The Battle of Brandywine was fought September 11, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). One of the largest battles of the conflict, Brandywine saw General George Washington attempt to defend the American capital at Philadelphia. The campaign began when British forces, led by General Sir William Howe departed New York City and sailed up the Chesapeake Bay. Landing in northern Maryland, the British advanced northeast towards Washington's army. Clashing along the Brandywine River, Howe attempted to flank the American position. The resulting fight was one of the longest one-day battles of the war and saw the British force Washington's men to retreat. Though beaten, the American army remained ready for another fight. In the days after Brandywine, both armies conducted a campaign of maneuver which resulted in Howe taking Philadelphia.
In the summer of 1777, with Major General John Burgoyne's army advancing south from Canada, the overall commander of British forces, Howe, prepared his own campaign for capturing the American capital at Philadelphia. Leaving a small force under Major General Henry Clinton at New York, he embarked 13,000 men on transports and sailed south. Entering the Chesapeake, the fleet traveled north and the army landed at Head of Elk, MD on August 25, 1777. Due to the shallow and muddy conditions there, delays ensued as Howe worked to disembark his men and supplies.
Having marched south from positions around New York, American forces under General George Washington concentrated west of Philadelphia in anticipation of Howe's advance. Sending forward skirmishers, the Americans fought minor a battle with Howe's column at Elkton, MD. On September 3, fighting continued with a skirmish at Cooch's Bridge, DE. In the wake of this engagement, Washington moved from a defensive line behind Red Clay Creek, DE north to a new line behind the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania. Arriving on September 9, he deployed his men to cover the river crossings.
Armies & Commanders:
- General George Washington
- 14,600 men
- General Sir William Howe
- 15,500 men
The American Position
Located approximately halfway to Philadelphia, the focus of the American line was at Chadd's Ford, astride the main road into the city. Here Washington placed troops under Major General Nathanael Greene and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne. To their left, covering Pyle's Ford, were around 1,000 Pennsylvania militia led by Major General John Armstrong. On their right, Major General John Sullivan's division occupied the high ground along the river and Brinton's Ford with Major General Adam Stephen's men to the north.
Beyond Stephen's division, was that of Major General Lord Stirling which held Painter's Ford. On the far right of the American line, detached from Stirling, was a brigade under Colonel Moses Hazen which had been assigned to watch Wistar's and Buffington's Fords. Having formed his army, Washington was confident that he had barred the way to Philadelphia. Arriving at Kennett Square to the southwest, Howe concentrated his army and assessed the American position. Rather than attempt a direct attack against Washington's lines, Howe elected to use the same plan that had achieved victory the year before at Long Island (Map).
This entailed sending a force to fix Washington in place while marching with the bulk of the army around the American flank. Accordingly, on September 11 Howe ordered Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen to advance to Chadd's Ford with 5,000 men, while he and Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis moved north with the remainder of the army. Moving out around 5:00 AM, Cornwallis' column crossed the West Branch of the Brandywine at Trimble's Ford, then turned east and crossed the East Branch at Jeffrie's Ford. Turning south, they advanced to high ground on Osborne's Hill and were in position to strike the American rear.
Moving out around 5:30 AM, Knyphausen's men moved along the road towards Chadd's Ford and pushed back American skirmishers led by Brigadier General William Maxwell. The first shots of the battle were fired at Welch's Tavern approximately four miles west of Chadd's Ford. Pushing ahead, the Hessians engaged a larger Continental force at Old Kennett Meetinghouse around mid-morning.
Finally arriving on the opposite bank from the American position, Knyphausen's men began a desultory artillery bombardment. Through the day, Washington received various reports that Howe was attempting a flanking march. While this led to the American commander considering a strike on Knyphausen, he demurred when he received one report that convinced him the earlier ones were incorrect. Around 2:00 PM, Howe's men were spotted as they arrived on Osborne's Hill.
In a stroke of luck for Washington, Howe halted on the hill and rested for around two hours. This break allowed Sullivan, Stephen, and Stirling to hastily form a new line facing the threat. This new line was under the oversight of Sullivan and command of his division devolved to Brigadier General Preudhomme de Borre. As the situation at Chadd's Ford appeared stable, Washington informed Greene to be ready to march north at a moment's notice.
Around 4:00 PM, Howe began his attack on the new American line. Surging forward, the attack quickly shattered one of Sullivan's brigades causing it to flee. This was due to it being out of position due to a series of bizarre orders issued by de Borre. Left with little choice, Washington summoned Greene. For around ninety minutes heavy fighting swirled around the Birmingham Meeting House and what is now known as Battle Hill with the British slowly pushing the Americans back.
Marching an impressive four miles in forty-five minutes, Greene's troops joined the fray around 6:00 PM. Supported by the remnants of Sullivan's line and Colonel Henry Knox's artillery, Washington and Greene slowed the British advance and allowed the rest of the army to withdraw. By around 6:45 PM, the fighting quieted and Brigadier General George Weedon's brigade was tasked with covering the American retreat from the area. Hearing the fighting, Knyphausen began his own assault at Chadd's Ford with artillery and columns attacking across the river.
Encountering Wayne's Pennsylvanians and Maxwell's light infantry, he was able to slowly push the outnumbered Americans back. Halting at every stone wall and fence, Wayne's men slowly bled the advancing enemy and were able to cover the retreat of Armstrong's militia which had not been engaged in the fighting. Continuing to fall back along the road to Chester, Wayne skillfully handled his men until the fighting petered out around 7:00 PM.
The Battle of Brandywine cost Washington around 1,000 killed, wounded, and captured as well as most of his artillery, while British losses were 93 killed, 488 wounded, and 6 missing. Among the American wounded was the newly arrived Marquis de Lafayette. Retreating from Brandywine, Washington's army fell back on Chester feeling that it had merely lost a battle and desiring another fight.
Though Howe had won a victory, he failed to destroy Washington's army or immediately exploit his success. Over the next few weeks, the two armies engaged in a campaign of maneuver that saw the armies attempt to fight on September 16 near Malvern and Wayne defeated at Paoli on September 20/21. Five days later, Howe finally out-maneuvered Washington and marched into Philadelphia unopposed. The two armies next met at the Battle of Germantown on October 4.