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Lars Farmer
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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.

The British

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 right.

The Americans

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 Washington's army.

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 formidable force.

A Round of Shots... A Round of Shots... and the Battle Begins

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 grand..."

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 Brandywine.

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 Battery."

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 alone.

General Greene's troops remained in reserve -- positioned to fight either Knyphausen or Cornwallis.

August 1, 2010 at 4:41 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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