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The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/16 Brandywine, Germantown, and Redbank, September and October, 1777




Chapter XVI.


BRANDYWINE, GERMANTOWN, AND REDBANK, SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER, 1777.


In the summer of 1777 Sir William Howe, instead of co-operating with Burgoyne, turned his attention to the capture of Philadelphia. He advanced a few miles from New Brunswick, failed to draw Washington into a general engagement, and fell back to Amboy. Then, hoping that Washington had left his favorable position, Howe returned to the attack. He was in so far successful that his right-hand column had a skirmish with an advanced body of Americans under Stirling, drove them back, and took three cannon and eighty prisoners. After this the British army returned to Amboy, and went over to Staten Island. Here it was embarked, and on the 23d of July cleared Sandy Hook. The force consisted of about eighteen thousand men, of whom less than a quarter were Germans. The fleet of two hundred and thirty-four sail arrived off Cape May on the 30th of July, but the frigates that had been sent to reconnoitre reported that the Delaware was strongly defended, and Sir William determined to approach Philadelphia by Chesapeake Bay. On the 22d of August the fleet reached the mouth of the Elk River, and the troops were landed on the 25th and 26th in good order and without opposition.

On the 3d of September the chasseurs forming the advanced guard had a sharp skirmish with the American rear-guard, losing about twenty men killed and wounded. Between thirty and forty Americans were buried on the field. From this time the chasseurs were continually at the front, and slept on their arms.

On the 11th of September Washington's army was drawn up on the north side of Brandywine Creek. The main force was posted at Chad's Ford, while General Sullivan, with the right wing, was to watch the upper passes. At daybreak the British started from Kennet's Square, seven miles from Chad's Ford, in two columns. The right-hand column, under General Knyphausen, marched straight on the American front, which it approached at about ten in the morning. Here Knyphausen remained throughout the larger part of the day, keeping up a cannonade, but making no serious attack on the enemy.

The second column, under Howe and Cornwallis, made a long circuit to the left, and met with little opposition until it had reached and safely passed the forks of the Brandywine, where a small force could perhaps have stopped it. The Americans, however, had neglected this spot. Meanwhile Washington, deceived by contradictory reports, had not ventured to cross the creek and attack Knyphausen's division.

On learning that Howe had passed the Brandywine, Sullivan hastened to meet him. He had not time, however, fully to form his division. He seems, also, to have blundered in his arrangements. About half-past three the Hessian chasseurs, on the extreme left of the British line, came upon the American advanced guard and drove it back upon the main body. About this time the action became general. Sullivan's division was driven back. Lafayette, serving as a volunteer, was wounded in the leg. Washington brought up Greene's division and two more brigades, and covered Sullivan's retreat.

On hearing the cannon of Cornwallis, Knyphausen crossed the Brandywine at Chad's Ford and attacked the American intrenchments. These were defended for a time by Wayne, but the British were already in his rear, and late in the afternoon he abandoned his position, and fell back towards Chester.

There were Hessian soldiers on this day in both columns of the British army. The chasseurs were with the advanced guard of Cornwallis's division, and had forty-six men killed and wounded. Captains Ewald and Wreden received the Hessian order pour la vertu militaire for their conduct on this occasion. This was a great honor, as they were the first officers of the rank of captain to be thus distinguished. The whole loss of the British army at the battle of the Brandywine was six hundred and twenty-two,[1] and the American loss was about a thousand men. Among the ten or fifteen cannon taken from the Americans were two which had been captured at Trenton with Rall's brigade.[2]

The Americans were supposed to be in full retreat, and the autumn day was drawing to a close. Two battalions of British grenadiers were sent to occupy a little village on a hill beyond Dilworth. The battalions advanced carelessly, tired by a long day's march and elated by recent victory. The officers had not drawn their swords. Captain Ewald, who had commanded the foremost detachment of Cornwallis's column all day, had left his men to rest, and, having nothing in particular to do, had ridden out with the grenadiers to have a look at the country. Suddenly, at fifty paces from the village, they were received by a brisk fire of musketry. General Maxwell and the American rearguard had thrown themselves into the village to cover Washington's retreat. A party of Americans were seen at the same time coming round the hill to take the English on their left flank. Ewald galloped back for assistance, and brought up two English regiments under General Agnew, which immediately attacked the Americans, and saved the grenadiers, who had been almost surrounded. Night presently put an end to the fighting. The English loss in this little affair was heavy; nearly half of the two battalions and the greater part of their officers fell, according to Ewald.[3]

