“Weedon’s Run” by Pamela Patrick White & Bryant White
Hessian map of the Philadelphia campaign.
On the morning of 9 September Washington began deploying his forces east of the Brandywine. He entrusted his left flank at Pyle’s Ford (south of Chadd’s Ford) to General Armstrong with 1,000 Pennsylvania militia. Greene’s division, with Wayne’s brigade attached, held the center at Chadd’s Ford, supported by the bulk of the army’s artillery. Work began immediately on earthworks, with first priority going to the artillery’s protection.
Washington placed the entire right wing under Sullivan’s command. He was to be responsible for defending a large sector, the entire Brandywine north of Chadd’s Ford. The wing was composed of three divisions, each with two brigades. On the south was Sullivan’s own division, in the center was Stephen’s division, and on the extreme right was Stirling’s division.
Maxwell, with 800 light infantry, was assigned to cover the approaches to the army’s center. He deployed his companies on high ground west of Chadd’s Ford, centering them on the main road leading to Elkton, the direction from which Washington expected Howe to attack.
On the afternoon of 10 September General Sullivan reported to Washington’s headquarters, expressing concern about the vulnerability of the army’s right flank. Specifically he asked whether any fords existed above those under his care. In answer he was informed that the local people, familiar with the creek, had assured him that there were none within twelve miles. Washington also informed Sullivan that “all the Light Horse of the Army,” meaning Colonel Theodorick Bland’s 1st Dragoons, were being shifted to the right to “watch the enemy there.” But that one regiment was weak, understrength, and poorly commanded, a weak reed to lean on.
When Washington’s army had paraded through Philadelphia, John Adams’s description mentioned “four regiments of light-horse, Bland’s, Baylor’s, Sheldon’s and Moylan’s.” Charles Francis Adams put it this way: “With an overpowering hostile force creeping around the army’s right wing, the question naturally suggests itself, where were Bland’s, Baylor’s, Sheldon’s, and Moylan’s four regiments of light-horse? Of them and their movements no mention is made” (Studies, Military and Diplomatic, 1775-1865). That absence would turn out to be a critical factor that crucially influenced the outcome of the battle.
During the night of 10-11 September a light rain fell over the Brandywine valley, and a dense fog covered the countryside at dawn on the eleventh. While the fog was inhibiting visibility, Washington heard that an enemy column was headed his way from Kennett Square. He sent Maxwell to intercept it. Scotch Willie Maxwell proceeded to advance his companies a couple of miles to Kennett Meeting House (now Old Kennett Meetinghouse on the present U.S. 1) and posted them under cover of a graveyard wall and some woods, sending forward a small mounted patrol. The patrol went about a mile down the road to Welch’s Tavern, whereupon the troopers dismounted and, in the finest of cavalry traditions, deployed along the bar of the tavern. About 9:00 A.M. a trooper looked up from his drink and saw, through a window, the green jackets and black-plumed caps of Tory scouts, Wemyss’s Queen’s Rangers, and across the road the jackets of Major Ferguson’s riflemen. The patrol dashed out through the back door and retreated on foot, leaving their horses to the British. Before leaving they did manage to fire off one ragged volley. Unfortunately it caused only one casualty, wounding one of the patrol’s own horses.
After this fiasco the British advance guard increased its pace on the road toward Chadd’s Ford, followed by 5,000 British and Hessian soldiers, all under the command of the Hessian General Knyphausen. Knyphausen’s corps was made up of three brigades. Two were British, under Major General Grant; one, under Stern, consisted of three Hessian regiments. With them went a train of heavy artillery. Two separate battalions of the 71st Highlanders protected Knyphausen’s flanks, and half of the 16th Dragoon Regiment preceded the column.
It was now the turn of the advance party of Captain Wemyss’s rangers and Major Ferguson’s riflemen to be surprised as it approached Kennett Meetinghouse. Maxwell’s men, firing from cover, stopped the British advance in its tracks, forcing it to deploy. The superior British numbers forced Maxwell to retire from position after position, almost to the Brandywine, where he was reinforced by the Virginia regiments of Porterfield and Waggoner. Finally Maxwell was outflanked, and the Americans were forced to fall back across Chadd’s Ford, bearing marvelous tales of the frightful slaughter they had inflicted on the enemy. The British and the Hessians closed to the creek unopposed.
The line that Knyphausen deployed along the Brandywine consisted of the four British and two Hessian regiments on the immediate heights. Donop’s reinforced Hessians were posted astride the road, while four more British regiments were pushed forward down to the edges of the flats along the creek. By 10:30 A.M. Knyphausen was in position to launch a coordinated attack between Brinton’s and Chadd’s fords.
Meanwhile, Washington and Greene waited at army headquarters in the house of the Quaker Benjamin Ring, about a mile east of Chadd’s Ford. Throughout the morning the obvious question was uppermost in the minds of the commander and the staff: Since the British were, to all appearances, poised to attack, where and when would it come?
