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9-11-1777 With courage and luck revolutionaries survive battle


Image: H. Mahnke

On the morning of September 11, 1777, the United States of America was almost destroyed due to intelligence failures in a battle that killed an estimated 3,000 soldiers and that saw George Washington, John Marshall, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, and Lafayette in action. It is hard to imagine the United States surviving the deaths of these leaders, but at the Battle of the Brandywine the American Army came close to complete disaster. A number of American soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Washington only escaped death due to the enemy’s chivalry and his own coolness. That the Americans were not utterly defeated is partly due to a forgotten Virginian and his brigade, and to American spirit, which touches us on the sixth anniversary of 9-11.

As is pretty well known, the British Army 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.

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 seize Philadelphia. By September 9, his army was at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, six miles west of Brandywine Creek and the Chadd's Ford crossing. Facing him on the east side of Chadd's Ford was George Washington with 11,000 American soldiers.

Trees grew so thickly on the banks of the Brandywine it was impassable to an army except at the fords. Washington was guarding these, but he had been given inadequate intelligence, and had overlooked a crossing to the north.

Howe had better information about the terrain. He decided to send part of his force to attack Washington at Chadd’s Ford while the rest of his army, screened by woods and rolling green hills, marched north, crossed the Brandywine at an unguarded crossing and launched a devastating surprise attack.

Reports reached General Washington that British brigades were moving north, and he ordered Nathaniel Greene to strike across Chadd’s Ford. But the next intelligence to reach him inaccurately suggested that Greene was 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 barely escaped capture, arrived with the news at Washington’s camp. 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, Sullivan's rear brigade delivered a volley. This fire did not reach the enemy but plowed into Stone's hapless troops 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. After almost an hour, the British were 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.

In the meantime, the sound of the battle had carried to Chadd's Ford. Washington immediately ordered Greene out of reserve to reinforce the troops at Birmingham Meeting House, and Greene's men, Weedon's brigade in the lead, were soon pelting across the fields. Then, as the gunfire swelled, Washington turned over command at Chadd's 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, with his staff, tried to rally the men, disregarding the hail of British bullets. . .Meanwhile, 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" ( John B.B. Trussell, Jr., Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission).

Weedon was a tavern owner in Virginia. As the Hessians drove across Chadd’s 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 some of the Artillery’s equipment 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 helpful. When the Ottoman Empire attacked Vienna on 9-11 1683, the Polish King, Jan Sobieski, led the successful cavalry charge that turned the Islamic invasion into a rout.)

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. None of them knew how close they had come to losing Washington.

Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had adapted the breechloading mechanism used in sporting guns in his military rifle and he was a brilliant marksman. He had Washington in his sights somewhere near Chadd’s Ford. Seeing him, Washington turned his back on him, and as Ferguson later wrote, “the idea of shooting in the back someone who was going about his duties so coolly ‘disgusted’ him. Even when told. . .that the officer in question was Washington, he did not regret his chivalry” (Dr. M. M. Gilchrist, St. Andrews).

Chivalry, though it goes by different names today, remains an enduring principle in British and American armies.