PART 2 - Battle of the Brandywine - A Historic Day for Old Kennett
Tea Time for Howe
As Stirling and Stephen formed their troops, they
could see the British advancing over Osborne Hill less than a mile to their
north. The Redcoats progressed slowly as "it was extremely difficult to
move the artillery over the heights." Once the artillery had crested the
hill, Howe ordered a break of a half-hour for lunch and tea. After marching for
nearly eleven hours and 17 miles, Howe's troops were safe for the moment and
took time to rest and refresh. Howe, as was his pattern, did not follow up on
what might have turned into a rout; instead the picnicking general permitted
the panicking Americans to form lines about a mile to his south.
Birmingham Meeting House
Meanwhile Brandywine Valley locals came to gawk at
the British war machine. These included a group of Quakers who were holding
their prayer meeting at a wheelwright's shop in Sconneltown. Two days earlier
they had been evicted from their normal place of prayer, the Birmingham Meeting
House, because Washington had taken over the building for use as an American
hospital. Some meeting members went back home to protect their families and
farms; others watched in awe. Captivated by the sight of the British army, was
a Quaker teenager named Joseph Townsend who would march among the British
soldiers in the afternoon, watch the battle into dusk, and be pressed into
triage service carrying wounded from the battlefield that night. Townsend
observed that Cornwallis made "a brilliant and martial appearance,"
and Howe "was a large and portly man, of coarse features. He appeared to
have lost his teeth, as his mouth had fallen in."
After their tea break, the British broke their
column into an eight-pronged attack in which they hoped to either outflank or
overrun the American line. Meanwhile the Americans had tried to form a solid
defensive line with the center at the heights around Birmingham Meeting House.
They were thwarted in this attempt, in part because General Sullivan had
marched his troops too far north and left a gap in the American line. Further
complicating matters was the behavior of a proud French Brigadier General named
Prudhomme DeBorre who insisted that he be given the position of honor of
commanding the right of General Sullivan's Division. Parts of the American line
were in disarray. The British launched a furious attack. The British scooped up
several artillery pieces along the way.
While the Continental Army fought valiantly, the
British attack was too overwhelming, and the Americans had to fall back to new
defensive line 400 yards to the southwest.
The Second American Defense
The Americans rallied the scattered regiments into
a second defensive line about 800 yards southwest of the initial encounter.
Fierce fighting resumed.
"What excessive fatigue. A rapid march from
four 0'clock in the morning till four in the eve, when we were engaged. Till
dark we fought. Describe that battle. 'Twas not like those at Covent Garden or
Drury Lane... There was the most infernal Fire of cannon and musquetry. Most
incessant shouting, 'Incline to the right! Incline to the left! Halt! Charge!'
etc. The balls ploughing up the ground. The trees cracking over one's head. The
branches riven by the artillery. The leaves falling as in autumn by the
grapeshot...A ball glanced about my ankle and contused it. For some days I was
lifted on horseback in men's arms." -British captain
General Howe rode to Birmingham Hill from Osborne
Hill and directed the battle from the newly taken eminence. The British
launched a new line of attack.
The fighting here was the fiercest of the entire
battle. The American line gave way five times, ever re-forming and pushed
farther back. The officers "exerted themselves beyond description to keep
up the troops morale," recalled Sullivan. "Five times did the enemy
drive our troops from the hill, and as often was it regained, the summit often
disputed muzzle to muzzle."
Washington had been receiving frantic messages
from Sullivan concerning this new attack. Yet, Washington was skeptical - he
still believed that only a fragment of the overall British force was attacking
to the north. In the second of his required daily dispatches to Congress
Washington explained that a "severe cannonade" was taking place to
his north. "I suppose we shall have a very hot evening," he
continued. But he was curiously absent. He still believed the main British
force was with Knyphausen.
"Push Along, Old Man, Push On!"
At about 5 P.M., the noise of the cannon from the
north combined with Knyphausen's relative inactivity on the west side of the
creek finally convinced Washington that the main British force was indeed at
Birmingham. He pressed a reluctant elderly farmer by the name of Joseph Brown
into leading him over the shortest route to the battle. The elderly farmer
demurred until an American officer dismounted ftom his horse and pointedly
pointed the tip of his sword at Brown.
