9-11-1777 What If
The Nation-Makers by Howard Pyle
Brandywine River Museum
9-11 is the date of two hugely significant events for Americans. We remember 9-11-2001 when almost 3,000 men, women and children - American civilians and nationals from 90 different countries - died in attacks by Islamic terrorists.
We have largely forgotten 9-11-1777, when, at the Battle of Brandywine, 3,000 soldiers were killed. Barely escaping death were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, John Marshall, future head of the Supreme Court, and Generals Greene, Wayne and Sullivan who fought in the battle. Two nationals from France and Poland fighting in the battle were also at risk - Lafayette and Count Pulaski.
The survival of the future United States of America depended on the courage of soldiers and civilians and on what I would like to call Anglo-American spirit, though in the battle British and Americans were opposed. It is believed that Washington escaped a marksman just before the battle began due to chivalry.
As is pretty well known, the British considered the American Revolution an insurrection by fellow British subjects. The Americans, who began the struggle to defend their rights as freeborn Brits, saw the war as a struggle for independence and freedom.
On the morning of September 11, 1777, future hopes for the United States of America were almost destroyed due to intelligence failures. It is hard to imagine the United States surviving without George Washington, but at the Battle of Brandywine Washington escaped death due only to chivalry and his own coolness, and the American Army barely avoided complete disaster. That Americans were not utterly defeated is partly due to a forgotten Virginian, George Weedon, and his brigade, and to a spirit which touches us on this anniversary of 9-11.
In 1777, the third year of the American Revolution, General William Howe landed with 13,000 British troops and 5,000 Hessian mercenaries in Maryland, and headed north to capture Philadelphia. By September 9, his army was at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, six miles west of the Brandywine and the Chadds Ford crossing.
Facing them on the east side of Chadds Ford was George Washington with 11,000 American soldiers. He aimed to stop them.
Trees grew so thickly on the banks of the Brandywine it was impassable to an army except at the fords. Washington had set guards, but he had been given poor intelligence. A crossing to the north had been overlooked.
Howe had better information about the terrain. He decided to send part of his force to attack Washington at Chadds Ford while the rest of his army, screened by woods and southeastern Pennsylvania's rolling green hills, marched north, crossed the Brandywine at the unguarded crossing and launched a devastating surprise attack.
Early on the morning of 9-11, Washington rode out to look at the woods and pastures that would form his battlefield. He was accompanied only by an aide. It was already warm and quite humid.
Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had adapted the breechloading mechanism used in sporting guns to his military rifle and could fire six rounds a minute. He was a brilliant marksman and he was out, scouting. According to M. M. Gilchrist, he saw Washington on horseback near Chadds Ford, and put him in his sights. He was about to shoot when Washington turned his back on him. Ferguson later said, the idea of shooting in the back someone who was going about his duties so coolly disgusted me. Even when told that the officer in question was Washington, he never regretted his chivalry.
Reports began reaching Washington that British brigades were moving north on the other side of the Brandywine, and he ordered General Nathaniel Greene to strike across Chadds Ford. But the next intelligence to reach Washington inaccurately suggested that Greene's force would be attacking the entire British army, and Washington pulled him back.
By early afternoon, the British army was about to descend in force on the unsuspecting Americans. A local, Thomas Cheyney, who had escaped capture, arrived with the news at Washington's camp.
John B.B. Trussell, Jr. of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission describes what happened -
Washington sped orders to his commanders to move to high ground and block the British at the Birmingham Meeting House. The Americans. . .raced toward the British, who halted and opened fire. Seeing this, a rear brigade delivered a volley. This fire did not reach the enemy but plowed into the Americans from the rear, and they broke and fled. . .The British pressed their attack. The Americans laid down a telling fire, slowing the British advance, but were steadily forced backward on the flanks.
Meanwhile, there were children caught near the battle. As he described in his book West Chester to 1865, That Elegant and Notorious Place, Douglas Harper used an original source to describe the reaction of children caught nearby. Harper wrote -
The morning [of September 11, 1777] was wretchedly hot, with some clouds that brought little relief. Persifor Frazer’s three young children were at school in Thornbury. The oldest was Sally, age eight. Many years later, she remembered hearing the gunfire and cannonading: "The teachers went out, and listened some time, and returned, saying, 'There is a battle not far off, children, you may go home.' As we returned we met our mother on horseback, going over towards the place of action, knowing that. . .our father must be in the midst of the affray." Strong-willed Mary Taylor Frazer knew her husband well.
Keep this little incident in mind. We think that when you read between the lines, you will see something important about the spirit of a people.
