Reenactment of 1777 battle brings history alive for thousands
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
“A most infernal fire of cannon and musquetry”is how one officer described the fighting he witnessed at Sandy Hollow in Birmingham Township during the Battle of the Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777.
On Saturday and Sunday, thousands of spectators shared that experience through a haze of artillery fire as hundreds of reenactors shattered what would have otherwise been the calm countryside, recreating a clash of the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War at Sandy Hollow park.
According to historians, an estimated 26,000 soldiers fought at Sandy Hollow during the Battle of the Brandywine. And even though the British prevailed after three hours of fighting, the loss solidified the American troops’ determination and tenacity, paving the way for a victory four years later at Yorktown.
Appropriately called “On Hallowed Ground,” the free event, sponsored by Birmingham Township and a small army of volunteers, featured two full days of activities with proceeds targeted for the Wounded Warrior Project and Historic Battlefield Preservation. In addition to battle scenes replete with muskets ablaze and horses charging, spectators enjoyed history lectures, fife and drum corps, interaction with costumed reenactors, encampments, puppet theater, kids’ games, and “period” food and beverages.
For area residents, the event offered a somber reminder of the fierce battle that changed history, in many cases in their back yards since the Battle of the Brandywine encompassed over 10 square miles. For history buffs who traveled from afar, the event marked one of the few Revolutionary War reenactments to occur on the actual site of the battle. In addition, it included a number of British citizens, who crossed the Atlantic to repay a “debt of honor.”
For children, the event represented a living textbook as they watched the likes of George Washington, James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, Anthony Wayne, Charles Cornwallis and William Howe in the fields of Sandy Hill park. “Has anyone died yet?” one worried young boy whispered as he peered through the crowd during one of the battle scenes.
Event chairwoman Linda Kaat, a local preservationist, said she was thrilled with the outcome, which followed a year of planning. “The sunny skies were our best friend,” she said, adding that police estimates put the crowd at about 2,800 on Saturday and 3,500 on Sunday.
“Our goal was to make it a living history experience for as many people as possible,” she said, explaining the rationale for the free admission, free parking, and free program. She said thanks to the generosity of a host of sponsors, the event came at no cost to taxpayers. Bills and receipts are still being tallied, but she said early indications point to a substantial donation for the Wounded Warrior Project and Historic Battlefield Preservation.
Kaat said the date for the event was driven by a group of soldiers who approached Birmingham Township about the possibility of using Sandy Hollow park for the reenactment. “They had time available in May, but not September,” she explained.
When the township asked her if she would volunteer to coordinate the event, Kaat said she thought it was a fantastic opportunity to showcase a battle that has never gotten the attention it deserves in history books. “This ground is every bit as hallowed as that of Gettysburg and Normandy,” she said. “Many people that I spoke with who live in the area had no idea what took place here. This was simply a place where they walked their dogs.”
She said her goal in organizing the program was to generate “teardrops and goose bumps,” and examples of both abounded during the two-day extravaganza.
One especially evocative ceremony occurred between descendants of area families who received IOUs from the British in 1777 after their livestock and food were commandeered and a group of seven British soldiers who flew to the U.S. to repay that debt. The soldiers presented the families with a stack of Georgian coins. “The families were very moved, and the soldiers felt strongly that it was an important gesture of goodwill,” Kaat said.
Kaat said the British soldiers also brought dirt, which was spread over the nearby graves of their countrymen who never made it home after the battle, ensuring that they are “buried in British soil.” The positive interaction off the battlefield between the American soldiers and their British counterparts was gratifying as well, she said.
During the weekend, the worst mishap was the periodic loss of cell phones, all of which got returned to their owners, she said, adding that one woman was so grateful that she made a donation.
“Overall, I think it exceeded our expectations,” Kaat said, an accomplishment that could not have occurred without about 60 volunteers, many of whom did double and triple duty. “Everyone was in a state of euphoria when it ended,” Kaat said. “The opportunity to stand in the footsteps of presidents and patriots was just amazing.”