Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 8: Battle and a Wise Determination to Avoid Battle: The Struggle for Philadelphia (July to September 1777) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 8: Battle and a Wise Determination to Avoid Battle: The Struggle for Philadelphia (July to September 1777) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Battle and a Wise Determination to Avoid Battle: The Struggle for Philadelphia (July to September 1777)
General Washington marches towards the Delaware.—Takes measures for checking Burgoyne.—British army lands at the ferry on Elk River.—General Washington advances to the Brandywine.—Retreat of Maxwell.—Defeat at Brandywine.—Skirmish on the 16th of September.—Retreat to French Creek.—General Wayne surprised.—General Howe takes possession of Philadelphia.—Congress removes to Lancaster.
July 1777While the British troops were embarking at New York, the utmost exertions were made by General Washington to strengthen the army of the north, which was retreating before Burgoyne. He not only pressed the Governors of the eastern states to reinforce it with all their militia, and hastened the march of those generals who were designed to act in that department, but made large detachments of choice troops from his own army, thus weakening himself in order to reinforce other generals, whose strength would be more useful.
On receiving intelligence that the British fleet had sailed, the American army, under his immediate command, commenced its march southward. On the 30th of July, the fleet appeared off the capes of Delaware, and orders were given for assembling all the several detachments in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. Scarcely were these orders given, when they were countermanded. An express brought the information that the fleet had sailed out of Delaware bay, and was steering eastward. On the 7th of August, it was again seen a few leagues south of the capes of Delaware; after which it disappeared, and was not again seen until late in that month, when it appeared in the Chesapeake.
The original design had been to proceed up the Delaware; but, on entering that bay, its obstructions were found to be so considerable, that this design was abandoned, and the resolution taken to transport the army up the Chesapeake. The fleet sailed up that bay, and proceeded up Elk river as high as it was safely navigable. On the 25th of August, the troops, estimated at eighteen thousand effectives, were landed at the ferry.
On the appearance of the fleet in the Chesapeake, the several divisions of the American army were again ordered to unite in the neighborhood of Philadelphia; and the militia of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and the northern counties of Virginia, were directed to take the field.
The day before Sir William Howe landed, the American army marched through Philadelphia to the Brandywine. The divisions of Greene and Stephen were advanced nearer the head of Elk, and encamped behind White Clay creek. The militia of Maryland and Delaware, with Richardson’s continental regiment, were assembled in the British rear, under General Smallwood; and the militia of Pennsylvania were united with the main body of the army. It was estimated by General Howe at fifteen thousand, including militia; and his estimate did not far exceed their total numbers; but the effectives, including militia, did not exceed eleven thousand.
Morgan’s regiment of riflemen having been detached to the northern army, a corps of light infantry was formed for the occasion, and placed under General Maxwell.1 This corps was advanced to Iron Hill, about three miles in front of White Clay creek.
The British army, on landing, encamped in two divisions—the one at Elkton, the other at Cecil Court-House. On the 3d of September, they formed a junction at Pencader, or Aiken’s tavern. On the march, Lord Cornwallis fell in with, and attacked Maxwell, who retreated over White Clay creek, with the loss of about forty men, killed and wounded.
The American army encamped behind Red Clay creek, on the road leading from the camp of Sir William Howe to Philadelphia.
On the 8th of September, General Howe made a show of attacking the Americans in front, while the main body attempted to turn their right flank. Perceiving his design, General Washington changed his ground early in the night, and crossing the Brandywine, took post behind that river at Chadd’s ford. General Maxwell occupied the hills south of the river, on the road leading over the ford. The militia under General Armstrong guarded a ford two miles below Chadd’s; and the right extended a few miles above, with a view to other fords deemed less practicable.
In the evening of the 9th, Howe moved forward in two columns, which united next morning at Kennet’s Square; after which his parties were advanced on the roads leading to Lancaster, to Chadd’s ford, and to Wilmington.
The armies were now within seven miles of each other, with only the Brandywine between them, which opposed no obstacle to a general engagement. This was sought by Howe, and not avoided by Washington. It was impossible to protect Philadelphia without a victory; and this object was deemed of such importance throughout America, and especially by Congress, as to require that a battle should be hazarded for its attainment.
In the morning of the 11th, soon after day, information was received that the whole British army was advancing on the direct road leading over Chadd’s ford. The Americans were immediately arrayed in order of battle for the purpose of contesting the passage of the river. Skirmishing now commenced between the advanced parties; and by ten, Maxwell was driven over the Brandywine below the ford. Knyphausen, who commanded this division, paraded on the heights, and appeared to be making dispositions to force the passage of the river.
