By Nancy V. Webster
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXIII, Number 4 - Fall 1997
Brandywine Battlefield now lies quiet and peaceful, offering no grim hint of the heartbreak it once witnessed and bloodshed that stained its tall meadow grasses. Two hundred and twenty years ago this autumn its tranquility was shattered by the cacophony of cannon and its fields trampled by soldiers—twenty-six thousand of them—determined to do battle. Today, this scenic region of southeastern Pennsylvania continues to attract visitors, but they come now as sightseers and not as combatants. Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and the Brandywine Battlefield Park Commission, Brandywine Battlefield Park in Delaware County interprets this key 1777 confrontation between the British and the Americans (known to generations of school students as the redcoats and the patriots, respectively), explores the battle’s importance in the outcome of the American Revolution, and explains it’s impact on the rural Quaker community ravaged by the conflict.
The Brandywine, whose East and West Branches rise near the boundary of Chester and Lancaster Counties, flows southeast to empty into the Delaware River at Wilmington, Delaware. It has been referred to both as creek and river; although nearly all know it as the Brandywine River, most topographical maps and listings, including official government publications, classify it as a creek.
The attractive surrounding agricultural landscape illustrates how geography dictates history, how terrain affects and channels human actions. The Brandywine itself, shimmering golden in the late autumn sun, was a major military obstacle in the eighteenth century, best described as an outer moat protecting the Schuylkill River and the Continental Congress’s capital of Philadelphia. The British and American armies converged here because of the patterns of rivers—the Delaware and the Brandywine —and of roads crucial to the supply of both military and civilian populations.
Located in the village of Chadds Ford, Brandywine Battlefield Park was dedicated in 1949 as a state park. Its fifty acres, containing two eighteenth-century farmsteads, are typical of the rolling rural landscape which in the eighteenth century was the bread basket of the colonies. This fertility, together with a variety of early industries, made the region strategically important to both sides during the Revolutionary War. On September 11, 1777, a single, long day of intensive combat roiled over ridges heavy with grain, stunning the larger and superior British forces to a standstill. Although they did vanquish the patriots on the battlefield, they were denied easy conquest of the rebellious colonies.
Even casual visitors, and not just military enthusiasts or students and scholars well versed in eighteenth-century history, can appreciate the importance of the Battle of Brandywine. For the American forces, it was sheer disaster. One of the largest conflicts of the American Revolution, the battle involved twenty-six thousand soldiers in actual combat, not just support. The consequences were enormous: the fall of Philadelphia to the British, the flight of Congress to York, and the disruption of supply sources for the Americans.
Several volunteer foreign officers, notably the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) of France and Polish Count Casimir Pulaski (1748-1779), first appeared at Brandywine to aid the American cause. Lafayette’s courageous conduct in rallying disorganized Continental troops won him the respect and warm and enduring friendship of General George Washington. Pulaski’s organization of horsemen under fire provided personal protection for Washington and scouted the enemy’s positions.
The Battle of Brandywine also introduced important new developments in military technology and tactics. British inventor Captain Patrick Ferguson and his sharpshooter detachment of riflemen used breech-loading weapons for the first time on any battlefield, proving the effectiveness of the breechloader both for rapid fire—six times a minute—and for loading by soldiers in protected crouched or prone positions. A working replica of this firearm is on exhibit and frequently demonstrated at the visitors center of Brandywine Battlefield Park.
During the fierce battle, many American unites experienced difficulty in forming and maneuvering; many regiments only knew how to maneuver in single files. Such dangerous delays under fire alarmed Continental Army officers and led the army to seek professional training by Prussian-born Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794) at Valley Forge (see “Valley Force: Commemorating the Centennial of a National Symbol” by Lorett Treese in the Spring 1993 issue, and the Apotheosis of George Washington: America’s Cincinnatus and the Valley Forge Encampment” by William C. Kashatus III in the Winter 1994 edition).
