Weapons, Battle Tactics, and War Medicine

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; September 23, 1777

My Dear Mary,

I am in receipt of your letter which I Prize and am Encouraged that I am kindly remembered. At our last meeting, you asked that I Share Honestly news of the War, so it is in that Spirit that I tell you of our recent encounter with the Enemy at Brandywine Creek. Were it not war time, I could imagine us taking a Picnic to this pretty creek that winds lazily through the trees, but that is not how I shall picture it when recalling the details of our Battle.

We were deployed in mid-September to Chadd’s Ford and began construction of a lunette from logs and earth on which to place our cannons, the ford being the likely place in which to engage the Tories. I was much Grateful for the cool shade of the trees as the work was most arduous and the weather was unseasonably warm.

Quakers live all around this area, and although these Friends claim to be against warfare of all kind, their stance outside the Meetinghouse made it clear they were not Sympathetic with our Cause. Still, their womenfolk offered us fresh bread and butter at Noonday, and we were glad for it as we’d worked up quite a hunger in our labour.

We met General Howe’s forces on the morning of 11-September. Having been recently moved into Proctor’s Light Brigade, my own fighting began whilst the morning’s heavy fog made it impossible to see even those in our own Party. It had the opposite effect, however, on sound, and we spent our first hours surrounded by the eerie sound of Hessian movement around us accompanied by gunfire echoing in the mist. Near noon, we learned that another Enemy Division approached our right flank and by mid-afternoon our position was completely compromised; we had no choice but to Retreat, and under cover of Darkness made our way Safely into Chester.

Many of our Regiment was injured, but I am Happy to state that our morale remains High, despite our loss. I must also report, in the Spirit of True Honesty, that I have suffered two injuries in the battle, and now am recovering in the Goode care of the Moravians here at the Brethren’s House. I’m told that the Marquis of Layfayette is ensconced here as well; although I have not seen him, I am pleased to have such Distinguished Company in my restoration. I Beg you not to worry on my account as the injuries are not severe in their Nature: a musket ball grazed my left knee, after which it found its way to my right ankle. Surely, it was a thrifty soldier that fired on me, as even his ammunition made the most of its purchase. I expect to be Fully improved with little more than a limp to show for my injury, and soon will rejoin Captain Armstrong’s troops.

In Due time I hope to Return home in Peace & Enjoy the pleasure of your company. Until then, I Subscribe my Self your Most Devoted,

George McDowel

Part of what drives my family search…

is the need to make my ancestors real, not just a name bookended with dates and followed by a list of progeny. For me, that means trying to put myself in their shoes, and relive what they must have gone through.

George McDowell, my 4th Great Grandfather, fought in the Battle of Brandywine—a part of the Revolutionary War that I don’t recall having learned about in school. And while the above letter from George to Mary is a figment of my imagination, the battle information contained therein is quite true. Researching George’s story has been all about Weapons, Military Tactics, and Revolutionary War Medicine. Believe me, I could tell you all sorts of things about loading and firing a musket or the horrors of field surgery, and know way more than I ever wanted to about cannon fire, regimental divisions, and the intricacies of troop deployment.

I’ve also learned that no two accounts of any battle are ever the same, which has made understanding what George may have encountered even more difficult. Add to that the fact that there is insufficient concrete evidence to back up the little I know, and what you end up with is conjecture stacked upon conjecture, all pinned upon one tiny bit of fact – a Muster Sheet showing one Private George McDowel enlisted in the North Carolina (don’t even get me started about why he would have enlisted in a NC regiment when he lived in SC which had a perfectly good regiment of its own to offer) 2nd Regiment 3rd Division under Captain Robert Tenner (or maybe Fenner, which is penciled in on the document). There are family stories handed down by word of mouth that indicate George was later drafted into Col. Thomas Proctor’s Corps of Artillery at the Battle of Brandywine, where he was wounded in the right ankle and left knee, for which “he never received a pension.”

And so I launched into my foray of the military specifics of Col. Proctor and his Artillery Regiment and Brandywine. I must have watched this animated version of the battle a thousand times trying to understand where George was (I’ve finally decided he was stationed at Kennett’s Meetinghouse the day of the battle) and just exactly how things might have transpired during his day. Of course, the animated version does not quite jive with this written account – at least as far as I can tell; I sorta go all glassy eyed when faced with “The Hessian general… dispatched the 28th and 49th Foot along with two heavy and two light artillery pieces to an elevation behind them… At the same time, the Queen’s Rangers and the 23d Foot filed off to the left… then pushed the 28th Foot in a flanking march around Maxwell’s left, to an eminence slightly behind the breastwork…”

For those of you who’d like some cold hard facts instead of conjecture, George would have been 33 years old at the time the Battle of Brandywine was fought. By 1785, he married Mary Lou Gudgel and had his first child, Nancy. He would eventually father ten children, and in the early 1800s, when he was in his mid-fifties, he sold everything, moved to Kentucky, bought land (cheap) on the banks of the Tradewater River near the Donaldson Ford, where he lived until his death on November 30, 1819. He is buried in the McDowell Cemetery in Caldwell Co. In fact, if you visited Caldwell County, there’s a good likelihood you’d bump into a relative of ours, as many of George’s children stayed in the area after his death.

At least one moved on, though, moving our family ever closer to Nebraska—but that’s a story for another day.

Want to know more?

Here are some interesting sources, in case you start hearing George’s voice whisper at you to learn more…

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