Last week we started our discussion on the Battle of Brandwine and we learned that Washington had recieved various and conflicting reports that he was being flanked by a large contingent of British forces. We’ll start this week’s episode by answering the question: “What were the actual movements of the British?”
At 4:00 AM that day, Sept 11, 1777 Cornwallis had marched out of Kennett Square with the main striking force of Howe’s army, about 7,500 men, consisting of the 3rd and 4th infantry brigades, reinforced by the 1st and 2nd battalions of the British grenadiers, the guards, three squadrons of dragoons (two mounted, one dismounted) and Hessian troops. Cornwallis had marched to the road intersection west of Welch’s Tavern and there had turned his column left, (north) coming on to the Great Valley Road. Marching north on that road (as observed by Hazen’s and Ross’s recon parties) his column had crossed the West Branch at Trimble’s Ford and turned eastward for two miles to cross the East Branch of Brandywine at Jeffrie’s Ford. From there Cornwallis had headed south through Sconnelltown toward Osborne’s Hill where Colonel Bland had observed “a party of the enemy”. At about 2:30PM Cornwallis’s column had closed up on it’s advance guard, and the troops were allowed to fall out for a rest, after marching for some 15 miles through the muggy heat. Now, they were set to the American rear, with 7,500 troops.
In the meantime Knyphausen had marched his column of 5,000 from Kennett Square to Chadd’s Ford, where his artillery began “early to cannonade the Enemy on the opposite side, thereby to take up his attention and make him presume an attack was then intended with the whole Army, whilst the other Column should be performing the detour” As Major Andre described the plan, Knyphausen was to cross the ford and “push their advantage” when he learned that Cornwallis had become engaged.
As the fog from the morning was clearing away, Washington needed to take immediate action to save the situation – and his army. He gave Sullivan command of the three divisions of the right wing once more and directed him to take position so as to face northward to counter the British threat from Osborne’s Hill. He stripped the Chadd’s Ford position of all troops except Wayne’s Pennsylvania brigade, reinforced by Maxwell’s light infantry. Greene’s division would make up the reserve, prepared to go to the aide of either Sullivan or Wayne, as ordered. Washington would remain at his headquarters until the situation was clarified.
When Colonel Hazen learned of Cornwallis’ march from Trimble’s Ford to Jeffrie’s Ford, he began withdrawing his troops behind the Brandywine using Buffington and Wistar’s fords. He was later joined by the Delaware regiment. On his way south to rejoin the main body of the army, Hazen encountered Sullivan, who was leading a brigade of his own division up the road on the east side of the Brandywine.
As the two leaders came to a quick stop to exchange information Sullivan explained that he was marching to link up with Stephen’s and Stirling’s divisions, suddenly the men were interrupted by an enemy force that appeared 200 yards from Sullivan’s advance guard. Sullivan quickly decided that this was not the battlefield he wanted and commanded “column right” to advance his guard towards Birmingham. As it turns out, the troops that they spotted were probably a flanking detachment thrown out to protect Cornwallis’s column). Hazen’s regiment and the Delaware regiment remained with Sullivan’s command.
Sullivan began to deploy his division to face northward on the high ground, assuming that he was lining up on the left flank of Stephen’s and Stirling’s divisions. He soon discovered however, that he was far to the left of the other two divisions of his wing, which were already drawn up to his right and rear 500 yards away. To correct the error, he directed Hazen’s regiment to file off to the right to cover the gap, while he galloped over to confer with Stephen and Stirling. Stephen and Stirling recommended that Sullivan’s division should drop back in line with the other two and “that the whole should include further to the right” to guard against being outflanked on the right by the oncoming British. Sullivan approved and road back to move his own division.
The American main battle position took shape, curving around the northern slop of a hill about 500 yards southwest of Birmingham on the defensive terrain, known as Plowed Hill. Cornwallis, remarked that “the rebels form well…” And so they had. Sullivan’s wing was now in position, with his own division on the left, Stirling’s in the center, and Stephen’s on the right. The extreme right flank was extended a little beyond Stephen’s right by French General de Borre’s brigade of three Maryland regiments. Four field pieces of the artillery were already in supporting position.
