In a freshly cropped field in Chester County, three men in thick wool coats and tricorne hats lifted 10-pound muskets and fired them toward a burning September sun.
A fife and drum corps played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” nearby, beside a fading barn.
Smoke billowed from the musket locks, and the shock of the shots thumped against the ribs of all onlookers holding coffee and pastries here Friday morning, about 240 years after the Battle of Brandywine nearly ended America’s budding revolution.
“Now imagine thousands of muskets going off, all day,” said John Foskey Jr., 46, a Wilmington resident playing the role of a captain with the First Delaware Regiment on Friday. “People lost their lives here, shed their blood. This is hallowed ground.”
The Civil War Trust, a nonprofit focused on preserving battlefields, has purchased this 10-acre patch in Birmingham Township, known as the Dilworth Farm, for $850,000. It is the first Revolutionary War battlefield to be acquired in Pennsylvania with grants from the American Battlefield Protection Program, financed by the Land and Water Conservation Fund and administered by the National Park Service. Grants were also provided by Chester County and private donations from the Civil War Trust.
The cost was worth it, supporters said at the announcement Friday, and there are plans to preserve more parcels in and around the farm. “When you save battlefields, you create outdoor classrooms,” said Jim Lighthizer, president of the trust.
All told, the Brandywine Battlefield sprawled across 35,000 acres of rolling hills and creeks in Chester and Delaware Counties, and it remains the largest single-day battle during the War of Independence. It saw George Washington’s Continental army flanked, surprised, and nearly decimated by British Gen. William Howe for hours on Sept. 11, 1777. It was brutal and bloody, but it wasn’t the fatal blow Howe had hoped for.
Dilworth Farm had some of the battle’s heaviest action and was occupied for days after the British won, historian Andrew Outten said.
American troops retreated and regrouped, defeated in battle but victorious, eventually, in the war.
Rep. Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania’s Seventh District, said the battle, despite a loss, offers valuable lessons for all Americans.
“In the end, Washington made a fundamental decision for the first, real time to try to match up toe-to-toe with the British,” Meehan said. “It was a decision to make a stand for what eventually became the preservation of this country.”
The property will eventually be titled to Birmingham Township, an affluent, 6.4-square-mile community on the border of Delaware County. Birmingham has about 40 percent of its land in preserved open space, said John L. Conklin, chairman of the board of supervisors.
All told, about 400 battlefield acres have been preserved in Chester County.
On Saturday and Sunday, about 800 Revolutionary War reenactors and thousands of spectators were to have gathered down the street from Dilworth at the Sandy Hollow Heritage Park nearby to commemorate the Battle of Brandywine. This weekend is the second time Birmingham has hosted a commemoration of the battle.
“The field we’re having this reenactment on is still being farmed,” Conklin said. “The township owns it. It’s 46 acres and in the middle of it is a farm.”
There are a seemingly endless number of properties that could be included in the Battle for Brandywine, and not all are slated to be saved.
One man in the crowd of 200 carried a “Save Crebilly Farm” sign, referring to a 325-acre farm in Westtown Township that is slated for a 317-unit Toll Brothers development. The group Neighbors for Crebilly Farm say the property is also a key piece of the Battle of Brandywine and has been actively fighting to preserve the tract.
“Everybody in the area wants to save this farm. It should be a county park or part of the Brandywine Battlefield,” group member Ken Hemphill told Philadelphia Magazine in May.
A parcel that historians and preservationists are eyeing in the area is Osborn Hill, the vantage point from which Howe directed his troops. That 88-acre parcel sits in both Birmingham and Westtown Townships.
“From a strategic point, it was a major element that is not protected by a conservation easement,” said Molly K. Morrison, president of Natural Lands, a Media-based nonprofit that preserves open space.
The reenactors who accompanied Friday’s ceremony at Dilworth Farm were sweaty and red in their wool by noon, but they would be there all weekend, they said, helping make history come alive with sore feet.
“Imagine wearing dress shoes all weekend out there,” Foskey said. “Dress shoes that are two sizes too small.”