After the British army had been disembarked at Head of Elk, the English fleet had left Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile seven English frigates and fourteen transport ships, with provisions from New York, had entered the Delaware and gone up to Wilmington. Two days after the battle of the Brandywine, Cornwallis entered that town, thus securing a new base of supplies for the army.

The English advanced without meeting serious opposition, though there was continual skirmishing, and a party under General Wayne was surprised and beaten. On the morning of the 26th of September, 1777, Lord Cornwallis entered Philadelphia at the head of two English and two Hessian battalions of grenadiers, and proceeded to fortify the town. The main army en- camped at Germantown. The Hessians here formed the left wing, with the chasseurs in advance on the Lancaster road.

On the 3d of October, 1777, about noon, Captain Ewald was visited by a man (“by no means a Tory,” says he), whose property he had, on a previous occasion, protected from pillage. On going away the American said to him: “My friend, be on your guard to-night and to-morrow.” Ewald took the hint, and reported the remark to his colonel, who passed it on to headquarters. The generals took no notice of it; but we shall see from the following account that the chasseurs were ready for the attack.”[4]

October 4th. It was probably the fact that General Howe had sent many detachments to Philadelphia and into Jersey, to besiege Mud Island and occupy the city, and especially the fact that he had himself received reinforcements, which moved General Washington to attack the royal army. With this intention he had left his camp at Skibback Creek, and about two o'clock this morning we received news of his approach. Lieutenant-colonel von Wurmb immediately started with the Jäger Corps, reported what was going on to General Knyphausen, and occupied the bridge leading over the Visihigging (Wissahickon) Creek, near Van Doeren's house. We presently heard firing on the right wing, and about half-past three the Jäger Corps was attacked by four thousand men, with four six-pounders. So the corps was forced to leave the bridge, but took position on the hill opposite, and defended this post with its rifles, against the repeated attempts of the enemy to force it. The enemy's four cannon played constantly on the chasseurs, while our three-pounders could not reach the enemy. Meanwhile the firing became general, and very strong on the right wing; until about nine o'clock Lieutenant-general von Knyphausen sent us word that the enemy's left wing was beaten. Hereupon Lieutenant-colonel von Wurmb attacked the bridge again, and drove back the enemy both from there and from the opposite height, under a heavy fire. As the attack had to be made through a long defile, the enemy had time to retire. We, therefore, found only twenty dead, and as the chasseurs were already much fatigued, and were not supported, and as they only numbered three hundred men, no further pursuit was made.

“In the centre of the army the enemy had fallen on the light infantry and driven it back. Lieutenant-colonel Musgrave, with the Fortieth regiment, threw himself into a stone house, where the enemy stopped to attack him. They might otherwise have fallen upon our army much sooner, and before it was entirely under arms. But, as it was, our army attacked them, beat them out of the town, and put them to flight. They, thereupon, retired to their former camp, on Skibback Creek, leaving three hundred dead, six hundred wounded, and four hundred prisoners behind them. Our loss is, also, about four hundred killed and wounded; among the former General Agnew. Lord Cornwallis, hearing the firing at Philadelphia, immediately ordered three battalions of grenadiers to start. He, personally, arrived in time to take part in the end of the action, but the battalions came too late.”[5]

It now became of the first importance to Sir William Howe to open the Delaware River, between Wilmington and Philadelphia, to his ships of war and his transports. On these he must in great measure rely for his provisions and communications. The river was barred some ten miles below Philadelphia by chevaux de frise, which were protected by Fort Mercer at Redbank, on the New Jersey shore, and by Fort Mifflin, on an island, near the opposite shore of Pennsylvania. Between the forts obstructions had been sunk in the channel, and these again were defended by galleys. Some boats with provisions had succeeded in slipping by all these obstacles, but the free navigation of the river was essential to the British.

