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Battle of Brandywine

The American Army received a large supply of French weapons and ammunition in May of 1777 fortunately prior to their next large engagement at Brandywine. The Continental Troops that still possessed rifles and not assigned specifically to rifle companies were provided muskets for the impending battles in late summer. Reequipping the army with muskets also armed the troops with bayonets. Tucker provides an account of Wayne’s philosophy on the use of bayonets, as follows:

“Wayne was devoted to the bayonet. For the type of warfare being waged in North America in 1776 -1781 he favored that arm because muskets were erratic, rifles heavy, and because the bayonet struck more deadly fear in the heart of the enemy than the whine of bullets or the bark of artillery. Many who have studied the wars of the American Revolution and the Northwest Territory have been struck by Wayne’s mastery of the bayonet and his use of it on every occasion when opportunity offered. His object in battle was to close and engage in hand-to-hand combat. For this he trained his soldiers intensively. Nothing, in his view of warfare, gave more confidence to the infantryman than a bayonet on his musket.

“The bayonet was relatively new. It had not been in use by the leading armies for much more than half a century when Wayne formed an affection for it. He had observed at Three Rivers that glistening steel on the barrel of a gun was like a ramrod up a soldier’s backbone, and though the thrust might never reach an enemy’s abdomen, the gleam of it readily operated on his kidneys. Before Brandywine, Wayne wrote to the Philadelphia authorities requesting that the long, heavy squirrel rifles many of his men carried, which would not hold the ordinary type bayonet, be traded in for muskets around which bayonets could be fastened…… He received the muskets and regularly employed the bayonet.”

Rifles not only could not mount bayonets but also took five times as long to reload as the muskets in use at the time. Special rifle companies, regiments, and brigades were formed and were useful in specific instances and were greatly feared by the British. Muskets provided a more effective weapon in close combat.

Prior to The Battle of Brandywine, Washington rode among the troops to inspirit them with the drive to win the battle. He addressed every brigade, stating the British could be defeated and if they were, it would bring an end to conflict resulting in independence for the country and early discharges from service for the men. The men revered Washington, wanted an end to the war and responded to his admonitions. Joseph Hancock was among them.

On the 8th of September Howe began to position his forces under Knyphausen for a feint against the American front at Chadds Ford while the main body under Howe and Cornwallis would attempt to turn the American right flank by following the Great Valley Road north to Tremble’s Ford. This Ford was apparently unknown to Washington but was detected by Howe’s superior reconnaissance of the area prior to forming the battle plan. This was the same strategy successfully employed against Washington the previous year on Long Island. Marshall provides the following account of the battle plan:

“In the evening of the 9th, Howe moved forward in two columns, which united next morning at Kennet’s Square; after which his parties were advanced on the roads leading to Lancaster, to Chadd’s Ford, and to Wilmington.

“The armies were now within seven miles of each other, with only the Brandywine between them, which opposed no obstacle to a general engagement. This was sought by Howe, and not avoided by Washington. It was impossible to protect Philadelphia without a victory; and this object was deemed of such importance throughout America, and especially by Congress, as to require that a battle should be hazarded for its attainment.

“In the morning of the 11th, soon after day, information was received that the whole British army was advancing on the direct road leading over Chadd’s ford. The American’s were immediately arrayed in order of battle for the purpose of contesting the passage of the river. Skirmishing now commenced between the advanced parties; and by ten, Maxwell was driven over the Brandywine below the ford. Knyphausen, who commanded this division, paraded on the heights, and appeared to be making dispositions to force the passage of the river.”

Lieutenant Colonel Ross provided intelligence that Washington initially dismissed:

Great Valley Road
11 o’clock a.m.
Dear General,
A large body of the enemy, from every account five thousand, with sixteen or eighteen field-pieces, marched along this road just now.
…… We are close in the rear with about seventy men and gave them three rounds within a small distance….

