Book Review: Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris (Savas Beatie, 2014).
Author Harris was a former Brandywine Battlefield Museum educator and battlefield guide who quickly became frustrated with a lack of ready sources with which to explain this important battle. The dust jacket touts “Harris’ Brandywine as the first complete study to merge the strategic, political, and tactical history of this complex operation and important set-piece battle into a single compelling account.” Michael Harris may well be the first author to fully understand the sprawling battlefield’s topography, by virtue of his firsthand experience and comparison with newly discovered participant maps. After ten years of preparation, Harris tells the Brandywine story in the original words of its participants, which is an approach simultaneously interesting and frustrating.
Brandywine: A Military History contains illustrations of leading generals, American division commanders, modern photos of landmark buildings and key battlefield terrain features. Foot-of-the-page, on-the-spot notes are a refreshingly pleasant treat. The realistic topographic maps are the best of any work on Brandywine. A final chapter describes the current state of the battlefield, which largely remains in private hands and whose future preservation lies in jeopardy.
Harris examines seven battlefield tales that sprang up over the years via local folklore and loose scholarship. He compares them with original accounts for confirmation, and courageously demolishes the Squire Cheyney tale and the first-Stars-and-Stripes-flag story, debunks the story of local farmer Joseph Brown; doubts Reverend Jacob Trout’s Eve-of-Battle sermon; discredits the role of the Hessian Grenadiers in the attack on Birmingham Hill; and debunks the cavalry charge by Casimir Pulaski. Yet Harris does not uphold his own standards of proof when he relates an eighth tale: the Ferguson-Could-Have-Shot-Washington story. Harris leaves this unexamined in any comparable detail, with unskeptical footnotes, poorly sourced.
Beyond his introductory chapter, Michael Harris spends much space discussing other Brandywine historians instead of letting the participants tell their stories, or getting on with his own narrative. More than half of the sentences penned by a participant are interrupted by Harris before they conclude. Thus there is little coherent flow allowed to the full, actual narratives of participants. This a stylistic complaint, not a criticism of the eyewitnesses’ accuracy.
This book is ultra-meticulous in its footnoting of all sources. The dust jacket suggests this book uses entirely primary sources; which from a close study of the extensive footnoting, is not entirely true. A large portion of the footnotes routinely reference other modern authors’ quotes from previously published books, and omit the original sources actually used by those authors. There are indeed several new sources for the first time in print: a partial letter by Lt George Duke of the 33rd Foot’s Grenadiers, a newly-discovered 1777 map by British Engineer Captain Archibald Robertson (upon which modern maps are shown), and a partial account by an unknown British 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry officer.
While the book is good on a high level and does sort out some previous misconceptions, it fails to sort out others and propagates some of the mistakes made by others – resulting in a false sense of credibility when it comes to the “new” and “accurate” information it presents. Brandywine: A Military History contains a disturbing number of avoidable errors, the bulk of which are located in British accounts. This reader (a confirmed footnote-gazer) regretfully collected five full pages of notes identifying errors of fact, omissions, misidentification of key authors, and other mistakes.
I’ve spent several years exploring most of the same accounts used by Harris in my own attempt to identify the names, identities, and units of all British officers involved with the Philadelphia Campaign. This has taken me deep into the four flank battalions that composed part of General Howe’s 1777 army, and thus the original accounts related by Harris are very familiar to me. Where this new book is surprisingly weakest lies in its close association with the most recent of Philadelphia campaign histories. Michael Harris acknowledges his close relationship with his writing mentor, the well-respected author Thomas J. McGuire. This reviewer has the highest regard for author McGuire, yet the frequency of Harris’ errors prodded me to purchase and closely examine McGuire’s oft-footnoted books in order to locate the original source of Harris’ errors. Only then (after now reading three books instead of just one) did I discover that the usually impeccable McGuire had made fundamental mistakes which had gone unnoticed or uncorrected since initial publication. However unintentional, that undermines the trust one places in the veracity of a historical work.
Harris copied relatively few of McGuire’s errors from The Philadelphia Campaign Volume I (2006). But Harris then compounded these mistakes by taking additional information (with impressive-looking footnotes) from The Philadelphia Campaign Volume II (2008), then garbling it still further by scrambling his quotes and footnotes. One glaring example: the attribution of a British Journal kept in the 1st Light Infantry Battalion during 1776 and 1777. Veteran researchers familiar with this volume from the Sol Feinstone Collection at the David Library of the American Revolution know it familiarly as the Journal of “Officer 409” (its Feinstone accession number). McGuire in his second volume declares it unequivocally to Lt Frederick Augustus Wetherall, and proceeds to show his line of reasoning in an appendix. Trouble is, Wetherall never wrote it, as he spent both 1776 and 1777 campaigns in a battalion company of the 17th Foot, not in the 17th’s Light Infantry Company. Without double-checking, Harris adopts McGuire’s attributions and then further cuts up quotations from Officer 409 in such a fashion that the reader is left to wonder whether an interrupted incomplete Harris quotation came from Officer 409, or a some other document. Harris even uses different names in his footnotes to camouflage his frequent use of the same source! When Harris quotes Captain William Scott of the 17th Light Infantry Company, we are left to wonder if it was Scott, or Feinstone Collection’s Memorandum of “Officer 111”, or the American Philosophical Society’s “British Officer B”, or someone else entirely speaking from the base of Birmingham Hill.
Harris repeatedly misrepresents the rank and duty assignments of many of his key British narrators. John Peebles, George Inman, Frederick Augustus Wetherall, William Scott, Patrick Ferguson, George McKenzie, Duncan McPherson, William Dansey, Julius Stirke and his brother Henry Stirke, Sir James Murray, and Thomas Sullivan are each given the wrong rank or an incorrect duty assignments during the battle. Harris seems to be completely unfamiliar with the existence of the British regimental muster rolls in the British National Archives’ WO 12 collection; he never made mention of, or use of them. The same neglect was shown by the absence of the references to the CO 5 collection detailing the battle’s casualties. And despite his boast of providing a complete order of battle, Harris misrepresents the company composition for all four of the British flank battalions on 11 September 1777, while providing little sourcing of its origin.
Brandywine: A Military History is a fine start for any general reader who wants to get a microscopic close-up and an updated look at Brandywine. The historiography (history of the history) of the battle is a welcome first. Harris sorts out the folklore and misconceptions, especially clarifying the latter stages of the battle on Birmingham Hill and explaining the American’s twilight ambush at Dilworth. Although the author took 200 pages to set the stage for the battle, the remainder of the work is combed carefully. The maps and illustrations are thoughtfully coordinated with the accompanying text, a big assist to the reader. This reviewer (a fellow history teacher) found no criticisms with Harris’ hypothesis, coverage, stated goals, coverage or conclusion. Despite some frustrating flaws in supporting details, this book is a valuable addition to a general reader and an 18th century specialist’s shelf.