Newark Delaware Colonial Military History Kennard R. Wiggins Jr.
The military history of Newark Delaware reflects the larger story of the nation. What began as an initial settlement of Europeans grew into a hamlet, a village, and eventually into the fully mature city of today. Likewise defense was the responsibility of the individual, the community and the nation, in turn, as civilization expanded. And the realm of defense was first local, then regional, and finally national as well, but it always relied upon its citizens to defend themselves.
The militia concept had vigorous roots in English history that were transplanted to the New World. One of the first orders of business for the Virginia colony in 1607 was to fortify and defend itself against the indigenous natives. In 1620, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed a militia for the same purpose.
In Delaware a Swedish Colony was founded in 1638. The Swedish Delaware Colony militia was called out on August 31, 1655 to defend against a Dutch force at Fort Christina. The Dutch prevailed, and they gave the militia a peacetime structure that endured until the English took over. The presence of this militia helped to insure Delaware’s later independence as a separate colony of the three lower counties of Pennsylvania.
The original Newark settlement, like all such toeholds, had to be defended against the possibility of hostile neighbors. As we shall see, Newark occupied a location at the edge of the piedmont just off a well-traveled key strategic pathway among the colonies. It is near the narrowest part of the peninsula between two major bays and is centrally located between major centers of population.
There was a Minqua Indian fortress dating to Swedish colonial times, on either Iron Hill or Chestnut Hill that was the site of a battle between the Minqua and Seneca Indians in 1663. Aided by two small cannon and four white men to manage them, (provided by the governor of Maryland), the Minqua defeated their foe.[i] In addition to the possibility of hostile natives, there was the possibility of conflict among the first settlers. The Newark area was contested by the Calvert and Penn families who had conflicting claims on the upper Delmarva Peninsula.
Colonel George Talbot, "our right trusty and beloved cozen," (of Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore) was granted a total of 32,000 acres of land, Susquehanna Manor, extending from Delaware to Octoraro Creek, 80 miles at top of the Bay to above the present Pennsylvania line. In 1683 he established New Munster (6,000 acres), to the west of Newark, which extended over the Pennsylvania line. Talbot was placed there to be a thorn in the side of William Penn, who was encroaching on Maryland territory. The boundary dispute between the Penns and Calverts was a war. Talbot set up a redoubt at the head of the Christina River.[ii]
The result was a “fort” constructed in nearby Ogletown, built by Colonel George Talbot of Maryland as an outpost to defend his patent of land, including Iron Hill, granted by his Calvert relative. It was described by those who had seen it as “about thirteen feet long, ten feet wide and covered with slip.”[iii] The garrison consisted of six or seven men commanded by a man named Murray. They were “esteemed Catholics and they behaved peaceably towards the inhabitants, among whom they frequently went.”
This enclave eventually withered after about two years, when the entire command one cold night, “got on a terrible spree and laid out all night.” They were destroyed by John Barleycorn and Jack Frost. It was reported that some died, and others lost limbs. The Penn family retained the three lower counties. Delaware militia volunteers served in all five campaigns of the French and Indian Wars. In the War of Independence the Delaware militia distinguished itself out of proportion to its size. Colonel John Haslet formed the Delaware Regiment of the Continental Army in January 1776. It saw its first action at the Battle of Long Island in August of the same year.