Colonel Karl Emil Kurt von Donop was one of the most distinguished of the Hessian colonels, and had been a personal aide-de-camp of the Landgrave, with whom he was a favorite. He had, in the previous year, held a separate command of some importance at Bordentown, and had now expressed a wish to be again detached. Sir William Howe consented to gratify him. He was sent to take Fort Mercer. Donop started on the 21st of October, 1777, with three battalions of grenadiers, a regiment of infantry, four companies of chasseurs, and twelve mounted chasseurs, all Hessians, eight field-pieces belonging to the regiments, and two English howitzers. He is said to have asked for more artillery, and to have been told in reply that if he could not trust himself to attack the fort, the English would take it. “Tell your general,” replied Donop to the officer that brought him the message, “that Germans are not afraid to face death.” The colonel then declared to those about him: “Either the fort will soon be called Fort Donop, or I shall have fallen.” He went on with his expedition, crossed the Delaware in boats, and spent the night at Haddonfield. At about noon on the 22d of October he arrived at Redbank, and rode forward to reconnoitre the ground. The fort was a five-sided earthwork, with a ditch and abatis. It had at first been constructed on too large a scale by the Americans, but Monsieur du Plessis de Mauduit, a young French officer, who had been sent by Washington to assist Colonel Christopher Greene in its defence, had reduced the size of the works which, in their modified shape, formed a somewhat irregular pentagon. A part of the old lines had been left standing, but were not defended. On three sides of the fort the woods afforded shelter to the besieging party to within a distance of four hundred yards. On the south side was the Delaware River. The garrison numbered three hundred men with fourteen cannon.

On arriving before the fort, Donop sent an aide-de-camp to summon the garrison. “The King of England commands his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms,” ran the message, “and they are warned that if they wait until the battle, no quarter will be granted.” Colonel Greene answered, that he accepted the terms, and that no quarter would be given on either side.[6] The aide-de-camp reported that he had seen but few men in the fort.

Colonel von Donop drew up his little army. His right flank rested on the river, near which he had placed his eight three-pounders and two howitzers. These were supported by a battalion of grenadiers and by chasseurs, who were to defend the flank and rear against troops disembarking from the shipping in the Delaware. The Hessian line extended the larger part of the way round the fort on the land side, the attack being made simultaneously from north and south. In front of every battalion stood an officer commanding sappers and one hundred men with fascines, hastily made in the woods.

About four o'clock all was ready. Donop then spoke a few words to his officers, calling on them to behave with valor. They all dismounted and drew their swords, took their places in front of their battalions, and the attack began. The Hessians charged at double-quick, passed the old disused lines, with a cheer, carried the abatis, but found themselves embarrassed by pitfalls and by the ditch, which they had not fascines enough to fill. Three American galleys, lying in the river, kept up a warm fire on the Hessian right flank. Some of the Hessians climbed the ramparts of the main fort. They were presently beaten back. Donop was struck in the hip by a musket-ball, and fell, mortally wounded. Twenty-two officers were killed or hurt, including the commanders of all the battalions. The Hessians turned and fled, leaving many of their wounded on the field.[7] Lieutenant-colonel von Linsingen gathered what remained of the brigade, and on the next day brought it back to Philadelphia unmolested. Two English ships of war, which had attempted to take part in the action, ran aground. One of them was blown up next day by hot shot from the American galleys and floating batteries; the other was set on fire and abandoned.[8]

The Hessians had fled, night had fallen, and a part of the garrison came out of the fort to repair the abatis and care for the wounded. Several Hessian grenadiers were found crouching close under the parapet, where the balls would go over their heads. The poor fellows could not fight without support, and feared to run away. They were taken into the fort. Among the party that came out to repair the abatis was Captain du Plessis. To him the wounded Donop called out: “Whoever you may be, take me from here.” Du Plessis had the colonel carried into the fort. As he was brought in, some of the American soldiers, “either not knowing that his wound was mortal, or heated with the battle, and still irritated by the threats made to them a few hours before, could not help saying aloud: ‘Well! is it settled that no quarter is to be given?’ ‘I am in your hands,’ answered the colonel, ‘you can avenge yourselves?’ ” Du Plessis had no difficulty in silencing the soldiers, and then gave all his attention to the wounded man. “Sir,” said the latter, “you appear to be a stranger; who are you?” “A French officer,” answered du Plessis. “I am content,” said Donop, in French, “I die in the arms of honor.”

