In the fall of 1777 the republican army under Washington was struggling with royal troops and German hirelings under Sir William Howe in the vicinity of the Delaware River. We have observed that Washington, when he was certain that Howe would not ascend the Hudson, moved with his army to Philadelphia, expecting to meet his antagonist south of that city. His expectations were justified by events. Late in August he learned that Lord Howe's fleet, with his brother's army, was ascending Chesapeake Bay; and on the 24th of the month, Washington marched his army from Philadelphia, and arrived at Wilmington, in Delaware, the next day, at about the time when the British troops landed at near the head of the Elk River, fifty-four miles from the American capital. Howe immediately prepared to march across the gently rolling country inhabited chiefly by Tories, with the expectation of making an easy conquest of Philadelphia. His army numbered more than eighteen thousand men well supplied with munitions of war; Washington's effective force did not number over eleven thousand, including eighteen hundred Pennsylvania militia. The Congress had lavished all their favors upon Gates, the favorite of the New England delegation, who had just been sent to supersede Schuyler; and they treated Washington with positive neglect. "They did not scruple to slight his advice and to neglect his wants." With unbecoming and unpatriotic querulousness, some of the friends of Gates in Congress wrote and spoke disparagingly of Washington as a commander. Some of them were encouraging in the mind of Gates a hope that he would be the Virginian's successor in chief command. John Adams, with judgment warped by his partiality for Gates, wrote at this time: "We shall rake and scrape enough to do Howe's business; the Continental Army under Washington is more numerous by several thousands than Howe's whole force; the enemy give out that they are eighteen thousand strong, but we know better, and that they have not ten thousand. Washington is very prudent; I should put more to risk, were I in his shoes; but perhaps he is right. Gansevoort has proved that it is possible to hold a post, and Stark that it is practicable even to attack lines and posts with militia. I wish the Continental Army would prove that anything can be done. I am weary with so much insipidity. I am sick of Fabian systems. My toast is, a short and violent war." Adams was soon afterward satisfied that he was blinded by a sad delusion.
Washington advanced his forces beyond Wilmington, and early in September took post behind Red Clay Creek. He sent General Maxwell, with light troops, to form an ambuscade in the direction of the enemy, while with the main army he waited the approach of the foe, who moved in two clumns on the 3d of September, one division commanded by Cornwallis, and the other by Knyphausen. The advanced guard soon encountered Maxwell, when a sharp skirmish ensued and a temporary check was given to the march of the foe. On the 8th they again moved forward by way of Newark, and feigned an attack on Washington's right, while the main army halted with the expectation of turning that flank of the republican army the next morning with ease. But Washington outgeneraled Howe as he did Cornwallis at Trenton. By a swift and secret movement that night, he fell back to the Brandywine Creek, which he crossed at Chad's Ford, and took post in a strong position on the hills that skirt the eastern borders of that stream. The British were astonished at dawn on the morning of the 9th by the absence of Washington, and gave chase the same evening. The Americans stood directly in the path of the British in the proposed march upon Philadelphia.
On the 10th, the two divisions of Howe's army met at Kennet Square, and at five o'clock on the morning of the 11th a large portion of them, led by Cornwallis, marched up the Lancaster road toward the forks of the Brandywine. They left all their baggage, even to their knapsacks, with the other division, which, led by Knyphausen, marched a few hours later in a dense fog for Chad's Ford. Washington's left wing, composed of the brigades of Muhlenberg and Weedon of Greene's division, and Wayne's division with Proctor's artillery, were on the hills east of Chad's Ford. The brigades of Sullivan, Stirling and Stephen, composing the right wing, extended along the Brandywine to a point above the forks; and a thousand Pennsylvania militia, under General Armstrong, were at Pyle's Ford, two miles below Chad's Ford. General Maxwell, with a thousand light troops, was posted on the west side of the stream, to dispute the passage of Knyphausen. The latter pushed forward, and sent a strong party to dislodge Maxwell, who, after a severe fight, was driven to the edge of the Brandywine, where he was reinforced, and turning upon his pursuers, smote their ranks into confusion and pressed them back to their main line. Seeing a movement in force to gain his rear, Maxwell fled across the stream, leaving the western side in full possession of the enemy.
Knyphausen now brought his great guns to the high bank west of Chad's Ford, and opened them upon the Americans. He did not attempt to cross, for he was instructed to amuse the patriots with a feigned attempt to pass over, while Cornwallis should cross at the forks and gain the flank and rear of Washington's army. This accomplished, Knyphausen was to push over the stream, and both parties make a simultaneous attack.
Washington resolved to strike a blow at once. He sent word to Sullivan to cross at a ford above, and attack Cornwallis, while he should pass over and assail Knyphausen. Through misinformation, Sullivan did not perform his part of the work. He sent a message to Washington, which kept him in suspense a long time. Greene, who had crossed at Chad's Ford with his advance-guard, was recalled, and Cornwallis, in the meantime, had made a wide circuit, crossed the Brandywine far up that stream, and was upon a hill near the Birmingham meeting-house, not far from Sullivan's right, before that officer was aware of his approach. The surprised general sent word to Washington of his perils, and immediately moved against the enemy. Before he could form his troops in battle order, the rested Britons attacked him. A severe battle ensued. For awhile the result was doubtful. Finally the right wing of the republicans under General De Borre gave way; then the left under Sullivan. The centre, commanded by Stirling, remained firm for awhile, when it, too, gave way, and fled in confusion. Lafayette, who was with this corps, fighting on foot as a volunteer, was badly wounded in his leg. All efforts to rally the troops were vain, excepting a few who made a momentary stand near Dilworth, when they, too, fled, and with the other regiments ran over the hills in fragments toward the main army at Chad's Ford, closely pursued by the victors. Cornwallis's cannon had made dreadful havoc in the American ranks.
When the cannonade at the Birmingham meeting-house was heard by Washington, he went with Greene and two brigades which lay nearest the nearest the scene of action, to the support of the right wing. They made a swift march, met the fugitives, and by a skillful movement opened their ranks and received them and checked the pursuers by a constant fire of artillery. At a narrow defile the regiments of Stephen and Stewart held the British back until dark, when the latter encamped for the night. Meanwhile Knyphausen had crossed the Brandywine at Chad's Ford, where Wayne, in command of the left wing, defended the works gallantly for awhile; but when he saw the more numerous enemy getting in his rear, he abandoned his cannon and munitions of war and made a disorderly retreat behind the division of General Greene. At twilight there was a skirmish near Dilworth, between Maxwell and his light troops lying in ambush to cover the retreat of the American army, and some British grenadiers. The conflict was short, for darkness soon put an end to it.
The battle was now over. The Americans, defeated, marched leisurely to Chester. The British held the field, but did not pursue. On the following morning (September 12th, 1777), Washington gathered his army, marched toward Philadelphia, and encamped near Germantown. He had lost in killed, wounded and prisoners, almost a thousand men; the British loss was a little more than half that number. Brave men from abroad had fought and bled, on that day, some for the King and some for Liberty. In that battle, young Lafayette, the noblest and best friend of the Americans (not of their blood), in their struggle for independence, struck his first blow for the oppressed and for freedom. There, too, Pulaski, the generous Polander, first drew his sword in defence of the rights of man, in the western hemisphere, as commander of a troop of horse, and won from the Congress the commission of brigadier of cavalry. There, too, De Borre, Duplessis, De Fleury, and other Frenchmen showed the true metal of brave men.
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