At 3:30 PM the British formations across the valley between the American battle position and Osborne’s Hill began their march. They moved forward in parade-ground order, the British in scarlet and the Hessians in blue. Each of the columns, were topped with glittering bayonets in a show of force designed to strike awe and fear in their enemy.
Cornwallis had formed his troops into three battle divisions. On the left was the light infantry and the Hessian and Anspach jagers. On the right were the guards, and in the center the grenadiers. In support of the first line were the Hessian grenadiers and the British 4th brigade. The reserve was made up of the 3rd brigade under Major General Grey.
The battle would finally begin when the British left began to reach Street Raod, which ran east-west up the middle of the valley. The jagers, shaken by a volley fired at them from a nearby orchard, closed up and began to return fire, soon joined by the British light infantry. Soon French General de Borre’s brigade crumbled under the assualt, broke, and fled into the woods to their rear, which left Stephen’s right flank wide open.
As this occurred, the guards and grenadiers marched up the hill to their right at charge bayonet and Smashed into Sullivan’s division. The American units there, still in various stages of disorder could not stand up to the British bayonet. They also broke and fell back in flight. All the efforts of Sullivan and his officers to rally the troops were in vain. Sullivan was in the middle of it all, later writing that “…no sooner did I form one party than that which I had before formed would run off…”
Soon the American defenses were reduced to Stephen’s and Stirling’s divisions, along with Hazen’s regiment. Those units were left to take on the entire British offensive.
By 4:30 Washington had begun to hear the sound of rising and falling thunder from the direction of Birmingham. The sound of battle. Knyphausen must have heard it as well, as he ordered his artillery to open up on the American lines. Washington knew he’d soon have to fight a battle on two fronts. He occupied himself by dictating to an aide, what to report to the president of Congress: “At half after four o’clock, the enemy attacked General Sullivan at the ford next above this, and the action has been very violent ever since. It still continues. A very severe cannonade has begun here too, and I suppose we shall have a very hot evening”
Washington now had a tough decision, should he send Greene’s command, his reserves, to back up Wayne’s defense at Chadd’s Ford? or should it be moved to support Sullivan’s wing?
He decided that Wayne and Maxweel supported by Proctor’s artillery woudl defend Chadd’s Ford on the east bank of the Brandywine. Greene would move with all speed to reinforce Sullivan and if possible, stabilize the situation near Birmingham; if that was not possible, he was to cover the retreat of the army. Washington also decided to join Sullivan on the right.
Washington arrived on the field near Birmingham about 5:30PM. Quickly he took in the situation on the American left. Sullivan’s division had fallen back and broken, and Washington had not the time or the opportunity to try and rally and lead them in person as he had at Princeton.
Meanwhile, Greene’s command was underway. Weedon’s brigade in the lead, followed by Muhlenberg’s brigade, both making forced marches. Weedon’s men covered four miles in forty-five minutes, a rate of over five miles an hour.
The situation along the entire American right was becoming grim. There were 3,000 American soldiers trying to hold against a determined enemy who outnumbered them 2.5 to 1. And even though the British and Hessian troops were fatigued from their fifteen mile march in the heat, there was still plenty of fight left in them. For over an hour and a half the fighting raged back and forth around Plowed Hill and the slopes of nearby hills. An American commander later described the fighting: “Cannon balls flew thick and many and small sarms soared like the rolling of a drum” This particular commander was wounded, but his men beat back the British “until most officers and half the men were casualties”
Cornwallis concentrated his heaviest pressure against the American right, trying to get his leftmost units to drive on to the town of Dilworth, which if he took, could seal off the American right wing – even the whole army – while opening the road to Philadelphia to the British. Yet he had more success against the American left, where Sullivan’s division was crumbling under the attacks of British and Hessian troops. It was quite possibly the terrain that saved Sullivan’s troops from immediate and complete destruction. The British and Hessian became entangled in some thick woods so that their tactical organization broke down; they were not reorganized and advancing again until late in the battle.
