Episode 035

Battle of Brandywine – Part I

The Battle of Brandywine in August 1777 would start out as a chess match between Generals Washington and Howe as they maneuvered for position around the Brandywine

Brandywine Intel Report (PDF)

American historian Douglas Southall Freeman in his book entitled “George Washington” describes Brandywine as flowing “from Northwest to Southeast into the Delaware River on a course parallel to that of the Schuylkill and at a distance of fifteen to twenty miles from that stream…The area between the two streams consequently included the direct approaches to the Quaker City from Head of Elk”

Howe’s chief engineer described the countryside as “a succession of large hills, rather sudden with narrow valleys”.

Much of the country around the stream was farmland at the time of the battle, but a great many of the hills bordering the valley are densely wooded. These hills and forests along the stream helped make the Brandywine, if properly defended, a major tactical obstacle. The creek itself varied in width from 50 to 150 yards, and it’s varying depth was sufficient to require troops to use the fords. There were seven fords on the creek that might be used to cross an Army. The most important was Chadd’s Ford on Washington’s left, where the main road from Kennett Square to Philadelphia crossed the Brandywine. From there moving northward was Brinton’s Ford, Jone’s (or Painter’s) Ford, and Wistar’s Ford. North of the junction of the east and west branches of the stream, Trimble’s Ford cross the West Branch while Buffington’s and Jeffrie’s crossed the East.

All of the fords were easily accessible to the advancing British army and feasible for moving artillery across. Therefore, Washington had to be ever on hi s guard in regards to the fords, as the road network around these fords was relatively extensive which means he could be easily flanked if he was not careful. I’ve posted a map on the website that shows this road network in a little more detail, so make sure to check that out.

Our last episode saw Washington on the morning of September 9, 1777 deploying his forces east of the Brandywine. He entrusted his left flank at Pyle’s Ford (south of Chadd’s Ford) to General Armstrong with 1,000 Pennsylvania militia. Greene’s division, with Wayne’s brigade attached, held the center at Chadd’s Ford supported by the bulk of the army’s artillery. Washington’s troops immediately began constructing earthworks and fortifications, with the priority being around digging in the artillery.

Washington placed the entire right wing under Sullivan’s command. He was to be responsible for defending a large sector, the entire Brandywine north of Chadd’s Ford. The wing was composed of three divisions, each with two brigades. On the south was Sullivan’s own division, in the center was Stephen’s division, and on the far right was Stirling’s division

Maxwell, who as we learned in our last episode had been sent out to slow down and interfere with the incoming British, which resulted in his troops retreating all the way to Washington’s main force, was positioned with 800 light infantry and assigned to cover the approaches to the army’s center. He deployed his companies on high ground west of Chadd’s Ford, centering them on the main road leading to Elkton, the direction from which Washington expected Howe to attack.

On the afternoon of September 10, General Sullivan expressed his concerns to Washington’s headquarters about the vulnerability of the army’s right flank. Specifically he asked if any fords existed above those he was watching. The locals informed him that there were not any other fords within 12 miles. Washington also informed Sullivan that “all Light Horse of the Army” which meant Colonel Theodorick Bland’s 1st Dragoons, were being shifted to the right to “watch the enemy there” – Sullivan’s concern however was that the 1st Dragoons were weak, understrength and poorly commanded, which in Sullivan’s mind was a weak pole to lean on.

When Washington had paraded the army through Philadelphia a few weeks prior, John Adams had mentioned “four regiments of light-horse, Bland’s, Baylor’s, Sheldon’s and Moylan’s” Charles Francis Adams, in his work Studies, Military, and Diplomatic 1775-1865 put it this way “With an overpowering hostile force creeping around the army’s right wing, the question naturally suggests itself, where were Bland’s, Baylor’s, Sheldon’s and Moylon’s four regiments of light-horse? Of them and their movements, no mention is made” The absence of this light cavalry would turn out to be a critical factor that influenced the outcome of the battle…

During the night of 10 September into the early morning hours of 11 September, a light rain fell over the Brandywine valley and a dense fog rolled in and covered the countryside at dawn on the eleventh. While the fog was inhibiting visibility, Washington heard that an enemy column was headed his way from Kennett Square. He sent Maxwell to intercept it.

Scotch Willie Maxwell proceeded to advance his companies a couple of miles to Kennett Meeting House (now Old Kennett Meetinghouse on present day US I) and posted them under cover of a graveyard wall and some woods, sending forward a small mounted patrol. The patrol went about a mile down the road to Welch’s Tavern, where the troops dismounted and took up a reliable overwatch position, along the bar of the Tavern.

About 9:00AM a trooper looked up from his drink and saw through the window, the green jackets and black-plumed caps of Tory scouts, Wemyss’s Queen’s Rangers, and across the road the jackets of Major Ferguson’s riflemen. The patrol dashed out through the back door of the tavern and retreated on foot, leaving their horses to the British. Before leaving they did manage to fire off one ragged volley. Unfortunately, it only caused one casualty. To a horse. One of their own horses.

The British force’s advance guard increased its pace on the road toward Chadd’s Ford, followed by 5,000 British and Hessian soldiers, all under the command of the Hessian General Knyphausen. Knyphausen’s corp was made up of three brigades: two were British under Major General Grant; one, under Stern, consisted of three Hessian regiments. With these brigades also came a train of heavy artillery. Two seperate battalions of the 71st Highlanders protected Knyphausen’s flanks, and half of the 16th Dragoon Regiment proceeded the column.

