One of the best parts about writing I, Eliza Hamiltonis 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.