Thursday, January 26, 2012

Letters from the Front: The Battle of Brandywine and British Light Infantry

"...the two companies quitted the road for this purpose to gain an orchard on the flanks; received a fire from about 200 men in the orchard..."

"Sleeves of the jacket sewed to the waistcoat; shell laid aside.
One or two pockets in the waistcoat below the breast."

Among the many documents contained within the Sol Feinstone Collection that are unique and vital, none is so absolutely fundamental to our understanding of the Battle of Brandywine and of the British Light Infantry as document number 111. This item consists of two parts: a memorandum describing the battle of Brandywine from an officer in the 1st Battalion of British Light Infantry (probably Lt. Wetherell of the 17th Regiment of Foot) and notes on the conduct and equipment of the British Light Infantry in the field. The former is a vivid blow-by-blow account, covering the experience of several British Light Infantry Companies from the opening salvos of the battle to its conclusion, filled with detailed remarks on the other British forces engaged as well as their American opposition. It provides an eye-opening glimpse into the experience of combat in North America during the Revolution, shattering the well-worn stereotype of lines of British regulars marching against American riflemen hiding behind trees.

The second part is vital to our knowledge of how the British Light Infantry operated in principle during the war and the sorts of equipment they carried. Appearing on pages 2-3 of the document, this set of memorandums begins with a side-by-side comparison of the war-time practice of the 1st Battalion, British Light Infantry, and the system created by Colonel Dundas, which was used from the 1790s through the Napoleonic Wars. Following this section in a series of notes covering the proper way to carry ammunition, how light infantry needed to be outfitted for service in warm climates (in this case, the West Indies) and some general notes on the movements of armies.

Our thanks goes out to David Library Research Assistant David Swain, who transcribed this invaluable document. Please read below to see the entire transcript


Sol Feinstone Collection No. 111
Unidentified British writer, memorandum of the Battle of Brandywine, 11 Sept. 1777
Transcribed by David Swain October 2011

[Note:  text reads beginning with page 4, followed by pages 1, 2, and 3.]

Memo: battle of Brandewine. 11th Sepr. 1777

Army advanced in two columns.—right took the direct road to Chadsford, enemy on the opposite side of the river; left took a circuit to cross the forks of the Brandewine river, and arrive on the enemys flank.—
            About noon enemy discovered this movement by their patroles and the British column having crossed the forks and gained the heights discovered the enemy marching to take up a position.—
The Kings army formed in column of battalions and halted to refresh the men after a march of about 12 or 14 miles.—
            Upon the Troops getting again into motion the advanced guard was composed of the 17th and 42nd light companies and Capt. Evalts troop of mounted Yagers. Having advanced less than a mile Capt. Evalt proposed charging a party of dragoons on the road, provided we secured his left flank.—this was assented to, and the two companies quitted the road for this purpose to gain an orchard on the flanks; received a fire from about 200 men in the orchard, which did no execution; companies run up to the fence and halted, but as it was evident tho’ the enemy held back they were well supported.__Lord Cornwallis’s Aid de camp came to order the advanced guard to halt.__Looked back saw the line nearly formed and presently advancing.

Right of the road Guards__ 2 Batts. B. Grens left of the road Battn. of Yagers. 2 Battn. of light infantry. 2nd line Hessian Grens. on the right.  Brigade of British on the left.__Reserve Brigade of British.—

As soon as the line approached the advanced guard Lt. Col. Abercromby ordered the 17th light company to form on the right of the battalion, the 42nd on the left:—as soon as the line came up to Dilworth Church the enemy opened a fire from five field pieces; the church yard wall being opposite the 17th light company, the captain determined to get over the fence into the road and calling to the men to follow run down the road and lodged the men without loss at the foot of the hill on which the guns were firing.  the hedge on the left side of the road much cut with the grape shot. __by a bend of the hill had a view of part of the enemys line opposite the grenadiers and opened a fire from about half the company on it, no more being able to form on the space; presently joined by the 38th company some of their gallant soldiers wanted to ascend the hill immediately; objected as too imprudent; the 33rd company joined immediately afterwards; the men of the three companies calling out up the hill; at

