From January to May 1777, following his victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington occupied a defensive base at Morristown, sometimes raiding British posts in New Jersey and New York. During the same period, from January to May, Sir William Howe was occupying winter quarters in New York City, leaving major outposts at Amboy and Brunswick, New Jersey.
Washington’s five months in Morristown were critical and frustrating ones. By mid-March his army had shrunk to a mere 3,000 effectives, two-thirds of them militia whose enlistments would be up by the end of the month, while in ironic contrast he was authorized by Congress to enlist up to 75,000 men—a ridiculous paper figure. At about that time two shiploads of French weapons and ammunition arrived, with enough muskets, powder, and gun flints to equip 22,000 men. Where was the commander in chief to get the men to make proper use of such bounty? By late spring, after constant entreaties to Congress and his own ceaseless recruiting efforts, he had succeeded in building his army’s strength to slightly less than 9,000 men. Of these, some 6,000 were ready to take the field at the first bugle call.
After some small and indecisive maneuvering between Washington’s and Howe’s armies in June 1777, the British general reassembled his army on Staten Island. His plan now was to get at the Americans from below Philadelphia; 15,000 troops would embark on 260 ships for the long voyage that would, eventually, take his forces southward past the Delaware Capes and up Chesapeake Bay. The British armada sailed past Sandy Hook on 23 July under the command, of course, of Admiral Lord Richard Howe.
Washington learned of the fleet’s sailing the following day, and now faced a dilemma. Just where was Howe bound? Would he join the expedition that Burgoyne was initiating from Canada, moving southward by way of Lake Champlain? Or was Howe’s real objective Philadelphia, via either the Delaware River or Chesapeake Bay? Charleston in South Carolina could not be ruled out, and neither could a British return to Boston. Where should Washington go?
On 29 July Washington decided to move his army toward Philadelphia, only to discover that after six days at sea the Howe brothers’ fleet had not yet been sighted off the Delaware Capes. But two days later his anxiety was eased by definite word that the British fleet had indeed been observed off the Delaware Capes on 30 July. Washington again ordered his columns toward Philadelphia. Not until 22 August, however, did he receive a reliable express that Howe’s fleet was in Chesapeake Bay, “high up in the North East part of it.” By Sunday, 24 August, Washington was marching at the head of the long column of his army as it paraded through Philadelphia in a manner designed to encourage the Patriots and to impress those of doubtful persuasion—and the members of Congress. John Adams, after watching the parade, wrote his wife: “They marched twelve deep [in ranks twelve men wide?], and yet took up above two hours in passing by.” Their number had been reported as high as 16,000 though a figure of 11,000 seems more realistic in light of the total forces that ended up at the Brandywine.
On Monday, 25 August, British troops began disembarking from the Chesapeake near Head of Elk (in the vicinity of present-day Elkton, Maryland). In the first of five serials, loaded on flat-bottomed landing craft, were two regiments of Hessian and Anspach jägers. The four companies of American militia who had been posted to oppose them soon fled, and the rest of Howe’s army—less the cavalry and its horses—completed the landings throughout the day.
Two days later, Washington, accompanied by staff aides and Generals Greene and Lafayette, rode out of the encampment near Wilmington on a personal reconnaissance. From the summit of a hill Washington could make out the tents of a huge encampment, but his scouting of the terrain in the area was ended abruptly by a fierce and prolonged thunderstorm.
The same thunderstorm pinned down Howe’s sodden regiments. The British troops were still aching from over a month’s confinement aboard their transports and were in need of a rest and a chance to stretch out, even if in rain-soaked tents. Moreover, the surviving cavalry and artillery horses were in shockingly bad shape; over 300 dead or dying horses had been thrown overboard during the voyage.
Howe finally got moving on 28 August, marching in two corps over separate routes. Cornwallis marched on Elkton, and the Hessian Lieutenant General Knyphausen crossed the Elk River and camped at Cecil Courthouse. Both corps remained encamped for the next five days while selected units foraged the countryside. The troops were starving for fresh meat, and horses were needed to replace the 300 lost on the voyage, as well as those unfit for service. The foraging parties rounded up hundreds of cattle and sheep, and one party even brought in a herd of over 200 horses and mules.
