Battle of the Brandywine

Presentation to DSDI Dinner July 4, 2016, Philadelphia

William Spaulding Wood II

     I’d like to start by saying thank you to this wonderful organization. Hope and I have been coming to meetings off and on for over 40 years and I have always enjoyed seeing old acquaintances and making new.  You Descendants do all the heavy lifting and I want you to know, on behalf of all the non- descendants, how much we enjoy the ride.

Now to the Battle of the Brandywine, which took place September 11, 1777 just 25 miles west of here.  It has, in my opinion, been given less importance than it deserved and has been continually referred to simply as a “loss.”  I have always felt it had much more importance than it has been accorded in the story of our military history.  First let me set a little chronological perspective.  It is the fall of 1777.  The United States have already lost New York and have been defeated both in Long Island and New Jersey.  General Burgoyne has started a campaign by which he plans to come down the Hudson Valley to meet General St. Leger, who is coming east along the Mohawk Valley.  Those of you who attended the Saratoga meeting a few years ago will recall that Sillenger was turned back at the Battle of Oriskany Falls, which left General Burgoyne on his own facing Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold. I should add Daniel Morgan, as well.  He is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the Revolutionary War.

Washington was not too concerned by the Bugroyne offensive.  For one thing, he knew by that time that Howe had left New York and was sailing down the Eastern  Seaboard with over 12,000 troops.  Can you imagine in the days of sailing ships, of loading horses, fodder, provisions and an army for an amphibious maneuver like that?  As it turns out, Howe didn’t pack enough fodder and many of the horses didn’t survive the trip.

Eventually Howe turned up the Chesapeake Bay to Head of Elk, which is the present day Elkton, Maryland, the one-time elopement capital of the world.

Howe disembarked and started across country to begin his attack on Philadelphia from the west.  As he crossed Delaware, the Delaware Militia and the newly formed Maxwell Brigade offered resistance at the Battle at Coochs Bridge named for Descendant Dick Cooch’s family, whose home we visited in New Castle.  It was a valiant little struggle but Howe brushed the opposition aside and proceeded on his way.  This was the only military engagement in Delaware during the entire war.  There are those that say if LD had been there we may not have lost.

In the meantime, Washington moved south with 11,000 or 12,000 troops whom Lafayette described as” poorly armed and even more poorly clothed.” He went first to Wilmington, Delaware and then back north tracking Howe’s army.  He eventually settled on a site on the east side of the Brandywine Creek, his line anchored at the little village of Chadds Ford and extending north along the Brandywine.  I am very familiar with this area as I grew up in Chadds Ford on Westover Farm and almost by osmosis I was immersed in the history of this battle.  Little signs were everywhere. At the end of our road about two miles west of Chadds Ford was a dairy barn converted to an early version of a convenience store. It sold post cards with pictures of Dario’s Dairy, as it was called, which noted the fact that a skirmish took place near there   The skirmish involved Maxwell’s Brigade and Knyphausen’s advanced guard.  It was the opening engagement in the battle.

In addition, the Barber Shop in Chadds Ford had a sign advertising that this was where “Washington had his closest shave.”  There is an old farm lane which the locals called “Cornwallis Lane.”  When I was a boy, I knew a local character and historian named Chris Sanderson who played fiddle, called square dances and juggled Indian clubs. He never owned a car, walking and hitchhiking whereever he wanted to go.  He never missed a Presidential Inauguration in Washington and made it his life’s work  promoting the Brandywine Battlefield and attempting to get government aid to preserve it.  He lived with his mother in Washington’s headquarters, later moving to the John Chad House, for whom the ford was named (it was spelled with one “d”; a second “d” was added along the way).  Chris’s efforts were rewarded by the creation of the present day Brandywine Battlefield Park.  He was such an interesting person and known throughout the area that then local artist Andrew Wyeth painted Chris’s portrait, one of the few portraits he ever painted.

Back to the battle.  General Howe had worked his way north to Kennett Square, some 6 miles west of Chadds Ford, astride what is now Route One (or old Baltimore Pike), a major connector between Philadelphia and Baltimore.  He knew where Washington was and had a good idea of how Washington had set up his defenses: all in all, a good plan for the Americans but it left the northern flank dangling in the breeze.

