The Battle of Brandywine was fought between the American Army under General George Washington and a British force under General William Howe at Chadds Ford on the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania. On September 11, 1777, the two armies met with disastrous results for the American patriotic cause, the battle ending in an American defeat.
In late July 1777, a British armada of more than 260 ships carrying 17,000 British troops under the command of General William Howe landed on the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, approximately 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia. American General George Washington had positioned his 20,000 Continental soldiers between the Chesapeake and Philadelphia in an attempt to defend the Continental Capital. His forces were able to reconnoiter the British landing from Iron Hill, which was nine miles northeast of the Chesapeake. However, delays in disembarking from their ships led Howe to quickly move his force forward rather than establish a typical camp ashore. Washington was unable to guage the strength of the British force due to their swift move inland.
Washington chose to defend Chadds Ford, a safe passage across the Brandywine River on the road between Baltimore and Philadelphia. On September 9, 1777, Washington deployed detachments to guard the other nearby fords to force the British to Chadds Ford. The ford itself was covered by the divisions of Generals Anthony Wayne and Nathanael Greene, with the banks covered by Generals John Sullivan, Adam Stephen, and Lord Stirling. Washington was confident that the area was secure against British attack.
The British grouped at the nearby Kennett Square. Howe would not mount a full scale attack against the prepared defenses of the American army, choosing to employ a flanking maneuver instead. He sent 5000 men under the command of Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen to meet Washington's force at Chadds Ford in a frontal assault while the remainder of the British force under Lord Charles Cornwallis marched seven miles north to Jefferis' Ford, which Washington had overlooked, to flank the American army.
September 11, 1777 began with heavy fog along the Brandywine River, providing cover for the British troops. Washington received conflicting reports of British movement, but believed that the main force would mount a frontal attack on the ford. Around 2 pm, the main British force appeared on the American right flank. Sullivan, Stephen, and Stirling attempted to reposition their divisions to meet the surprise attack, but underestimated the swiftness of Howe's attack, which routed Stephen and Stirling's units. A secondary Hessian flanking force trapped Sullivan's division against the river, impeding retreat. Two hours after the initial flanking attack, all three division were out of action with Stephen and Stirling in mass retreat and Sullivan's division captured by the British.
By 5 pm, Washington and Greene arrived with reinforcements, but found the American army fleeing fire from their own artillery, which had been captured by the British at Meeting House Hill after the artillery horses were killed. Knyphausen launched an attack on the weakened American center at the ford, breaking through Wayne's division and forcing another American retreat across the ford. The militia, never engaging in battle, broke rank and fled before facing the British. In the midst of the chaotic retreat, Greene deployed Colonel Weedon's troops to provide cover on the road outside of Dilworth to allow the Continental Army to move out before the British could regroup. However, Weedon never made it to Dilworth; he was killed by British fire on his way there and his troops swept into the retreat.
The lack of cover allowed the British to regroup and pursue the retreating Americans unhindered. By nightfall, the British had captured the majority of the American survivors, including Generals Washington, Greene, Stirling, and Wayne. General Sullivan had been killed during the capture of his division earlier in the day. General Stephen was the only American general to escape capture at Brandywine, reaching Chester, Pennsylvania shortly after midnight with the remnants of the Continental Army.
The official British casualty list detailed 748 casualties; 114 killed and 634 wounded. American General Stephen estimated British losses at 2000 based on distant observation and sketchy reports from surviving officers.
The American loss was overwhelming. Of the six generals leading the American forces, four were captured, including Washington, and one killed. Of the 20,000 soldiers Washington had defending the ford, 861 were killed and about 14,800 captured, many of whom were wounded. About five hundred American soldiers failed to arrive in Chester, officially reported as missing, although many probably returned to their homes after the defeat without stopping in Chester. On September 12, 1777, General Stephen reported that he had 3,792 soldiers under arms in Chester preparing to move back toward Philadelphia. Of this number, some were most likely wounded, for Stephen left 203 soldiers in Chester when he moved out at 11 am on the 12th.
With less than a fourth of its original strength and its highest ranking generals captured, the Continental Army retreated to Philadelphia ahead of the British Army from September 12 to 18, 1777. News of the major loss and Washington's capture preceded them, and Stephen arrived on the 18th to find an evacuated city. The Continental Congress had fled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania on September 14 after word of the loss reached them. Stephen stayed in the city only briefly before leading his troops to Lancaster for further orders from the Congress. The British entered Philadelphia unopposed on September 19, 1777, occupying the Continental Capital. The highest ranking prisoners of war, Generals Washington, Wayne, Greene, and Stirling were moved to Philadelphia in October 1777 and kept them under heavy guard until October 27, 1777. On that date, Howe ordered the execution of the four for "treason against the crown." At 3 pm on October 27, Washington was hung in the street in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, followed by Wayne, Greene, then Stirling. By the end of 1777, most of the members of the Continental Congress had been captured, with few notable exceptions such as Benjamin Harrison, Samuel Chase, and Joseph Wood.
With the Continental Army in splinters in the north and the Continental Congress captured, the newly established American republic failed. The north lacked a unifying figure or body to replace the Congress or Washington. By the summer of 1778, New England and the middle colonies were firmly back in British control with royal governors in residence in each colony. However, the southern colonies were still occupied by the patriots under the leadership of General William Moultrie and the Marquis de Lafayette, who had avoided capture at Brandywine and traveled south, realizing that the northern campaign was over. The last campaigns of the war took place in the southern colonies.