Battle of Brandywine

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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4 comments for “Battle of Brandywine

  1. September 30, 2010 at 04:31

    In my first glance at the map I thought it was about The Shire, and then thought that Knyphausen doesn’t sound like a Middle Earth sort of name.

  2. September 30, 2010 at 07:55

    Bill, while it’s true that Washington had been outwitted here, yet he went on to defeat the British eventually and that last battle has historians confused. True the Americans had vastly improved, learning along the way and they had aid from abroad, often just as a distraction, e.g. the French in the north. The British supply chains were cumbersome and Paine, among others, had inspired the Americans.

    Yet there are those and I admit, mainly British, who feel that that last stand was contrived before the surrender and the degree of incompetence shown by the British, in their strategic positions, was awesome. Not taking anything away from the Americans but one has to look at who “The British” actually were, what financial undercurrents were also going on and by whom and for what purpose certain people on the other side of the pond saw America serving in the future [don’t forget the dollar bill].

    I recently read an account of Yorktown which made no mention of the French whatsoever and yet it was a huge factor in Cornwallis’ moves. Again, taking nothing away from the Americans whom many in the world saw as having right on their side.

    Yet how could the British go from a position of competence [Brandywine] to a position of incompetence and why was Yorktown generally accepted as the last throw of the die?

  3. JD
    September 30, 2010 at 13:25

    interesting post Bill.

    6 missing was the British score but the ‘315 deserters’ on the American side is rather curious.
    Did they defect? Or did they just decide life would be more congenial and peaceful elsewhere?

  4. james wilson
    September 30, 2010 at 18:25

    The Americans were fortunate in their choice of enemies. Many British commanders simply had no heart for the war. Americans had been and were their friends, and in a land which provided everything that could be asked for.

    They were more than just three thousand miles from their superiors, they were three months away from their wrath. And Burke had asked the unanswerable question of the ruling class: what is it you think you are going to do with America IF WE WIN?

    Ironically, the British, who had begun to use the colonies as an ATM to fund their expensive ventures around the world, were performing a valuable and yet invisible service to Americans, one whose function we would only discover in independence. America under the Articles of Confederation was a nightmare of unruly states and rivalries, which quickly brought relief the new Constitution with its central authority to replace the Crown.

    Although, quite a few of us would like to get that 2% tea tax back, especially since we don’t drink tea anymore. Taxation without representation is a blessing at 2%.

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