If Washington and Greene had been calmly awaiting a frontal attack across the Brandywine, their confidence was about to be jolted. About 11:00 A.M. word arrived from Colonel Hazen at Jones’s Ford that an enemy column had been sighted marching northward on the Great Valley Road toward the Brandywine (the road, as such, has no modern counterpart, but in 1777 it ran roughly parallel to and west of the Brandywine).3
Washington’s reaction was immediate and prudent. He sent orders to Colonel Bland to pay “vigilant attention to the movements of the enemy.” Since the enemy was reported to have gone up to a ford seven or eight miles above Chadd’s Ford, Bland was to send up a reliable officer immediately to find out the truth.
Following closely on Colonel Hazen’s report came another message, this time from Lieutenant Colonel Ross of the 8th Pennsylvania, who had been reconnoitering along the Great Valley Road:
Great Valley Road
11 o’clock A.M.
A large body of the enemy, from every account five thousand, with sixteen or eighteen field-pieces, marched along this road just now. . . . We are close in their rear with about seventy men, and gave them three rounds within a small distance. . . .
James Ross, Lieutenant-Colonel
Washington’s reactions to the two reports, as well as his subsequent orders, can be summed up as follows:
1. Howe had exposed his army to defeat in detail, by dividing his forces in half, virtually on the battlefield;
2. Washington would attack and destroy the enemy facing Chadd’s Ford, employing the divisions of Sullivan and Greene. The British right flank would simultaneously be enveloped by Armstrong on the south;
3. The American right flank would be protected by the divisions of Stephen and Stirling, which must move at once from their positions along Brandywine Creek to the vicinity of the hamlet of Birmingham, where they could block any British attempt at a flank attack from the direction of the Brandywine Forks.
Accordingly, Stephen’s and Stirling’s divisions were soon moving in march column toward Birmingham, and the forward elements of Greene’s command at Chadd’s Ford were beginning to cross the Brandywine. Everything seemed set for a series of brilliant moves that might have given Howe a significant defeat, had they been successfully executed.
But they were not executed at all. Washington canceled them before they were fully under way. At 1:30 P.M. he had received a message from Sullivan saying that Hazen’s earlier message, which he had transmitted, “must be wrong.” A militiaman who had just come in from Martin’s Tavern (present-day Marshallton) to Welch’s Tavern had heard nothing of the enemy above the forks of the Brandywine. Sullivan was checking further.
Washington apparently accepted Sullivan’s evaluation at full and face value. He countermanded Greene’s orders and pulled back his advance elements from across the creek—and did the same with Sullivan’s division. He also sent orders to Stephen and Stirling to halt in place. Maxwell, however, was ordered across the creek to feel out the enemy’s positions while Greene’s troops were pulling back.
But Washington’s shaken confidence that Howe would attack him frontally across the Brandywine at Chadd’s Ford was soon further disturbed by a development from a new and most unmilitary quarter. A horseman, hatless, coatless, and bare-legged, galloped up to Sullivan’s command post, demanding to see Sullivan. The farmer turned out to be Squire Thomas Cheyney, a known Patriot in this Tory-ridden part of Pennsylvania. For some reason Sullivan refused to see him, but he did allow him to go on to Washington’s headquarters. There he managed to see Washington and to blurt out his alarming news. The farmer had, since early morning, been doing some scouting of his own, when suddenly, while riding across the crest of a hill, he had confronted an advancing British column. He had been fired at but had escaped unhurt. The British were across the Brandywine and coming down on Washington’s right. Washington and his army would soon be surrounded! An incredulous Washington still was not persuaded. Nor was the staff. Cheyney raged at them: “I’d have you know I have this day’s work as much at heart as e’er a blood of ye!”
Outside the headquarters house, Cheyney tried once again to convince Washington. He drew in the dust a crude map, using his finger: there were the fords and the roads and the place where he had encountered the British. Washington was still unconvinced. A purple-faced Cheyney was driven to shouting “You’re mistaken, General. My life for it you’re mistaken. By hell! It’s so. Put me under guard ’til you find out it’s so!”
A wavering Washington was preparing to mount up and go to see things for himself when a courier from Sullivan rode up to Washington with two dispatches, both sent by Sullivan. One, from Colonel Bland to Sullivan, had been sent at 1:15 P.M., and it reported that “a party of the enemy” had been discovered on the heights about half a mile to the north of the Birmingham Meetinghouse. Sullivan, in passing on this message to Washington, added even more alarming news. As of 2:00 P.M., he reported the enemy “to the rear of my right about two miles, coming down, about two brigades of them”—a fairly accurate assessment, as events proved. Bland had seen “a dust cloud rising for above an hour,” Sullivan said.
Finally all doubt was blown away. Hazen, Ross, and Squire Cheyney had been right. Howe had succeeded in pulling off the same, exact turning movement that had outflanked and defeated Washington’s army at Long Island hardly a year ago! To make things worse, Howe’s outflanking column, as well as his forces in position west of the Brandywine, had gone about their business undisturbed by American action.