Trussell describes what happened next -
After almost an hour, the British army was close enough to launch a bayonet charge against the American right flank held by a brigade under a French volunteer, General Prud'Homme de Borre. As the scarlet line drove in, De Borre panicked and fled, followed by his brigade. . .Under increasing pressure, the Americans on the left also gave way, but the center held on.
The sound of the battle had carried to Chadds Ford. Washington immediately ordered Greene out of reserve to reinforce the troops at Birmingham Meeting House, and Greene's men, with George Weedon's Virginia brigade in the lead, were soon pelting across the fields. Then, as the gunfire swelled, Washington turned over command at Chadds Ford to Anthony Wayne. Guided by a local farmer, Joseph Brown, the General and his aides started for the battle in a cross-country gallop reminiscent of Washington's fox-hunting years in Virginia.
. . .The threat of imminent encirclement forced the Americans to abandon Birmingham Meeting House. With most of the artillery horses dead, the cannon had to be left behind. The troops fell back half a mile along the Dilworth road to a hill, where they formed another line. There the British struck them again, but were hurled back - not once, but five successive times. However, the Americans' ammunition ran low, and few were armed with bayonets; at the next British charge the surviving Americans began streaming down the hill.
At this point Washington reached the scene and disregarding the hail of British bullets tried to rally the men. . .Weedon's men arrived - they had double-timed four miles in about forty minutes - and deployed at a narrow defile on the Dilworth road a little to the rear. They parted ranks to let the retreating troops pass through then closed up again, halting the pursuing British with volley after volley.
Weedon was a tavern owner in Virginia. As the Hessians drove across Chadds Ford, overrunning the artillery, as Wayne's men fell back, fighting hand-to-hand in orchards and fields, and Sullivan's men retreated from the Birmingham Meeting House, Weedon and his men stood all that sweltering afternoon and fought, withdrew and stood and fought again. Their fighting withdrawal bought time for the American army to escape as darkness fell.
Artillery was lost, but not all of it. African-American Edward Hector, a private in Proctor's Pennsylvania Artillery, in actions of outstanding bravery, rescued a number of the Artillery’s cannon in the face of the Hessian advance.
The Americans retreated toward Chester. Howe sent cavalry to cut the road, but Polish volunteer Count Casimir Pulaski, leading American cavalry, covered Washington's retreat.
This is not the first time that Polish-led cavalry has proved vital. When the Ottoman Empire attacked Vienna on 9-11-1683, the Polish King, Jan Sobieski, led the successful cavalry charge that turned the Muslim invasion of Europe into a rout, and sent the invaders back to Turkey.
Howe had defeated the American Army, but he had not crushed it. The troops were in good spirits. They hoped to recoup their losses in the future, and they did.
After the battle, and acting in the spirit of chivalry, British soldiers accompanied wounded American soldiers from the country battlefield to the settlement of Turk's Head (West Chester's original name) where they could be treated. Douglas Harper explains -
It was customary courtesy, after a battle, to deposit the enemy's wounded in some safe, dry public building (or private one) where they could be cared for, and no doubt some British officer down around the battlefield had questioned local residents and learned that there was a small log school in Turk's Head that would serve as a temporary hospital.
British General Howe asked General Washington to send doctors to tend the wounded rebels who had been captured in the battle -
The American doctors who were sent behind enemy lines by an arrangement between Washington and Howe included Benjamin Rush, a leading Philadelphia surgeon but also one of the ringleaders of the rebellion. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush took a bold risk in riding unarmed into the British camp, and he was apparently detained briefly once his identity was learned. But since Rush was a doctor, and had come under a truce flag, Howe respected the rules of war and let him do his job
These actions are a tribute to Anglo-American chivalry. Looking again at that paragraph about the children and their mother, there are also interesting insights into Anglo-American life in Pennsylvania in the 18th century.
First there is the fact that children went to school, and the school was large enough to have more than one teacher. Second, girls were taught as well as boys. (Education would help make Britain and America prosperous.) Third, the battle put a crimp in lessons, but the teachers apparently thought nothing of sending children across country, perhaps straight toward two armies. Fourth, women rode horses, and were used to taking care of themselves. Fifth, if they really loved a man, or wanted him home, they rode into battle to find him. Some of these comments may apply only to the Frazers, but we know from other sources that boys and girls were taught to read and write and ride and to be self-reliant.
Reading between the lines of these battle descriptions we see the intelligence, courage and spirit that must triumph over the murderous fanaticism that attacked civilians on 9-11-2001.
Due to the the chivalry of Ferguson and to the bravery of Weedon's Virginians, Hector, Lafayette and Pulaski, Monroe, Hamilton, Marshall, Washington and all the American soldiers who fought the Battle of Brandywine, the dream of a United States of America survived, and became reality twelve years later in 1789.