General Sir William Howe and General Charles Cornwallis launched an attack on General George Washington at Brandywine Creek near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Cornwallis and Howe each had 9,000 British troops, with Howe leading the attack from the front and Cornwallis circling around and attacking from the right flank. A dense fog had provided the British with cover, so Washington was unaware the British had split into two divisions and was surprised by the bidirectional attack.
The Americans were able to slow down Howe, however, they were soon faced with the possibility of being surrounded. Surprised and outnumbered by the 18,000 British troops to his 11,000 patriots, Washington had his men retreat. This longest single-day battle of the war, with continuous fighting for 11 hours cost the Americans more than 1,200 men while the British lost approximately 600. Many of the colonists’ horses were lost in the battle forcing them to abandon most of their cannons to the victorious British.
Among the Americans wounded was the Marquis de Lafayette. The British and Hessian forces continued to advance with their superior forces, and Lafayette was shot in the leg. During the American retreat, Lafayette rallied the troops, allowing a more orderly pullback, before being treated for his wound. After the battle, Washington cited him for “bravery and military ardour” and recommended him for the command of a division in a letter to Congress.
Although Howe had defeated the American army, his lack of cavalry prevented its total destruction. Washington had committed a serious error in leaving his right flank wide open which nearly brought about his army’s annihilation had it not been for Major Generals John Sullivan, Lord Stirling and Adam Stephen’s divisions, which fought for time. Evening was approaching and, in spite of the early start Cornwallis had made in the flanking maneuver, most of the American army was able to escape. In his report to the Continental Congress detailing the battle, Washington stated: “despite the day’s misfortune, I am pleased to announce that most of my men are in good spirits and still have the courage to fight the enemy another day”.
British and American forces maneuvered around each other for the next several days with only a few encounters such as the Battle of Paoli on the night of September 20–21.
The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia, moving first to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for one day and then to York, Pennsylvania. Military supplies were moved out of the city to Reading, Pennsylvania. On 26 September 1777, British forces marched into Philadelphia unopposed.
Eight Army National Guard units are derived from American units that participated in the Battle of Brandywine. There are only thirty currently existing units in the U.S. Army with lineages that go back to the colonial era.
Harris, Michael. Brandywine. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2014.
Martin, David G., The Philadelphia Campaign: June 1777 – July 1778. Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Combined Books, 1993.
McGuire, Thomas J. Brandywine Battlefield Park: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Mowday, Bruce. September 11, 1777: Washington’s Defeat at Brandywine Dooms Philadelphia. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishers, 2002.
Sawicki, James A. Infantry Regiments of the US Army. Dumfries, VA: Wyvern Publications, 1981.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.