The British grand strategy for subduing the troublesome New England colonies was to seize the Hudson River valley and cut them off from the middle and southern colonies. To this end, Gen. John Burgoyne attacked from Canada while Gen. William Howe was supposed to do the same from New York City. However, Howe unilaterally decided to sail his army into the northern Chesapeake and march on Philadelphia. On 9 September 1777, Howe’s British, Loyalists, and Hessians landed, and Washington planned to meet them at Chadd’s Ford along the Brandywine Creek.
Unfortunately for the Americans, a Philadelphia loyalist informed Howe of series of smaller fords on the East and West Brandywine Creek some miles to the north of Washington. On the morning of 11 September 1777, Howe marched the bulk of his army around Washington while he sent his Hessians to fix the Continental Army at Chadd’s Ford. Washington learned of the maneuver fairly early in the day, but didn’t act on it for several hours. He decided to go look for himself.For several hours, Washington conducted his own personal leader’s reconnaissance of the battlefield, accompanied only by the newest brigadier general in the Continental Army, Casimir Pulaski. Pulaski was a former colonel in the Bar Confederation, a Polish revolt against the Russians, who fled to America after the First Partition of Poland. Pulaski was by far and away the most experienced cavalryman in North America at the time, and about noon on 11 September 1777, Pulaski was showing Washington the finer points of mounted reconnaissance when they both were nearly killed.
Waiting in a copse of trees, was Maj Patrick Ferguson, a light infantry pioneer in the British Army. With him was a company of light infantry armed with breech loading marksman’s muskets specially designed by Ferguson himself. Washington and Pulaski rode to within thirty yards of Ferguson and his men. Ferguson ordered them killed but stopped his men after the duo turned their backs to them. Ferguson called to Washington and Pulaski, and they both rode off. Ferguson stated later that he alone could have put four rounds into each before they were out of range, but it was ungentlemanly to shoot the “well dressed hussar and his august companion in the back”. Ferguson never regretted his decision to spare the two.
By mid afternoon, Howe’s army appeared on the flank of the Continental Army, but Washington re-positioned. He sent Sullivan with three divisions to make a stand on a small hill topped by the Birmingham Meeting House. However, as Sullivan was conferring with the division commanders, the British emerged from the wood line and surprised Sullivan’s own division as it was forming. The line broke and the rest withdrew from the hill. Sullivan reformed at Dilworth, and as Washington confirmed he was facing the bulk of Howe’s army to the north, re-positioned Lafayette and his reserve under Greene. The Continentals stopped the British advance, and the fighting degenerated into a slug fest with American and British troops firing volleys point blank at each other, followed by bayonet charges. Nonetheless, the Continentals held.
At Chadd’s Ford, the Hessians also attempted to force the American position with little success. However, a British column from the north got lost in the forest attempting to flank Washington’s position at Dilworth, and appeared on the flanks of “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s defense of the ford. Though fiery and eccentric, Wayne was not stupid, and retreated. Washington recognized that he was now out maneuvered, and withdrew the army back to Philadelphia to fight another day. Greene and Lafayette provided a skillful rear guard.
Though a defeat, the Battle of Brandywine Creek showed that the Continental Army was beginning to mature. For the first time, they fought the British regulars and Hessian professionals toe to toe on ground of British choosing and gave as well as they got. Furthermore, the Continental leadership showed that it too could execute complicated and demanding maneuvers, none more so than a withdrawl while in contact. The Continental Army was not a professional force by any means in 1777, but it began to act like one.
The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia a little over a week later. They would flee to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which would have the honor of being the country’s capital for a single day, 21 September 1777, and then on to York, PA.
Howe marched into Philadelphia on 28 September thinking he had just won the war. However, the seizure of the enemy’s capital as a means of victory is a distinctly Western European construct. In Europe, the capital was the center of a nation’s culture, industry, and state bureaucracy, without which a nation can no longer fight. In the late 18th century it was unthinkable for a Briton to continue a war if London fell, or Frenchman to continue if Paris fell. But the ideals laid out in in the Declaration of Independence, and later the U.S. Constitution, are not tied to a piece of terrain. If an American capital falls, it just moves to another spot. You can’t occupy an idea.
Howe might have won Philadelphia, but he lost the war.