Since that grisly carnage, the battlefield landscape has been indelibly etched in the public’s memory by the haunting, starkly beautiful paintings of Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie Wyeth, the arresting illustrations of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, as well as outstanding works of art created by the exalted Brandywine school of artists. Their images have become irrevocably embedded in the national consciousness, spreading the fame of the picturesque Brandywine River Valley throughout the world.
Although it lasted but one day, the Battle of Brandywine holds an important and lasting place in the nation’s story. In early autumn 1777, farmers in Chester County (part of which was organized as Delaware County in 1789) were beginning to harvest bumper crops and preparing to plant winter wheat. Cattle, sheep, and horses had grown plump during the summer, and many pigs, a major export commodity of the region, were nearly ready for slaughter. In the midst of this proverbial land of plenty, few could have foreseen the Brandywine Valley as the site of one of the American Revolution’s largest land battles. Although Washington had anticipated the defense of Philadelphia, the possible sites he had personally scouted in June 1777 had been along the banks of the Delaware River, not among the sleepy inland farms. Yet a landing by the British near Elkton, Maryland, sounded the alarm throughout the surrounding countryside. As opposing forces maneuvered through Delaware, Washington became aware that the enemy commander, Sir William Howe (1729-1814), was trying to pin Continental Army troops against the Delaware River, where they would be trapped between the formidable British Army and the powerful guns of the British Navy. To avoid entrapment—and certain defeat—the Americans moved inland to Brandywine. The east bank of the Brandywine, looming high above the swiftly flowing waters, seemed a good location from which to defend Philadelphia and protect the supplies coming from the Pennsylvania hinterland. Despite the number of local men in American ranks, Washington, as well as his subordinates, failed for many reasons to identify the guard pivotal fords. This would prove to be their undoing.
The British forces separated to form a pincers movement. The smaller division, led by the Hessian German baron, Wilhelm von Knyphausen, battled American advance troops along the Nottingham Great Road (now U.S. Route 1) to Chadds Ford, where his forces continued to distract the Continentals with spectacular (but marginally effective, artillery duel across the Brandywine. The larger division of the Crown’s forces, directly under Howe’s command, was obscured by haze characteristic of the region’s warm, humid Septembers and choked by dense dust raised by their own marching as it followed local Loyalists on a circuitous fourteen-miles march. Crossing the upper fords of the Brandywine, it was able to sweep down from the north and threaten the Continental Army’s position from the rear.
Because Washington and his generals did not know the local topography and landmarks, intelligence reports from officers stationed on the northern Brandywine were incorrectly taken to mean that no large British force was marching south along the creek’s east shore. Washington, positioned with the preponderance of his army to cross Chadds Ford and attack Knyphausen’s command, believed it to be Howe’s main force. At the last minute, however, he gave credence to new reports of Howe’s drive south towards his right flank. He shifted major unites to face Howe, leaving only a holding force at Chadds Ford.
Although Washington later accepted responsibility for misinterpreting the early lookout reports, if he had not made the decision to correct his error, the American defeat might have been far greater in terms of casualties, deflated morale, and capacity to push on as a viable fighting unit. Howe's successful pincers operation resembled his victory in the Battle of Long Island, the previous year, but there the British had directly struck the rear flanks of the Continental Army before being detected. Washington’s decisions at Brandywine are still the subject of much debate.
Even though the American forces at Brandywine quickly repositioned to face the attack, their first battle line was quickly shattered, as were two subsequent stands. The general on both sides lost much ability to maneuver brigades—or even regiments—and depended on the doggedness and courage of companies and individuals. Brandywine was a soldiers’ battle, one fought by stubborn groups firing and falling back from fence line to fence line, bitterly contesting each rise and wood line. “The Enemy Came on with fury our men stood firing upon them most amazingly, killing almost all before them for near and hour,” remembered Surgeon Ebenezer Elmer of the Second New Jersey Regiment. Pointblank volleys of musketry and frequent hand-to-hand combat continued until evening, when the Continental Army soldiers took advantage of dusk to cloak their retreat to Chester City. The British were left with the dubious honor of a casualty-strewn field. “This day for a severe and successive engagement exceed all I ever saw,” Lieutenant James McMichael of the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Regiment wrote in his diary.
