Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America by Michael C. Harris

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris is the 2015 winner of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond Book Award. It is a winner for good reason. It is an excellent analysis of the battle.

Here is a summary of the book from the publisher:

General Sir William Howe launched his campaign in late July 1777, when he loaded his army of 16,500 British and Hessian soldiers aboard a 265-ship armada in New York and set sail. Six difficult weeks later Howe’s expedition landed near Elkton, Maryland, and moved north into Pennsylvania. Washington’s rebel army harassed Howe’s men at several locations including a minor but violent skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware on September 3. Another week of hit-and-run tactics followed until Howe was within three miles of Chads’s Ford on Brandywine Creek, behind which Washington had posted his army in strategic blocking positions along a six-mile front. The young colonial capital of Philadelphia was just 25 miles farther east.

Obscured by darkness and a heavy morning fog, General Howe initiated his plan of attack at 5:00 a.m. on September 11, pushing against the American center at Chads’s Ford with part of his army while the bulk of his command swung around Washington’s exposed right flank to deliver his coup de main, destroy the colonials, and march on Philadelphia. Warned of Howe’s flanking attack just in time, American generals turned their divisions to face the threat. The bitter fighting on Birmingham Hill drove the Americans from the field, but their heroic defensive stand saved Washington’s army from destruction and proved that the nascent Continental foot soldiers could stand toe-to-toe with their foe. Although fighting would follow, Philadelphia fell to Howe’s legions on September 26.

Although the writing is a bit dry at times, the scholarship is excellent. Harris uses many different original and secondary sources.

One of the many items that stuck out to me is Harris’ debunking of several myths surrounding the battle. For example, he exposes the myth of Thomas Cheyney, a local citizen, who in previous has been credited with “saving” the American army. Based on Harris’ research and strong conclusions, there is no evidence that Cheyney warned Washington of the flank attack.

The book also thrives in the details. Harris in many instances lists the names of those who are killed or wounded in a particular part of the battle. That example and his efforts to pin down the timing of each movement give the reader an intimate understanding of the figures and events surrounding this important battle in the American Revolution.

Harris also equally criticizes Washington and Howe. He blames the failure of the campaign (Howe succeeded in capturing Philadelphia, but he failed to join with General Burgoyne in New York) on Howe’s indecisiveness and slow travel from New York City to Maryland.  Harris also points out that the slow travel cost the lives of horses needed for the campaign – as a result, he had few cavalry to call on for scouting and chasing Washington’s defeated army.

Harris also rightfully puts some of the American loss on Washington. He did not properly reconnoiter the battlefield.  Thus, Howe knew more about the layout of the land than Washington and was able to flank the American army. In addition, Harris highlights that even though Howe was known for his flanking movements, Washington was still surprised by Howe’s flanking at Brandywine.

Here is an interview with the author from the publisher.

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