In July, Lt. Gen. William Howe's army took 264 British transports south toward Philadelphia from their encampment in New Jersey. As they approached Philadelphia, Howe was informed of the American fortifications and a small naval force in and along the Delaware River, blocking his path. He changed course to the Chesapeake Bay, planning to land at Elk Ferry and march his troops some 30 miles northeast to Philadelphia.
After Gen. George Washington's victory at the Battle of Princeton, he had moved his army into quarters near Morristown, New Jersey. He had spent the summer encamped in Watchung Mountains. When he learned of Howe’s movement southward, Washington marched his army south to Wilmington, Delaware, arriving on August 25. That same day, Howe landed his army at Elk Head.
On July 8, Howe began embarking his 16,500 men on board the British naval transports at Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
His intention was to sail via the Delaware Bay to the Delaware River, threatening Philadelphia and preventing Washington from reinforcing Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates's northern army against Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne. In the process, Howe might force a battle against Washington.
On July 23, the British fleet set sail and reached the Delaware Bay a week later. Howe received misleading intelligence of American obstructions in the Delaware River that seemed to make an approach from that direction impracticable. He decided to enter the Chesapeake Bay, landing at the northernmost point possible and approach Philadelphia by land. The Americans were meanwhile kept guessing about Howe's destination. The sighting of the British fleet in the northeast Chesapeake Bay on August 22 and the subsequent British landing at Turkey Point, 8 miles below Head of Elk, Maryland, on August 25 finally put an end to all speculation.
Marching from positions along the Neshaminy Creek in Pennsylvania, the American main army passed through Philadelphia to Darby, reaching Wilmington, Delaware just as the British began their landing. Although Howe's landing was unopposed, his soldiers were seasick and exhausted. The local Tory inhabitants and deserters from the American dragoons helped to re-equip the British, but this took some time. A concentrated American attack, given the disorganized state of the militia and the distance of the main army, was clearly impossible, and Howe was left to rest and reorganize his army.
On September 3, the majority of Howe’s army started marching toward Philadelphia, moving forward in 2 divisions, one commanded by Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Knyphausen and the other by Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis. The next 5 days saw the opposing armies positioning themselves along the White Clay Creek, west of Newport and Wilmington. Washington expected Howe to march toward him in Wilmington. Howe preferred to meet the American force elsewhere, thus preventing Washington from making use of the advantageous ground he occupied there. He made a feint north towards Pennsylvania, forcing Washington to change his defensive ground, moving to the Brandywine River at Chadds Ford.
On September 8, Washington ordered Maxwell to take up new positions on White Clay Creek, while the main army encamped behind Red Clay Creek, just west of Newport, Deleware. A small British force marched to demonstrate against the American front while the British main army marched around Washington's right.
On September 9, Washington had seen through Howe's plan and ordered a redeployment of the American main army to Chad's Ford on the Brandywine Creek. They camped on the east bank.
Washington positioned his army on the high ground east of the Brandywine Creek. He positioned brigades and regiments at the main fords, including Buffington’s Ford, Chadd's Ford, and Pyle’s Ford. Washington was told by an advisor that Howe would try to outflank them by sending his main force northward while a decoy force attacked at Chadds Ford. Washington was aware of this possibility, but had been assured by local informants that Jefferis’ Ford, the next ford above Buffington’s, was difficult to cross, because it was very deep, more than half the height of a man, and that the road southward was poor. Washington expected the British to cross at Chadd's Ford and put most of his army there.
Washington concentrated the American defenses at Chadd's Ford, but also prepared to prevent possible British flanking movements to the south or north. Pyle's Ford, south of Chadd's Ford, was covered by 2 brigades of Pennsylvania militia, commanded Brig. Gen. John Armstrong. Greene's 1st Division was assigned the primary defense of Chadd's Ford. Greene's troops straddled the Nottingham Road leading east from the Brandywine Creek. To Greene's right was Brig. Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne's 4th Division. Col. Thomas Procter's Continental Artillery Regiment was placed to Wayne's right, on the heights at Chadd's Ford.
Chad's Ford was at the point where the Nottingham Road crossed the Brandywine Creek on the route from Kennett Square to Philadelphia. It was the last natural line of defense before the Schuylkill River. The Brandywine Creek, a shallow but fast-flowing creek, was fordable at a comparatively small number of places that could be covered fairly easily. At Chadd's Ford, made up of 2 fords about 450 feet apart, the creek was 150 feet wide and commanded by heights on either side. The surrounding area had thick forests and low hills, surrounded by farms, meadows, and orchards.