It would be five days before the Crown’s forces followed in pursuit. The Americans marched nearly forty miles in the two days following the battle, believing, as the Brigadier General George Weedon expressed it, that “such another Victory would establish the Rights of America, & I wish them the Honor of the field again tomorrow on the same terms.” Both armies would strip the area’s farms of food, livestock, clothing, valuables, even frivolous souvenirs. Hunger and hardship caused untold civilian suffering which continued through the following spring.
Today, Brandywine Battlefield Park orients visitors to the immediate area and recounts for them the military actions which took place in the nearby countryside. The historic site has three interpretive clusters: a visitors center and two period farmhouses which housed American staff officers before and during the battle, and British officers after their victory. Interpreters in period clothing are knowledgeable not only about the park, but also about related historic sites, museums, and visitors attractions in the area.
Completely revamped and unveiled this past spring, the visitors center’s interpretive gallery features maps, dioramas of battle highlights, cannon, original artifacts and objects, uniforms and soldiers’ gear used by both sides, and archaeological finds. A recently produced video, filmed on site, at actual battle locations, clarifies the Battle of Brandywine’s background, the leaders’ personalities, the military objectives, and the combat experience in dramatic vignettes.
After touring the center, visitors can examine the park’s restored colonial era Benjamin Ring House and the Gideon Gilpin House. The Benjamin Ring House, complete with springhouse, was used as headquarters by George Washington. It was at this house that he designed defense positions, briefed subordinates, met with local officials, and received reports—many of them conflicting—of enemy movements. On September 9, two days before the Battle of Brandywine, Washington convened a council of war in the house to plan strategy. Despite is historic significance, the dwelling has fallen into disrepair by the opening of this century and was severely damaged by fire in the 1930s. The Benjamin Ring House has been restored to its late eighteenth0centuy appearance and houses a fine collection of “plain but of the best sort” Quaker furnishings reflecting the status of its owner in 1777, a farmer and miller.
The Gideon Gilpin Farmhouse, located on the opposite side of the park, was build in several sections, each clearly evidencing various periods and styles of Pennsylvania vernacular architecture. Artifacts and interpretation of this historic house (and its outbuildings), especially the well-equipped kitchen, the finely furnished front parlor, and the attic weaving room reflect thorough primary-source research documentation of the prosperous Gilpin family’s eighteenth-century Quaker way of life. A carriage house, smokehouse, corn crib, spring house, and banked barn are telling reminders of the region’s early agricultural history. The Gideon Gilpin Farmstead may look familiar to visitors—its barn is depicted on a post card issued by the United States Postal Service. Lafayette, newly arrived in the colonies and burning with fervent idealism, was quartered at the house with fellow gentlemen-volunteers from Europe. During his triumphal tour through major cities of the United States in 1824, Lafayette returned to the farmstead to visit Gideon Gilpin, then an old man on his deathbed.
Volunteers and reenactors portraying pigtailed Hessians, haughty British officers, Quaker farmers, and ragged but resolute musket men regularly appear at Brandywine Battlefield Park for many special events and family activities staged throughout the year. Staff and members of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates, a dedicated volunteer support organization which assists the PHMC and the Brandywine Battlefield Park Commission in the operation of the historic site, conduct school programs and summer camp sessions featuring “hands-on” living history programs. A popular lecture series, “Revolutionary Times at Brandywine” (a major event held each September to mark the anniversary of the battle), holiday candlelight open houses, and seasonal van tours of the expansive battlefield help lace the significance of the battle and the battlefield in context. Brandywine Battlefield Park is only the nucleus of the total combat area, a National Historic Landmark encompassing ten square miles of rugged terrain punctuated by panoramic vista. Ironically, the combat zone ranged from one Friends’ meeting house, Old Kennett, to a second, Birmingham, transforming the pacifist neighborhood into a blood nightmare. By following a driving tour brochure available at the park, visitors can easily associate the sequences of the fray with the many extant buildings, structures, landmarks, and physical features. Most of this tour follows roads which, although paved have changed little since 1777 – worn by farm wagons into deep ravines and crossing the watercourses at the fords of the colonial era. Suburban sprawl from Philadelphia and Wilmington is beginning to encroach upon and endanger the landmark area, but a three-year-old task force, comprised of concerned citizens, local non-profit groups, and public officials, is working assiduously to ensure that historically critical sites retain, as much as possible, their eighteenth-century character and appearance.