James Ross, Lieutenant Colonel

The 8th Regiment saw Howe and Cornwallis’s movements as they headed north to outflank the American troops. Ross had 70 privates from the 8th Regiment and it is likely that Joseph Hancock was among those that took aim and fired at the British. These soldiers likely rejoined Wayne’s force around midday. As a side note, Ross resigned not long after Brandywine. The reason for his resignation is not determined but it could have been due to the perception that he was not trusted by Washington, or disgusted that had his warning been heeded, the outcome of the battle might have been quite different. Joseph Hancock, private under Ross’s command didn’t have a choice to resign. Instead, he faced more conflict despite whatever his personal thoughts might have been.

Marshall’s account of the confusion regarding intelligence follows but it should be noted that he was inaccurate in the rank of Ross:

“About eleven, Colonel Ross of Pennsylvania brought the information that a large column, estimated by him at five thousand men, with many field-pieces, had taken a road leading from Kennet’s Square directly up the country, and had entered the Great Valley Road, down which they were marching to the upper fords on the Brandywine.”

“On receiving this intelligence, Washington is said to have determined to detach Sullivan and Lord Sterling, to engage the left of the British army, and to cross Chadd’s ford in person and attack Knyphausen. Before this plan, if formed, could be executed, counter intelligence was received inducing the opinion that the movement on the British left was a feint, and that the column which had made it, after making demonstrations of crossing the Brandywine above its forks, had marched down the southern side of the river to reunite itself with Knyphausen.

“The uncertainty produced by this contradictory intelligence was at length removed; and about two in the afternoon, it was ascertained that the left wing, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, after making a circuit of about seventeen miles, had crossed the river above its forks, and was advancing in great force.

“A change of disposition was immediately made. The divisions of Sullivan, Sterling, and Stephen, advanced farther up the Brandywine, and fronted the British column marching down the river. That commanded by Wayne remained at Chadd’s Ford. Greene’s division, accompanied by General Washington in person, formed a reserve between the right and left wings.”

Knyphausen was to give the appearance of a frontal assault and with most of the British artillery in his possession, had the firepower to create the diversionary illusion. Knyphausen was not to press the engagement at Chadd’s Ford until it was apparent that Howe was succeeding on his flanking maneuver. Meanwhile a fierce cannonade convinced Wayne’s troops they needed to prepare for a direct attack across Chadd’s Ford. Tucker states:

“Knyphausen spread out along the heights west of the creek. The assault that Wayne momentarily expected degenerated into a peculiar defensive. Wayne had studied the long red column as it advance on the dusty roadway, winding here and there behind the hills and woodlands, and found his own excitement mounting. Combat exhilarated him but he would have to wait for it. While Knyphausen was taking his position on the opposite heights, Washington was riding along his front receiving cheers wherever he came upon a new detachment. He had issued an address some days earlier telling the army the consequence of the impending battle to the colonial cause, saying that after their struggles of two years the prospect had brightened, and suggesting that if they were victorious, this campaign would be their last. Hopeful words – the war had some of its most despondent moments, as well as inspiring triumphs ahead. Wayne was perhaps even more sanguine. This was the occasion on which he exhibited to his caller and friend, Captain Alexander Graydon, the Quaker soldier-author, his feeling of utmost contempt for the enemy.

“Part of Wayne’s animation was due to the circumstance that the position of his troops, not far advanced from army headquarters seemed to give assurance that he would fight under the commanding general’s eye. When Maxwell re-crossed to the American side at 10 a.m. pressed closely by Knyphausen, and took a position downstream from Wayne, the Hessian general put batteries on the western heights above the ford and opened on Wayne’s entrenchments. Proctor’s guns replied and a desultory battle begun in Washington’s center, where the commanding general still confidently expected the main British assault to be delivered.”