One important point about the engagement was that many of the major military figures in the Revolution were there: Washington, of course, the dependable Nathanial Greene, the mercurial “Mad” Anthony Wayne, so called some say because of his boldness in battle and some because he appeared to be continually angry.  Oddly, “crazy” was not associated with his nickname. General Sullivan, slow but reliable, General Stephen and “Lord” Stirling, called Lord as he claimed to be heir to Scottish nobility.  I find it interesting that in egalitarian America, he was openly called “Lord” Stirling and his wife was of course called “Lady” Stirling.  Alexander Hamilton was there and finally the Marquis de Lafayette.  Lafayette had recently arrived from France and was awarded a commission as Major General by the Congress.  He was only 20 years old. According to my son who has done prodigious research on the battle, the other generals were somewhat miffed at this ranking.  They were seasoned warriors and had earned their generalships.  This young stripling had leapfrogged over many of them and they treated him coldly.  Washington welcomed him into his family but did not give him a command.  In Chadds Ford, his headquarters were far from the proposed battlefield.  As it turned out, this was serendipitous as he was closer to the actual battlefield.

On the other side, the British had Lord Howe and Lord Cornwallis.  Cornwallis being an accomplished general, it was his plan that was put into effect at the Brandywine. Also present was the later notorious spy John Andre, and an interesting character named Patrick Ferguson.

The Brandywine creek (creek, not river, because it was not navigable) flows south through Chester County, an area then and even now of prosperous farms on rolling countryside.  The Brandywine ranged in width from 30 feet to 80 feet, shallow, with many fords.

Washington had set his army up to defend the fords beginning with Chad’s Ford, and then Brinton’s Ford (later becoming Brinton’s Bridge).  When I was a boy, I lived nearby.  There was a covered bridge across the creek, which unfortunately burned (believe me, I had nothing to do with it).  On the east side there was an old mill and residence which later became the home of the late artist Andrew Wyeth and is still occupied by his wife Betsy.

As may be expected, the fords connected roads on both sides of the Brandywine. Brinton’s Ford was defended by General Sullivan, as were all the fords upriver with Stirling and Stephen in reserve.    Next up the stream was Jones Ford now known as Pocopson.  Jones Ford is crossed by Street Road which is now a major two-lane road running east and west across Chester County.  To the north of Pocopson was Wistar’s Ford, now known as Lenape.  Even further north was Buffington Ford, which was the last one watched by Sullivan.

Cornwallis learned of a ford even further north, known then and now as Jefferis Ford.  He planned to use this route to turn the American flank and drive south to roll up the entire Continental army.  I use the term “Continental” because that is the term Washington used.  He did not like local militias because he thought they were amateurish, unreliable and provincial. He wanted soldiers who considered themselves part of a national army and who were professional in their approach.  Even before Valley Forge, I have always thought the Battle of the Brandywine showed that Washington was making progress in this regard. More importantly, even then Washington thought of the United States in national terms, so much so that the new national flag, sewn by Betsy Ross, first flew in the Battle of the Brandywine.

On the morning of the battle, Howe had 12,500 troops in Kennett Square and Washington had 11,000 to 12,000 men strung out along the Brandywine. By a strange coincidence, I believe that I may have counted that many descendants of John Hart standing up at the Roll Call.

Cornwallis left the Kennett Square area with 7,500 men and began what turned out to be a 15-mile march across steeply rolling countryside and two fords (he crossed the west branch of the Brandywine at Trimble’s Ford.)

Can you imagine the soldiers in heavy red uniforms on a warm September morning carrying muskets and other gear marching 15 miles across country?  But remember this was a professional army tempered by war.  These men had “accepted the King’s shilling,” which is what service in the British Army was called, and they were battle hardened and men led by a tough and competent commander, Lord Cornwallis.

