This is the opening salvo of Bill of Churchtown and welcome he is. What better way for a redblooded American to start than with a gracious account of the Battle of Brandwine.
How a ford changed the course of a battle
In September 1777 17,000 British and Hessian troops under the command of General Howe set out from the Head of Elk to capture the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home of the Continental Congress.
Chad’s Ford was at the point where the Nottingham Road crossed the Brandywine Creek on the route from Kennett Square to Philadelphia. It was the last natural line of defense before the Schuylkill River, which could be forded at so many points that it was practically indefensible. The Brandywine, a shallow (knee to waist-high) but fast-flowing creek, was fordable at a comparatively small number of places that could, so it seemed, be covered fairly easily.
At Chad’s Ford, really made up of two fords about 450 feet apart, the creek was 150 feet wide and commanded by heights on either side. The surrounding area was characterized by thick forests and irregular but low hills surrounded by prosperous farms, meadows and orchards. Many of the local Quaker inhabitants were sympathetic to the British cause, a fact that would prove to be important in the efforts of both armies to secure accurate intelligence.
General Washington placed his troops along the Brandywine River at Pyle’s Ford (southernmost possible crossing), Wistar’s Ford (the northernmost crossing of the river before it forked), and Chadds Ford where he planned to force a fight on more advantageous ground. He was confident the Continental army was secure on the flanks with the upper and lower fords under his control.
The British grouped just west of Kennett Square and formulated a plan. A portion of the British army was to march from Kennett Square as if they intended to meet Washington on the banks of the river at Chadds Ford. Meanwhile, the majority of the army under Howe’s direction would march north of Wistar’s Ford, cross the river at a ford known to locals but unknown to Washington, and march south into the flank of the American forces.
The day of the battle began with a heavy fog which blanketed the area, providing cover for the approaching British troops. When the fog cleared, the sun blazed and the heat was sweltering.
The first reports of British troop movements indicated to Washington that Howe had divided his forces. Subsequent reports both confirmed and denied this report.
In the confusion Washington persisted in the mistaken belief that the British were sending their entire force against his line at Chadds Ford. Meanwhile, Howe and the majority of his force continued their approach. By mid-afternoon the British had crossed the river at the unguarded ford to the north of Washington’s force and they had gained a strategic position near Birmingham Friends Meeting House.
When the British appeared on the American right flank, Washington realized that he had been outmaneuvered. He ordered his army to take the high ground around Birmingham Friends Meeting House as a last defense. Unfortunately, in the confusion caused by the surprise, the Americans were unable to successfully defend their position.
The Americans fought valiantly, but they had been outwitted and out maneuvered. Nightfall finally brought an end to the battle. The defeated Americans retreated to Chester. The bulk of the army arrived by midnight with the remainder trickling in until dawn.
General Howe’s men exhausted from their long march and the heat camped on the battlefield and the surrounding countryside.
The official British casualty list detailed 587 casualties: 93 killed (8 officers, 7 sergeants and 78 rank and file); 488 wounded (49 officers, 40 sergeants, 4 drummers and 395 rank and file); and 6 rank and file missing and unaccounted for. Only 40 of the British Army’s casualties were Hessians.
General Howe’s report to the British Secretary of War, Lord Germain, said that the Americans, “had about 300 men killed, 600 wounded, and near 400 made prisoners”. If General Greene’s estimate of the total American loss was accurate, then they had between 1,160 and 1,260 killed, wounded or deserted during the battle. The British also captured 11 out of 14 of the American artillery guns. Among the American wounded was the Marquis de Lafayette.
In addition to losses in battle, 315 men were posted as deserters from Washington’s camp during this stage of the Philadelphia Campaign.
Two weeks later
On September 26th a column of British soldiers marched into the patriot capital unopposed. The Congress had already relocated to Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania.
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