From Brandywine to Valley Forge
[The Continentals] appeared to me to be sensible only of
a disappointment, not a defeat.
As the summer of 1777 unfolded, it appeared that the initiative was all with the British. John Burgoyne was moving down from Canada, and by the time the Declaration of Independence was a year old Fort Ticonderoga would be in his hands and the Americans in full retreat. William Howe was strongly posted in New York, and the best thinking at this point was that he would soon attempt to force his way up the Hudson, concentrate at Albany, and crush the northern army. In London, wise heads were already referring to 1777 as “the Year of the Hangman.” The triple sevens looked grimly like gallows, and many Britons expected American traitors to be hanging from them soon. William Howe was not so sure. Indeed, he confided with uncommon candor to the ministry that he did not believe the American war could be brought to a close this year. Further, he was not at all sure what his plan of operations ought to be. His uncertainty owed a great deal to sloppy thinking and bad management in London. If Lord Germain had intended Howe to force a north-country juncture, he might have said so explicitly. It appears that he did draft a dispatch to that effect, but that it fell through the cracks somewhere and was never sent, leaving both commanders to their own devices.
Though Howe was given free rein in handling his battle-tested army in New York, he remained in doubt about how to use it and his brother’s powerful fleet to best advantage. Washington at Morristown was keeping a wary eye on both fronts. Still convinced that the main British effort would be on the Hudson, he sent off some 3,000 of his steadiest troops to Gates in the north. On 8 July Howe appeared ready to move, loading 18,000 men on transports in New York Harbor, where they did exactly nothing but swelter and suffer for two solid weeks. On 24 July his 260 sail finally cleared the harbor and slipped off into the Atlantic haze. A week later they appeared again off the Delaware Capes. It was a move that confirmed the thinking of some of Washington’s staff who believed all along that Howe would strike at Philadephia by ascending the Delaware River. If that was Howe’s design, he now thought better of it, having learned that the Americans had heavily fortified the river approaches to the capital. Howe’s fleet disappeared at sea once more. In Philadelphia John Adams pungently expressed the Americans’ baffled wonder at the mystery of Billy Howe’s intent: “Where the scourge of God and the plague of mankind is going to, no one can guess.” Adams himself–a great statesman but no very shrewd soldier–supposed that Howe was in motion for Charleston, South Carolina. Washington supposed no such thing, and in the first week of August Howe proved him right by sailing up Chesapeake Bay. On 25 August his fleet dropped anchor at the mouth of the Elk River on the Maryland shore and began to disembark his army on its west bank. Two days later he marched to Head of Elk and rested until the first part of September. It was rest much needed: his troops had been at sea for nearly two months. Suffocating heat (the hottest summer in living memory) and storms at sea had killed the king’s horses and exhausted the king’s men. Moreover, Howe was still more than fifty miles south of Philadelphia, far from his base but no closer to the Rebel capital strategically than when his fleet had passed Sandy Hook off Staten Island back in July.
Indeed, Howe might better have marched overland, as Washington did when he was clear in his own mind about Howe’s design against Philadelphia. As early as 31 July, the day British sail appeared off the Delaware Capes, Washington ordered several divisions down from the Hudson Highlands and got them on the march southward. Soon after he followed with the rest of his army, making a brave show of marching through the capital. The city turned out to see the commander in his fine blue and buff uniform parade his columns down Front and Chesnut Streets on their way to meet Howe’s redcoats to the south. John Adams was not altogether impressed: “Our soldiers have not yet quite the air of soldiers,” he complained. “They don’t step exactly in time. They don’t hold up their heads quite erect, nor turn their toes so exactly as they ought. They don’t cock their hats; and such as do, don’t all wear them the same way.” But at least one in the crowd knew better, a paroled American officer. If his comrades were not exactly stylish on parade, they were capable enough on the firing line. “Though indifferently dressed,” he admitted, they “held well-burnished arms and carried them like soldiers, and looked… as if they might have faced an equal number with a reasonable prospect of success.” It was an army Washington had virtually recast whole from the fragments of dark defeats and two bright little victories in the final days of ’76. Whether it now had the discipline, skill, and spirit to confront British and Hessian professionals would be tested at the point of the bayonet very soon on the banks of Brandywine Creek.
