Battle of Brandywine Creek: A British victory or a tactical American retreat?

10 July 2015

History

On a recent trip to Delaware we decided to explore the countryside around Wilmington and came across the Brandywine Battlefield, now a visitors' site. Having worked on the American History, 1493-1945 project this intrigued me and so we decided to investigate. It turned out that we had come to the site of one of the largest land battles of the American Revolution, in terms of troop numbers on both sides; around 30,000 men were involved across the British, Hessian and American troops and militia. It was also a battle with a cast list boasting some of the most famous figures of this conflict, including General George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, General Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, General John Sullivan, General Charles Cornwallis, Wilhelm von Knyphausen and General Sir William Howe. As well as some time spent trying to imagine how the beautiful, verdant countryside of Pennsylvania could have been torn apart by artillery (rather like the fields of northern France), we were also treated to a guided tour of the house requisitioned by Washington as his headquarters and a detailed (and lively) description of how the battle unfolded.

General Washington's headquarters and surrounding area, near Brandywine Creek

The British forces (along with Hessian troops) were approaching Philadelphia and needed to cross the Brandywine River. The most logical point to do so was at Chadds Ford, so it was here that General Washington assembled his troops to guard the crossing and halt the British advance. He also placed detachments of men at other fords along the river and, confident that he had secured the area, Washington waited for the arrival of the British troops. On the 11th September 1777 General Howe did send a portion of his army towards Chadds Ford to meet Washington, but decided to march the majority of his force north to cross the river at an unprotected ford and use a pincer movement to surprise Washington’s troops from behind. Early reports of British movements did indicate that the Howe had divided his forces, but Washington refused to believe them (even, apparently, imprisoning the militia man who carried the report, thinking him to be an English spy) and continued to focus his attention on the battle underway at Chadds Ford. When the British appeared on the American army’s right flank, Washington attempted to defend the high ground around the Birmingham Friends’ Meeting House but was forced to concede a tactical retreat. Exact casualty numbers are not known, but it is estimated that around 500 British and 1,000 Americans were lost, and the British were able to march on to Philadelphia.

Engraving of The Battlefield of Brandywine. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

On my return to the office I thought I would see if there were any related documents in the American History, 1493-1945 resource, and among the results I came across an engraving of the battlefield, a letter by George Washington referring somewhat wearily to the battle (“so many accts. have been published of the battle of brandy wine that nothing more can be said of it”), a letter from a soldier wounded at Brandywine, and a British map of the battle “in which the Rebels were defeated”. This is factually correct, but interestingly the American view of this battle, both at the time and today, is that is served as more of a learning experience; they were defeated, but it was due to lack of local knowledge and poor reconnaissance rather than weak fighting. As the only British people on the tour, we decided to remain neutral!

Battle of Brandywine Map. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

It is one of the joys of my job to be able to learn about historical events not only by reading about them, but having the opportunity to travel and visit the sites, as well as experience them unfolding in the scribbled letters and journals of those who were actually there.

The complete American History 1493-1945 from the Gilder Lehrman Institute is available now. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.

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