Brown led the way.
Brown raced Washington and his officers and at a
breakneck pace for four miles. Washington urged them on jumping fences,
hurtling ditches and urging the farmer "Push along, old man, push
Following them were two divisions of Nathanael
Greene which had been held in reserve. Greene's column moved at remarkable
speed covering four miles in 45 minutes.
What Washington saw as he rode up was the
Americans in retreat from Battle Hill. A soldier from New Jersey recalled,
"We broke and Rallied and Rallied & broke from height to height till
we fell on our main Army who reinforced us & about sunset we made a
stand." This was Greene's Division.
Lafayette Is "Honoured"
At this point Lafayette rode up and did all he
could to make the men charge at the point of a bayonet but the Americans,
little used to this sort of fighting did not care to do so, and this brigade
fled like the rest of the army. Then, amidst the confusion, Lafayette was
wounded, as he would recount later in a letter to his wife: "the English
honoured me with a musket ball, which slightly wounded me in the leg."
Greene opened his ranks to let the retreating
Americans pass through and then re-formed his lines. Fierce fighting now took
place in the area known as Sandy Hill. Charges and countercharges followed.
Back at Chadd's Ford Kynphausen Launches His
While the Americans were fighting the British near
Dilworth, they could hear cannon fire from the vicinity of Chadd's Ford.
Knyphausen was attacking Wayne. If Wayne gave way, the British under Knyphausen
would have a clear path to Greene's troops fighting the northern attackers.
Knyphausen had begun bombarding the Americans
across the creek with heavy artillery. The Prussian general was supposed to
hold his attack until he heard the sound of Howe firing two can non shots which
was the signal that the northern troops had forded the river successfully.
Regardless, at 4:00 P.M., Knyphausen began a frontal attack without the signal.
Fortunately for Knyphausen, American brigades
under Generals Green and Nash had just been sent north to reinforce the
American lines at Birmingham. Knyphausen sent his men across the Brandywine at
several different fording spots, with four regiments alone crossing at
Brinton's Ford. Knyphausen's main column pushed through at Chadd's Ford in the
face of heavy American resistance. A smaller British force moved south, and
crossed the creek probably at Gibson's Ford, which threatened the American
militia posted farther south at Pyle's Ford.
The Americans fought with verve -- despite being
outnumbered. They might have been able to endure the attack had not another
British regiment -- who had gotten lost earlier in the day at Birmingham Hill
-- entered the fray. These British Guards and Grenadier Brigades were supposed
to have been part of the British force that attacked Sullivan's second line of
defense at Battle Hill. Instead, they became tangled and lost in the thickets of
Wistar's Woods, which allowed Sullivan's men to hold their ground longer than
they might have.
After a couple hours, these lost troops emerged
serendipitously to the rear of Wayne's artillery position. Now, Wayne had to
shift some of his men to defend against this new menace.
The British pushed the outflanked Americans back
to the Chadd House where the Widow Chadd remained and staunchly defended her
Ultimately, the British got the best of Wayne's
men in a spirited duel. Besieged by the bayonets of the British 71 st Battalion
and the Queens Rangers, the Americans turned tail toward Chester, leaving their
artillery behind. Eleven guns were abandoned by the Americans including two
cannon which had been captured from the Hessians during Washington's surprise
attack of Trenton after crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776.
Among those besieging the British was Patrick
Ferguson of Ferguson's Rifleman. It was near the Chadd House that the inventor
of the breech loading rifle was wounded, which may have an effect on the war.
A Great Save
Edward Hector, a negro private in the 3rd
Pennsylvania Artillery, valiantly saved a few wagon loads of ammunition and
arms in the tumult. But most of the equipment was left behind. Fortunately,
Washington had ordered the baggage removed to Chester the day before, so at
least that was safe.
Wayne posted a small brigade armed with four
cannon at Painter's Crossroads to cover the troops retreating toward Chester.
