Episode 034

Buildup to Brandywine

After the siege of Fort Stanwix (or Fort Schulyer) Washington comes out of his winter in Morristown, NJ and participates in the events leading up to the Battle of Brandywine, including the Battle of Cooch's Bridge

Last week we discussed the Battle of Bennington, which was a small American victory in the scope of the war, but a major morale victory. This week we’ll transition into one of the more famous and well known battles: The Battle of Brandywine. However before we discuss that, let’s take a minute or two to discuss Ft. Stanwix.

If you’ll recall from the Flag Resolution episode, I mentioned that the first official U.S. flag flown during battle was on August 3, 1777 at Fort Schuyler (also known as Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix.

The Siege of Fort Stanwix (also known at the time as Fort Schuyler) began on August 2, 1777, (which is about 2 weeks before the Battle of Bennington) and ended August 22. Fort Stanwix, in the Mohawk River Valley, was then the primary defense point for the Continental Army against British and Indian forces aligned against them in the American Revolutionary War. The fort was occupied by Continental Army forces from New York and Massachusetts under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort. The besieging force was composed of British regulars, American Loyalists, Hessian, and Indians, under the command of British Brigadier General Barry St. Leger and the Iroquois leader Joseph Brant. St. Leger’s expedition was a diversion in support of General John Burgoyne’s campaign to gain control of the Hudson River Valley.

One attempt at relief was thwarted early in the siege when a force of New York militia under Nicholas Herkimer was stopped in the August 6 Battle of Oriskany by a detachment of St. Leger’s forces. While that battle did not involve the fort’s garrison, some of its occupants sortied and raided the nearly empty Indian and Loyalist camps, which was a blow to the morale of St. Leger’s Indian support. The siege was finally broken when American reinforcements under the command of Benedict Arnold neared, and Arnold used a ruse, with the assistance of Herkimer’s relative Hon Yost Schuyler, to convince the besiegers that a much larger force was arriving. This misinformation, combined with the loss of Indian fighters not interested in siege warfare and upset over loss of their personal belongings, led St. Leger to abandon the effort and retreat.

Before we move into our discussion on the Battle of Brandywine, we need to catch up with George Washington. We haven’t heard from him since January, so let’s find out what he and his troops have been doing.

From January to May of 1777 following the victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington camped his army for the winter in Morristown, NJ, sometimes raiding small British posts in NJ and NY. During the same time Washington was wintered at Morristown, Sir William Howe was occupying winter quarters in New York City, with major British outposts at Amboy and Brunswick.

The five months that Washington spent in Morristown were critical and frustrating ones. By mid-March his army had shrunk to only around 3,000 effectives, two-thirds of them militia whose enlistments would be up by the end of the month, while, ironically we was authorized by Congress to enlist up to 75,000 men. Which was a number that seemed doable to Congress, but almost ridiculous to Washington in the field. Also about the same time, two shiploads of French weapons and ammunitions arrived, with enough muskets, powder, and gun flints to equip 22,000 men.

By late spring, after constant bargaining with Congress and his own ceaseless recruiting efforts he had managed to build his army to slightly less than 9,000 men – but only 6,000 of those were ready to take the field of battle.

By June of 1777, Howe decided to reassemble the British army on Staten Island. His plan now was to get at the American’s from below Philadelphia. 15,000 troops would load on 260 ships, under the command of his brother Admiral

Lord Richard Howe, for the long voyage that would take his forces south past the Delaware Capes and up Chesapeake Bay.

Washington learned of Howe’s fleet sailing on July 24, but he was uncertain of the endgame. Where did Howe intend to go? Would he link up with Burgoyne moving south from Canada via Lake Champlain? Or would he come after Philadelphia, via the Delaware River or Chesapeake Bay? He could also not rule out Charleston, SC or even a return to Boston.

On 29 July Washington made the decision to move his army toward Philadelphia, only to discover that after 6 days at sea, Howe’s fleet had not been sighted off the Delaware Capes. Had he made the right decision? Two days later, his anxiety was eased when the British fleet had been sighted off the Capes on the 30 July.

