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Keeping the story alive and interesting

Sep 02, 2013 07:01PM, Published by Kerigan Butt, Categories: Local History

courtesy photo British infantrymen of the 43rd Regiment march at a past encampment.

Gallery: Keeping the story alive and interesting [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Fall 2013 edition.)

By Carla Lucas


It's September 1777, the third year of the American Revolutionary War. The region's wheat fields are ready for harvest. The orchards are brimming with fruit. The farmers are successfully raising plenty of cattle and pigs, plus all the crops needed to sustain them and the Philadelphia region through the long winter ahead.

Then Gen. George Washington arrives with 11,000 troops. He has chosen the Brandywine River, with its limited opportunities to ford and the thickly wooded hills, as a good defensive position to meet the 18,000 men in Gen. Howe's British troops and Gen. Knyshausen's Hessian troops, who were marching from Head of the Elk (in Maryland) to capture Philadelphia.

The British and Hessian troops would have to cross this body of water, and there were only a few places where it would be possible. Washington planned to have troops stationed at each of these fords.

Washington makes his headquarters at Benjamin Ring's farm, just off the Great Nottingham Road, on the eastern side of the Chadds ford. He holds his War Council in the Ring's parlor and dines at the house, although despite the legends, he most likely did not sleep in the house. It was much too hot, and most likely he slept in his tent on the Ring estate.

Continental intelligence identifies seven places where the British could cross the river and Washington places troops at all seven. But his intelligence is incorrect, as two additional places -- slightly north of the Continental Army positions -- were able to be crossed.

At 4 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1777, one of the largest land battles of the American Revolutionary War begins. Howe, with better intelligence, uses the Hessian troops as a decoy to hold Washington's troops near Chadds Ford while taking his British troops north, crossing the Brandywine River at the two untended fords and surprising Washington from the rear. By the end of the day's fighting, hundreds are dead and thousands are wounded. Washington and the American troops retreat.

Fast-forward 236 years. Cars buzz down Route 1, formerly the Great Nottingham Road, crossing the Brandywine River on a bridge at Chadds Ford, zipping past Benjamin Ring's farm on the hill just above the highway.

On the site of the American encampment sits the Visitor's Center of the Brandywine Battlefield Historic District.

“It was a disgraceful defeat for the Americans,” said Andrew Outten, Brandywine Battlefield's director of education, explaining why the history of the Revolutionary War gives little attention to the Battle of the Brandywine. “Washington was outflanked for a second time. It was probably Washington's most shameful battle, as he walked into the same trap as he did the year before in Long Island.”

On reflection, the battle may have been a disaster for the Continental Army, but there were positive outcomes that had a major impact on the war. Most importantly, Gen. Nathaniel Greene was able to set up an orderly retreat about four miles from the battle (somewhere on the current Route 202, near Jimmy John's) and stop Gen. Howe from pursuing and capturing Gen. Washington.

“Washington was able to escape,” Outten said. “He can keep fighting. The war kept going on. It was the beginning of the end for the British. Howe goes under scrutiny [for allowing Washington to escape] and is removed.”

On Sept. 11, 1777, the Battle of the Brandywine's main fighting arena was near the Birmingham Meetinghouse. Here, for the first time in three years of war, the Americans held their ground during fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Six times the British came up, and they were repelled. On the seventh, the Americans were finally pushed back.

The Battle of the Brandywine was the first scene of combat for the Marquis de Lafayette, then 19. He helped the American forces form a second line of defense and organized an orderly retreat from Sandy Hollow. He was wounded in the right leg after 15 minutes of battle.

Legend states that Lafayette stayed at the Gilpin House, a neighboring farm to the Ring estate, but scholars believe this is untrue. As a confidant and friend of Washington, Lafayette would have stayed in the same area as Washington. Scholars believe Gideon Gilpin and Lafayette struck up a friendship and Lafayette visited Gilpin after the fighting ended.

Gen. Howe stayed in the Brandywine region for an additional four or five days. The troops plundered the farms and mills, and took all the food and valuables. The area was economically devastated. It took more than five years for the region to recover from the battle.

The 52-acre Brandywine Battlefield site includes a reproduction of the Benjamin Ring house that was Washington's headquarters during the days leading up to the battle, and the neighboring Gilpin house. The original Ring house was destroyed by fire in 1931 and rebuilt to resemble what it looked like at the time of Washington's stay.

On weekends, hundreds of visitors come to learn about the battle and the area, with weekday visits varying. Many schools across the tri-state area visit for the Colonial Days program offered here.

Visitors have many choices in how to experience the historic resources connected to the Battle of the Brandywine. The Visitors Center has a museum and movie that introduces the battle. The Benjamin Ring house is open to visitors, with volunteer guides. Downloadable driving tours of the area are available at the historic site's website, or a brochure is available at the museum shop. An audio tour is due to be released soon.

Tour guides are available to accompany people on a driving tour of the various sites of the Battle. The park offers summer camps for youth to learn about colonial life and the area’s history. Special events, such as encampments and lectures, are planned throughout the year.

Brandywine Battlefield is among the resources of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which established the site as a state park in 1949. It is managed through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PMHC). In 2009, the PHMC closed the site because of budget cuts. One week later, the Friends of Brandywine Battlefield entered into a management agreement with the PHMC to keep the site open, and it has remained open ever since. The site is operated with minimal staff and a large core of dedicated volunteers.

Brandywine Battlefield is on Route 1 in Chadds Ford. It is open May through Dec. 23, Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with other times the remainder of the year. Visit or call 610-459-3342.

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