PART 1 - Battle of the Brandywine - A Historic Day for Old Kennett
Several empty supply
wagons rolled into Lord Cornwallis's camp at Kennett Square on the 10th of
September. Veteran British soldiers certainly knew what these wagons would be
used for -- to carry wounded and dying soldiers from the battlefield. After an
uneventful spring, several weeks at sea, and 16 days of uncomfortable marching,
the first battle of the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777 was at hand.
Many of the 15,000 British troops spent the night
in Kennett Square - population 2,000 - unwinding and carousing, while a battle
loomed. General Howe's flanking strategy was devised two days earlier: While
General Knyphausen attacked at Chadd's Ford, as Washington expected, Cornwallis
would stealthily move north, cross the Brandywine, and flank Washington's
By the night of September 10th, the American
troops were extended along a six-mile line covering the east side of the
Brandywine Creek. Washington knew that the British army would have to ford the
Brandywine if they were to get to their target - Philadelphia. He discounted
the possibility of being flanked, assuming that Howe would rely upon his
greater troop strength and superior artillery to press a direct attack.
Washington believed that the British would have to
ford the Brandywine at one of eight fords. Washington chose Chadd's Ford as his
defensive stronghold, as this was along the road where the British were camped.
Washington positioned his troops along the creek. Congress even sent four
deputies to inspect and they approved of where Washington had placed his men
and urged a staunch defense. They knew that if the Americans failed here, it
was likely Philadelphia would fall. Washington felt a battle of major
consequence was coming.
The Morning of the Battle
At 4 A.M. on the morning of September 11, 1777, a
long line of redcoats quietly flowed out from Kennett Square. They were led by
General Howe who personally took command of Cornwallis's column. At the van of
the column were "pioneers," soldiers employed to clear the road of
any obstructions the Americans might have thrown in their way.
If all went well, in six miles they would reach
their destination, Jeffries' Ford, without being detected by American scouts.
Once across this deep ford located on a branch of the Brandywine Creek, Howe
and his troops would have a good chance of flanking and trapping General
At 5:45 A.M., after Howe's division had cleared
out, General Knyphausen's division began moving along the Great Nottingham Road
directly toward Chadd's Ford seven miles away -- exactly were Washington
expected the entire British Army to attack. The first to leave was a 496-member
vanguard which consisted of Queen's Rangers, Ferguson's Riflemen, and a squad
from the 16th Light Dragoons. Behind them were the 1st and 2nd British
Brigades, followed by the artillery, supply wagons, and a herd of rustled
livestock. Serving as the rear guard were the 71st regiment. It was a
A Round of Shots... A Round of Shots... and the
American General Maxwell, too, had been up early
on the foggy morning of the 11th. Maxwell had been ordered to scout the
vicinity in the area of Kennett Square. At Kennett Meeting, a Quaker house of
worship located about a mile east of Kennett Square, Maxwell sent out a mounted
scouting party. After heading up the road about a half a mile, the scouts
paused to refresh themselves at Welch's Tavern. The group tethered their horses
out front and bellied up to the bar.
At about 9 o'clock, one of the scouts saw a vision
which might have been chalked up to excessive drinking. Headed straight for the
tavern, and less than 100 yards away, were Ferguson's Riflemen and Queen's
Rangers - the vanguard of Knyphausen's Division. The Americans fired off a
round of shots from the bar and bolted out the back door leaving their horses
behind. Thus began the Battle of Brandywine.
Knyphausen vs. Maxwell
After bolting from the bar, the battle was
underway. The tasks were clear: Knyphausen was under orders "to amuse the
Americans," convincing them that "all the other world" was with
him. Maxwell's orders were to delay the advance.
Maxwell would fire from cover and fall back toward
the river. The British advanced slowly amid a cloud of musket fire and at great
expense in lives.
A British soldier made the following diary entry:
"The Queen's Rangers and Ferguson's riflemen fell in very early with large
Bodies of the Enemy who form' d upon ev'ry advantageous Post & behind
Fences fired on the Troops as they advanc'd - This galling fire was sustain'd
the whole way by the Queen's Rangers commanded by Capt. Weyms of the 40th &
Rifle Men by Capt. Ferguson of the 70th - who encouraged by the Example of
their Leaders behav'd with a degree of perseverance & Bravery which would
have done Honor to the best Established Corps."
After a series of heavy skirmishes, in which dense
smoke often choked off the morning sunlight, the British forced Maxwell back to
the east bank. At about 10:30 the firing died down, save for an occasional
artillery exchange across the creek.
The Americans and British now were face-to-face on
opposite sides of the Creek. But the British kept busy. Knyphausen was under
orders not to let on his true troop strength, but rather make it appear as if
the entire British army were with him. To achieve this sham effect, the Hessian
general ordered marches and counter marches up and down and in and out of the
hills. He also positioned great numbers of soldiers from his columns in the
fields that opened from the Nottingham Road onto the creek. He also left the
British baggage train in plain sight.
So overwhelming was this display of manpower and
equipment that a New Jersey soldier called it "a sight beyond description
Knyphausen had successfully made his way to the
west bank of the Brandywine and had bought time for Howe and Cornwallis.
Maxwell delayed the British advance, thus fulfilling his orders. British
casualties numbered about 300 - a lot for an "amusement," while
American casualties were few. But among the American wounded was a young
officer from Virginia who would go to become Chief Justice of the United
States, John Marshall.