[pg 4]
their cannon, ascended the hill and had a glimpse of the enemys line as far as the eye could reach to the right and left.__some firing might have taken place on the left, but as yet the heavy fire of musketry was not begun.__enemys guns too far back on the height to annoy us, their line advancing on us we were compelled to throw ourselves on our knees and bellies, and keep up a fire from the slope of the hill.__enemy repeatedly attempted to come on, but were always drove back by our fire altho’ their general (Lincoln) very much exerted himself. At this time the most tremendous fire of musketry opened from both lines.
            Looking back to see how far the grenadier line was off from which alone we could receive immediate support, to my surprise I saw close to me Major Stuart of the 43d whose regt being at Rhode island attended the army as a spectator; recollecting the 43d grenadier company was the left of their line, we persuaded Major Stuart to run down the hill and prevail on that company to hasten to our support; he did so, but before he could return, to my inexpressible joy, saw Captain Cochrane of the 4th company on my left throw up his cap and cry Victory.—and looking round saw the 43rd company hastening to our relief;—we darted forward passed the five pieces of cannon which the enemy had abandoned and made some few prisoners, enemy running away from us, with too much speed to be overtaken.
            men being blown halted and formed to a fence, and were immediately joined by the 2nd grenadiers to our right our own battalion kept away more to the left; as soon as the men were fit to go on, out of gratitude to Major Stuart we desired to elect him our chief and meant to have gone on under his command, but before we could move Cl. Abercromby galloped to us, and we joined the battalion.
            A british brigade got into action with the enemys reserve, which terminated the battle on the left.—The column on the right as soon as soon as our fire was heard, crossed the river and drove the enemy from their works.

[pg 1]

-----Examination of the Dundass System.-----

                  Dundass                                                                         answered according to the
Company changes its name to Platoon.                                             practice of 1st Battn. Light Infy.
On peace establishment it is one in war it is
two Platoons.
Each company is a Platoon.                                                             A company is a company;
                                                                                                       weak or strong a company.
When the battalion is on a war establishment
each company will be divided into Two Platoons
Company to be sized from flanks to center.                                   Upon service the front rank man to
                                                                                                    be permitted to choose his comrade and
                                                                                                    do all duties with him, and always
                                                                                                    to cover him; This will prevent the exact
                                                                                                    sizing of the men, which certainly adds
                                                                                                    to the appearance of the company. The
                                                                                                    front rank may be sized.
Number of ranks
Company to form three deep                                                        Usual order two men. Men
                                                                                                    instructed to form single rank
Distance of Files                                                                           as four deep.
Files lightly to touch                                                                      Files by day always loose; usual order
                                                                                                   11 inches; open order arms length
                                                                                                   extended order from five yards to fifty.
                                                                                                   In danger men like all animals
                                                                                                   crowd together.

Division of company                                                                    There seems an error to begin by
Company divided into two subdivisions                                        subdividing—before there can be
four sections.                                                                               a subdivision there must be a division.
                                                                                                   The company to be divided in plain
                                                                                                   familiar language;—in half Quarters
                                                                                                   and if this is not sufficient; into eights; or

                                                                                                   [Note: A diagonal line is drawn through
                                                                                                   the text from “Usual order…” through
                                                                                                   “…into eights; or subdivisions.”.]

Companies in battalion                                                          The precedency of companies being each
Companies in battalion to draw up                                         understood to be established as
according to seniority, from flanks                                         the parade order.—but in formation of line
to center.                                                                              from column convening or rapidity of
                                                                                            movement to supersede seniority.

[pg 2]

Powder horn and shot bag__                                        saves cartridges; a broken cartridge for priming
and paper cut for loading.__                                         or accident is lost—man going on duty to load
                                                                                    with loose powder

Hammer caps preserve the hammer from rust, and prevent the piece going off by accident___

Sixty rounds for service.

                   Light infantry Soldiers necessaries.___West Indies:
Sleeves of the jacket sewed to the waistcoat; shell laid aside.
One or two pockets in the waistcoat below the breast.
Linen Trowser and socks.—on[e] pr. trowsers died uniform, Two, or three
pr socks;--2 flannel shirts; 1 pr drawers do.--1 pr shoes off 1 on
in a bag rolled in blanket; carried up and down; if across men cannot get through Thickets.

Haversack for provisions; Tomahawk; Camp kettle for each mess.

                  Movement as a general rule.—

To advance from the center; To retreat from the flanks.

                   On coming to a position
The army having come to its ground, before the whole is posted, each
Corps to take charge of what is most continuous, until pickets
are posted.

                    Turning out before day.
All Guards and Pickets to get under arms an hour before day beak, and Patroles to be sent out.—At sunrise or after the day is well broke and patroles returned.

[pg 3]

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