Long overshadowed by the stunning American victory at Saratoga, the complex British campaign that defeated George Washington’s colonial army and led to the capture of the capital city of Philadelphia was one of the most important military events of the war. Michael C. Harris’s impressive Brandywine is the first full-length study of this pivotal engagement in many years.
Though the bitter fighting around Brandywine Creek drove the Americans from the field, their heroic defensive stand saved Washington’s army from destruction and proved that the nascent Continental foot soldiers could stand toe-to-toe with their foe. Although more combat would follow, Philadelphia fell to Gen. Sir William Howe’s British legions on September 26, 1777.
Harris’s Brandywine is the first complete study to merge the strategic, political, and tactical history of this complex operation and important set-piece battle into a single compelling account. More than a decade in the making, his sweeping prose relies almost exclusively upon original archival research and his personal knowledge of the terrain. Enhanced with original maps, illustrations, and modern photos, and told largely through the words of those who fought there, Brandywine will take its place as one of the most important military studies of the American Revolution ever written.
“Take[s] the reader into the fields and along the front-lines . . . A first-rate military history that has a deserving spot on any student’s bookshelf of the American Revolution.” —Emerging Revolutionary War Era
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The 1777 Campaign Takes Shape
"I observed to him there was no letter to Howe to acquaint him with the plan or what was expected of him in consequence of it."
— Undersecretary William Knox, March 1777
The Pieces in Place
As the spring of 1777 dawned, George Washington was unsure of William Howe's intentions for the fighting season. From New York City, Howe could move north along the Hudson River to form a junction with the Canadian army, he could move directly overland toward the American capital at Philadelphia, or he could board a portion of his army onto ships to sail to any number of American ports.
Lacking any significant naval force to monitor British movements, Washington was forced into a reactive strategy during the spring and summer months. If Howe pushed north, he would follow him and harass his rear. If the British used their ships, he would need to wait and see where they turned up along the lengthy American coastline. Washington's defensive positions around Morristown, New Jersey, already placed him in a position to protect the overland route to Philadelphia.
During the maneuvering that led Washington to the banks of the Brandywine, he attempted to hinder British movements with militia and other troops while the main army (which was being reconstituted that spring) waited for the opportune moment to make a stand. Washington would later decide the favorable terrain along the Brandywine presented that opportunity.
The year 1777 was a major turning point in the American Revolution. While Washington remained on the defensive, the British high command formulated plans to take the initiative. Two British armies in North America were available to carry out the King's strategy — one led by William Howe and the other by John Burgoyne. Although the latter's army would not be directly involved at Brandywine, his campaign would have far-reaching repercussions on Howe's efforts, and Howe's on Burgoyne's.
The previous year, until the middle of December, had gone dramatically well for the British forces in North America. Prior to withdrawing for the winter, the northern army had driven south to Fort Ticonderoga in what would become upper New York state, pushing the Americans from its path. William Howe's army had captured New York City, mauled George Washington's army, and pursued it across New Jersey by mid-December.
These victories made capturing Philadelphia an attractive and attainable goal. In the traditional European mindset, taking the colonial capital should end the war. However, doing so was not part of the original British strategic plan.
The British strategy for the opening years of the war had revolved around the New England colonies, targeting them as the core of the rebellion. The prevailing opinion was that New England should be isolated from the other colonies by seizing control of the Hudson River-Lake Champlain corridor. In the minds of the British leadership, dividing the colonies would mean victory. As early as late 1775, Howe had advocated the Hudson River plan. Using his main force at New York City, Howe would ascend the Hudson from the south to link up with Guy Carleton's forces moving down from Canada, and together strike into Massachusetts from the west.
Lord George Germain, the powerful if largely ineffective Secretary of State for the American Department, backed Howe's Hudson River plan. Germain, together with Lord North and others in the British government, wrongly assumed American troops could not defeat British troops, that the colonial war would unfold like the conflicts on the European continent, and that victory would reestablish allegiance. Because of the extraordinary distances involved, combined with his false assumptions and manner of handling things, Germain refused to dictate specific and clear orders. A memorandum later found in his papers outlined British thoughts on war strategy:
By our having the entire Command of the Communication between Canada and New York, which is both convenient and easy, being almost altogether by Water, the Troops from both these Provinces will have it in their power to act in Conjunction, as occasion or necessity may require. In consequence whereof, the Provinces of New England will be surrounded on all Sides, whether by His Majesty's Troops or Navy, and liable to be attacked from every Quarter, which will oblige them to divide their Force for the protection of their frontier settlements, while at the same time all intercourse between them and the Colonies to the southward of the Hudson's River will be entirely cut off.
