"The Battle of Brandywine," Mike Harris
Should historians regard General John Sullivan’s performance at the Battle of Brandywine as that of an “American goat” or an “American scapegoat”?
This question and other Brandywine topics were addressed by historian Michael C. Harris at the July 20, 2016 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. Harris is the author of the recently published book entitled Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777. The book was the 2015 winner of ARRT-Richmond’s annual book award.
The Battle of Brandywine was the largest battle fought during the American Revolution in terms of the number of troops actually engaged (nearly 30,000). It was also the longest single-day battle of the war, lasting from approximately 6:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. Brandywine was also the largest battle in terms of acreage, encompassing over 10 square miles.
Brandywine was part of Sir William Howe’s 1777 late summer/early autumn campaign to capture Philadelphia. Howe moved his army via the British navy from New York City, and then up the Chesapeake Bay to Head of Elk, Maryland where they landed. From there the British marched basically northeast toward Philadelphia, the American capital. George Washington’s army formed a defensive line between Howe’s army and Philadelphia along Brandywine Creek, approximately 25 miles from the capital city.
Commanding one of Washington’s five Continental divisions was General John Sullivan. He was a veteran of several war campaigns which included Canada, Long Island and Trenton. His army division consisted primarily of troops from Maryland and Delaware who were new to the American army.
“Washington was basically rebuilding his army in 1777,” said Harris, “and these guys didn’t really know what they were doing yet.”
Sullivan’s division consisted of two brigades---the 1st Maryland and the 2nd Maryland. Although General William Smallwood was the official commander of the 1st Maryland Brigade, Colonel John Stone substituted for him at Brandywine because Smallwood was on assignment in Maryland where he was raising militia units for the American army.
Commanding the 2nd Maryland Brigade was General Preudhomme de Borre, a French officer who had served in their army in Europe for 35 years and had recently volunteered his services to the American army. Unfortunately he could barely speak English and therefore had great difficulty communicating with his fellow American officers and his American troops in general.
On the morning of September 11, 1777 Washington’s army was spread out along Brandywine Creek for approximately seven miles, however most of his troops were in close proximity to Chad’s Ford and the Great Post Road---the most direct road leading to Philadelphia. From the Chad’s Ford area Washington’s defensive line along Brandywine Creek grew thinner and thinner as it meandered northward on what was the American right flank. Sullivan’s division was in charge of the thin right flank which guarded several fords located along Brandywine Creek.
Around 5:00 a.m. on September 11, 1777 Howe began to move his troops from the Kennett Square area, located on the Great Post Road approximately seven miles west of Brandywine Creek. Howe divided his army into two wings under the commands of General Wilhelm von Knyphausen and General Charles Cornwallis.
Howe ordered Knyphausen to march his army wing eastward on the Great Post Road to Chad’s Ford and to launch a convincing diversionary attack against the American defensive line on Brandywine Creek. He also ordered Cornwallis to move his army wing northward and then eastward to cross Brandywine Creek upstream from where the seven-mile American defensive line ended. The goal was for Cornwallis to sweep around the American right flank while Knyphausen kept the American left flank busy at and near Chad’s Ford.
“This is the sixth time that Howe tried a flank attack on Washington so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise,” said Harris. “In fact this flank attack was very similar to the one Howe launched on Long Island where John Sullivan got captured and was later exchanged.”
Starting around 9:00 a.m., the Americans received conflicting intelligence reports on the movements of British troops toward the American right flank. After rumors began circulating about a large number of British troops marching around the American right flank, the Americans sent Major John Jamison to scout this area but he found no evidence of British troops.
At approximately 10:00 a.m. Colonel Moses Hazen, whose regiment guarded two of the Brandywine fords, sent Sullivan a report claiming that British troops were marching upstream in large numbers around the American right flank. Sullivan sent both Jamison’s and Hazen’s conflicting reports to Washington. After Washington received these reports he sent his cavalry toward the American right flank to patrol the roads in that area.
“Washington had approximately 800 cavalry who were camped near his headquarters---doing nothing,” said Harris. “The only horsemen that the Americans had near their right flank were a few patrols of dragoons under the command of Theodorick Bland, and Bland was a Virginian and therefore didn’t know much about the nearby Pennsylvania roads.”
Around noon Lieutenant Colonel James Ross sent Washington a report concerning the presence of a large number of British troops moving northward. Thinking that these troops were moving toward the American supply depots at Reading, PA and not northeast or east toward his right flank, Washington assumed that his right flank was safe. In fact he thought it was so safe that he could launch his own attack against Knyphausen’s diversionary troops located near Chad’s Ford. Washington wanted to take advantage of the British while their forces were divided, and ordered Sullivan to attack the British at Brinton’s Ford and for Generals Nathanael Greene and William Maxwell to attack at Chad’s Ford.
