Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Little House that Survived a Major Battle, 1777

Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Susan reporting,

One of the best parts about writing I, Eliza Hamilton is that I've been able to visit so many of the places that were familiar to my characters. Alexander and Eliza Hamilton lived most of their lives in New York and Pennsylvania, with some months spent also in New Jersey during the war. As a young man, Alexander served as an officer in the Continental Army, and was the senior aide-de-camp of Commander-in-Chief General George Washington. For obvious reasons, Eliza wasn't there on the front lines with Alexander, and since this is her book, not his, I've only now been playing catch-up and visiting "his" battlefields.

This past weekend, I braved the cold to traipse across the Brandywine Battlefield, located in Chadds Ford, PA. The Battle of Brandywine was fought on September 11, 1777. It was the largest battle of the Revolution, involving the most troops (over 30,000 men between the two armies), and the longest battle as well, with fighting that ranged over 11 hours in ninety-degree heat. It was not a good day for the Continental Army. Not only were they soundly defeated with significant casualties, but their retreat also permitted the British Army to capture Philadelphia (then the country's capital) virtually unopposed. And yes, twenty-year-old Alexander Hamilton was one of those soldiers in the retreat.

There is, of course, few signs of the battle left today. Housing developments and highways close in around what remains of the battlefield, a fraction of the long-gone open space of 1777. The word "battlefield" itself has always struck me as something of a misnomer, sounding as it does like some carefully designated and set-aside place for war. The Battle of Brandywine took place across farms and around homes, river fords, and meeting houses, and as wars always do, changed forever the lives of those caught in the middle of it.

The house of farmer Gideon Gilpin (shown here) still stands, and it is open to visitors as part of the Brandywine Battlefield historic site. Gilpin was a prosperous wheat and dairy farmer whose family had been among the first English settlers of the region. He lived with his wife and six young children in the two-story, four-room stone house shown here (the ell with the porch is a later addition.) Like most of his neighbors, he was a Friend, or Quaker. Quakers believed that war and conflict went against God's wishes, and refused to choose sides or fight during the Revolution.

It was a difficult and unpopular stand to take, especially when the war spilled over onto Gilpin's land. Standing inside the little stone house, I tried to imagine what that September day must have been like for the Gilpin family, who remained inside their house while the battle raged nearby. With shutters closed, the thick stone walls protected them to a certain extent, but considering how seasoned soldiers spoke afterwards of the terrible fighting and steady gunfire from the artillery on both sides, it must have been a horrifying ordeal.

Imagine trying to comfort your small children when you're terrified yourself. Imagine hearing the sounds of war, without knowing exactly what was happening. Imagine wondering if the next round of cannon fire will be near enough to shatter the wall of your home.

The Gilpins and their house survived, but the aftermath of the battle may have been even more difficult for Gideon. His crops - so close to harvest - fields, and trees were destroyed. Worse yet, the British had taken not only the bacon, hay, and wheat he had in storage, but all his livestock: milch cows, sheep, swine, and his yoke of oxen, the 18thc farmer's equivalent to a tractor and a truck. His farm was in ruins, and he was left with no way to feed or support his family. It was enough for Gideon Gilpin. Soon after, he chose to side with the Continental cause - and was read out (or expelled) from his Quaker community for doing so.

I think there could be another book here....

One more quick Nerdy History fact: that enormous sycamore tree in the background of the bottom photo is certified by the National Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture to have been standing at least since 1787, the year the American Constitution was signed. Most likely it, too, is another survivor of the battle.

The Brandywine Battlefield historic site includes not only the Gilpin House, but the Benjamin Ring House, which served as Washington's headquarters. They've just reopened for the season; their website is here. Special thanks to Andrew M. Outten, director of education and museum services, for his first-rate tour of the Gilpin House.

All photos ©2017 by Susan Holloway Scott.


Annette said...

Good Early Morning, Thanks again for possibly the best organized and produced web blog that maintains many subjects and historical links to other web sites that support this discussion and articles you offer online. American Revolution, is a subject that pops up often in my online searches and discussions with people from other Countries. In appreciation, Mrs. Arthur Keith (Annette)

Stephanie said...

When I read the post this morning I thought the name Gilpin sounded familiar. So I asked my sister who has many many files on our family ancestry. She told me that Gideon Gilpin is an ancestor. She was very excited about your post because she'd pictures of the house in family history books. Thanks for the report.

Lars D. H. Hedbor said...

The question of the wrenching choices the Quakers faced during the course of the Revolution is one that I explored in The Light, which is lovingly reviewed here, including a scene evocative of the one you've outlined here.

Of course, being at the perimeter of Brandywine--rather than on the outskirts of Trenton--adds a whole new dimension of terror and desperation to the story, and having a real person to write about, rather than a fictional character, makes it all the more compelling.

Anonymous said...

I found this very interesting since my 3rd Great Grandfather was James Trimble who owned Trimble's Ford where the British troops crossed the Brandywine. I am sure he was not fond of the concept of helping the British. However, what could be said to two British Generals and something like 20,000 troops. Thanks Tom Trimble

American United said...

Visiting these places takes you back in history and does make you consider how they felt when they heard the sound of cannons and the struggle to survive when crops were poor. There are so many incredible historical sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. And these photos bring this historical feeling to life.

Anonymous said...

Gideon Gilpin was my 1st cousin 7x removed

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