Following the British capture of New York City and the surrounding area in the fall of 1776, Howe proposed to direct the impetus of the main part of his forces north along the Hudson. Such a proposal was in line with the Hudson River plan. Howe wrote to Germain on November 30 outlining his thoughts. Based upon the difficulties Guy Carleton had encountered in 1776, Howe assumed that the column out of Canada could not reach Albany before September 1777. Therefore, Howe proposed a three-part plan to bring the war to a close by the end of the following year:
A 10,000-man army would operate out of Rhode Island, penetrate north into Massachusetts, and capture Boston. Lieutenant General Henry Clinton would command this force.
Another 10,000-man army would push north along the Hudson River to reach Albany and form a junction with the army coming south from Canada. Presumably, this force would fall under Howe's personal command.
Lastly, another 8,000-man column in New Jersey would block Washington's main army and threaten Philadelphia. Howe proposed to attack Philadelphia and Virginia in the autumn, "provided the success of other operations will admit of an adequate force to be sent against that province."
In summation, Howe's idea was to use a force to hold George Washington's Continental Army in New Jersey while sending two columns north for the New England campaign, one along the Hudson and the other out of Rhode Island. It was an ambitious, daring plan; however, at the time — with Washington reeling across New Jersey, desertion depleting his army, expiring enlistments further diminishing it as an effective force, and Carleton demonstrating that the American force along Lake Champlain was conquerable — the undertaking seemed doable.
To fulfill it, Howe requested 15,000 reinforcements, which he boldly proposed could be acquired from either Hanover or Russia. But while the British government had negotiated contracts for the use of regiments from the Germanic duchies the previous year, the skyrocketing costs of the war made the acquisition of additional Germanic troops, let alone Russian ones, unlikely. Recruitment for the British regiments of the line proceeded slowly, at best. Overall, the chances of Howe receiving anything close to 15,000 additional men were slim. Perhaps sensing Parliamentary resistance, Howe informed Germain that if "the force I have mentioned [were] sent out, it would strike such terror through the country, that little resistance would be made to the progress of his Majesty's arms in the provinces of New England, New York, the Jerseys, and Pennsylvania, after the junction of the northern and southern armies." Hinting at concerns over available horseflesh, Howe also requested additional mounts be sent across the Atlantic for the two regiments of light dragoons.
Unlike other politicians and military men, men such as Lord Germain and Gen. Charles Cornwallis, General Howe believed the primary key to victory was the occupation of colonial territory rather than the destruction of the Continental Army. The more area the British forces occupied, so went this line of thinking, the more opportunity there would be for Loyalists to wrestle back control of their own affairs and enroll in provincial organizations. Rather than rely on costly battles, Howe intended to achieve victory by moving with "impressive strength through centers of rebellion, relying upon overawing the disaffected, animating the loyal, and demonstrating to the wavering the futility of resistance." Howe conceptualized the war quite differently than did Washington, who throughout the conflict proved more willing to lose territory and key cities in return for the preservation of his principal field army.
Howe's plan, however, was formulated before Washington fled west across New Jersey instead of north into the Hudson Highlands, and before Howe drove west across the Raritan River in pursuit of the American leader. Germain did not receive the dispatch proposing Howe's plan until after the British disaster at Trenton on the day after Christmas, 1776. Before the letter even reached its destination, Washington's actions changed the entire strategic landscape.
Germain's response almost two months later was crafted without knowledge of the Trenton debacle. Germain thought Howe's proposal a "well digested plan," but went on to observe that the northern army would likely reach Albany sooner than Howe had calculated. The request for heavy reinforcements "really alarmed" Germain, who promised Howe 4,000 troops in the form of 800 additional Hessian jaegers, 1,800 British, and 1,200 Hessians. With these additions, Germain calculated Howe would have 35,000 troops with which to begin his spring campaign.
