Though the British had gotten a great head start in their effort to attack the right flank of the Continental army, the Amercian situation was far from hopeless. Howe's tea-break gave General Sullivan time to bring up his division.
Yet, Sullivan did this in a haphazard way, without the benefit of scouting the terrain beforehand. He would later complain, "I neither knew where the enemy were, nor what route the other two divisions were to take, and of course could not determine where I should junction with them."
He marched northwest toward the Birmingham road and ran into Colonel Hazen and his regiment who had been guarding Wistar's Ford. Hazen reported that the enemy was "close upon his heels." Sullivan went on to remark,
While I was conversing with Colonel Hazen, and our troops still upon the march, the enemy headed us in the road about forty rods from our advance guard.
Sullivan knew his advance guard would be brutalized if he kept marching toward the British, so he veered up a knoll on his right. Climbing the knoll, he could hear the foreboding strains of a British band playing the Grenadiers' March, and the tread of the advancing British army.
Once atop the hill, Sullivan saw that he had two big problems. The British were still bearing down on him and he had marched too far in advance of Stirling and Stephen's line posted to the east.
What Sullivan had intended to do was hook the right side of his troops with the left side of Stirling's troops. Instead, he had marched too far forward and created a gap vulnerable to attack. He had to work quickly.
Stirling and Stephen on the High Ground
Leaving a junior officer in charge, Sullivan rode over to Birmingham Hill to confer with Generals Stirling and Stephen. Earlier in the afternoon, they had raced to occupy good defensive ground on Plowed Hill, a rise southwest of Birmingham Meeting House. Upon arriving, Sullivan took command as senior general. The generals agreed that Sullivan's Division should move to the right and attempt to form an unbroken line. Sullivan ordered the other two divisions to move right to make room for his division. This caused problems.
Weedon's Brigade, a part of Stephen's Division on the far right of the line, had to be moved behind the woods where the 3rd Virginia under Thomas Marshall was posted. This new position took Weedon's brigade out of play with no possible way to fire on the enemy.
Worse yet, senior Brigadier General DeBorre, who commanded the 2nd Maryland Brigade which was part of Sullivan's division, insisted on a field position becoming his station in life! Disobeying his orders, he took it upon himself to move his men to the far right of Sullivan's division — the position of honor! This caused a gaping hole in the line, causing the rest of the line to reshuffle to fill in the gap the Frenchman made. This placed other regiments in vulnerable positions.
The British Start Marching
With General Howe directing the effort from atop Osborne Hill, the British started their march down that hill along the Birmingham Road and swarming the fields flanking the road. They would ultimately break their column up into an eight-pronged attack in which they hoped to either outflank or overrun the American line.
Though the Americans were having difficulty reshuffling their lines and turning to meet the British advance, the British were nonetheless impressed by how the Rebels were forming. Captain Montresor wrote in his journal,
This position of the Enemy, was remarkably strong, having a large body advanced, small bodies still further advanced, and their rear covered by a wood wherein their main body was posted.
Cornwallis's opinion: "The damn rebels form well."
While the Americans were reshuffling, crack units from the Hessian and British Grenadiers, the best soldiers from the world's best army, started marching toward the center of the shifting troops.
British Jaegers attacked the American right but came under some irritating fire from Brigadier General Woodford's Virginia troops posted in an orchard. These troops, were posted in advance of Major General Stephen's Brigade.
On the left of the American line, which was west of the Birmingham Road, elements of Stirling's and Sullivan's troops used the walls from the Quaker Burial ground for protection and peppered the British with cannon and heavy musket fire. A Hessian officer reported:
When we got close to the rebels they fired their cannon; they did not fire their small arms till we were within 40 paces of them, at which time they fired whole volleys and sustained a very heavy fire.
Stone Crushed; DeBorre Turns Tail
Though the American defense was staunch, the disarray in their lines took its toll. To repair the gap in the line, Sullivan ordered the 1st Maryland Brigade under Colonel Stone to move up to a knoll 100 yards closer to the British advance to provide cover for Sullivan's troops as they moved right.
