Philadelphia, the capital of the newly formed nation, was the goal of British General Howe during the campaign of 1777. The British approached Philadelphia from the Chesapeake, landing at Head of Elk, Maryland (present day Elkton).
As the British began their march toward the city, Washington and the people of Philadelphia were confident that the British could be stopped. Washington chose the high ground in the area of Chadds Ford to defend against the British advance. Chadds Ford allowed safe passage across the Brandywine River on the road from Baltimore to Philadelphia.
On the morning of September 9th Washington placed his troops along the Brandywine River to guard the main fords. By placing detachments of troops at Pyle's Ford — the southernmost possible crossing of the river — and Wistar's Ford — the northernmost crossing of the river before it forked — Washington hoped to force a fight at Chadds Ford, an advantageous position.
Washington believed that he had all of the fords along the Brandywine guarded by his troops and that the closest unguarded ford was twelve miles up-river. Washington was confident that the area was secure.
The British grouped at nearby Kennett Square and formulated a plan. A portion of the British army was to march from Kennett Square as if they intended to meet Washington on the banks of the river at Chadds Ford. Meanwhile, the majority of the army under Howe's direction would march north of Wistar's Ford, cross the river at a ford unknown to Washington, and march south into the flank of the American forces. Superior tactics and better knowledge of the area allowed the British to outwit Washington and his army.
The day of the battle began with a heavy fog which blanketed the area, providing cover for the approaching British troops. When the fog cleared, the sun blazed and the heat was sweltering.
The first reports of British troop movements indicated to Washington that Howe had divided his forces. Subsequent reports both confirmed and denied this report.
In the confusion Washington persisted in the mistaken belief that the British were sending their entire force against his line at Chadds Ford. Meanwhile, Howe and the majority of his force continued their approach. By mid-afternoon the British had crossed the river at the unguarded ford to the north of Washington's force and they had gained a strategic position near Birmingham Friends Meeting House.
When the British appeared on the American right flank, Washington realized that he had been outmaneuvered. He ordered his army to take the high ground around Birmingham Friends Meeting House as a last defense. Unfortunately, in the confusion caused by the surprise, the Americans were unable to successfully defend their position. The Americans fought valiantly, but they had been outwitted on the rolling hills along the Brandywine.
Nightfall finally brought an end to the battle. The defeated Americans retreated to Chester. The bulk of the army arrived by midnight with the remainder trickling in until dawn.
General Howe's exhausted men camped on the battlefield and the surrounding countryside including the farmyards of Benjamin Ring and Gideon Gilpin.
British Captain John Andre wrote in his journal, "Night and the fatigue the soldiers had undergone prevented any pursuit."
Although the American army was forced to retreat after the Battle of Brandywine, the defeat did not demoralize the men. They believed the defeat was not the result of poor fighting ability but rather because of unfamiliarity with the landscape and poor reconnaissance information.
During the next several days, General Howe and his Army moved closer to Philadelphia with little opposition from Washington. The two armies maneuvered in hopes of finding the other at a disadvantage, but no decisive military actions were taken during the next two weeks. Congress abandoned Philadelphia and moved first to Lancaster and then to York to escape before the British takeover. Important military supplies were moved out of the Philadelphia area to Reading, Pennsylvania, where they could be defended. Washington responded cautiously after the battle. The impending loss of Philadelphia hurt the patriot cause, and Washington's force had dropped from a high of nearly 15,000 prior to the battle to only 6,000.
Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton on the 22nd, "The distressed situation of the army, for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing, is truly deplorable, and inevitably must bring destruction to it, unless a speedy remedy is applied." Local leaders did what they could to supply the army with food and clothing. Reinforcements sent by Congress began to arrive, and Washington felt the army was sufficiently ready to mount an attack. However, it was too late to save Philadelphia, for on September 26th a column of British soldiers marched into the patriot capital unopposed.
For a full description of the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777, including an expansive discussion of the Battle of Brandywine, Virtual Marching Tour: 1777