In late summer of 1777, Major General William Howe landed his forces at what is now Elkton, Maryland to begin his advance on Philadelphia, the capital of the newly born United States. Seeking to stop Howe’s forces before they took the city, General Washington took up a defensive position at Chadds Ford, by the banks of the Brandywine River. Probably most known these days as the home of Andrew Wyeth, and the Brandywine River Museum (my favorite museum on earth), it is an area I know well, and for which I have an abiding affection. The meandering river, the sycamore, and willows, the farms and rolling hills are elements I know well. Unfortunately for General Washington, being from Virginia, the Brandywine River Valley was not an area with which he was very familiar.
He set up positions at Pyle’s ford to the south and Wistar’s ford to the north of his main position in the hopes of engaging Howe’s forces along the road from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Howe sent a force to march the route Washington predicted Howe would take, but sent the bulk of his force to march and cross the Brandywine north of Wistar’s ford, and marching south, outflanking Washington’s forces on September 11th. After a hard fought battle Washington’s army retreated and regrouped in Chester. Though there were minor skirmishes in the weeks that followed, Howe’s forces marched unopposed into Philadelphia. Howe assumed the war was over. Washington and Congress had other ideas.
The Congress relocated to York. Washington relocated the army to Whitemarsh, and then Valley Forge where armaments and supplies had been hidden in the small town. He found the community burned to the ground by the British. Howe and his men spent the winter partying and getting drunk in Philly.
The stories of privation at Valley Forge are legendary: the bootless men leaving bloody footprints in the snow; maggot infested hardtack, and fire cakes were the choice meals when there was any supply of food. Desertions were frequent. Death and disease dwindled the numbers further. Washington positioned 11,000 men at the Brandywine. In the opening months of 1778, 1000 men were reported unfit due to illness, as many as 3000 were reported dead. Morale could not have possibly been lower. But Spring brought new life and new spirit to Washington’s army.
General Nathanael Greene replaced the unmotivated General Mifflin as quartermaster general. Roads to Lancaster were improved, and supply wagons began to arrive. Under the direction of Baron von Steuben, the undisciplined army was forged into a legitimate force. The new alliance with France brought seasoned, and well supplied soldiers to reinforce the army, and their naval power drew out the British from Philadelphia who moved to defend New York from French assault. Washington’s army followed them. At the battle of Monmouth, Washington took to the field to personally reverse his men, who had been ordered to retreat by their incompetent field commander. In the end it was the British who retreated. Washington’s army was now a force to be reckoned with.
This November we walk toward our long winter. Regardless of who wins we are out in the cold. One result makes our work infinitely easier. The other will make things daunting at best. What is Guy Fawkes Day going to feel like? Pretty bad. What is January 20th going to feel like? Worse, I suspect.
We must cultivate new alliances. We must put agendas and egos aside. We must stop seeing our little patches of turf in the coalition as our own and make them part of a larger machination. We must reach out beyond our coaltion for the kind of practical political support that we are going to need to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. Our ability to do so will be a major determinant of our success or failure.
In the meantime I would suggest getting your hands in the earth. Do some weeding, plant and prune for winter, gather your firewood. Benjamin Franklin said, “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail,” and, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
He also said, “Don’t plan to hunt two hares with one dog.”
cross-posted at FDR