J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Driving the Battle of Brandywine

Last year I had the pleasure of following this Battle of Brandywine driving tour. Although there’s a Brandywine Battlefield Park, with a nice gift-shop staff, that land is only a small part of the area in southeastern Pennsylvania where the British and American armies fought on 11 Sept 1777. You need a car to take it all in.

The Battle of Brandywine involved 29,000 soldiers, more than any other land battle during the Revolutionary War. Both armies were personally led by their commanders-in-chief, Gen. William Howe and Gen. George Washington. The battle resulted in the British army taking Philadelphia, the U.S. of A.’s largest city and de facto capital (despite John Adams’s confidence that wouldn’t happen). After that, sixty percent of the Continental Army melted away, and Washington had to find winter quarters at Valley Forge.

Obviously, the Brandywine battle was a very significant event. So why doesn’t the park contain more of the battlefield? Why isn’t it a federal park? Why don’t we hear more about the Battle of Brandywine?

Well, the Americans lost. Big. Howe completely outmaneuvered Washington by sending Gen. Cornwallis north to cross the Brandywine at places that Loyalist scouts knew (one of them shown above) but that the American commanders had overlooked. The driving tour is a great way to understand the scope and geography of that move.

There are a few historical monuments along the way: obelisks raised where American officers fell, or a division held out for an hour, or troops made a heroic retreat. But at the end of the day there wasn’t much for the Continentals to celebrate. They had lost a lot of their artillery. Gen. Nathanael Greene estimated that his side suffered about 1,350 men killed, wounded, and captured (compared to the Crown forces’ 600). But even that casualty figure is an estimate; the Americans seem to have been so demoralized and disorganized by the battle that they never made a careful count of their losses.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams’s reaction in Philadelphia.

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