To get to the knoll, Stone's Marylanders had to pass through a narrow lane and suffered severe casualties. A troop of Hessian Grenadiers picked them off like so many ducks in a shooting gallery. Stone ordered a quick countermarch too late. 23 soldiers were killed.
From Bad to Worse
To complicate matters some of Stone's men were killed by a rear guard who were trying to fire into the onrushing British. Further, Stone was thrown from his horse resulting in his regiment turning in retreat, running smack into DeBorre's men who were still trying to position themselves in the position of honor! DeBorre's troops, seeing the fleeing Maryland brigade, thought an all-out retreat was in progress and withdrew. Among the first to run was DeBorre himself. [Note: So shameful was his conduct at Brandywine, DeBorre was forced to resign from the army a few days after the Battle.]
Not all members of Sullivan's Division turned tail. The regiments of Colonels Hazen, Dayton, and Ogden dug in. Sullivan tried to rally the retreaters back into line to no avail as they "could not be brought by their officer to do anything but fly."
Hazen's "Canadian" regiment, in particular, kept their cool during the confusion. After stepping aside to let DeBorre's sprinting Brigade aside, Hazen's men joined with two New Jersey regiments on the left of Stirling's division. They drove a group of onrushing Hessian Grenadiers back from the top of Plowed Hill.
By about 4 P.M., though, the British line which outstretched the American line, now threatened to flank the Rebels on both ends. The major fighting was about to begin.
Here is a snapshot of what was happening concurrently, moving from the right side to the left side of the American line.
The Americans on the right, under Stephen, held the high ground around the Birmingham Meeting House on the Birmingham Road. Opposing them was the 2nd British Light Infantry who advanced easily, secure in the knowledge that the American artillery stationed behind Thomas Marshall's Virginians would not risk firing over their own troops.
In the center of the American line were Stirling's Division and elements of Sullivan's troops. The First British Light Infantry gathered up retreating elements of the Hessian grenadiers who had withered earlier under severe fire preparing to storm the vulnerable center of the American position gathered around the Birmingham meeting house. The Americans used the stone walls around the Meeting House to great advantage, pinning down the attacking British Light Infantry to their right and repulsing the advancing Grenadiers in the center. Seeing that the American position was too strong for a direct attack, some tried to sneak around the sides of the meetinghouse, but were picked off by American fire. Surgeon Elmer's report summed up the battle to this point:
[The British] came on in front playing Ye Grenadiers March & Now the Battle began which proved Excessive severe ... The Enemy Came on with fury ... Our men stood firing upon them most amazingly, killing almost all before them for near an hour till thy got within 6 rod of each other.
Cornwallis knew the center needed relief. He ordered two fresh regiments of British and Hessian Grenadiers to assault Stirling's and Sullivan's troops. They were met by a ferocious counterattack from Stirling on the right. Yet the British "pushed on with an impetuosity not to be sustained." The British troops positioned themselves belly-down on the field of battle and affixed their bayonets. Up they rose and "ran furiously at the rebels."
The American center gave way, outnumbered and ill-prepared for the bayonet. They rapidly fell back about a half mile to what is today known as Battle Hill, leaving five cannon which the British seized and later used against the Americans.
The left of the American line had Sullivan, who had brought two cannon into play which he fired point-blank at the onrushing British Grenadiers and Guards while the American infantry desperately tried to fill in the gap left by DeBorre's retreat. That part of the line held briefly. But the British were just too strong.
The collapse of the center line caused a collapse on the left and right flanks. A British officer recorded that the Americans ran "away from us with too much speed to be overtaken."
On the American right, Colonel Woodford's men who were in advance of Stephen's brigade continued a spirited defense. They held the enemy off for several important minutes, until a bombardment by a British battery wounded so many men and horse that they fell back. The remnants of Woodford's troops fell back to Birmingham Meeting house.
Woodford's bravery held back the British Jagers and the Second Light Infantry from attacking Major General Stephen, who was trying to reform his line against the attack from British General Agnew.
Finally all American troops retreated to form a new line, about a half mile southwest. This time, Washington would join the fray.