To cover the flanking movement, 5,000 troops under Hessian General Knyphansen proceeded directly east down Route One to demonstrate against Washington’s front at Chads Ford.  He was opposed by the newly formed light infantry under William Maxwell, the same force involved in the fighting at Cooch’s Bridge.  Their tactics were typical American militia: use walls, trees and ravines for cover while fighting instead of the stand-up lines used by the regular armies, but unfortunately Maxwell could only delay him.  Knyphausen’s feint was successful because Washington thought it was the main attack until almost too late.  One unit accompanying Knyphausen was Captain Patrick Ferguson’s corps.  They were similar to Maxwell’s light infantry in tactics but they were also equipped with Ferguson rifles, which Ferguson himself invented. This was a very accurate rifle over long distances, much like the American rifles of Daniel Morgan as opposed to the usual Brown Bess muskets most participants on both sides used.  The story is that Ferguson, an excellent shot, was close to the west side of the Brandywine when he had a high ranking officer in his sights.  He later wrote, “It was not pleasant to fire at the back of an offending individual who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty, so I let him alone.” While not conclusively proven, local tradition and what research has been done both indicate the officer was General George Washington.  Think how history would have been changed.

By late morning, Cornwallis had crossed Jefferis Ford.  There is a story of an irascible gentleman named Squire Cheney who observed the crossing and immediately rode south to warn Washington.  It took him a long time to convince Washington but eventually he succeeded, especially when word began to come in from General Sullivan as to activity to his north.

One thing that may have helped to momentarily delay the attack is that Washington had stored all of the area’s liquor (spirits) at the northern end of his line.  The story is that the English advance guard found the liquor and did what any good solder would: drink it so as not to let it go to waste.  When Cornwallis learned what had happened he sent a detachment forward to address the situation.  Unfortunately for him, they were good soldiers, too, who also began to sample the wares.  Finally, by the third detachment, order was restored by breaking up the barrels.  Cornwallis regrouped at Osborne Hill and continued his advance south along Birmingham Road.  Birmingham Road runs along a high ridge that follows the Brandywine. It is about one mile east of the creek.  Cornwallis had not only badly flanked Sullivan but had seized the high ground.  The American reserves under Stephen and Stirling lined up to oppose him.  The fighting centered around the Birmingham Meeting House, a Quaker meeting that stands to this day.  Both sides used the meeting house as a hospital, first the Americans and then the British.  It is said that bloodstains can still be discerned on the floor.

Finally, south of the meeting house on a small ridge overlooking an area known as Sandy Hollow, the Americans made a stand.  Sandy Hollow was termed the Valley of Death.  According to Chris Sanderson, fighting was so fierce that after the battle, it was possible to walk across the valley never touching the ground.

One officer who believed Cheney was the Marquis de Lafayette, who rode north to Stephen and Stirling’s line.  As near as I can ascertain he had dismounted and was rallying the troops at Sandy Hollow when he was shot in the calf.  He ignored the wound and continued to fight (much to the admiration of the men).   In the side yard of a private residence on Birmingham Road there is a monument which marks the spot where he was injured.  There are also two cannons which mark the two ends of the American line.  Unfortunately, they are totally inappropriate as they are ship’s cannons.

In the meantime, Knyphausen was finally able to force the line at Chads Ford, which was defended by Generals Wayne and Greene with some 4,000 men.  These units retired eastward in the early evening.  At the same time, Stirling and Stephen began a withdrawal in the same direction.  The always reliable General Greene provided rear guard action. The British, exhausted, did not pursue.  They had lost 90 killed, 480 wounded and 6 missing.  The entire continental army retired in fairly good order toward Chester, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River, with a total loss of 1,300 men, 300 killed, 600 wounded and 400 captured.  Delaware Captain Enoch Anderson said, as they fell back toward Chester, there was “not a despairing look nor a despairing word.  We had solacing words always ready for each other:  Come boys, we shall do better another time.”

Which is my main point. Consider a newly organized football team playing against the New England Patriots and playing even except for one long Tom Brady pass.  If I were a member of the losing team, I’d feel pretty good about myself, and I think that’s the way Washington, his officers and his men probably felt.  They had taken on a powerful army, they had maneuvered relatively adroitly and had retired to fight another day.  Their resiliency and persistence were evidenced in later battles at Paoli, the Battle of the Clouds and Germantown before the army moved on to Valley Forge and retrained.  For that reason, I consider Brandywine the first step toward the end of the Revolutionary War and as a friend of mine likes to say: that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.






This entry was posted in Pennsylvania, President, Spirit of '76 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *