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Encounter at the Brandywine

May 2024
5min read

“The damn rebels form well”

Two hundred years ago men grown tired of a king shouldered arms and marched away to a quixotic and seemingly hopeless campaign against the greatest military power in the world. It was all a very long time ago, and it is perhaps too easy for us to see them as West, Trumbull, and all the artists schooled in the European tradition painted them: solemn demigods sacrificing themselves willingly on the altar of history, falling bloodlessly amid clusters ojflags beneath rich, rococo skies.

Of course, it wasn’t so. The men who fought our revolution were farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, accountants, schoolteachers, and businessmen who felt they were being cheated and were willing to do something about it. Unlike their British and Hessian counterparts, most of them had never dreamed of being soldiers. They knew nothing of revetments and flanking maneuvers, and they certainly didn’t want to die. But when a war came, they found they were ready for a war.

For the most part, it wasn’t a business of Saratogas and Yorktowns and Washington and his aides galloping onto the field at Monmouth in the nick of time. It’s unlikely that the wounded used their last breath to cheer downy-faced drummer boys and gray-haired fife players. Most of the battles they fought ended in defeat. They would count their dead, pull back fifty miles, complain bitterly, and fight again. For eight terrible years they fought a stronger and better-equipped enemy in the forests and fields of the new land they had taken for their own. In the end, they triumphed.

Now, as the bicentennial of their struggle approaches, it is particularly fitting to honor the men rather than their legend. In the past hundred years few artists have attempted to portray seriously the battles that won America for us. Last year, the editors of A MERICAN HERITAGE commissioned Don Troiani, a young military historian and gifted artist, to paint the battles of the Revolution, not as historical pageantry, hut the way they must have looked. The uniforms and maneuvers in these paintings are as accurate as scrupulous research can make them. Each picture is followed by an account of the action m the words of the men who fought it. The first of this new series, the Battle of Brandywine, begins here.

Encounter at the Brandywine

In the summer of 1777 General Sir William Howe and thousands of his best troops left British-held New York and put out to sea, hound for the head of Chesapeake Bay and a major attack on Philadelphia, the capital of the new American republic. At last, after weeks of rumor and doubt, General Washington received word of Howe’s plans and hastily prepared to check him before he reached his goal. Despite the loss of New York the year before, the victories at Trenton and Princeton had spurred enlistments, and Washington was able to field an army of ten thousand men. They marched through Philadelphia late in August, shabbily dressed men sporting sprigs of leaves in their hats in a rather pathetic attempt to present a uniform appearance (opposite left is such a private soldier, from the Pennsylvania State Regiment). Against them marched fifteen thousand British soldiers, all as well equipped as the splendid grenadier shown opposite at right.

On September 11 Washington deployed his troops along Brandywine Creek, most of them guarding the likely crossing of Chad’s Ford. Howe had decided to try again the trick that had won him Long Island and New York. Hc massed some of his men at Chad’s Ford but led the main body far upstream and around Washington’s right flank. Major General John Sullivan bore the brunt of the attack and put up a fierce but hopeless resistance. When Washington realized what was happening, he pulled Major General Nathanael Greene and his Virginians away from Chad’s Ford and sent them to support Sullivan. It was a four-mile march over rough ground, but Greene made it in forty-five minutes and stopped the British advance for long enough to keep Sullivan’s retreat from turning into a rout. On the left, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne pulled his troops out skillfully, and Washington’s army fell back in good order.

Technically, the Continental forces were defeated, but the men were in good spirits and ready to fight again. More important, the battle marked the moment when the Americans began to outgrow the provincial quibbles that had hampered them so often in the past. Two years earlier recruits had bridled over the thought of being led by a man from another village, but in the heat of the fight Wayne, a Pennsylvanian, commanded New Jersey troops, and Greene, a Rhode Islander, saved the day with Virginians. At Brandywine the British faced a truly American army.



“The damn rebels form well”

Colonel Aaron Ogden, Continental Army : On the 11th of September, 1777, the American Army … was posted near Chadsford on the Brandywinc with that river and a strong Abbatis in its front, and the enemy … was advancing from the head of Elk, apparently with an intent to cross the Brandywine at this ford and attack General Washington. …

Major Carl Baurmeister, Hessian Forces : At sunrise … the army set out in two columns to march along two different roads. General Howe remained with the column on the left, which was led by General Cornwallis. Lieutenant General von Knyphausen commanded the column on the right.

Captain John André, British Army : The design, it seemed was that General Knyphausen, taking Post at Chad’s Ford, should begin early to cannonade the Enemy on the opposite side, thereby to take up his attention and make him presume an attack was then intended with the whole Army, whilst the other Column should be performing the détour [around Washington’s right flank].

Joseph Townsend, a civilian witness to the battle : General Knyphausen commenced his cannonading early after daylight, and continued it the greater part of the forenoon. … Thus were the Americans amused … until information arrived that General Howe and his troops were crossing the creek at Jefferis’ Ford, which unexpected intelligence occasioned a general consternation and commotion throughout the whole of General Washington’s army.

Lieutenant General William Howe, British Army : General Washington, having intelligence of this movement about noon, detached General Sullivan to his right … who took a strong position on the commanding ground … near to the Brandywind. …

Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, British Army, to a fellow officer :

The damn rebels form well.

Captain Enoch Anderson, Continental Army : [Cornwallis] crossed at the Forks and came down upon us rather unexpected. … The word was soon given to march to the right. … “Face to the front in line with the Maryland troops,” was the order, and the battle began. Gannon balls flew thick and many, from both sides, and small arms roared like the rolling of a drum. …

Major General John Sullivan, Continental Army : … the fire was close and heavy for a long time, and soon became general … Five times did the enemy drive our troops from the hill, and as often it was regained, and the summit often disputed almost muzzle to muzzle. … The general fire of the line lasted an hour and forty minutes … in such a manner that General Conway, who has seen much service, says he never saw so close and severe a fire.

General George Washington, Continental Army : In the midst of the attack on the right, that body of the enemy which remained on the other side of Chadd’s Ford, crossed it and attacked the division there under the command of General Wayne … who, after a severe conflict … retired.

Major General John Sullivan, Continental Army : When we found the right and left oppressed by numbers and giving way on all quarters, we were obliged to abandon the hill we had so long contended for, but not till we had almost covered the ground … with the dead bodies of the enemy.

Private Joseph Clark, Continental Army : …The enemy must have suffered very much from our people before they broke, though, indeed, our people suffered much in this action, and would have suffered more if Gen’l Green had not been detached to their assistance, by whose timely aid they made a safe retreat of the men. …

Sergeant Thomas Sullivan, British Army : The … Fourth Brigade moved forward a mile … where they attacked a Gorps of the enemy that had not been before engaged, and were strongly posted to cover the retreat of their Army … which Gorps not being forced, on account of their … being somewhat determined to stand, until after it was dark … the enemy’s Army escaped a total overthrow. …

Captain Enoch Anderson, Continental Army : Here then we experienced another drubbing. … But when it is taken into consideration that our army was not more than one-half the numbers of our enemy, and all things were well appointed and equipped with them, but our army not so … we did, I think, as well as could be expected. … Through all these trying times, I saw not a despairing look nor did I hear a despairing word. We had our solacing words always ready for each other, “Come boys, we shall do better another time,”—sounded throughout our little army. Had any man suggested, merely hinted the idea of giving up … he would have been knocked down. … Such was the spirit of the times. …

Major General Nathanael Greene, Continental Army : We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.


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