He continued his march towards Philadelphia, but it wasn’t until August 22 that he received reliable word that Howe’s fleet was in the Chesapeake Bay. By 24 August Washington was marching at the head of a long column of his army as it paraded through Philadelphia in a manner designed to encourage the Patriots and to impress those of “doubtful persuasion” –and of course, the members of Congress. John Adams, after watching the parade, wrote his wife:

“They marched twelve deep, and yet took up above two hours in passing by”

Their number was reported as high as 16,000, however a figure of 11,000 is going to be more realistic given the total number of forces that will end up at the Brandywine

On Monday, 25 August British troops began disembarking from the Chesapeake near Head of Elk (near present-day Elkton, Maryland). The first five groups of men unloaded included regiments of Hessian and Anspach jagers. (Jagers: elite light infantry, scouts – sharpshooters – skirmishers). The four American companies that were posted to oppose any British forces that landed, saw their opposition and quickly fled. Which allowed the rest of Howe’s army, less the calvary and the horses – to complete their landings throughout the day.

Two days later, 27 August, Washington, his staff aides, and Generals Greene and Lafayette rode out of the encampment near Wilmington on a personal reconnaissance ride. From the summit of a nearby hill, Washington could make out tents of a huge encampment, but his scouting mission was ended by a sudden, fierce and prolonged thunderstorm.

That same thunderstorm was also affecting Howe’s regiments. The British troops were still aching from a month of confinement aboard their transport ships were in need of a rest and a chance to stretch out, even if it was in rain-soaked tents. Moreover, the surviving cavalry and artillery horses were in really bad shape: over 300 dead or dying horses had been thrown overboard during the voyage.

Howe finally got his troops in gear and moving by 28 AUgust, marching in two corp over separate routes. Cornwallis marched on Elkton and the Hessian Lt. General Knyphausen crossed the Elk River and camped at Cecil courthouse. Both corp remained encamped for the next five days while selected units foraged the countryside.

The troops were starving for fresh meat and horses were needed to replace the 300 lost on the voyage. The foraging parties rounded up hundreds of cattle and sheep and one party even brought back a herd of 200 horses and mules.

Washington was fully occupied with bringing as many militia and Continentals to him as he could, and as such was powerless to stop the British incursions on the local countryside. He did manage however to send out a covering force under Brigadier General William Maxwell to keep Howe’s forward elements under observation, with the additional order to be “constantly near the Enemy and to give them every possible annoyance” In all, Maxwell’s force totaled 720 soldiers, officers, and noncommissioned officers.

On 2 September Washington relayed a warning to Maxwell that the British preparations were under way to resume the advance toward Philadelphia. Maxwell wasted no time in creating a small welcome party for the incoming British forces. He redeployed his light infantrymen in ambush positions, mainly along the road northeast of Elkton.

Around 9:00 on the morning of 3 September, the advance guard of Cornwallis’s column – Hessian and Anspach jagers under Lt. Colonel von Wurmb – was feeling its way up Maxwell’s road. A sudden volley from the woods dropped the jagers in the point position. Von Wurmb deployed his advance party and called for support from the British light infantry following the advance forces. This volley which turned into a lively little skirmish, began the “ Battle of Cooch’s Bridge”

Maxwell succeeded in having his men deliver several stinging fires from a series of delaying positions, but von Wurmb continued to press his attempts to outflank the Americans, and eventually the skirmish became a running fight which degenerated into flight by Maxwell’s men. The disorganized men ended their retreat at Washington’s outposts along White Clay Creek, about four miles north of Cooch’s Bridge.

On 6 September, Washington decided to concentrate his forces north of Red Clay Creek astride the main road to Philadelphia. Maxwell was once again deployed as a covering force, this time along White Clay Creek.

On 8 September, Howe was moving to the northeast, apparently toward Kennett Square on the northern road (now US 1) to Philadelphia. To counter this threat to his right flank, Washington withdrew his army to Chadd’s Ford on the Brandywine the next day and deployed it along the east side of that stream.

And on 9 September, both armies were maneuvering toward a fight. The British had already achieved an advantage. They had been exploiting their reconnaissance capabilities to the fullest; and the American’s had not. Washington thus was relatively ignorant of many critical terrain features in the area where the action was pending, and was even unsure of the movements of Howe’s main advance.

The Battle of Brandywine is coming, in our next episode shots will be fired. You may have heard me mention Anspach jagers this episode…if you’ll recall Hessian troops were equivalent to roughly German mercenaries, Anspach jagers were very similar, but they came from the German Anspach principality.


Also published on Medium.

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