BOOK REVIEW: Decision At Brandywine: The Battle on Birmingham Hill by Robert M. Dunkerly (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2021)
Historian and National Park Ranger Robert M. Dunkerly begins his book with an admission that the Battle of Brandywine is his passion: “Brandywine has fascinated me since I was young” (page ix). What follows is an unusual but succinct narrative of the second largest (and third bloodiest) military engagement of the American Revolution. Decision At Brandywine: The Battle on Birmingham Hill is one of the only thorough studies of this battle. Dunkerly’s personal interest in the violent affair of September 11, 1777 is evident because he has paid careful attention to the details. The book is clear and brief, but intense.
After the Preface and Dunkerly’s explanation of how he became enraptured with Brandywine, the dramatis personae are introduced. The two major characters are George Washington and William Howe, but there are some very familiar figures who had a role to play in the day’s events: John Sullivan, William Alexander (Lord Stirling), Charles Cornwallis, and the Marquis de Lafayette (Brandywine was his first battle). Dunkerly then proceeds to describe the opposing armies, including their weapons and uniforms. The Continental Army was going up against experienced British and Hessian forces.
There are several maps in the book which help explain how the day’s events played out. There are maps of military plans, the topography of Birmingham Hill, and the movements of the armies. There are also pictures of Revolutionary War reenactors in full costume, providing a more realistic image of how the soldiers fought and moved. The author provided some photographs of some of the sites as they appear now, such as rock walls, plains, and other natural features that can still be seen among the roads and buildings that have been built in the centuries after the battle.
The Battle of Brandywine was important because it showed the inefficiencies of how the Continental Army was trained. Washington was still trying to maintain an army that was inexperienced, underpaid, and rapidly decreasing in size due to ending enlistments. One of the most important consequences of the battle was the need for a military planner and tactician that would arrive later at Valley Forge in the person of Baron von Steuben. His work with the Continental Army, and the military manual he provided for their training, would turn the former rag-tag continental units into a professional fighting force that could match the skills and abilities of the British and their foreign allies. Dunkerly’s final chapter is a look at how the battle has been commemorated over the years. He explains how some monuments were set up on the former battlefield and how historical organizations planned their memorials. The book concludes with three appendices that offer more details about the armies, the units involved with the fighting at Birmingham Hill, and historical preservation.
What made the book Decision At Brandywine stand out were the circumstances of individual American soldiers who fought on that September day. Dunkerly gives the reader information about where the person was from and how he was involved with the battle, but the most interesting thing about each soldier was how he was wounded. Those details give the reader more of an idea of the violence of the battle. The injuries were plentiful. Most battlefield histories rarely offer extensive data about the individual wounds and how each soldier dealt with them. Robert Dunkerly mined the pension applications of Revolutionary War veterans to get such personal information, showing how such a source can be so valuable. Decision At Brandywine is a compelling and dramatic read that compels the reader to make the trip to the battlefield itself.
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