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Remembering September 11th

Eagle soaring in blue sky

It is eleven years since a cowardly attack launched by violent Islamists on American soil killed thousands of innocent men and women and blighted the lives of their children. Today we remember those who died and the people who tried to rescue them, and the people of United Airlines Flight 93, who died defending us.

There is another September 11th remembered by Americans.

"We are born to the bright inheritance of English freedom," New Yorkers told the Lord Mayor of London. When their inheritance was denied them, Americans began a revolution. On the 11th of September 1777 they almost lost the Battle of Brandywine and the War of Independence due to intelligence failures. They barely avoided complete disaster.

In the battle Britons and Americans were opposed, but the survival of the future United States of America depended on the inheritance which Americans had received from Britain and on what we like to call Anglo-American spirit. It's worth looking for that spirit in the battle.

British General William Howe landed with 13,000 British troops and 5,000 Hessian mercenaries in Maryland, and headed north to capture Philadelphia. By September 9th, his army was at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, six miles west of the Brandywine River and the crossing at Chadds Ford.

Facing him on the east side of Chadds Ford was George Washington with 11,000 American soldiers. Trees grew so thickly on the banks of the Brandywine it was impassable to an army except at the fords. Washington had set guards at every ford, but a crossing to the north had been overlooked.

Howe had better information about the terrain. He sent part of his force to attack Washington while the rest of his army, screened by woods and southeastern Pennsylvania's rolling green hills, marched north, crossed the Brandywine at the unguarded crossing and launched a devastating flanking attack.

That Washington was still alive to meet him was due to British chivalry. On a warm and humid morning Washington had ridden out early to look at the woods and pastures that would form his battlefield. He was accompanied only by an aide.

Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had adapted the breech-loading mechanism used in sporting guns to his military rifle and could fire six rounds a minute. He was a brilliant marksman and he was out, scouting. According to M. M. Gilchrist, he saw Washington on horseback near Chadds Ford, and put him in his sights. He was about to shoot when Washington turned his back on him. Ferguson later said, the idea of shooting in the back someone who was going about his duties so coolly disgusted me. Even when told that the officer in question was Washington, he never regretted his chivalry.

On the morning of the 11th, conflicting reports began reaching Washington about the movements of Howe's army, and he didn't know which report to believe. By early afternoon, the British army was about to descend in force on the unsuspecting Americans. A local, Thomas Cheyney, who had escaped capture, arrived with the news at Washington's camp.

John B.B. Trussell, Jr. of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission describes what happened -

Washington sped orders to his commanders to move to high ground and block the British at the Birmingham Meeting House. The Americans. . .raced toward the British, who halted and opened fire. Seeing this, a rear brigade delivered a volley. This fire did not reach the enemy but plowed into the Americans from the rear, and they broke and fled. . .The British pressed their attack. The Americans laid down a telling fire, slowing the British advance, but were steadily forced backward. . .

Meanwhile, there were children caught near the battle. As Douglas Harper describes in his book West Chester to 1865 -

The morning was wretchedly hot, with some clouds that brought little relief. Persifor Frazer’s three young children were at school in Thornbury. The oldest was Sally, age eight. Many years later, she remembered hearing the gunfire and cannonading: "The teachers went out, and listened some time, and returned, saying, 'There is a battle not far off, children, you may go home.' As we returned we met our mother on horseback, going over towards the place of action, knowing that. . .our father must be in the midst of the affray." Strong-willed Mary Taylor Frazer knew her husband well.

Keep this little incident in mind. When we look at it again, we'll notice something important.

Trussell describes what happened next -

After almost an hour, the British army was close enough to launch a bayonet charge against the American right flank held by a brigade under a French volunteer, General Prud'Homme de Borre. As the scarlet line drove in, De Borre panicked and fled, followed by his brigade. . .Under increasing pressure, the Americans on the left also gave way, but the center held their ground.