About eleven, Colonel Ross of Pennsylvania brought the information that a large column, estimated by him at five thousand men, with many field-pieces, had taken a road leading from Kennet’s Square directly up the country, and had entered the Great Valley road, down which they were marching to the upper fords on the Brandywine.
On receiving this intelligence, Washington is said to have determined to detach Sullivan and Lord Sterling, to engage the left of the British army; and to cross Chadd’s ford in person, and attack Knyphausen. Before this plan, if formed, could be executed, counter intelligence was received inducing the opinion that the movement on the British left was a feint, and that the column which had made it, after making demonstrations of crossing the Brandywine above its forks, had marched down the southern side of that river to reunite itself with Knyphausen.
The uncertainty produced by this contradictory intelligence was at length removed; and about two in the afternoon, it was ascertained that the left wing, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, after making a circuit of about seventeen miles, had crossed the river above its forks, and was advancing in great force.
A change of disposition was immediately made. The divisions of Sullivan, Sterling, and Stephen, advanced farther up the Brandywine, and fronted the British column marching down the river. That commanded by Wayne remained at Chadd’s ford. Greene’s division, accompanied by General Washington in person, formed a reserve between the right and left wings.
The troops detached against Lord Cornwallis, formed hastily on an advantageous piece of ground, above Birmingham meeting-house. Unfortunately Sullivan’s division, in taking its ground, made too large a circuit, and was scarcely formed when the attack commenced.
About half-past four the action began, and was kept up warmly for some time. The American right first gave way. The line continued to break from the right, and in a short time was completely routed. The commander-in-chief pressed forward with Greene to the support of that wing; but before his arrival, its rout was complete, and he could only check the pursuit. For this purpose the tenth Virginia regiment commanded by Colonel Stevens, and a regiment of Pennsylvania commanded by Colonel Stewart, were posted advantageously to cover the rear of the retreating army. The impression made by their fire, and the approach of night, induced Sir William Howe, after dispersing them, to give over the pursuit.
When the action commenced on the American right, General Knyphausen crossed at Chadd’s ford, and forced a small battery which defended it. The defeat of the American right being known, the left also withdrew from its ground. The whole army retreated that night to Chester, and the next day to Philadelphia.
The loss sustained by the Americans in this action has been estimated at three hundred killed and six hundred wounded. Between three and four hundred, principally the wounded, were made prisoners. Among the wounded were General Lafayette,2 and Brigadier-General Woodford.3 As must ever be the case in new-raised armies, their conduct was not uniform: some regiments, especially those who had served the preceding campaign, maintained their ground with the firmness of veterans. Others gave way as soon as they were pressed.4
The official letter of Sir William Howe stated his loss at rather less than one hundred killed and four hundred wounded. As the Americans sustained very little injury in the retreat, this inequality of loss can be ascribed only to the inferiority of their arms.
The battle of Brandywine was not considered as decisive; and Congress appeared determined to risk another engagement for the metropolis of America.
Having allowed his army one day for repose and refreshment, General Washington re-crossed the Schuylkill, and proceeded on the Lancaster road, with the intention of meeting and again fighting his enemy.
Sir William Howe passed the night of the 11th on the field of battle; and on the two succeeding days advanced towards Chester, and also took possession of Wilmington, to which place his sick and wounded were conveyed.
Sept. 1777On the 15th the American army, intending to gain the left of the British, reached the Warren tavern, on the Lancaster road, twenty-three miles from Philadelphia. Intelligence being received early next morning that Howe was approaching in two columns, Washington determined to meet and engage him in front.
Both armies prepared with alacrity for battle. The advanced parties had met, and were beginning to skirmish, when they were separated by a heavy rain, which rendered the retreat of the Americans a measure of absolute necessity. Their gun-locks not being well secured, their muskets soon became unfit for use.5 Their cartridge-boxes had been so inartificially constructed as not to protect their ammunition,6 and very many of the soldiers were without bayonets.
The design of giving battle was reluctantly abandoned, and the retreat was continued all day and great part of the night through a most distressing rain, and very deep roads. A few hours before day the troops halted at the Yellow Springs, where the alarming fact was disclosed, that scarcely one musket in a regiment could be discharged, and scarcely one cartridge in a box was fit for war. The army retired to Warwick furnace, on the south branch of the French Creek, where a small supply of muskets and ammunition might be obtained in time to dispute the passage of the Schuylkill.
The extreme severity of the weather stopped the advance of Sir William Howe for two days.
From French Creek, General Wayne7 was detached with his division into the rear of the British, to harass their march; while General Washington crossed the Schuylkill at Parker’s Ferry, and encamped on both sides of Perkioming Creek.
