The Battle of Brandywine

EARLY in the morning of the eleventh of September the British army marched to the enemy. Howe had formed his army in two columns, the right commanded by General Knyphausen, the left by Lord Cornwallis. His plan was, that while the first should make repeated feints to attempt the passage of Chadsford, in order to occupy the attention of the republicans, the second should take a long circuit to the upper part of the river, and cross at a place where it was divided into two shallow streams. . Knyphausen advanced with his column, and commenced a furious cannonade upon the passage of Chadsford, making all his dispositions as if he intended to force it. The Americans defended themselves with gallantry, and even passed several detachments of light troops to the other side, in order to harass the enemy's flanks. But after a course of skirmishes, sometimes advancing, and at others obliged to retire, they were finally, with an eager pursuit, driven over the river. Knyphausen then appeared more than ever determined to pass the ford; he stormed, and kept up an incredible noise. In this manner the attention of the Americans was fully occupied in the neighborhood of Chadsford. Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis, at the head of the second column, took a circuitous march to the left, and gained unperceived the forks of the Brandywine. By this rapid movement he passed both branches of the river at Trimble's and at Jeffery's Fords, without opposition, about two o'clock in the afternoon, and then, turning short down the river, took the road to Dilworth, in order to fall upon the right flank of the American army. The republican general, however, received intelligence of this movement about noon, and, as it usually happens in similar cases, the reports exaggerated its importance exceedingly, it being represented that General Howe commanded this division in person. Washington therefore decided immediately for the most judicious, though boldest, measure: this was, to pass the river with the centre and left wing of his army, and overwhelm Knyphausen by the most furious attack. He justly reflected that the advantage he should obtain upon the enemy's right would amply compensate the loss that his own might sustain at the same time. Accordingly, he ordered General Sullivan to pass the Brandywine with his division at an upper ford and attack the left of Knyphausen, while he, in person, should cross lower down and fall upon the right of that general.

This operation was checked by the arrival of a new report, to the effect that the previous information was false. Washington was thus kept in uncertainty till it was too late to make any decisive movement. On learning that the enemy was really approaching in force, he hastily made preparations to meet this imminent danger.

But the column of Cornwallis was already in sight of the Americans. Sullivan drew up his troops on the commanding ground above Birmingham meeting-house, with his left extending towards the Brandywine, and both his flanks covered with very thick woods. His artillery was advantageously planted upon the neighboring hills. But it appears that Sullivan's own brigade, having taken a long circuit, arrived too late upon the field of battle, and had not yet occupied the position assigned it, when the action commenced. The English, having reconnoitred the dispositions of the Americans, immediately formed, and fell upon them with the utmost impetuosity. The engagement became equally fierce on both sides about four o'clock in the afternoon. For some length of time the Americans defended themselves with great valor, and the carnage was terrible. But such was the emulation which invigorated the efforts of the English and Hessians [between whom a feeling of rivalry existed] that neither the advantages of situation, nor a heavy and well-supported fire of small-arms and artillery, nor the unshaken courage of the Americans, were able to resist their impetuosity. The light infantry, chasseurs, grenadiers, and guards threw themselves with such fury into the midst of the republican battalions that they were forced to give way. Their left flank was first thrown into confusion; but the rout soon became general. The vanquished fled into the woods in their rear: the victors pursued, and advanced by the great road towards Dilworth. On the first fire of the artillery, Washington, having no doubt of what was passing, had pushed forward the reserve to the succor of Sullivan. But this corps, on approaching the field of battle, fell in with the flying soldiers of Sullivan, and perceived that no hope remained of retrieving the fortunes of the day. General Greene, by a judicious manoeuvre, opened his ranks to receive the fugitives, and after their passage, having closed them anew, he retired in good order, checking the pursuit of the enemy by a continual fire of the artillery which covered his rear. Having come to a defile, covered on both sides with woods, he drew up his men there, and again faced the enemy.

Knyphausen now prepared to convert his feint into a real crossing of the river.

The passage of Chadsford was defended by an intrenchment and battery. The republicans stood firm at first; but upon intelligence of the defeat of their right, and seeing some of the British troops who had penetrated through the woods come out upon their flank, they retired in disorder, abandoning their artillery and munitions to the German general. In their retreat, or rather flight, they passed behind the position of General Greene, who still defended himself, and was the last to quit the field of battle. Finally, it being already dark, after a long and obstinate conflict, he also retired. The whole army retreated that night to Chester, and the day following to Philadelphia.

There the fugitives arrived incessantly, having effected their escape through by-ways and circuitous routes. The victors passed the night on the field of battle. If darkness had not arrived seasonably, it is very probable that the whole American army would have been destroyed. The loss of the republicans was computed at about three hundred killed, six hundred wounded, and near four hundred taken prisoners. They also lost ten field-pieces and a howitzer. The loss in the royal army was not in proportion, being something under five hundred, of which the slain did not amount to one-fifth.

The foreign officers, Count Pulaski, a noble Pole, Lafayette, Captain de Fleury, and the Baron St. Ovary, were of great use to the Americans in this conflict. St. Ovary was taken prisoner, and Lafayette wounded. The defeat did not discourage Congress, which had resumed its sessions in Philadelphia, nor Washington, who took active measures to retrieve his losses. Within a few days after the defeat he advanced again, and offered battle to the approaching enemy. But there came so violent a rainfall as seriously to injure the arms and ammunition of the Americans, and Washington was forced to withdraw his army. Meanwhile, General Wayne was surprised by a night attack at Paoli, assailed with the bayonet, and had three hundred men killed out of a total of fifteen hundred. This assault, which was little else than a massacre, was long remembered with indignation by the Americans. Washington now, finding the extensive magazines of provisions and military stores which he had formed at Reading threatened by the British, moved to cover them, and abandoned Philadelphia, which was occupied by the enemy on the 26th of September. Congress adjourned to Lancaster. Yet Washington's activity continued unremitting. Batteries were erected on the Delaware, and obstructions sunk, to prevent the British fleet from ascending the river. Learning that Howe had sent some regiments to reduce these batteries, Washington took the opportunity, on October 4, to fall upon the weakened British army, then encamped at Germantown.

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