with his rifle.  However, since the officers had their backs turned toward him, he considered the shot to be dishonorable and did not take it.  Later, from the description and known position in the battle, Ferguson became convinced that he had had General Washington in his sights, possibly while conferring with Pulaski.  Even so, he said later he did not regret his decision not to shoot.  Sniping at officers was considered murder by many officers at the time.

The highest ranking officer who died over the encounter was not even on the field.  On the day before the battle, French General Philippe du Coudray, who sought to become the Continental commander of artillery, jumped on a horse in Philadelphia and rode out to join the Continental Army in the field.  As he crossed the Schuylkill River, either on a ferry or a pontoon bridge, accounts differ, his horse got spooked and jumped into the river.  With du Coudray caught in the horse’s stirrups, both horse and rider drowned.  Later, his body was recovered and buried in Philadelphia.

With the battle at an end, General Howe and General Knyphausen made camp near the battlefield and rested their army.  General Washington and the Continentals spent another sleepless night making their escape from the British Army.  Despite the loss, Washington put the best face on the day, reporting to Congress: "despite the day's misfortune, I am pleased to announce that most of my men are in good spirits and still have the courage to fight the enemy another day."

- - -

Next Episode 159 Battle of the Clouds

Previous Episode 157 Head of Elk & Cooch's Bridge

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Further Reading


Virtual Marching Tour, Brandywine:

Battle of Brandywine:

Battle of Brandywine Creek:

Letter From Washington To John Hancock, 11 September 1777:

Casimir Pulaski:

MontrĂ©sor, John, and G. D. Scull. “Journal of Captain John MontrĂ©sor, July 1, 1777, to July 1, 1778, Chief Engineer of the British Army.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 5, no. 4, 1881, pp. 393–417.

Fyers, Evan W. H. “GENERAL SIR WILLIAM HOWE'S OPERATIONS IN PENNSYLVANIA, 1777. The Battle on the Brandywine Creek—11 September—and the Action at Germantown—4 October.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 8, no. 34, 1929, pp. 228–241.

“COUNT CASIMIR PULASKI AT THE BATTLE OF BRANDYWINE.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 7, no. 4, 1911, pp. 381–383.

ESLING, CHARLES H. A. “WASHINGTON'S HEADQUARTERS AT THE BATTLE OF BRANDYWINE, IN THE HOUSE OF JOHN HOLAHAN, A CATHOLIC.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 3, no. 4, 1907, pp. 356–358. JSTOR,

Sanborn, Paul J. “The Battle of Brandywine: An Intelligence Evaluation of General George Washington's Tactical Operations During The Battle Along The Brandywine, 11 September 1777.” American Intelligence Journal, vol. 16, no. 2/3, 1995, pp. 69–80. JSTOR,

Sullivan, Thomas. “Before and after the Battle of Brandy-Wine. Extracts from the Journal of Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of H.M. Forty-Ninth Regiment of Foot.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 31, no. 4, 1907, pp. 406–418.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Hooton, Francis C.The Battle of Brandywine with its lines of battle, Wm. Stanley Ray, 1900.

Lewis, Charlton Thomas Lafayette at Brandywine, Chester County Historical Society, 1896.

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965 (borrow only)

Townsend, Joseph Some account of the British army, under the command of General Howe; and of the battle of Brandywine, on the memorable September 11th, 1777, and the adventures of that day, Townsend Ward, 1846.

Trussell, John B.B. Jr. The Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1992.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Harris, Michael C. Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777, Savis Beatie, 2014 (book recommendation of the week).

Kauffman, Gerald J. and Michael R. Gallagher The British Invasion of Delaware, Aug-Sep 1777,, 2013.

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign Vol. 1, Stackpole Books, 2006.

Mowday, Bruce September 11, 1777: Washington's Defeat at Brandywine Dooms Philadelphia,  White Mane, 2002.

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Pioneer Press, 1980 (orig. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965).

Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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