General Wayne lay in the woods, about three miles in rear of the left wing of the British troops. The country was so extensively disaffected, that Sir William Howe received accurate accounts of his position and of his force. Major-General Grey was detached on the night of the 20th to surprise him, and effectually accomplished his purpose. The American piquets,8 driven in with charged bayonets, gave the first intimation of his approach. Wayne instantly formed his division; and while the right sustained the shock, directed a retreat by the left. He states his loss at one hundred and fifty killed and wounded. It probably amounted to at least three hundred. The British admit, on their part, a loss of only seven.
When the attack commenced, General Smallwood, who was on his march to join Wayne, was within less than a mile of him; and, had he commanded regulars, might have given a different turn to the night; but his militia thought only of their own safety.
Some severe animadversions on this affair having been made in the army, General Wayne demanded a court-martial, which was unanimously of opinion “that he had done every thing to be expected from an active, brave, and vigilant officer,” and acquitted him with honor.
Having secured his rear by compelling Wayne to take a greater distance, Sir William Howe marched to the Schuylkill, and encamped on the bank of that river from the first land ford up to French creek, along the front of the American army. To secure his right from being turned, General Washington moved higher up the river, and encamped with his left above the British right.
General Howe, relinquishing his purpose of bringing Washington to a battle, determined to pass the Schuylkill and take possession of Philadelphia. The whole army crossed without much opposition on the night of the 22d, and, proceeding on its march, encamped near Swede’s ford.
It was now apparent that only immediate victory could save Philadelphia. Public opinion, which a military chief finds too much difficulty in resisting, and the opinion of Congress, required a battle; but Washington came to the wise determination of avoiding one for the present. His reasons for this decision were conclusive. Wayne and Smallwood had not yet joined the army; the continental troops ordered from Peekskill were approaching; and a reinforcement of Jersey militia, under General Dickenson, was also expected.
A council of war concurred in his opinion not to march against the enemy, but to allow his harassed troops a few days of repose on their present ground.
The members of Congress separated on the 18th of September, in the evening, and reassembled at Lancaster on the 27th. The British army entered Philadelphia on the 26th.
[1. ]After the battle of Great Bridge, Virginia (chapter 4, above), Thomas Marshall had been commissioned Major, and his son John First Lieutenant, of the Third Virginia Continentals, and marched north to join Washington’s army in August of 1776. In December of 1776 John Marshall was promoted to Captain-Lieutenant and transferred to the Fifteenth Virginia, and in August of 1777 was chosen to serve in the select corps formed prior to the battle of Brandywine, known as Maxwell’s Light Infantry. See Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall, I, pp. 79–80, 91, 93–94; on light infantry, see chapter 5, note 6 above. William Maxwell (c. 1733–96), of Ireland and New Jersey, was Brigadier General in the Continental army.
[2. ]Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), Captain in the French army, volunteer in the Continental army from 1777 with rank of Major General without command; having quickly proven himself (at the age of twenty) in field command, he was given a division of Virginia light troops by the end of 1777. Soon a close friend and trusted adviser of Washington, he was later vital in securing a French expeditionary force for the Southern campaign of 1781, in which Washington gave him important commands. A symbol of American and French republican fraternity, Lafayette was at first a leader, and later a victim, of the French Revolution (see chapter 32).
[3. ]William Woodford (1734–80) of Virginia, militia officer in the French and Indian War, revolutionary patriot; in 1777 promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental army.
[4. ]The account of Brandywine in the full Life of Washington is less reserved as to Marshall’s first-hand knowledge of the battle: he identifies himself as taking part in the initial skirmish between Knyphausen’s and Maxwell’s troops, and identifies the veteran Third Virginia Regiment, commanded by Colonel Thomas Marshall, as holding its position under severe fire “without losing an inch of ground” until overwhelmed and nearly out of ammunition. See Life of Washington (1930, 1832), I, pp. 184 (n. 1), 186 (n. 2); also Beveridge, Life of Marshall, I, pp. 93–96.
[5. ]The firing mechanism which explodes the charge on a musket is the gun-lock, and most American arms in the Revolutionary War were flintlock muskets; if not made secure from the rain, the flint would fail to spark when it hit the pan (which holds the priming charge).
[6. ]A cartridge box is a small leather case, carried on the belt, for carrying cartridges; if poorly made (“inartificially,” without art or skill), the powder in the cartridges would get wet and fail to explode.
[7. ]Anthony Wayne (1745–96) of Pennsylvania, Brigadier (ultimately Major) General in the Continental army.
[8. ]A detachment deployed as a covering force to protect the main body by means of observation, reconnaissance, attack, or defense.