After just a few minutes the American attack was called off abruptly. Around 12:30 p.m. Major Joseph Spear, a Pennsylvanian and a resident of nearby Chester County, reported that he had not seen a single British soldier marching on the road where the British were supposedly marching north toward Reading. Fearing that the British had not divided their army and that the whole British army was located directly in front of him on the west side of Brandywine Creek, Washington called off his attack and retained his defensive position on the east side of Brandywine Creek.
Around 1:15 p.m. a crisis developed for the Americans. Some of Bland’s dragoons spotted a very large number of British troops massed on Osborne’s Hill, to the right rear of the American defensive line along Brandywine Creek. The British left wing under the command of Cornwallis (and Howe who accompanied him) had marched north and then east, across Brandywine Creek and beyond the American right flank. Then they turned south toward the American right rear.
“Washington was in a panic” said Harris. “He sent three of his divisions to counter the British flanking movement. The divisions of Lord Stirling and Adam Stephen took a roundabout route while Sullivan’s division went directly overland but got out of position.”
Washington told Sullivan to take command of the three divisions. The Americans formed a defensive line on and near Birmingham Hill with Sullivan’s division on the left, Stirling’s division in the center and Stephen’s divisions on the right. Unfortunately for the Americans, Sullivan’s division marched into a valley, which created somewhat of a gap between his division and the adjacent one of Stirling’s. Sullivan tried to close the gap by ordering his division’s senior subordinate, Preudhomme de Borre, to move the division to the right while Sullivan rode over to Stirling’s troops to coordinate the American redeployment with them.
“Instead of simply shifting Sullivan’s division slightly to the right, our French friend (de Borre) put Sullivan’s troops into a marching column in what was a very complicated maneuver,” said Harris.
At approximately 4:00 p.m. and shortly after de Borre and his troops began their complicated redeployment, Howe and Cornwallis launched their all-out assault against the three American divisions of de Borre, Stirling and Stephens. Since the British right flank caught de Borre’s troops in the middle of their redeployment, a British volley and bayonet charge into one of de Borre’s units caused that unit to retreat into an adjacent American unit, and set off a panic among most of de Borre’s troops.
“By 4:30 Sullivan’s division under de Borre was basically destroyed as a fighting unit,” said Harris. “Sullivan tried to hold the rest of his defensive line with Stirling and Stephen’s divisions, but the British kept lapping around the American left flank until Stirling’s troops and eventually Stephen’s were forced to retreat as well.”
While the troops of de Borre, Stirling and Stephens were fleeing the Birmingham Hill defensive line, Nathanael Greene’s division formed a U-shaped defensive line behind them at approximately 6:00 p.m. Greene’s troops, plus some of the retreating troops from Birmingham Hill, held this new defensive line until darkness at approximately 7:00 p.m. Overnight the entire American army retreated eastward from the Brandywine Creek area toward Chester, PA.
Shortly after the battle de Borre resigned from the American army, and the Continental Congress wanted to convene a court of inquiry into the military conduct of John Sullivan at Brandywine. Washington tried to tell Congress that there was no time for a court of inquiry because the British army was advancing toward the outskirts of Philadelphia, and therefore the Americans needed to worry about more critical problems. A few days later Washington’s army and members of the Continental Congress were forced to flee Philadelphia, and allow the British to march into the city on September 26, 1777.
Many American officers came to the defense of Sullivan regarding the accusations brought against him by members of Congress. One of these officers was Washington, who blamed the Brandywine defeat not on Sullivan, but on faulty intelligence reports (particularly the report from local resident Major Joseph Spear) for failing to locate the large British flanking column until after they had marched around the American right flank.
Congress never convened a court of inquiry on Sullivan’s military conduct at Brandywine, probably because Washington successfully stopped it. Sullivan remained a major general in the American army and fought in other battles---most notably the Newport, RI campaign that took place approximately one year later.
Michael C. Harris started conducting his research on the Battle of Brandywine back in 2005 when he worked for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at Brandywine Battlefield. He has also worked for the National Park Service in Fredericksburg and Fort Mott State Park in New Jersey. Today he teaches high school in the Philadelphia region, and lives approximately 10 minutes from Valley Forge and 45 minutes from Brandywine Creek.
Harris also conducts tours and staff rides at many battlefields. He is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and the American Military University.
Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. Book Award Chairman Mark Lender officially presented Michael C. Harris with the ARRT-Richmond 2015 Best Book Award for his Brandywine book.
2. President Bill Welsch announced that ARRT-Richmond’s membership had recently voted online to select the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown as ARRT-Richmond’s 2016 Preservation Partner. President Welsch notified the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown about the election results, and they cordially invited the ARRT-Richmond membership to take a group tour of the museum sometime this fall. The two organizations are working on the details.
3. President Welsch also mentioned that the Round Table is working on a 2017 bus trip to sites located in the Richmond area that relate to Patrick Henry.
4. Brief announcements were made by other ARRT-Richmond members concerning various history topics.