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Brandywine Sycamore Tree
By Alfred Brophy
In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I'd write some more about the battle of the Brandywine . I returned from winter break a few months back with a few pictures of the Brandywine Battlefield -- and some new-found knowledge and awe and terror about our side's near-death experience at the battle.
I went there seeking a picture of the sycamore tree outside of the Gilpin house, which is where LaFayette was once believed to have had his headquarters (until it was overrun by the British -- then they walked off with all of Gilpin's farm animals and most everything else in his possession). But whether it was his headquarter or not -- or even whether he ever saw it or not -- the tree and house were there at the time of the battle, not far from Washington's headquarters.
First off, taking a page from Robert Darnton's essay in the New York Review of Books (about the Google Books proposed settlement), I'd note the significance of the date of the battle: September 11, 1777.
When I was growing up around there in the 1970s, we were taught in school that the battle wasn't all that significant -- that it was sort of a skirmish and that our side fought bravely but the British won, to the extent anyone did. And even through years of graduate study in history, where I spent a lot of time working on colonial history (though I didn't do any military history) I never bothered to learn anything different.
The battlefield park consists of the headquarters of Washington and a house once believed to be the place LaFayette stayed the night prior to the battle. Though the place where the real fighting took place is a township park and private property, including the Birmingham Friends Meeting House (which is pictured at the left). (You like pictures of eighteenth century Quaker Meeting Houses in Pennsylvania? Me, too.) I'm sure there's an important story in there about land use and our friends over at Volokh would be particularly interested in the part of the story that deals with the condemnation of LaFayette's "headquarters" in the 1940s.
After I visited them again this winter break, I thought I'd do a little reading. And you know what? It was a real disaster for us -- in part because the British out-maneuvered us: they crossed the Brandywine at an unprotected spot a few miles upstream from where we were sure they'd cross. That allowed them to catch us by surprise -- especially because we were so sure they wouldn't take that circuitous route that even when reports started trickling in along the lines of, "oh no -- 10,000 British soldiers are out-flanking us!" we didn't believe them.... Until it was almost too late, when they appeared on a distant hill and sat down to eat lunch. At that moment, we started to move heaven and earth. We were acting like the fate of our Revolution depended on it, because, it did.
Only the most heroic of efforts prevented the ruin of our army and the termination of the Revolution. It was also a disaster because we were out numbered. And while Washington et alia were trying to position the army between the British and the capital of Philadelphia, that was mighty hard to do. For once they out-maneuvered us, it took some serious determination to save the Revolutionary army from complete destruction. Washington was almost captured; LaFayette was injured in the battle. To quote a nineteenth-century orator, who spoke in Ephrata (near Lancaster) at the placement of the base of a monument to the battle on September 11, 1845 -- "escape itself was almost victory."
Things were really bad. Really bad. So bad, in fact, that we didn't have decent records on the decimation of our forces -- though it seems that perhaps 1200 people were killed, countless others wounded, and another 400 captured. The British lost a lot as well -- maybe 1000 people. September 11, indeed.
Revolutionaries are long on ideas, quick with action, and, well, often rather lousy at planning and follow-through. We were little different. But I wonder whether a different outcome was possible. While we carelessly left the fords upstream of Chadds Ford unprotected, I'm not sure that if we'd had guards at the two places that the British army crossed that we would have had a better outcome. Eventually, I would have imagined, that the British would have been able to stretch out the patriots' line and cross at some point. Just wouldn't have been as easy as it was for them.
The story of Brandywine is a stirring one. About the only thing holding us together after that was irrational determination. Because after we were out-flanked at Brandywine and lost most of our canons and about 10% of our meager army (maybe more, who knows -- we were so disorganized we didn't have a very accurate count of the casualties) -- a few days later, the British attacked one of our encampments at night and stabbed a bunch of our soldiers to death in the "Paoli massacre" -- another disaster. (It's in present-day Malvern, right over from the train station -- a picture of the field where the massacre occurred is above right.) Thence followed the dark, freezing winter at Valley Forge: the starving time. The suffering there is too well known to warrant much comment -- except for this: by all rational accounts the Revolution should have ended in 1777. And you know what? It looked like it was going to. The British marched in Philadelphia unopposed and began celebrating what appeared to be their victory. By any rational account the revolution was over. Monarchy had re-asserted itself.
Or so they believed.
To the left is a picture of the Paoli Massacre monument, which is one of the first monuments to the Revolutionary War. It's now in a plastic case in the middle of the enclosed cemetery. There's a larger replica of that monument on the site as well.
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