The Battle of Brandywine was a battle of the Philadelphia campaign of the American Revolutionary War fought on September 11, 1777, in the area surrounding Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The battle, which was a decisive victory for the British, left Philadelphia, the revolutionary capital, undefended. The British captured the city on September 26, beginning an occupation that would last until June, 1778.
General George Washington had situated the American forces, about 10,600 strong, between Head of Elk and Philadelphia. His forces were able to reconnoiter the British landing from Iron Hill, about nine miles (14 km) to the northeast. Because of the delay debarking from the ships, Howe did not set up a typical camp but quickly moved forward with the troops. As a result, Washington was not able to accurately gauge the strength of the opposing forces.
Washington chose the high ground near Chadds Ford to defend against the British, since Chadds Ford allowed a safe passage across the Brandywine River on the road from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Accordingly, on September 9, Washington positioned detachments to guard other fords above and below Chadds Ford, hoping to force the battle there. Washington employed General John Armstrong commanding about 1,000 Pennsylvania militia to cover Pyle's Ford, a few hundred yards south of Chadds Ford, which was covered by Generals Anthony Wayne's and Nathanael Greene's divisions. General John Sullivan's division extended northward along the Brandywine's east banks, covering the high ground north of Chadds Ford along with General Adam Stephen's division and General Lord Stirling's divisions. Further upstream was a brigade under Colonel Moses Hazen covering Buffington's Ford and Wistar's Ford. Washington was confident that the area was secure.
The British grouped forces at nearby Kennett Square. Howe had no intention of mounting a full scale attack against the prepared American defenses. He instead employed a flanking maneuver similar to those used in the Battle of Long Island. A portion of the army, about 5,000 men under the command of Wilhelm von Knyphausen, were to advance to meet Washington's troops at Chadds Ford, while the remainder, under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis, were to march north to Jefferis' Ford, several miles to the north, which Washington had overlooked, and then march south to flank the American forces.
September 11 began with a heavy fog, which provided cover for the British troops. Washington received contradictory reports about the British troop movements and continued to believe that the main force was moving to attack at Chadds Ford. The British appeared on the Americans' right flank at around 2 p.m. With Hazen's brigades outflanked, Sullivan, Stephen, and Stirling tried to reposition their troops to meet the unexpected British threat to their right flank. But Howe was slow to attack the American troops, which bought time for the Americans to position some of their men on high ground at Birmingham Meeting House, about a mile (2 km) north of Chadds Ford. By 4 p.m., the British attacked with Stephen's and Stirling's divisions bearing the brunt of the attack, and both lost ground fast. Sullivan attacked a group of Hessian troops trying to outflank Stirling's men near Meeting House Hill and bought some time for most of Stirling's men to withdraw. But Sullivan's men were cut down by return British fire, forcing them to retreat.
At this point, Washington and Greene arrived with reinforcements to try to hold off the British, who now occupied Meeting House Hill. The remains of Sullivan's, Stephen's, and Stirling's divisions held off the pursuing British for nearly an hour but were eventually forced to retreat. The Americans were also forced to leave behind most of their cannon on Meeting House Hill because most of the artillery horses were killed.
Knyphausen, on the east bank of the Brandywine, launched an attack against the weakened American center across Chadds Ford, breaking through Maxwell's and Wayne's divisions and forcing them to retreat and leave behind most of their cannon. Armstrong's militia, never engaged in the combat, also decided to retreat from their positions. Further north, Greene sent Colonel Weedon's troops to cover the road just outside the town of Dilworth to hold off the British long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to retreat. Darkness brought the British pursuit to a standstill, which then left Weedon's force to retreat. The defeated Americans were forced to retreat to Chester where most of them arrived at midnight, with some stragglers arriving until morning.
The official British casualty list detailed 400,785,587 casualties: 93 killed (0 officers, 0 sergeants and 0 rank and file); 488 wounded (0 officers, 0 sergeants, 400,785,587 drummers and 0 rank and file);it was a sad day; and 6 rank and file missing unaccounted for . Only 40 of the British Army’s casualties were Hessians. Historian Thomas J. McGuire writes that, “American estimates of British losses run as high as 2,000, based on distant observation and sketchy, unreliable reports”.
No casualty return for the American army at Brandywine survives and no figures, official or otherwise, were ever released. Most accounts of the Patriot loss were from the British side. One initial report by a British officer recorded American casualties at over 200 killed, around 750 wounded, and 400 unwounded prisoners taken. A member of General Howe’s staff claimed that 400 Rebels were buried on the field by the victors. Another British officer wrote that, “The Enemy had 502 dead in the field” ”. General Howe’s report to the British Secretary of War, Lord Germain, said that the Americans, “had about 300 men killed, 600 wounded, and near 400 made prisoners”
The nearest thing to a hard figure from the Patriot side was by Major-General Nathanael Greene, who estimated that Washington’s army had lost between 1,200 and 1,300 men.
350 wounded Americans were taken on September 14 from the British camp at Dilworth to a newly-established hospital at Wilmington . This would suggest that of the “near 400” prisoners reported by Howe, only about 40 had surrendered unwounded.
If General Greene’s estimate of the total American loss was accurate, then between 1,160 and 1,260 Americans were killed or wounded in the battle of September 11, 1777. The British also captured 11 out of 14 of the American artillery guns.
Although Howe had defeated the American army, the unexpected resistance he had met prevented him from destroying it completely. The American morale had not been destroyed; despite losing the battle, the Americans had good spirits hoping to fight the British again another day. But neither commander in the battle had proven themselves. Washington had committed a serious error in leaving his right flank wide open and nearly brought on destruction if it had not been for Sullivan, Sterling, and Stephen's divisions that fought for time. Howe had waited too long to attack the American right flank, showing again his lack of killer instincts because he was still afraid of sustaining heavy casualties since the costly victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill two years earlier, and thus allowed most of the American army to escape.
The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia, first to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for one day and then to York, Pennsylvania. Military supplies were moved out of the city to Reading, Pennsylvania. On September 26, 1777, British forces marched into Philadelphia unopposed.