Washington Receives Conflicting Reports
Washington directed the Americans from the Ring
House, a residence about three quarters of a mile east of Chadd's Ford. Viewing
the battle through a telescope, he must have been a little suspicious that
something was afoot. He knew that Howe had all morning to bring his army in
position to attack and yet he still hadn't. Washington had also seen the busy
movements of the British troops in the hills and their impressive baggage
train. Something was in the air. But what exactly?
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Battle
of Brandywine is the great number of conflicting reports Washington received
throughout the morning and early afternoon regarding whether Howe was moving
troops north towards the supply depots up at Reading. To ford the Brandywine elsewhere?
To conduct a major flanking movement?
Washington heard a preliminary report at around 7
A.M. and a lO A.M. report saying that Howe's troops were moving north. He heard
a report at 9:30 A.M. and one from Major Spear at 1 P.M. that made him feel
confident that it was just a feint and not a major troop movement. But the
subsequent reports from Major Eustace, Colonel Bland, and a patriotic local
squire named Thomas Cheyney finally convinced Washington that the reports of
significant northern troop movement were real.
Surgeon Ebenezer Elmer traveling with the American
army, put it most succinctly: "the reports were so Contradictory that it
was difficult to make a proper disposition."
Washington Chooses a Course of Action
About noon, having received the reports from Ross
and Bland that a large British column was moving north, Washington deduced that
Howe had split his army. Washington felt he could deal a decisive blow to the
divided British. He launched an assault aimed at Knyphausen's troops across the
Washington ordered part of Greene's troops and
Maxwell's light infantry across the Brandywine at Chadd's Ford. The vanguard of
this charge attacked an entrenching party from the British 49th regiment. They
drove the British from their ground and in the process inflicted 30 casualties
and killed a captain. Maxwell's infantrymen took possession of "a number
of Entrenching Tools with which they [the British] were just throwing up a
Upstream, a regiment from Sullivan's command
crossed the creek and started skirmishing with a British foot regiment.
Downstream a group of Pennsylvania militia stationed at Pyle's Ford crossed the
river and joined the fray.
At this time, Washington had dispatched Lord
Stirling's and Stephen's brigades farther north on the east side of the creek
toward Birmingham Meeting House in case Howe was indeed planning an attack from
the north and not heading up to Reading.
Just before Washington was going to send the
remainder of the army across the creek, he received a "definitive"
message from Major Spear that there was no northern British troop movement.
Washington decided "that the movement of the enemy was just a feint"
and that they were returning to reinforce Knyphausen at Chadd's Ford.
Assuming that this was the case, he knew it would
be folly to abandon his defensive position on the east side of the Creek to
launch a full assault. Washington recalled his attacking troops back to the
east side of the Creek. He also removed his defense against the flanking movement
by recalling both Lord Stirling's and Stephen's brigades. This faulty report
was very damaging, as it gave Howe the extra time he needed to march south into
the flank of American forces.
Howe Crosses 8 Miles North
By around 1:15 P.M., Howe's 8,000 troops had
crossed the two fords along the upper Brandywine and were now on the east side,
about 8 miles north of Washington's troops.
Howe had fooled Washington again. The methodical
British general had pulled off a l4-mile march while successfully hiding an
8,000 man column. After Howe crossed the west branch of the Brandywine at
Trimble's Ford, he moved north on the road toward Martin's Tavern. From there,
he took a road to Jeffries' Ford and there crossed the east branch of the
Brandywine. Jeffries' Ford was two miles north of Buffington's Ford, the
furthest point north the Americans had posted soldiers.
Howe sent Jaegers from the British 42nd out to
scout, under the leadership of Captain Johann Ewald. They recognized that
they'd have to pass through a narrow gorge "where a hundred men could have
held up either army the whole day." Ewald, wary of a trap, asked
Cornwallis for permission to proceed, which was granted. It was fortunate for
Ewald that they were able to proceed without opposition.
Once through the ford, Cornwallis ordered the
remainder of the army to move as quickly as possible. The column took a wide
right turn and headed through the village of Sconneltown where Howe halted so
his tired, hungry and thirsty men could rest.
At Sconneltown, British foragers made a fortuitous
discovery. Some Wilmington merchants had recently placed a large cache of
liquor in a barn here thinking it would be safer than in the city. The
merchants were wrong.
It was at this point that Squire Cheyney, who had
taken it upon himself to reconnoiter the British, discovered Howe's column. He
frantically rode seven miles to the Ring House to deliver a manic message of
warning to Washington which was greeted with skepticism. Cheyney's message,
along with several other reports, finally convinced Washington -- Howe was now
to the rear of the American right.
By about 2:00 P.M., after receiving these new
reports of Howe's movements that Washington recognized the dreadful truth: Howe
had successfully moved around him and was positioned to attack from the north.
Washington Adjusts His Strategy
Responding to the threat from Howe's forces to his
north, Washington once again ordered the divisions of Lord Stirling and Major
General Stephen to move back north toward the Birmingham Meeting House. These
brigades covered about three miles in a half hour, and started forming their
lines along Birmingham Road. After ascertaining for certain that Howe's column
was substantial in size, Washington ordered General Sullivan who was in charge
of the entire right, to move north and meet the threat. Generals Wayne and
Maxwell, with the support of Proctor's artillery, would have to face Knyphausen
General Greene's troops remained in reserve --
positioned to fight either Knyphausen or Cornwallis.