The sound of the battle had carried to Chadds Ford. Washington immediately ordered Greene out of reserve to reinforce the troops at Birmingham Meeting House, and Greene's men, with George Weedon's Virginia brigade in the lead, were soon pelting across the fields. Then, as the gunfire swelled, Washington turned over command at Chadds Ford to Anthony Wayne. Guided by a local farmer, the General and his aides started for the battle in a cross-country gallop.

. . .The threat of imminent encirclement forced the Americans to abandon Birmingham Meeting House. With most of the artillery horses dead, the cannon had to be left behind. The troops fell back half a mile along the Dilworth Road to a hill, where they formed another line. There the British struck them again, but were hurled back - not once, but five successive times. However, the Americans' ammunition ran low, and few were armed with bayonets; at the next British charge the surviving Americans began streaming down the hill.

At this point Washington reached the scene and disregarding the hail of British bullets rallied the men. . .Lafayette fought valiantly although he was wounded and his boot filled with blood. Weedon's men arrived - they had double-timed four miles in about forty minutes - and deployed at a narrow defile on the Dilworth Road a little to the rear. They parted ranks to let the retreating troops pass through then closed up again, halting the pursuing British with volley after volley.

Meanwhile the Hessians drove across Chadds Ford, overrunning the artillery. Wayne's men fell back, fighting hand-to-hand in orchards and fields. Sullivan's men retreated through Weedon and his men. And Weedon and his men stood all that sweltering September afternoon and fought, withdrew and stood and fought again. Their fighting withdrawal bought time for the American army to escape as darkness fell.

Artillery was lost, but not all of it. Edward Hector, a private in Proctor's Pennsylvania Artillery, in actions of outstanding bravery, rescued his team and some of the Artillery’s weapons in the face of the Hessian advance. Hector, by the way, was a black soldier.

The American Army retreated toward Chester. Howe sent cavalry to cut the road, but Polish volunteer Count Casimir Pulaski, leading American cavalry, covered Washington's retreat. Howe had defeated the American Army, but he had not crushed it. Americans remained in good spirits.

After the battle, and acting again in the spirit of chivalry, British soldiers accompanied wounded American soldiers from the country battlefield to the settlement of Turk's Head (West Chester's original name) where they could be treated. General Howe asked General Washington to send doctors to tend the wounded rebels who had been captured in the battle -

The American doctors who were sent behind enemy lines by an arrangement between Washington and Howe included Benjamin Rush, a leading Philadelphia surgeon but also one of the ringleaders of the rebellion. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush took a bold risk in riding unarmed into the British camp, and he was apparently detained briefly once his identity was learned. But since Rush was a doctor, and had come under a flag of truce, Howe respected the rules of war and let him do his job (-from West Chester to 1865).

In the actions we've described we see what we call the Anglo-American spirit of courage and chivalry, a belief in education, a capacity to innovate, respect for women, and an absolute unwillingness to be defeated.

Washington is brave beyond belief, but so are many other Americans. Look again at that paragraph about the children and their mother. It contains insights into Anglo-American life in the 18th century. First there is the fact that children went to school, and the school was large enough to have more than one teacher. Second, girls were taught as well as boys. The education of girls would help to make Britain and America prosperous because a country's success depends on women as well as men. No country which treats women as second-class citizens is successful.

For a thousand years Brits had fought for limited, representative government, for freedom of religion and for equality - to be treated as an equal under the law and to play on a level playing field, with all the equality of opportunity that implies. Brits in America continued the struggle. Americans eventually established a country that realized the ideals of their inheritance and the US Constitution.

The result: Millions of people from all over the world have voted with their feet for these fundamental principles by moving to Britain and America.

On the 11th anniversary of the day when violent Islamists who hate those things tried to destroy them, we affirm that freedom, the equality of men and women, the rule of just law, and limited government are worth dying for and that wisdom, courage, kindness, chivalry, and teamwork in Britain and America will conquer murderous fanaticism.

This post has been republished and edited.

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