General Howe seemed in no particular hurry to bring his army into collision with Washington as he crossed the Maryland border and pushed north cautiously. Howe’s troops, eating their first fresh meat and fruit after their misery at sea, were likewise in no hurry. But Washington was not willing to let them picnic their way north to the capital. Establishing temporary headquarters at Wilmington, he sent small units south to harry and harass the advancing columns of British and Hessian Regulars. As Howe pushed the American skirmishers before him, Washington was making ready to bar the way to Philadelphia with a force of 11,000 including militia. The position he chose was the east bank of Brandywine Creek some twenty miles southwest of the city. Running through wooded slopes, the creek was directly across Howe’s line of march and could be crossed only by a series of fords. Washington posted his best general, Nathanael Greene, squarely in the center opposite Chad’s Ford with Anthony Wayne in immediate support to his right. Pennsylvania militia under General John Armstrong held the left of the American line opposite Pyle’s Ford. Upstream holding the American right were Lord Stirling, Major General Adam Stephen, and the unlucky (and often unskillful) John Sullivan. Their front was to cover three fords, from east to west, Painter’s, Wistar’s, and Buffington’s. On the face of it, it was a sufficiently solid defensive position, but only on the face of it. Upstream of Buffington’s Ford, two branches of the Brandywine flowed into the main channel. The fords here–Trimble’s on the west and Jeffries on the east–were quite uncovered. While Washington prepared to do battle on the main road to the city, his right was hanging in the air. Worse yet for the Americans, directly east of Jeffries Ford was high ground, Osborne’s Hill, and Washington had not posted so much as a corporal’s squad here.
Howe’s advance guard made contact with American pickets on 10 September, and his staff spent that day studying Washington’s position. By first light of the next Howe was confident that he had a battle plan that would pry Washington loose from Brandywine Creek and perhaps wreck his army into the bargain. Indeed the British commander had every reason to be confident: his plan was virtually the mirror image of the move that sent Washington’s army reeling in disorder back to Brooklyn Heights at the Battle of Long Island. There Sir Henry Clinton had made a long night march around Washington’s left, marched through an undefended pass, and come crashing down in the rear of the American army. Only Washington’s steely nerve and Howe’s inertia had made escape across the East River possible last summer. Now Howe would again fix Washington’s attention on his center: General William Knyphausen’s Germans would press Greene’s front closely at Chad’s Ford. While the Germans threatened the ford, Howe would send the bulk of his army, four divisions in all, on a long night march around the American right, cross the forks of the Brandywine, and roll up their flank. With speed and luck, they might drive Washington all the way to the Delaware River and destruction.
Howe’s flanking column had a long hike from Kennett Square in the British rear to the forks of the Brandywine, a full 17 miles, and they stepped off steadily about 4:00 A.M. with the general himself at their head. Knyphausen, giving them plenty of time to cover ground, opened his cannonade and pushed his advance guard forward at 10:00 A.M. Washington, however, was not resolved to fight a strictly defensive battle. If opportunity offered, he would strike a sharp counterblow and perhaps maul a smaller part of Howe’s much larger army. In fact, the first troops over the Brandywine this day were American. Washington sent one brigade across the creek, and after some sharp fighting forced the Germans to fall back. Knyphausen called up reinforcements and the Americans in turn were pushed back to the creek. When Washington sent two more regiments splashing across the ford in support, the fight blew up anew with the Americans getting much the better of it. Knyphausen fell back again, brought up two more brigades on his center, and called for help from the redcoats on his right. When German units upstream began to press the right of the American advance, Washington sounded the retreat and withdrew behind the Brandywine. There had been a good deal of pushing and shoving here with the Americans doing most of the shoving: they had inflicted 160 casualties on the British and Hessians at a cost of less than 60 of their own. It was quite a capable performance against seasoned professionals. The trouble was that the real danger was not here but well upstream, where Howe’s flanking column was already crossing the forks of the Brandywine.