Germain's math, however, did not add up. Howe calculated that he had only 20,000 effectives. Even if detached men and the sick and wounded attached to the army were counted, few of them in an active campaign would be pulling a trigger. As a result, Germain's 4,000 reinforcements would only give Howe about 24,000 men for the spring campaign. Howe's strategy of reoccupying territory throughout the colonies as he advanced, however, would require troops to garrison areas in his rear.
It was Germain's hope that, after the successes of 1776, the costs of the war could be trimmed back. He was unwilling to return to the Germanic duchies for more troops, let alone make a request to the Russians for troops to swell Howe's ranks. As for the requested horses, Howe could expect only 100 because the expense of "sending to so great a distance is enormous, and the hazard of their arriving safe very great." As far as Germain was concerned, Howe could acquire the horses he might need from the American countryside. How much Howe would have to alter his ambitious 1777 campaign remained to be seen.
The distance and time required to coordinate colonial strategy with the authorities in England was on full display even before Germain's letter reached Howe's headquarters on March 9, 1777. By that time, Howe had changed his operational plans and had once again written Germain as much. On December 20, 1776, after Washington fled across the Delaware River, Howe abandoned the plan to move up the Hudson River and wrote to Germain that the next effort should be to capture Philadelphia. It was there, he explained, the principal American army was now gathered for its protection. Thus, Howe's plan had already changed before his November 30 dispatch reached Germain, whose reply Howe would not receive until the following March.
Howe's new strategy was reinforced by the ease with which Washington was driven out of New Jersey and across the Delaware River. Convinced that American sentiment had changed, Howe decided that a quick strike into the middle colonies would bring about a decisive victory and perhaps end the war. British leadership remained convinced throughout the Revolution that, if given the opportunity, Loyalists in North America would rise in large numbers to support the British — and Philadelphia was thought to be a hotbed of Loyalism. Howe also believed that the preservation of Philadelphia was in many ways symbolic for Washington and his army and he was correct: One of Washington's hopes in 1777 was to protect and hold the city. If Howe was going to bring Washington to battle, the easiest way to do so was to threaten Philadelphia.
As the largest American port and colonial seat of government (not to mention the third-largest city in the entire British Empire), Philadelphia was an attractive objective. Although it was established less than a century earlier, the city grew more rapidly than the older cities of Boston and New York. The founding Penn family's offers of lucrative land deals, coupled with the province's Quaker tolerance of all faiths, contributed to the heavy and steady influx of immigrants to both the city and the surrounding countryside. These new inhabitants included religious dissenters and settlers from the British home islands and central Europe, including a large number of German immigrants. In fact, so many Germans arrived that the village of Germantown was founded on the periphery of Philadelphia in 1683.
Philadelphia was laid out in a grid pattern, with the north-south streets running parallel to the Delaware River (and for the most part numbered) and the east-west streets named mostly after trees and other plants. The streets were fifty feet wide, paved with cobblestone, and lined with sidewalks of brick or flagstone. An exception was High Street, a 100-foot wide thoroughfare with a market shed running down the middle of three blocks from the old courthouse at Second Street. Other than a scattering of church steeples and other cupolas, no building stood above four stories. By 1777, the city with between 30,000 and 40,000 citizens boasted more than 5,000 houses and some 3,000 other buildings including warehouses, merchant facilities, and small workshops. Nearly all of these mostly red brick structures were erected within one square mile.
Flour and lumber exports made the region quite wealthy. The flour industry alone demanded the production of thousands of barrels annually, which in turn required sawmills to make the barrel staves, forges to produce iron straps for the hoops, and coopers to assemble them all. Barrels were also shipped to the West Indies for the transportation of sugar, molasses, and rum. These same lumber and iron businesses were also capable of producing war materials for the American army. During the war, most of the trade goods entering the colonies through Philadelphia came from the West Indies in the form of booty captured by privateers.
Being the largest port in British North America, Philadelphia had a large working-class population of rough dockworkers and laborers, as well as hundreds of small, independent craftsmen such as leatherworkers, shoemakers, printers, carpenters, and smiths of all kinds. Transportation of goods into and out of the city required porters, carters, draymen, and teamsters — tough, able-bodied characters who quenched their thirst at the more than 150 licensed taverns in the city. Others were more comfortable patronizing illegal taprooms populating back alleys and waterfront areas.
