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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Letter from Thomas Burke to Richard Caswell
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
September 17, 1777
Volume 11, Pages 620-623

[From Executive Letter Book.]

Philadelphia, Sept. 17th, 1777.

Dr. Sir:—

I wrote a few lines from Head Quarters on Brandy-wine near Chad's Ford on the tenth Instant, and in them gave you the hopes I then entertained of seeing in a few hours our Armies triumphant over our enemies. I am sorry I cannot now tell you those hopes were realized—I am constrained to give you a detail of circumstances, which have grieved me to the soul, and I know will give you and my Country great concern.

On the morning of the Eleventh, about eight O'clock, the enemy appeared on heights to the Southward of the Creek, and a little to the westward of Chad's ford, they drew up in order, and erected Burlect Batteries from whence they kept up a cannonade on our lines which were formed on the north side of the Creek in a meadow flanked by Hills to the right and left, on which we had several pieces of artillery posted to advantage, and from whence a well directed fire was kept up very hot until Eleven, by which time the enemy's Batteries were silenced, and their Troops driven from the grounds on which they had first formed in the morning. During the cannonade the Light Troops on both sides skirmished very warmly

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and always with advantage to us. Lower down on the Creek extended General Washington's left wing composed of four thousand Pennsylvania Militia who had no opportunity of engaging. Up the creek extended the right commanded by Major General Sullivan. About two o'clock the General received advice that a body of the enemy amounting to five thousand had moved up the creek in order to pass at a ford about four or five miles distance, he immediately made the necessary dispositions from encountering them, so as to prevent their getting on his right Flank. Soon after this General Sullivan was informed by a countryman, a Major of Militia that he had come along the road which immediately led from that ford, and had seen no enemy, whereupon he dispatched information to General Washington that he was convinced from the countryman's intelligence that no Enemy was upon that rout, and the General in consequence thereof halted the Troops destined to resist them. The error was not discovered until it was too late to bring the Troops up in good order. The consequence was that the Brigades which first formed were attacked before they expected it, and those who were forming, were thrown into disorder, and soon routed. The right and left Flanks of those who were first formed were thus exposed, and the enemy gained such advantage thereby that they overpowered our Troops, and defeated them with the loss of their Field pieces, five in number. The evil did not end here. Greene's division and Nash's Brigade which formed the chief strength of the Centre, were ordered to the right to reinforce the Troops on that wing. By this General Wayne was left to sustain a fierce engagement for an hour & an half against numbers greatly superior, and under a heavy cannonade which the Enemy now received from the Batteries lower down. He and his Troops behaved with exemplary gallantry and after destroying great numbers of the Enemy, retreated without losing their Artillery, or leaving their wounded behind them. Col. Proctor with some artillery was posted on tho right of Wayne, and was attacked by a strong column of the Enemy, who forced their way within pistol shot before our men gave way, and at length they brought off their guns except two whose horses a waggoner had run away with.

None of the reinforcements had time to get up so as to engage, except Weedon's Brigade, who checked the Enemy, and very gallantly covered the retreat of the whole army. The Enemy did not dare to pursue, but retired from the field of Battle that night.

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During this action I had an opportunity of observing that our Troops and inferior officers are exceedingly good, but that our Major Generals (one only excepted) are totally inadequate, they were so disconcerted by the unexpected attack of the Enemy, that they knew not what to do but to permit, (some say to order) a precipitate retreat. Sullivan to complete his blunder made a circuit of two miles, one quarter in the direct road would have brought him to his grounds and he arrived so late that it was preoccupied, but as he was commander in that wing, he insisted on changing his disposition, and while he was attempting it, his Troops which were brought up in great confusion were pressed by the Enemy, and not being able to form into any order fled without resistance. These miscarriages snatched from my hopes the glory of a complete victory, which was certainly in our power, if Sullivan had not by his Folly and misconduct ruined the fortune of the day. Judge, Sir, how disagreeable must be my reflections on this occasion when my sanguine and well founded hopes were at once cut off, not by the superiority of the Enemy, but by so glaring an insufficiency in our officers? Could the Commander in Chief's ideas be executed I should deem our success certain, but I have the melancholy conviction that his principal officers are incompetent, and I fear it is an evil that can not be remedied.

Sullivan was three days posted on the right wing, and furnished with Horse and light Troops for reconnoitering, yet so uninformed was he of the ground, that he knew not even the roads by which the Enemy might march to attack his Flank, and altho' he was warned by the General, that the Enemy would in all likelihood make that movement and was ordered to keep out reconnoitering parties in order to know certainly their force and motives, yet he relied on the information of a countryman who passed along one road while the Enemy were marching on the other. This unfortunate General has ever been the Marplot of our Army, and his miscarriages are I am persuaded owing to a total want of military Genius, and to one of that sort of understandings which is unable to take a full comprehensive view of an object, but employs its activity in subtle senseless refinement. Thus persuaded I thought it my duty to endeavour to have him removed from his command, and I succeeded so far as to have a resolution passed for recalling him, but General Washington remonstrated against it at so critical a time,

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and the execution is now left to his discretion. In a word, Sir, so long as our Army is conducted by such officers, I shall not be very sanguine in my expectations of success, however I shall hope for the best, and as our Army is composed of good Troops, & in general of good officers from the Major Generals downwards and under the auspicious command of General Washington,—I shall keep up my expectations until I know the issue of another Battle. Our loss was not very considerable, tho' I know not the particulars. The Enemy have suffered so much that ever since they have not attempted to advance. General Washington has put his Troops again in order, and has disposed his Army, so as to hang on their flank if they attempt to cross the Schuylkill; I wish we could once bring ourselves to attack them, instead of waiting for them to attack us, we should certainly have the advantages which they now have over us.

Our affairs in the Northern department bear a very promising aspect. General Gates has a formidable army under his command, and was by the last accounts on the point of attacking General Burgoyne.

There are certain accounts of a plot of a very extensive nature formed in this State, for blowing up our Magazines, and destroying our Stores, the particulars are not yet come to light, but the execution is prevented.

Captain Caswell is well. I shook hands with him on the field of Battle.

I have the honor to be with the greatest respect and esteem your very humble servant.