Nor was Washington entirely ignorant of the danger from that quarter. He knew early on the 11th that Cornwallis had pulled out of Kennett Square headed north under cover of darkness. About the time the Germans were beginning their demonstration at Chad’s Ford, Sullivan on the right reported to Washington that Howe and Cornwallis were already nearing Trimble’s Ford on the west branch. Sullivan didn’t seem to know quite what to make of this intelligence, but Washington, always alert to the chance to strike a counterblow, thought he saw opportunity here. If a large British column was on the march upstream, they must be strung-out and open to attack. In fact, there was no reason not to attack with his whole force. Orders went off in sweaty haste to Sullivan: cross the creek in three divisions and pitch into the British column. At the same time Greene in the center, having had a sharp little success in the morning, would carry the fight to the Germans again. Greene was already in motion when Washington heard again from Sullivan, a dispatch that said in essence that he couldn’t attack across the creek because the British had disappeared. Upon receiving this communication, Washington, now fully mindful of the danger on his flank, called off his attack and pushed patrols westward in search of the British. About two o’clock they found them: in the right rear of the American army on Osborne’s Hill, and in force.
Howe’s march to get there had been skillful if not especially swift, nor did he seem in urgent haste to push his attack. It was four o’clock before the redcoats filed out of column, formed lines of battle, and prepared to jump off. In the meantime, Sullivan had managed to swing his own division into line at right angles to their original front on high ground near Birmingham Meetinghouse. Stirling formed up on his right and Stephen on Stirling’s right. But if Howe had taken his time in making his dispositions, the blow he struck now was deliberate and powerful. Three full brigades in the center and grenadiers and light infantry on the flanks stepped off down the slope with measured tread while the bandsmen played the “British Grenadier.” Exactly what happened at the point of collision is lost in the fog of battle, but it seems Sullivan’s men were broken very early in the fight, and neither Sullivan nor his officers had much success in rallying them. Worse yet, Stephen (who may have taken more liquid courage than he needed) failed to hook his left firmly on Stirling’s right. The attacking redcoats were quick to pour through the gap, at which point the battle blew up into a wild, smoky confusion of musketry and cannon fire. The British were much better led this day, however, and managed to maintain the integrity of their lines despite the difficult wooded terrain and the ferocity of the fighting. The American lines were buckling and breaking everywhere now.
The fighting was about to get fiercer yet and more confused as well. Washington hustled his only reserve, two Virginia brigades with Greene at their head, to support the embattled flank. They did some very smart marching to do so too, four full miles in 45 minutes. What they encountered when they reached Birmingham Meetinghouse might well have unnerved them: the wreckage of the right wing running in disorder eastward. But Greene and the Virginians kept cool heads, opened their ranks to receive the fugitives, then closed ranks to receive the British at the point of the bayonet. There was more hard fighting now as the September sun slid down the sky; one Briton remembered the “most infernal racket of cannon and musquetry” and most “incessant shouting” of orders and counter-orders. But Greene’s men stood their ground, blunted the British attack, and fell back slowly and in good order, firing as they went. It is well they did for the American cause, too. When Knyphausen heard the battle open on the American right, he pitched in once more on their center, and this time it was no demonstration but an attack in full force. The Hessians with redcoats on their right splashed across the ford and ran headlong into Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvanians. For a time the creek ran red with the attackers’ blood. But the weight of the attack was too heavy to bear for long. The Germans finally broke through among the American guns, turned them on the defenders, and forced them from the field. The fighting sputtered out in the darkness, and Wayne’s men withdrew, weary but no doubt grateful to Greene’s Virginians who were holding the road to Chester open by their stubborn struggle on the right. About the same time, the fighting on Greene’s front came to a close as Howe’s marched-out and fought-out redcoats halted and turned to tend their casualties.
And a bloody day it had been. Howe counted 90 dead and nearly 500 wounded. Washington’s losses are harder to reckon but 300 dead and at least twice that wounded or captive is a good guess. Washington had been outgeneraled by Howe again and his Continentals and militia auxiliaries outfought. But it was by no means as dark a day as it might have been. Despite being overwhelmed on the right and broken in the center, the American army was intact. Even now the fragments of broken commands were joining the retreating column on the road eastward to Chester. More than that, the men on the march were beaten but not demoralized. An officer in the famous Delawares remembers that he did not see a “despairing look” nor hear a “despairing word”; the men were simply resolved “to do better another time.” In this resolve, they breathed the spirit of their commander, who put his men into camp beyond Chester and wrote simply to Congress: “Notwithstanding the misfortune of the day, I am happy to find the troops in good spirits. I hope another time we shall compensate for the losses now sustained.” His army was bruised but whole, and it still stood between Howe and Philadelphia.