Long popular with visitors, the Brandywine River Valley is becoming increasingly well known, thanks to expanding programs at the park, the preservation efforts of the task force, and recent coverage of activities in national publications. In March 1997, the first conference of the Council of American Revolutionary Sites featured a guided field trip to highlights of the Brandywine National Historical Landmark. It ahs been selected the first “Commonwealth Treasure,” a new state designation reserved fro outstanding Pennsylvania sites crucial to understanding state and national history and culture. The designation is intended to recognize sites or properties of national historical significance threatened with the loss of vital characteristics.
The history enthusiast can frequently experience echoes of the past at preserved or restored historic buildings and structures, but rarely has had the opportunity to walk such expanses of significant terrain or to gaze at entire landscapes, natural or cultural, which retain an eighteenth century sense of place. The sweep of American history was painted on a large canvas. The period landscape and structures answer the questions “How?” and “Why here?” The Brandywine Battlefield is a fragile yet tangible place where both the colonial Quaker and the Revolutionary War past are but an imagination away.
Brandywine Battlefield Park is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Days and hours of operation are subject to change; please call ahead. For information about special events or to arrange group tours, write: Brandywine Battlefield, P.O. Box 202, Chadds Ford, PA 19317 or telephone (610) 459-3342. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone the historic site in advance of their visit to discuss their needs. Person who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.
A number of related historic sites and museums are located within the boundaries of the National Historic Landmark designation. In Delaware County, the Brandywine River Museum, at Chadds Ford, an outstanding regional art museum, features changing exhibition in addition to a permanent collection of works by the Brandywine school, whose artists fanned out to records distinctly American scenes from Maine to New Mexico. The Chadds Ford Historical Society preserves two historic house museums, the 1714 Barns-Briton House and the circa 1725 John Chad House (both of which were military focal points), and regularly sponsors activities, lectures and exhibits on local history and culture in a recently opened education center. The historical society’s annual Chadds Ford Days, held near the battle’s anniversary, features a weekend of authentic colonial era crafts, food, history and entertainment. Local legends come to life at the Christian C. Sanderson Museum, also in Chadds Ford, a historic house museum crammed with one individual’s lifetime collection of objects, curiosities and oddities, memorabilia, and artifacts, some of which related to the Battle of Brandywine.
Life in the region in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is documented and preserved by the 1696 Thomas Massey House in Broomall, the Caleb Pusey House in Upland built in 1683, and the Morton Homestead, Prospect Park, a seventeenth-century log house built by Morton Mortonson, a New Sweden Colony settler, administered by the PHMC. The Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation at Ridley Creek State Park , Media interprets the life of a local family before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, a period spanning from 1760 to 1790. Other popular Delaware County attractions include the Thomas Leiper House, Wallingford, the country estate of a successful and influential Philadelphia tobacco merchant; the Nicholas Newlin Foundation of Glen Mills, which administers a gristmill erected in 1704 by Nathanial Newlin, a Quaker who emigrated from Ireland in 1683; and The Grange, Havertown, an unusual complex of more than a dozen buildings and structures, eighteenth-century terraced gardens, and woodlands. Established in 1895, the Delaware County Historical Society collects, documents, and preserves the county’s history and heritage through exhibitions, events, and publications. The county also claims art museums and galleries arboretums, local historical societies, and libraries, several of which contain collections emphasizing Quaker history in southeastern Pennsylvania.