"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
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
“Washington was basically rebuilding his army in
1777,” said Harris, “and these guys didn’t really know what they were doing
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
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
“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
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
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.