Politics firmly divided the population. The Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian protestants who had been driven from Northern Ireland by heavy taxes, were strongly in favor of American independence. Members of the Church of England, or Anglicans, were divided between loyalty to the Crown and their support for American independence. Half of Philadelphia was composed of Germans who were either neutral for religious reasons or supported the war effort. The members of the large Quaker contingent preferred neutrality, but were often "passively loyal to the crown." The small number of Jews and Irish and German Catholics in the city kept a low profile.
The lower Delaware valley and the farmlands to the south and west were rich centers of agricultural output and manufacturing that made a major contribution to the American war effort. The mid-Atlantic region supplied grain, horses, cattle, sheep, forage, cloth, lumber, and flour for the Continental Army. There were more than two dozen flour mills in the area. Five gunpowder mills in the area produced most of the army's ammunition. Uncounted local iron forges and furnaces supported the war by manufacturing cannon, cannonballs, horseshoes, wagon parts, shovels, and swords. German artisans farther inland produced the coveted Pennsylvania rifle. Salt, a precious commodity in any age without refrigeration, together with other sundries such as soap, candles, medicines, and blankets were all produced in the Philadelphia region. The area had long been renowned for its paper mills, whose products were necessary for Continental money, regimental books, writing paper, and small arms cartridges.
The port was both a shipbuilding facility and a major hub for the importation of goods key to American military success. What little foreign trade Americans were able to nurture during the war was principally channeled through Philadelphia. Large quantities of French weapons and gunpowder were smuggled in from the Caribbean, while rice and other foodstuffs, together with liquor, tobacco, and indigo, arrived from the Chesapeake region. Philadelphia's shipyards turned out small and large vessels for military purposes. The entire Pennsylvania militia navy, which answered to the province, was created in Philadelphia's shipyards. In March of 1777, a foundry opened on the waterfront opposite Old Swedes Church to produce brass cannon. Even the yard of the State House (today's Independence Hall) doubled as a muddy artillery park.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brandywine"
Copyright © 2014 Michael C. Harris.
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments,
Chapter 1 The 1777 Campaign Takes Shape,
Chapter 2 Northern New Jersey: Preliminaries, January - June 1777,
Chapter 3 Northern New Jersey: To Ships, June - July, 1777,
Chapter 4 To Sea and the Delaware: July 1777,
Chapter 5 To Sea and the Chesapeake: August 1-25, 1777,
Chapter 6 To Pennsylvania & First Contact: August 25 - September 2, 1777,
Chapter 7 To the Brandywine: September 3-10, 1777,
Chapter 8 The Continental Army: September 10, 1777,
Chapter 9 The British Army: September 10, 1777,
Chapter 10 The Eve of Battle: September 10, 1777,
Chapter 11 The Battle Begins: Morning, September 11, 1777,
Chapter 12 Mid-Day Lull: September 11, 1777,
Chapter 13 The British Assault Birmingham Hill: Afternoon, September 11, 1777,
Chapter 14 The British Assault Stirling and Stephen: Afternoon, September 11, 1777,
Chapter 15 Knyphausen Assaults Chads's Ford: Evening, September 11, 1777,
Chapter 16 Nathanael Greene Makes a Stand: Evening, September 11, 1777,
Chapter 17 The Aftermath of Battle: September 12-16, 1777,
Appendix A: The Battle of the Brandywine Order of Battle,
Appendix B: Was the Earliest American Flag Carried into Battle at Cooch's Bridge and/or the Brandywine?,
Appendix C: Where did Lafayette Sleep?,
Appendix D: Thomas Burke's Attack Against John Sullivan's Battlefield Performance, and Sullivan-s Defense,
Appendix E: The Ferguson Rifles after the Battle of the Brandywine,
Appendix F: The Main Characters, Thereafter,
Appendix G: A History of the Battlefield: Commemoration and Preservation,
Appendix H: The Use of Cavalry and Artillery at Brandywine,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reminiscent of the works of David Hackett Fisher, this is a highly readable, exhaustively researched and extraordinarily detailed study of one of the most important yet least well known battles of the Revolutionary War. Because I live in the Brandywine Valley area of southeast Pennsylvania, I found it especially interesting, studded as it is with local color and lore, aided immensely by the included maps and photographs. I can't help but believe that Mr. Harris' book will become the definitive work on the subject.