When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
September 11, 1777 — BATTLE OF BRANDYWINE: General Sir William Howe and General Charles Cornwallis launch a full-scale British attack on the Patriot outpost at Brandywine Creek near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, on the road linking Baltimore and Philadelphia. The morning had provided the British troops with cover from a dense fog, so Washington was unaware the British had split into two divisions and was caught off guard by the oncoming British attack. Although the Americans were able to slow the advancing British, they were soon faced with the possibility of being surrounded. Surprised and outnumbered by the 18,000 British troops to his 11,000 Continentals, Washington ordered his men to abandon their posts and retreat. Defeated, the Continental Army marched north and camped at Germantown, Pennsylvania. The British abandoned their pursuit of the Continentals and instead began the British occupation of Philadelphia
British general Sir William Howe’s campaign to capture Philadelphia, the American capital, began in mid-1777. The forces had skirmished earlier as General George Washington avoided committing his retrained but untested Continental Army. Confident of success, Howe hoped to draw Washington into a decisive battle. Embarking from New York City in July 1777, Howe’s army of about 16,000 troops met General George Washington’s Continental Army of about 15,000 in the vicinity of Chadds Ford, on Brandywine Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Philadelphia.
Howe divided his army, with General Charles Cornwallis leading one column of about 9,000 while Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen commanded another 7,000. Washington’s plan was to block all of the fords across Brandywine Creek, especially the north ford at Wistar and the furthest south ford at Pyle, thereby forcing Howe to engage Washington toward the middle, at Chadds Ford, where Washington controlled the high ground with two divisions with artillery. Howe, however—aided by local Loyalist scouts—had been tipped off about unguarded fords unbeknownst to Washington further north of Wistar, where Howe’s troops could cross without incident and proceed to march south for a surprise attack on Washington’s right flank. This superior scouting and reconnaissance would be Washington’s downfall at Brandywine.
Knyphausen’s advance guard did attack at Chadds Ford as Washington had planned, arriving early in the morning on 11 September. Intense fighting followed between the British and the well-entrenched Americans. But the main British column was now concurrently and secretly heading south on Washington’s right flight, an exhausting nine-hour march for the British. Washington at first disregarded a scout’s report about a pending flanking action by British troops heading south, but by 2:00 p.m. Howe’s advance was confirmed, leading Washington diverted all but one division to face Howe. But the countermeasure was too little, too late. Confused in the haste to counter the move, the Americans were unable to mount a coordinated defense when the British attacked around 4 pm. With Howe’s attack from the north and Knyphausen’s push through the middle at Chadd, the Americans were soon in full retreat. Fighting was ferocious in places, but the Americans were soon in full retreat, pulling back to nearby Chester and leaving behind strategic cannons. The retreating force was aided by Lafayette, who was shot in the leg during this first battle for him of the war but who gallantly fought on and rallied the troops, facilitating an orderly retreat for Washington’s men. The battle ended with dusk, and darkness and fatigue on the part of Howe’s troops prevented any British pursuit of the retreating Americans.
In the end, the British troops occupied the battlefield, but they had not destroyed Washington’s army nor cut it off from the capital at Philadelphia. Over the next two weeks the American Continental Congress had time to evacuate the capital and remove important papers and military supplies before the British finally occupied the city unopposed on September 26. Losing the capital was a major blow to the Americans, foreshadowing the difficult winter to come for Washington at Valley Forge, but the Continental Army and the revolution had survived.
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