Despite stubborn resistance at Brandywine, the Continental Army was unable to check the British advance towards Philadelphia.
On a foggy September 11, 1777 along the banks of Brandywine Creek, near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, General George Washington posted his near 14,000 man Continental Army along several small hills. His purpose was to prevent the British from occupying the capital of Philadelphia. He believed he had chosen an unbreakable position, mistakenly thinking his troops covered all of the Brandywine’s fords. He was wrong. Moving to encounter them was Sir William Howe’s Army of 15,500 British Regulars and Hessian mercenaries. The heavy fog proved to be the perfect cover for Howe’s forces as they moved into position.
Washington’s intelligence failure would prove costly. Initially, Howe’s forces demonstrated across from Washington’s troops stationed near Chadd’s Ford while he maneuvered the bulk of his army along the Brandywine Creek to strike Washington’s exposed right flank. By mid-morning the battle was in full fury, opening up near a Quaker meeting house perched on a hill where Washington had anchored his left. Howe’s flanking maneuver was discovered too late, around 2 pm, forcing Washington to dispatch three divisions from his left to protect his exposed position.
But Howe dithered, buying some time for American forces to reposition themselves. A fierce struggle ensued. Washington’s lately dispatched divisions, led by General John Sullivan and Lord Stirling, though fighting hard and putting up a stiff resistance, were eventually overrun by Howe’s men. Simultaneously, Hessian Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen’s troops ferociously stormed the American units that remained near the Quaker meeting house at Chadd’s Ford. The line here, too, collapsed, and American troops fled. The fight raged along a three mile front between the Meeting House and Washington’s crumbling right flank.
To meet the growing threat and forestall total disaster, Washington ordered General Nathaniel Greene’s division up, which counterattacked and maintained a stingy rear-guard action as the bulk of Washington’s Army fled to the northeast. Greene’s troops went toe-to-toe with British attackers along the crest of Birmingham Hill, proving their mettle against the finest army in the world. The British suffered heavy casualties.
Sullivan counterattacked the Hessians, who were moving to get behind Stirling’s men located near the meeting house. The counterattack was repulsed, but it did buy some needed time as Stirling’s men withdrew. Fortuitously for the Americans, Washington and Greene brought up reinforcements which blunted the Hessian advance, but were then forced to retreat. Making it particularly difficult for the Continental Army was that they had to abandon many of their artillery pieces on the field due to the loss of so many horses killed in the action.
By nightfall the Americans were forced into an orderly retreat led in part by the young Marquis de Lafayette, who, though wounded earlier in the day's fighting, remained calm and organized.
The American defeat left the path wide open for Howe to occupy Philadelphia. Congress was forced to flee to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By the end of the Philadelphia campaign in the late fall of 1777, Washington’s troops would find winter quarters at Valley Forge some twenty miles to the northwest of Philadelphia. Nevertheless, the Continental Army did not panic at the end of the Battle of Brandywine and retreated in orderly fashion. In fighting they gave as good as they got and proved their worth on the battlefield with their British counterparts. After the battle Howe was criticized for failing to employ his cavalry effectively to destroy the American Army and for his delay in pushing forward the assault on the American right.
The British suffered close to 600 casualties while the Continental Army is estimated to have suffered 1,300 casualties. Much to Washington’s chagrin, beyond the loss of life, was that fact that the Continental Army left most of its artillery on the field. For an army short of supplies and material this was a big loss. A message from Washington to Congress summed up his sentiments, arguing that his men had, “gained what all young troops gain by being in actions.” Thus the army remained intact and lived to fight another day.