Its further service in the Revolution reads like a roll‑call of important battles ‑ White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, Paulus Hook and Monmouth in the northern theater, then south for the battles of Camden, Cowpens, Hobkirk's Hill, Ninety‑Six and Eutaw Springs, Guilford Courthouse, and the siege of Yorktown. The regiment's losses at Camden were so heavy that it was reorganized as a single company under Newark native Robert Kirkwood, one of the outstanding small‑unit leaders of the war. Colonel "Light Horse Harry" Lee summed up the Delaware Regiment's almost eight years of continuous fighting in a single sentence: "No regiment in the Army surpassed it in soldiership."[iv]
The only engagement of the Revolution fought on Delaware soil was at Cooch’s Bridge in the late summer of 1777. British commander General William Howe, had been repulsed at Trenton in his attempt to take Philadelphia. He outflanked Washington by embarking his 15,000 man army from New York aboard a fleet of over 260 vessels and sailing up the Chesapeake Bay avoiding the well-defended Delaware Bay and River. It was the 18th century version of D-Day, and it must have been an extraordinary sight to see the fleet under sail. He landed in two locations on Elk Neck Peninsula and marched one division through Elkton Maryland, and the other crossed the Elk River east towards Middletown, and turning north near Lum’s Pond Delaware. The two forces joined at Aikentown (Glasgow) before moving northeast. [v]
Washington had posted his army to positions around the Marshallton –Stanton area on the banks of the Red Clay Creek. He selected a chosen force of some 720 men from every unit to serve as pickets and skirmishers to take up positions in the woods above Glasgow. They were commanded by William Maxwell. “Give them as much trouble as you possibly can,” instructed Washington. A hot battle began on the road skirting Iron Hill as the forces met, near present day route 896. Howe attempted to outflank and surround the smaller American force, but was hemmed in by Iron Hill on one side, and Purgatory Swamp on his right. The Americans made an especially strong stand at the site of Cooch’s Bridge which gives its name to this engagement, but were finally forced to retreat. Fighting continued up to Welsh Tract Meetinghouse, before hostilities were broken off.
Washington withdrew, and the British encamped in the area for three days from September 3-6. The British burned down Thomas Cooch's barn, and used Cooch's home as their headquarters. They then moved in three divisions through Newark, and Kennett Square Pennsylvania. Washington expected them to move on Christiana and Wilmington. He kept his army between Howe and Philadelphia and took up positions near Chadd’s Ford Pennsylvania setting the stage for the next battle at Brandywine, where the British prevailed in victory.
The following month, New Castle County elections had to be moved inland to Newark, away from the threat of British guns of the fleet offshore at New Castle.
A second significant event took place four years later that is the equal to the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge in importance. For students of logistics, the Washington and French General Rochambeau’s 650 mile march from Rhode Island to Yorktown stands as an extraordinary achievement. French General (and Count) Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau landed in Newport RI, wintered over there, marched to join Washington's Continental Army units outside New York City, explored options for an attack there, then marched together to Yorktown Virginia where they trapped, (with critical support from a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse) besieged, and accepted the surrender of a British army under Cornwallis.[vi]
Their route of march, combined in a single column, passed through Delaware from September 2-8, 1781. They traveled from Wilmington to Newport and on to Elkton via the Old Baltimore Pike, just south of Newark, crossing the site of the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge. The roughly 4,500 troops of the French Army formed about 60 companies of 72 men and officers. They moved through Delaware in two brigades of roughly 30 companies each. The columns were spaced a day's march apart (16 miles) so that they could camp in the same site as the previous day's column had used. A company of 64 men (and eight officers) marching four abreast and separated by 6 feet would take up about 100 feet, and if the companies were spaced 100 feet apart the 31 companies would stretch out for 6,200 feet, a bit over a mile.
Almost one year later, on August 29, 1782 the French forces re-traced their steps along the same route through Delaware on their way to New York.
[i] Newark Delaware, Past and Present, by Egbert G. Handy and Jas. L. Vallandigham, Jr. , Third Edition, 1982, Newark Delaware, p. 88
[ii] "Catholics on the Eastern Shore of Maryland” , An Article by Reverend Thomas J. Peterman, http://www.stdennischurch.org/COLONIALDELMARVA.htm
[iii] History of Cecil County, Johnson paraphrased in “Newark Delaware, Past and Present, by Egbert Handy and Jas. L. Vallandigham, Jr. , Third Edition, 1982, Newark Delaware, p. 17
[iv] The Delaware National Guard, A Historical Sketch, by Donn Devine, Captain Artillery Delaware Army National Guard 1968., p. 11
[v] History of Delaware, John A. Munroe, third Edition 1993, University of Delaware Press, Newark Delaware. Pp.73-75
[vi] The Washington- Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Liaison Web Page, Sons of the American Revolution http://www.rsar.org/current/w3r/default.htm