Accidents

The River Ran Red: George Washington’s Biggest Mistake

Blacksmith's stone and red building during spring at the brandywine battlefield state park.

The blacksmith shop on the grounds of the Brandywine Battlefield park.

Before September 11th became an infamous day for the modern world, it was still a bad day for America though a much more forgotten one. That September 11th happened in 1777; it was the Battle of the Brandywine where George Washington made one of his biggest military blunders and his army was thoroughly beaten. If you’d like to read a much more detailed account of the battle and its tactical military history I recommend “Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777” by Michael C. Harris or this shorter online account here 😉 .

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The Ring House and Washington’s headquarters. Fire destroyed the home in the 1930’s and it was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

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The backdoor of the Ring house.

Headquarters

During the Revolutionary War Philadelphia was the largest city in America, the seat of the Congress and thus, a very important place to defend from the British. There was a small obstacle to the city, one that at first looked innocuous and not too imposing, it was the Brandywine River. To reach Philadelphia the British troops would have to cross it but they soon learned that it was a more formidable foe than they’d thought with steep hills along the side and strong watery currents. It was here where Washington drew his defensive line as the British advanced.

The part of the battlefield which you can visit today as a park was actually Washington’s headquarters (the government withdrew funding and it is now run, in the warmer months, by a dedicated Friends group with any funds they can raise). The 45-year old general stayed at farmer and miller Benjamin Ring’s house (who some say was excused from the army not because of his money but because he was too portly to ride a horse).

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The Gilpin tavern.

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Nearby was Lafayette’s Headquarters, the Marquis de Lafayette was only 19-years old at the battle and not well known yet, and the Gideon Gilpin House* which was the innkeeper’s house at the time and later a tavern.

After the battle the Gilpin House was plundered by the British and the owner had to put in a claim to the government for lost cows, oxen, sheep, 50 pounds of bacon, a history book and a gun.

*Not to be confused with the British and General Howe’s headquarters, the Gilpin Homestead, located not too far away.

The land where the battle would take place was peaceful countryside, literally, as it was settled by pacifist Quakers. Soon the nonviolent Quakers would see the largest and longest (11 continuous hours of fighting) land battle of the Revolutionary War. Washington and General Howe would face each other head-to-head only once during the entire war and it would be on the Brandywine with 30,000 soldiers.

Today much of the land fought on is privately owned but you can still follow along with some historical road plaques. Unlike Gettysburg, which has been turned into a national park, the battle of the Brandywine is largely forgotten and the land is barely protected. The Quakers did not wish to commemorate war and everyone else didn’t want to commemorate a loss.

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This Baptist church borders the battlefield park. Founded in 1692 it was just a small log building at the time of the battle. The stone building there today wasn’t built until 1869.

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A Bloody Fight

During the battle General Howe and his 18,000 troops advanced suddenly on Washington’s on the Continental Army’s tired and worn-out 15,000 troops. (An important part of this story is that there is water everywhere here and the Brandywine floods often. To pass through the water, people used fords which are shallow crossing spots and of course cheaper than building a bridge as they’re naturally occurring; occasionally we still use them here). Sometime during that day, someone fed Washington false information that there were no more fords above his position. General Howe took advantage of the misinformation.

A small contingent of British, commanded by the Prussian officer Wilhelm von Knyphausen (who had a foreboding saber wound scar stretching from his eye to his chin), created a distraction by striking near Washington, D.C. The rest of the British troops used backroads to quietly cross the Brandywine, a move only successful because they were guided by local loyalists.

It wasn’t until midday when Washington realized he suddenly had a huge enemy army advancing right where he was most vulnerable. He sent his troops into action but after a fierce fight his men were disorganized and fleeing.

Washington climbed a hill to view the battlefield. Little did he know that a Loyalist from Virginia, James Parker, was spying on him from a British battery across the Brandywine. Park directed the British to fire their cannon in Washington’s direction. He later wrote: “My prayers went with the ball that it might finish Washington & the Rebellion together.” Washington was uninjured by the canon fire but it was a close call.

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Some steps to get on your horse.

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The armies converged on another crossing: Jefferis’ Ford. Joseph Townsend, a local boy, later remembered: “In a few minutes the fields were literally covered over with them, and they were hastening towards us. Their arms and bayonets being raised, shone as bright as silver, being a clear sky and the day exceeding warm.

For four hours they splashed across the ford, by foot and by horse. Terrified farmer Emmor Jefferis was yanked out of his farmhouse and forced under threat to guide General Howe through the countryside lanes along the river. While he was doing this the British ransacked his house, stole all his liquor and got drunk on his lawn.

Eventually the Continental troops were pushed back to the Birmingham Meetinghouse, a Quaker house of worship, and the Virginian troops resumed firing at the British from behind the graveyard wall.

Washington attempted to rush from the Ring House to the battlefield but the confusing terrain provided only a difficult route. An officer forced an old Quaker man named Brown to guide them or be “run through on the spot.” As Washington galloped desperately to the battle scene hoping to turn around his worst wartime performance he shouted at Brown to go faster, repeatedly yelling: “Push along, old man, push along!

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A spring house. For some reason whenever you touch the gate you can feel them vibrating and humming, it’s quite strange.

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Just south of the melee, Lafayette was shot through the calf. He escaped on his horse and was tended to by a young man from the 3rd Virginia regiment named James Monroe (yes, the future U.S. president). Many other famous men were there that day too including Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson (Pennsylvania Congressional representative and the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to fight in combat during the war), Lemuel Cook (one of the very last Revolutionary War survivors – he would live to see the Civil War dying in 1866 at the age of 106), John Marshall (the future Supreme Court justice) and Robert E. Lee’s father “Light-Horse” Harry Lee.

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The back of the barn. You can see the Gilpin house on the left.

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The Gilpin house where Lafayette was headquartered looks just as it did in 1777, except for the Lafayette Sycamore. The 393-year old tree now dwarfs the home.

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The Aftermath

The battle ended in hand-to-hand combat, or bayonet-to-bayonet to be more accurate. The 7th Pennsylvania Militia flew a banner with red and white stars and stripes during the fight which is said to be the first “American flag” flown in battle. During the night the wounded lay injured and moaning on the battlefield. It’s estimated that 600 Americans were injured, 400 were taken prisoner by the British and over 300 had deserted during the campaign. The British listed over 500 casualties. Because no official record survives the statistics vary, especially for men killed.

A day after the fight, bodies and amputated limbs were dumped together in a graveyard ditch. Heavy rainstorms and the frequent flooding of the area caused soldiers’ mangled bodies to wash out of their graves. For several days after the battle farmers fished dead bodies from the Brandywine, their blood creating red pools in the water.

Two weeks later General Howe occupied the colonial capital of Philadelphia. The Continental Army would head to Valley Forge for the winter where many would starve and die from disease in the inadequately supplied military camp (over 2,000 soldiers died). Those that didn’t emerged trained and organized and ready to turn the war around…well, we all know happened next.

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Painter’s Folly is seen in the distance up the path just beyond the fence. We talked about Pyle’s art school there and the Wyeths in a post here.

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Some old time graffiti 😉 .

For more, here’s a video from George Washington’s Mount Vernon about the battle and Washington’s strategy.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, “The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait” by W.Barksdale Maynard, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.