They kept the main road to Chester open not only for Wayne's retreating men,
but Nash's North Carolinians, and the rear guard of Sullivan's troops who were
falling back from Dilworth.
Greene's Men Dig In
Greene's men held the Sandy Hollow area. Fighting
under Greene was Brigadier General, Peter Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister who
had once served in the Prussian army. As he rode along the defensive line
rallying the Virginia troops, he was recognized by some Hessians who called him
by his nickname, "Devil Pete." Though the Americans fought well they
were forced back. An aide- de-camp to General Howe wrote, "By six o'clock
our left wing still had not been able to advance. Here the rebels fought very
bravely and did not retreat until they heard in their rear General Knyphausen's
fire coming nearer." The Rebels found themselves between two fires. This
probably caused them to leave their strong post and retreat from their right
wing on the Road to Chester. After warring for nearly two hours the outnumbered
Americans began to give way.
At about 7:30, some of General Weedon's men and
North Carolina troops under Brigadier General Nash surprised Howe's troops and
put a damper on the British victory party. They had come on in the rear and
drew up in a semicircle just north and west of the Dilworth Crossroads. Here
they surprised Howe's victorious troops who had just taken the field from
"The heat of the Action fell chiefly on the
64th Regt who suffered considerably, enduring with the utmost steadiness a very
heavy fire, which lasted till Dark, when the Rebels retreated in great Panick
taking the road to Chester."
The American's last stand was supported by Casimir
Pulaski who led a stunning cavalry charge. Pulaski had been present at
Brandywine as an observer but received Washington's permission to organize a
group of horseman into an ad hoc unit. It was not enough and the Americans
retreated toward Chester.
This last American foray probably convinced Howe
that it would be too dangerous to try and follow the Americans for a night time
knockout. Besides which, the day had been exhausting. Howe's troops marched 17
miles in 11 hours, and had fought three pitched battle in the space of six
hours. A British lieutenant pointedly summed up the rigors the British had been
recently exposed to: "We had the Honour & with our Fire closed the
Day. The Fatigue of the Day were excessive; some of our best Men were obliged
to yield, one of the 33 dropped dead [of heat stroke] nor had we even Daylight,
we could not make any thing of a pursuit. If you knew the weight a poor Soldier
carries, the length of time he is obliged to be on foot for a train of
Artillery to move 17 miles, the Duties he goes thro' when near an Enemy, that
the whole night of the 9th we were marching, you would say we had done our Duty
on the 11 to beat an Army strongly posted, numerous & unfatigued."
Major John Andre, in a businesslike manner, summed
up the battle from the British point of view: "General Knyphausen, as was
preconcerted, passed the ford upon hearing the column engaged, and the troops
under him pushed the enemy with equal success. Night and the fatigue the
soldiers had undergone prevented any pursuit. It is remarkable that after
reconnoitering after the action, the right of General Howe's camp was found
close on General Knyphausen's left, and nearly in a line, and in forming the
general camp next day scarce any alteration was made."
Casualties at Brandywine were strewn across a
10-square mile area of the battlefield, making final determinations
particularly difficult. General Howe in his official report to Parliament
counted: 90 killed, 488 wounded and 6 missing in action. Howe, once again
clearly underestimated casualty figures. Before the Battle of Germantown, an
adjutant in the British army reckoned British killed and wounded at 1,976. This
is the exact same number arrived at by Jacob Hitzheimer, a civilian at
Brandywine who recorded the number of British wounded in a diary entry. Some
reports have the Queens Rangers losing 290 out of 480 men, while Ferguson's Riflemen
suffered 46 casualties out of 80.
The 2nd Light Infantry and 2nd British Guards who
were involved in some of the fiercest fighting at Brandywine (including
hand-to-hand combat) are listed as having lost 612 of 1,740 troops.
Major General Greene estimated American losses at
1,200 men. He also reported the loss of 10 irreplaceable cannon and a Howitzer.
A Hessian officer listed the American casualty and captured rate at 1,300. An
American officer under Brigadier General Nash reported British losses at 1,960
and the Americans at 700
This article was reprinted from the February 2006
Edition of the Empire Patriot Newsletter Published By the Empire State Society
of the SAR.