Washington, fully occupied with concentrating his Continentals and levies of militia, was powerless to prevent this ravaging of the countryside. He managed, however, to send out a covering force under Brigadier General William Maxwell to keep Howe’s forward elements under observation, with the additional order to be “constantly near the Enemy and to give them every possible annoyance.” In all, Maxwell’s force totaled 720 soldiers, officers, and noncommissioned officers.
On 2 September Washington relayed a warning to Maxwell that British preparations were under way to resume the advance toward Philadelphia. Maxwell wasted no time in preparing a reception for the enemy’s advance guard. He redeployed his light infantrymen in ambush positions, mainly along the road northeast of Elkton.
About nine o’clock on the morning of the third, the advance guard of Cornwallis’s column—Hessian and Anspach jägers under Lieutenant Colonel von Wurmb—was feeling its way up Maxwell’s road. Their caution notwithstanding, a sudden volley from the woods dropped the jägers at the point. Von Wurmb deployed his advance party and called for support from the British light infantry following the van. Thus began the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, a lively skirmish marking the first real engagement of the campaign.
Maxwell succeeded in having his men deliver several stinging fires from a series of delaying positions, but von Wurmb kept up his attempts to outflank the Americans, and eventually the skirmish became a running fight which degenerated into flight by Maxwell’s men. The disorganized Americans ended their retreat at Washington’s outposts along White Clay Creek, about four miles north of Cooch’s Bridge. On 6 September, following a command conference, Washington decided to reconcentrate his forces north of Red Clay Creek astride the main road to Philadelphia. Maxwell was deployed again as a covering force, this time along White Clay Creek. Learning that Howe’s fighting units were storing their tents and baggage in their assembly area, Washington ordered all of his own army’s baggage and equipment, save what men could carry on the march, to be dumped north of the Brandywine.
On 8 September Howe was moving to the northeast, apparently toward Kennett Square on the northern road (now U.S. 1) to Philadelphia. To counter this threat to his right flank, Washington withdrew his army to Chadd’s Ford on the Brandywine the next day and deployed it along the east side of that stream.
So on 9 September both armies were maneuvering toward a fight. The British had already achieved an advantage. They had been exploiting their reconnaissance capabilities to the full; the Americans had not. Washington was thus relatively ignorant of many critical terrain features in the area where the action was pending, and was even unsure of the movements of Howe’s main advance.
The Brandywine, in Douglas Southall Freeman’s description, “flows from Northwest to Southeast into the Delaware [River] on a course parallel to that of the Schuylkill and at a distance of fifteen to twenty miles from that stream. . . . The area between the two streams consequently included the direct approaches to the Quaker City from Head of Elk” (George Washington). The creek behind which Washington had elected to defend had two main tributaries, the West and East branches. Howe’s chief engineer described the countryside as “a succession of large hills, rather sudden with narrow vales.” Though much of the country was farmland at the time of the battle, a great many of the steeper slopes of the hills bordering the valley were densely wooded.
The hills and the forests along the stream helped make the Brandywine, if properly defended, a major tactical obstacle. The creek itself varied in width from 50 to 150 yards, and its varying depth was sufficient to require troops to use the fords. There were seven of these fords that might be used to cross an army. The most important was Chadd’s Ford on Washington’s left, where the main road from Kennett Square to Philadelphia crossed the Brandywine. Then, proceeding northward were Brinton’s Ford, Jones’s (or Painter’s) Ford, and Wistar’s Ford. North of the junction of the East and West Branches, Trimble’s Ford crossed the West Branch. Buffington’s and Jeffrie’s crossed the East.
All these fords were easily accessible to an advancing enemy and feasible for the crossing of artillery. Therefore the American commander in chief needed to guard all of them, or at least keep them under observation. A glance at the map will show that the road network, especially the parts using the fords, was fairly extensive.