“Several of the Continental officers recognized the imminence of a flank movement, which all the time was underway, but not Washington. An element of stubbornness seemed to dominate his thinking. The British had made a frontal assault under Howe at Bunker Hill, and that is what he was confident they would deliver in their march on Philadelphia. He surely could not have forgotten their strategy on Long Island, where Grant amused the Americans under Putnam and Lord Stirling in front while Cornwallis was on his long flank march to reach their rear, but that did not influence his calculations at Brandywine as the morning wore into afternoon.

“All through the morning Washington was riding over the hills, reconnoitering personally, watching the dust clouds rising to the north-west. His question during Knyphausens indifference was whether to stand firm and await development, or to assume the offensive, cross the Brandywine, and launch an attack in force against Knyphausen’s corps that appeared to be isolated. Each time the temptation arose to cross he resisted it and waited. When the early afternoon brought no new developments, an offensive move appeared more and more inviting. Knyphausen had about 5,000 men at Chadd’s Ford, but where was the balance of Howe’s combat troops, comprising some of the Great Britain’s finest regiments, led by Cornwallis among the more capable officers the home government had sent to the North American war.”

“Washington at length cast his decision in favor of the counter-offensive. Some critics of the battle have found merit in it. If the British had divided their forces, he reasoned, he would take advantage of it. Knyphausen would be assailable in front of Chadd’s Ford. The waters were low and fording easy. He prepared his orders for Wayne and Maxwell, supported by Greene, to cross to the west side and attack Knyphausen.

“Wayne was elated. He had engaged all morning in long-range battle and wanted to close. Viewed in the light of the British overall strength and the lack of resolution of elements of the American army, the maneuver would have been hazardous even with Wayne to spearhead it.”

The enthusiasm Wayne had briefly been allowed was dashed according to Tucker.

“Knyphausen had his men well posted on the heights. Fortunately for Washington, intelligence was received from Sullivan in time to prevent Wayne from crossing.”

Washington’s order put Wayne and Maxwell the primary deterrent to Knyphausen’s advance. When the right flank collapsed they were forced to make an orderly retreat. Wayne left no cannon for the enemy to capture. Moreover, he was able to withdraw his men with few casualties.

Marshall summarizes the conclusion of the battle as follows:

“The troops detached against Lord Cornwallis, formed hastily on an advantageous piece of ground, above Birmingham meeting-house. Unfortunately Sullivan’s division, in taking its ground, made too large a circuit, and was scarcely formed when the attack commenced.

“About half-past four the action began, and was kept up warmly for some time. The American right first gave way. The line continued to break from the right, and in a short time was completely routed. The commander-in-chief pressed forward with Greene to the support of that wing; but before his arrival, its rout was complete, and he could only check the pursuit. For this purpose the tenth Virginia regiment commanded by Colonel Stevens, and a regiment of Pennsylvania commanded by Colonel Stewart, were posted advantageously to cover the rear of the retreating army. The impression made by their fire, and the approach of night, induced Sir William Howe, after dispersing them, to give over the pursuit.

“When the action commenced on the American right, General Knyphausen crossed at Chadd’s ford, and forced a small battery, which defended it. The defeat of American right being known, the left also withdrew from its ground. The whole army retreated that night to Chester, and the next day to Philadelphia.”

Had the flanking maneuver been addressed sooner, the battle would have certainly been fully engaged. Although in more recent times it has been fashionable to criticize Washington for not identifying sooner the flanking of his troops, the battle would have by no means been a sure victory for the Americans. As it turned out, Washington was able to effectively engage the enemy winning sufficient recognition to garner more French support. Moreover, he was able to preserve the American Army and fight another day.

According to Wood, 11,000 American troops were engaged. 1200 to 1300 men were causalities, perhaps 400 of this number were taken prisoners. Eleven pieces of artillery were captured. Howe was in overall command of 12,000 men; 577 were killed or wounded, and all but 40 were British regulars. The Pennsylvania Line suffered 18 deaths, 47 wounded and 9 captured. The 8th Regiment had a major and a sergeant wounded but no losses. The Pennsylvania losses were minor considering the extent of the engagement Wayne commanded.