It was now the British’s turn to be surprised. As the advance party of Wemyss’ rangers and Major Ferguson’s riflemen approached Kennett Meetinghouse, Maxwell’s men, firing from cover, stopped the British advance in its tracks, forcing it to deploy. The superior British numbers forced Maxwell to once again, fallback from position to position, almost to the Brandywine, where he was reinforced by the Virginia regiments of Porterfield and Waggoner. Finally Maxwell was outflanked, and the American’s were forced to fall back across Chadd’s Ford, which left the British and Hessians to close on the creek unopposed.

Knyphausen deployed along the Brandywine with four British and two Hessian regiments on the immediate heights. Donop’s reinforced Hessians were posted on the road, while four more British regiments were pushed forward down to the edges of the flats along the creek. By 10:30 AM Knyphausen was in position to launch a coordinated attack between Brinton’s and Chadd’s Fords.

Meanwhile, Washington and Greene waited at army headquarters in the house of the Quaker Benjamin Ring, about a mile east of Chadd’s Ford. The obvious question in the minds of the commander and his staff: where would the British, who were poised to attack, strike first? and when?

Around 11:00AM word arrived from Colonel Hazen at Jones’s Ford that an enemy column had been sighted marching northward on the Great Valley Road toward the Brandywine. Washington immediately and wisely reacted by sending orders to Colonel Bland to pay “vigilant attention to the movements of the enemy.” Since the enemy had gone up to a ford seven or eight miles above Chadd’s Ford, Bland was to send up a reliable officer immediately to find out the truth.

Following closely on Colonel Hazen’s report came another message, this time from Lieutenant Colonel Ross of the 8th Pennsylvania, who had been reconnoitering along the Great Valley Road

“Dear General:

A large body of the enemy, from every account five thousand, with sixteen or eighteen field peices, marching along this road just now…We are close in their rear with about seventy men, and gave them three rounds within a small distance….
James Ross, Lieutenant-Colonel”

Hazen and Ross’s reports are the first of at least six different combat intelligence items that Washington would have to evaluate. For brevity’s sake in this episode, I’m not going to mention them all, but I have assembled them in a PDF if you go to the website and click on the link for this episode, you’ll see a link to download and read that PDF. (for free of course)

Washington’s reaction to the reports, as well as his orders can be summed up as follows:

  • Howe had exposed his army to defeat, by dividing his force in half
  • Washington would attack and destroy the enemy facing Chadd’s Ford, with Sullivan & Greene’s division. The British flank would, at the same time, be enveloped by Armstrong on the south.
  • The American right flank would be protected by the divisions of Stephen and Stirli ng, which must move at once from their positions along the Brandywine Creek to the vicinity of Birmingham, where they could block any British attempt at a flank attack from the direction of the Brandywine Forks

Stephen’s and Stirling’s divisions were soon moving in march column toward Birmingham and the forward elements of Greene’s command at Chadd’s Ford were beginning to cross the Brandywine. Everything seemed set for a series of brilliant moves that might have given Howe a significant defeat, had they been executed successfully.

But they were not executed at all. Washington canceled them before they were fully underway.

At 1:30 PM Washingto n had received a message from Sullivan saying that Hazen’s earlier message, “must be wrong” A militiaman who had just come in from Martin’s Tavern (present day Marshalton) to Welch’s Tavern had heard nothing of the enemy above the forks of the Brandywine. Sullivan was checking further.

Washington apparently accepted Sullivan’s evaluation at full and face value. He changed Greene’s orders and pulled back his advance from across the creek – and did the same with Sullivan’s division. He also sent orders to Stephen and Stirling to halt in place. Maxwell however, was ordered across the creek to feel out the enemy’s positions while Greene’s troops pulled back.

Washington’s thoughts that Howe would attack him across Chadd’s Ford were once again shaken, this time by a non-military report. A horseman, hatless, coatless, and bare-legged galloped up to Sullivan’s command post and demanded to speak to Sullivan. The farmer turned out to be Squire Thomas Cheyney, a known Patriot in this Loyalist heavy part of Pennslyvania. For some reason Sullivan refused to speak with him, but directed him to Washington’s camp. THere he managed to speak with Washington and share his alarming news, he had been doing some scouting of his own, when suddenly while riding across the crest of a hill he had confronted an advancing British column. He had been fired at but had escaped unhurt. The British were across the Brandywine and coming down on Washington’s right! Washington and his army would soon be surrounded! Washington, however, was not persuaded. Nor was his staff. Cheyney raged at them: “I’d have you know I have this day’s work as much at heart as e’er a blood of ye”
Outside of the headquarters, Cheyney refused to give up, he drew a crude map in the dirt showing the enemy forces in relation to Washington, who was still unconvinced. Cheyney was driven to shouting: “You’re mistaken General. My life for it you’re mistaken. It’s so. Put me under guard ‘til you find out it’s so!”

A wavering Washington was preparing to mount up and go see things for himself when a courier from Sullivan arrived with two dispatches. One from Colonel Bland to Sullivan at 1:15 that reported “a party of the enemy” had been discovered on the heights about a half mile to the north of the Birmingham Meetinghouse. Sullivan, when passing on the message added even more news, at 2:00PM he reported the enemy “to the rear of my right about two miles, coming down, about two brigades of them” – a fairly accurate assessment as events proved. Sullivan also reported that Bland had stated he had seen “a dust cloud rising for above an hour”

Finally Washington was convinced: Hazen, Ross and Squire Cheyney had been right. Howe had succeeded in pulling off the same, exact turning movement that had outflanked and defeated Washington’s army Long Island not even a year ago. To make things worse, Howe’s outflanking column, as well as his forces in position west of the Brandywine had gone about their business undisturbed by American action.

Also published on Medium.

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