would be followed by others, with the British enemy occupying
Philadelphia, the young nation's capital and largest city, while
General Washington's army endured a horrible winter at Valley
Forge. Four years later, Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at
Yorktown and two years after that Britain formally recognized
American independence with the Treaty of Paris.
In a sense, the army that would,
with help from a French ally, defeat what was acknowledged to be
the militarily most powerful nation in Europe began its
professional development in Delaware, Thomas McGuire told some
400 people who turned out on Aug. 23 for a lecture opening the
Delaware Heritage Commission's commemoration of the 225th
anniversary of the Battle of Cooch's Bridge. McGuire is a
history teacher at Malvern (Pa.) Academy and a recognized
authority on the Philadelphia Campaign, about which he is
writing a new book.
Cooch's Bridge -- the only land
battle fought on Delaware soil and one of only two military
engagements, the British naval bombardment of Lewes during the
War of 1812 being the other -- took place on Sept. 3, 1777. The
first engagement in the
campaign to capture Philadelphia, it
pitted a force of British regulars and German mercenaries
against Colonial troops led by Brig. Gen. William Maxwell and
militia, including companies from all the hundreds of northern
New Castle County commanded by Col. Caesar Rodney, a Delaware
signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Charles Fithian, curator of
archaeology for Delaware state museums, said research since
celebration of the national bicentennial a quarter century ago
is not so much revisionist history as it is documentation for
reassessing Delaware's role in the Revolution. "Events in
Delaware were much more important than has been previously
realized," he said.
British troops advance on Cooch's Bridge during the
re-enactment. (Photo by Frank Mazlewski Jr of Iron Hill
Digital Designs, courtesy of the Delaware Heritage
There apparently is
considerable public support for that viewpoint as evidenced by
the impressive turnout. The commission said 900 were on hand for
the re-enactment the next morning and 750 for the afternoon
rerun despite having to cope with the first significant rainfall in several
While it would be hard
to ignore such widespread interest, McGuire described it as
reasonable. "They were real people. They came through here and
some of them died here," he said.
still a bridge which carries what is now known as Old Baltimore
Pike over the Christina. Although both the road and the span are
modern, at least part the house which stands adjacent to both
not only stood there then but also was occupied, as it is now,
by a family named Cooch.
Contrary to some popular belief, the
Battle of Cooch's Bridge was neither a skirmish nor a mismatch
of professionals against amateurs, McGuire said.. Maxwell's
command consisted of about 1,000 troops of whom between 700 and
800 were handpicked to include, on Washington's order, the
best soldiers from every regiment. It was organized as a brigade
of light infantry, a shock formation patterned on the
British model and roughly the equivalent of a regimental combat
team of modern-day Army Rangers. Opposing him was the advance
elements of an army of 18,000 landed at what is now Elkton, Md.,
with the intent to march on Philadelphia. The lead force was
commanded by the same Lord Cornwallis.
Washington had expected to engage
the British along the main road to Philadelphia, which then ran
through Christiana and Stanton. His main force was dug in in
strong defensive positions along Red Clay Creek west of Newport.
After the British drove the outnumbered and outgunned Americans
-- they had no artillery -- from the field at Cooch's Bridge,
they camped in that area for three days. Cornwallis made his
headquarters in the Cooch house. To avoid the roadblock, he
decided to march west to Kennett Square, Pa.. Washington's
obvious move to keep his force between the enemy and the capital
city set the stage for the Battle of Brandywine at Chadds Ford,
Pa., a week later.
The 225th anniversary of that battle
will be commemorated at Brandywine Battlefield (Pennsylvania)
State Park on Sept. 22, postponed for obvious reasons from the
actual anniversary date.
Two days after the Battle of
Brandywine, Scottish Highlanders came to Wilmington and captured
John McKinly, president of the Delaware State, as the chief
executive or governor was then known, and a brigadeier general
of militia.. He was held as a prisoner of war aboard a British
ship in the Delaware River until paroled the following April.
While in prison, he lost his political position to Thomas McKean,
never to regain it.
What was particularly notable about
the Battle of Cooch's Bridge re-enactment on Aug. 24 was that
the day's activities began on the lawn of the home of Edward
Cooch, the seventh generation of his family to live in the area.
Part of his home dates from 1760. That makes it unusual, if not
unique, among historic sites in that direct descendents of those
present during the original event have lived there continuously.
Cooch's father wrote what Wade Catts,
a West Chester, Pa.-based archaeological and historical
researcher, who also spoke on the battle on Aug. 23, said is
still the definitive work on Cooch;s Bridge although new details
have come to light since it was published in 1940. The new
material consists primarily of letters and other documents from
British and German sources.
For all the new understanding that
the weekend commemoration produced, it failed to resolve one
critical question -- the veracity of the Delaware claim to be
the place where the so-called Betsy Ross flag was first unfurled
McGuire ignored the point during his
lecture and sidestepped a direct answer during the
question-and-answer session which followed. He said only that
American military tradition of carrying the national colors did
not begin until the Mexican War. "Before that, it would have
been regimental flags that were carried. They were of various
designs but the picture of [Revolutionary] troops carrying the
[traditional] flag is a 19th Century picture, not an 18th
Century one," he said.
Betsy Ross is alleged to have
produced the banner with 13 white stars in a circle on a field
of blue and 13 alternate red and white stripes at the behest of
Washington. That design was adopted by the Continental Congress
in June, 1777, but Ms. Ross's role was not general knowledge
until the story was told by one of her descendents during
observance of the national centennial in 1876.
Be that as it may, Cooch -- who is
86 and is still a practicing attorney and who was present for
the lecture but did not respond then -- made it a point
during his talk about the battle before the re-enactment to
repeat the claim that the historic flag was present and even had
a judge attest to the existence of "considerable circumstantial
evidence" that the story his father related in his book is true.
Cooch's argument was based on the fact Maxwell's brigade led the
march of Washington's troops from Philadelphia to Wilmington and
Newport and that contemporary accounts describe the new flag as
being carried in that parade. "If General Maxwell was at the
head of the column, [his unit] would have been the one to carry
the flag and they still would have had it at the time of the
battle," Cooch said.
The Delaware Air National Guard
color guard at the opening ceremony presented a flag of that
design but neither side in the sham battle which followed
carried any flag.
The judge who rendered a somewhat
equivocal ruling in favor of the theory wasn't exactly
objective. He was Richard Cooch, of Superior Court, Edward