Review: Brandywine, A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris

ERW Book Reviews (1)

In southeast Pennsylvania on September 11, 1777, the largest battle, by number of combatants, was fought between the British forces under Lord General William Howe and the Continental and militia forces under General George Washington. After the day long engagement, one of the bloodiest of the entire American Revolution, approximately 1,900 men were killed, wounded, or captured. Washington lost 8% of his entire force that day, Howe 4%.

Brandywine, A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777

Yet, the Battle of Brandywine has been eclipsed by the history that followed shortly thereafter the bloody engagement. Fifteen days after the battle along Brandywine Creek, Howe’s British and Hessian forces will capture Philadelphia and Washington’s army will spend the pivotal 1777-1778 winter at Valley Forge. Although the battle has been the subject of a few histories and folded into larger campaign studies, Michael C. Harris’s book-length treatment is the first to take an analytical and discerning eye to the engagement and separate myth from fact. Published by Savas Beatie, LLC, in 2014 in hardcover, the book has now been released in paperback. 

Harris begins the study tracing through the historiography and various themes that contributed  to the study (or in some cases, lack thereof) of the Battle of Brandywine. What is helpful to the budding American Revolutionary War enthusiast is the attention to background and foundation-building additions that Harris employs. A quick synopsis of the war up to Brandywine along with a quick sketch of biographical paragraphs gives the reader a great introduction into the narrative.

What follows is a chronologically broken down history of the campaign that culminates at Brandywine. Harris, who was employed at the Brandywine with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, uses both excellent maps (done by Hal Jesperson, a staple of Savas Beatie publications), along with modern-day photographs to take the reader into the fields and along the front-lines of the soldiery that comprised these two armies.

Attention to detail is also evident in the footnotes at the bottom of each page which elaborate on some of the myths, first-hand accounts, and other tidbits of information that Harris has uncovered.

Largely forgotten, Hariss has not only revived the battle but has written a first-rate military history that has a deserving spot on any student’s bookshelf of the American Revolution.

Below is an author interview courtesy of Savas Beatie.

SB: Why was the battle of Brandywine so important to the American Revolution?

MH: There are two reasons. The most obvious is that this major battle, part of the Philadelphia Campaign, was a loss for the Continental Army and directly led to the British capture of the colonial capital at Philadelphia. The second, and less obvious reason, is a large percent of the available British force available in North America was used in the campaign, and thus was not available to assist John Burgoyne’s British army moving south out of Canada in 1777 into upstate New York. And we all know how that turned out for Burgoyne . . .

SB: The battle of Brandywine has been neglected by historians. Why is that?

MH: I can’t speak for all historians, but I think the simple answer is that the Americans lost. During the 200 years leading up to the bicentennial, few American veterans of the war or historians wrote about American defeats. Think about how much has been written about Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown. Now compare that with Long Island, Brandywine, and Camden. It is a real struggle to find quality histories on those important combats. Another reason, I think, has to do with source material. While there are many outstanding British accounts of the battle and campaign (most of which had to be tracked down in Great Britain), there are only a limited number penned by Americans. So anyone wanting to write a real history of the battle had to have a true passion to do so, and the ability and desire to track down the hard-to-reach sources.

SB: When did you find time to research this volume?

MH: I worked at Brandywine for four years. Off and on during the slow seasons I squeezed in research time. However, it was not until 2009 when the state government stopped managing the site and my staff and I were furloughed did I find most of the time. During that period I worked on finishing my Master’s degree and spent some quality time in libraries, historical societies, and on the phone to various places in Great Britain tracking down sources.

SB: Your book contains an impressive number of primary accounts from soldiers, civilians, and politicians. Why do you think these are important to include in a battle history?

MH: Primary sources are the heart of good history. Those who fought there (or were affected by the fighting at Brandywine) were eyewitnesses to history, and it is through their experiences that we come as close as possible to the truth of what transpired. Ultimately, historians contribute their own opinions, analysis, and conclusions, but they have to have primary accounts to support that.

SB : How does your book differ from other books on the subject?

MH: My study is only the third book-length treatment of the battle. The first was written nearly forty years ago now during the bicentennial. It is woefully outdated because of new research and the discovery of various source materials. The second and more recent study was penned a bit more than a decade ago, and repeats many of the battle’s myths, and the research is perhaps best described as “light.”

SB: The first half or more of your study is not about Brandywine specifically, but covers instead the early stages of the campaign. Why did you include that?

MH: In fact, I would argue exactly the opposite. All the preliminary material about the various personalities, the organization of the armies, how they fought, Washington’s early reactions, and Howe’s amazing sea journey to reach a landing point and begin the direct drive toward Philadelphia is in fact about what happened along the Brandywine. If you do not understand this well, you cannot fully understand what happened on September 11, 1777. Of course, there are several lengthy chapters on the battle, in as much detail as possible, including the complicated maneuvers during the morning and afternoon phases. I also discuss the effect on the local civilian population, and the aftermath of the fighting.

SB: You also included some wonderful strategic and tactical maps and photos . . .

MH: Yes, maps are key to understanding military history, and this study includes something like fifteen or sixteen original maps. No other book on this subject has these details presented graphically to help the reader follow the battle action in the narrative.

SB: What qualifies you to write an in-depth study of Brandywine?

MH: In 2005, I was hired as the museum educator for Brandywine Battlefield State Historic Site. At the time I was fairly well versed in Civil War history, but would have only considered myself an amateur American Revolution historian. I immediately became an avid reader on the subject since my new job duties included overseeing the interpretation at the historic site. Sadly, I found out almost immediately that little scholarly research had been done since the battle. The 1976 history of the battle had numerous endnotes that steered me to a number of good sources. In 2006, a very well-research history of the entire Philadelphia Campaign was published that pointed me toward additional source material. During my employment at the battlefield, I learned I could not be promoted without a Master’s degree, so I began working on an MA in military history with a concentration in the American Revolution. Every paper I wrote throughout that process related to Brandywine in some way and has been incorporated, one way or the other, into this book.

SB: If you had to select one major decision each army commander made that influenced the campaign and/or battle the most, what leaps to mind?

MH: For William Howe, it was the decision to leave the Delaware Bay and put back out to sea to ascend the Chesapeake Bay with the British fleet. That decision kept his army on ships for nearly another month and provided George Washington with the time he needed to rebuild the Continental Army, while eliminating any possibility that Howe could cooperate or otherwise help rescue Burgoyne in New York.

For George Washington, I would say his overall decision-making the day and night before the battle. His goal was to protect Philadelphia, and he selected a good position for his army behind the Brandywine. He had to then find a way to keep Howe from crossing at the numerous fords along the river, or defeat him immediately after he crossed.

SB: But Washington was unable to do that . . .

MH: Indeed, and that was largely because of his lack of knowledge of the road network, ford locations, and a lack of available friendly locals to assist the army. Why Washington was in the dark about the roads and fords, especially beyond his right, is inexplicable. The Continental army was flanked in a manner eerily reminiscent of the fighting on Long Island the previous year, and  the responsibility rests squarely on Washington’s shoulders.




Savas Beatie LLC, 2014

483 pages

For ordering information, click here.


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