The Hessian colonel lived three days after the at- tack, and often conversed with du Plessis. He begged the latter to warn him when death should be near. Du Plessis complied with his request. “It is an early end to a fair career,” said Donop, “but I die the victim of my ambition and of the avarice of my sovereign.”[9]

The number of Hessians killed, wounded, and taken at Redbank was three hundred and seventy-one, including twenty-two officers. The Americans had thirty-seven killed and wounded.[10]

This brilliant defence did not permanently secure the control of the river to the victors. On the 9th of November the British batteries opened fire on Fort Mifflin. For six days and nights the bombardment continued. More than twelve thousand shots are said to have been fired. On the 15th the English fleet also came to take part in the action. A ship of war, mounting sixteen twenty-four-pounders, and a large Indiaman, with three guns of the same calibre, were brought so near the fort that hand-grenades could be thrown from their rigging into the works. Five large ships were within range on the other side. The land batteries mounted thirty guns. The block-houses of the fort, which had done good service, were knocked to pieces. Many of the cannon were silenced. On the night of the 15th the garrison retreated to Fort Mercer. Cornwallis was sent to invest this place, and Washington was unable to reinforce it. The fort was abandoned, the barracks burned, and the magazines blown up on the night of the 20th of November, 1777. The American ships in the river were also burned. Cornwallis completed the destruction of the fort, whose ramparts were razed.



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  1. Knyphausen's Report.
  2. MS. Journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode.
  3. Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. p. 337; vol. iii. p. 463.
  4. Knyphausen does not mention Ewald's warning in his report to the landgrave, but says: “We knew nothing of all these movements of the enemy, on account of the thick fog, until after daybreak, when a patrol of Hessian chasseurs, on the left wing, a mile beyond the outposts, which stood on the other side of the bridge over the Wissahickon, fell in with, about three hundred of the enemy's troops; and at the same time the outposts of the second battalion of light infantry, which stood in front of Germantown on the road to Beggarstown, were driven in.”—Knyphausen to the Landgrave, Oct. 17th, 1777. See, however, Stedman's “History of the American War,” vol. i. p. 300. Ewald says that patrols were sent out, by orders of Colonel von Wurmb, in consequence of the warning above mentioned.—“Belehrungen,” vol. ii. p. 32.
  5. MS. Journal of the Jäger Corps. Ewald says that the attack on the chasseurs was evidently a feint, and that, therefore, Knyphausen did not support them, but hastened to the assistance of the right wing.— “Belehrungen,” ubi supra. The Americans opposed to the chasseurs were Pennsylvania militia under General Armstrong.—Bancroft, vol. ix. p. 424. The chasseurs were the only Hessians heavily engaged, but the Leib Regiment and Regiment von Donop were also under fire. The former had four men wounded.
  6. Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. p. 15-17; Chastellux, vol. i. p. 219. The journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode says that Donop sent to summon the fort twice, once on first arriving, and once just before the attack.
  7. The journal of the Jäger Corps says that Donop refused to be carried off the field.
  8. The journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode asserts that Donop had received orders not to attack the fort until the 23d, in order to give the English frigates an opportunity to engage the American galleys.
  9. Chastellux, vol. i. p. 223: Eelking denies the authenticity of the last part of the dying words attributed to Donop, on the authority of his inner consciousness. They are taken from the narrative of Chastellux, who visited Redbank with du Plessis, three or four years after the attack.
  10. Knyphausen's official report in the archives at Marburg; and the American official report, Washington, vol. v. p. 112 note.