By the time Weedon’s brigade, which was the leading edge of Greene’s division, arrived on the field, the situation could no longer be saved. The ever-growing flood of fleeing men was too wide and deep to rally. Greene’s unit could only open gaps in their ranks to let the fleeing men through to the rear. Eventually Weedon’s men went over to a dogged defense, then a delaying action from position to position.
Back at Chadd’s Ford, Knyphausen crossed the Brandywine supported by an artillery preparation with his six twelve-pounders, four howitzers, and the light artillery. His spearhead was the 1st Battalion of the 71st Highlanders, followed by Queen’s Rangers and the British 4th Regiment, with Knyphausen personally leadign them. These British and Hessians, fresh and ready for a fight managed to ford the Brandywine and climb the opposite bank. The attacking troops paused only long enough to get into formation, then pushed on to attack and capture an American artillery battery of four pieces positioned near the Brandywine.
Even so, Wayne’s and Maxwell managed to hold out for over two and a half hours, from 4:30PM until dark, around 7:00PM. Major Baurmeister, a Hessian professional, described the American defense in its final phases: “Our regiments gained one height after another as the enemy withdrew. They withstood one more rather severe attack from behind some houses and ditches in front of their left wing. Finally we saw the entire enemy line and four guns which fired frequently, drawn up on another height in front of a dense forest, their right wing on the Chester road”
What Baurmeister saw, was not Wayne and Maxwell’s forces but Muhlenberg’s brigade occupying their last defensive position, taken to cover the flight of the of the remainder of the American right wing. Eventually Greene was able to hold off the British and Hessians from both directions in the falling light of day. Then he could pull back his still in-tact division under the cover of darkness. Sometime around 7:00PM as night was setting in, the right of Cornwallis’ command made contact with the troops of Knyphausen’s left.
The American’s however, would have the last word: two battalions of the British grenadiers were given the mission of following the American retreat beyond Dilworth, far enough to take and occupy several houses east of the village. The grenadier’s officer’s overconfident in their conviction that the American’s were still in full flight, marched the battalions without cover of security elements. When the leading company came within 50 yards of the nearest houses, they were fired upon from an ambush setup by Maxwell’s men. The fire was so heavy that the grenadiers were halted in their tracks while the officers sent for support. The Americans would withdrawal before support arrived.
Elsewhere in the AMerican retreat, on the road to Chester, chaos was compounded by darkness. Any semblance of organization had disappeared in the dark and the army was reduced to a mob of thousands of fleeing men all along the road and in the surrounding fields, every man seeking only to follow someone in front of him. Luckily, confusion did not turn into panic. The mass of men surged forward for twelve miles until the head reached a roadblock at the bridge across Chester Creek. There the wounded American commander Lafayette, his thigh bound up in a bandage, had organized a control point and the retreat was halted. Eventually Washington and Greene arrived, and restored more permanent order to the men. By midnight Washington was so exhausted that he was able only to tumble into bed with a parting order to his staff: “Congress must be written to, gentlemen, and one of you must do it, for I am too sleepy”
There exists no accurate record of American casualties – Washington never set down any figures. Howe’s casualties came to 583, which included 89 killed, 488 wounded and 6 missing. Howe’s estimates of the American losses, which should be taken with a grain of salt, given his ability to exaggerate, were 300 killed, 600 wounded, and 400 captured.
Surprisingly the Americans did not take their defeat as a disaster, but as a simple setback, which can be accurately expressed through Captain Enoch Anderson’s record: “Come boys, we shall do better another time”
Although John Sullivan appears to be the main culprit in allowing the American’s flank to be turned, just like it had been at Long Island, it was Washington – as commander- who must ultimately shoulder the blame and he did. The general who had performed so brilliantly at Trenton and Princeton, handling operations and intelligence in such fashion as to draw praise from Frederick the Great, was somehow not the same commander at Brandywine.
Coming off his recent loss, he’ll soon have his position as commander in chief challenged, by a man named Horatio Gates after the Battle of Saratoga.
We’re closing in on Saratoga, which is a pivotal battle in the war, and we’ll start our discussion with the events leading up to it next week.
Also published on Medium.