On September 11, Washington had been receiving conflicting reports throughout the morning about the location of Howe’s army. He considered crossing the river to launch an assault on Knyphausen but held off. He wouldn ’t receive a reliable report until early afternoon, but by that would time, it would be too late.
At 6:00 A.M., Howe sent half his army, about an 8,000-man force, straight to Washington at Chadd's Ford to act as decoy. This force was led by Maj. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen. The rest of Howe’s army marched north, 17 miles total, to cross the Brandywine Creek above the fords that Washington guarded. Howe then marched south to launch a surprise attack on the American right flank.
Knyphausen's force had advanced only 3 miles before running into ?? Maxwell's outposts near Welch's Tavern. Knyphausen's men drove in the American pickets west of the creek. By 10:30 A.M., the British had cleared the west bank of the Brandywine Creek and took up positions on the high ground overlooking Chadd's Ford.
After Washington had received reports from several officers that Howe was making a flanking movement, Washington planned to make an attack on Knyphausen's force. He then received a report from Sullivan that said the earlier reports were incorrect. Thus, Washington decided not to go ahead with his planned attack on Knyphausen.
At 11:00 A.M., Howe crossed the west branch of the Brandywine Creek at Trimble's Ford. He then marched east, crossing the east branch at Jeffries' Ford about 3 hours later. At 2:30 P.M., Howe had seized and occupied Osborne's Hill, just behind the American right flank. He then gave his troops an hour to rest.
After Howe was spotted, Washington had no choice but to make a defensive stand. He ordered his reserve to take up positions near the Birmingham Friends Meeting House. The house was a small Quaker church on the east side of the road leading southeast from Jeffries' Ford and about 2 miles north of Chad's Ford. Directly across the road to the west was Birmingham Hill, a small hill that was well-suited for defense.
Sullivan had received another report of British movements. The situation demanded swift measures, and Washington responded by ordering Sullivan to abandon Brinton's Ford and join the force at the Birmingham Meeting House, where Sullivan would take overall command of the 3 divisions. While putting his division into motion, Sullivan encountered Col. Moses Hazen, who had repoted the sighting of the British advance guard. Sullivan rushed to take up positions on Battle Hill.
At 4:00 P.M., Howe's troops formed into line for the assault on Battle Hill. The attack began before Sullivan's troops had a chance to take up proper positions. One of his brigades gave way almost immediately. Washington ordered Greene to march to Sullivan's aide. On the right, the American artillery opened fire on the advancing British troops. The British were forced to halt and take cover a short distance from the base of the hill.
At this point, Howe and Cornwallis ordered a series of attacks on the left, right and center of the hill, gradually forcing the Americans off the hill. After 1 1/2 hours of fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the British pushed the Americans back and took possession of Battle Hill. After the loss of the hill, Washington's priority for the rest of the battle was the successful withdrawal of the remainder of the army.
At 5:00 P.M., upon hearing of the ensuing battle to the north, Knyphausen launched his own attack on the weakened American center at Chadd's Ford, They rapidly drove the Americans back and captured most of Washington's artillery pieces Washington had no choice now but to break off the fight and escape eastward with his remaining army.
Fighting continued until dusk, by which time ammunition was running low or was completely gone. Washington’s army retreated to Chester, 12 miles east.
Washington attributed the defeat to bad intelligence reports rather than to a lack of fighting skill on their part. He also had made a serious error by leaving his right flank open. Even though Howe claimed a victory, he once again allowed the American army to escape.
On September 12, Washington issued orders for the troops to press on to Germantown. The exhausted British did not pursue the Americans through the night, but remained behind, camping on the battlefield, and treating the wounded and burying the dead.
The Battle of Brandywine was one of the largest land battles, as the only battle in which Washington and Howe fought head-to-head. The victory was a great morale booster for the American army. It is thought to be one of the first battles in which the Ferguson rifle was used and in which the Betsy Ross flag was flown.
The official British casualty list detailed 587 casualties: 93 killed (8 officers, 7 sergeants and 78 rank and file); 488 wounded (49 officers, 40 sergeants, 4 drummers and 395 rank and file); 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 Patriot Army at Brandywine survives and no figures, official or otherwise, were ever released. Most accounts of the Patriot loss were from the British side. 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.
British and American forces maneuvered around each other for the next several days with only minor encounters such as the Paoli Massacre on the night of September 20-21.
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.