The Affair at Cooch's Bridge

The first significant engagement of the Philadelphia campaign took place at Cooch's Bridge, Del., on September 3, 1777. After resting and refitting at Head of Elk for over a week, Howe divided his army into two divisions under Earl Charles Cornwallis and Baron Wilhelm Knyphausen. Howe accompanied Cornwallis's column, which advanced from Head of Elk and reached Aiken's Tavern in what is now Glasgow, Del. at about 9:00 A.M. Knyphausen's division, marching from Cecil County Courthouse, arrived an hour later.

Cornwallis's division, having arrived earlier, proceeded first on the road north from Aiken's Tavern toward Cooch's Bridge and Iron Hill, Del. Just a mile north, the vanguard of Hessian jägers under Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig Johann Adolph von Wurmb encountered outposts of Brigadier-General William Maxwell's light corps. This ad hoc formation had been thrown together to replace Colonel Daniel Morgan's vaunted and invaluable riflemen, sent some months earlier to aid Major-General Horatio Gates.

Stationed "at the entrance of a wood," the Americans commenced an irregular fire on the advancing British that continued for two miles up the road. Captain Johann Ewald of the Hessian jägers, who had gone ahead with six dragoons to scout the road, "received fire from a hedge, through which these six men were all either killed or wounded." This continued for some time as the Americans fell back from one position to another. Howe's aide Captain Friederich von Muenchhausen "saw several rebels behind trees, firing at our advancing jaegers, then retreating about 20 yards behind the next tree, then firing again." Wurmb was meanwhile "continuously in front of the jaegers, encouraging them in every way, both by actions and by words." Finally the Americans retreated to the area of Cooch's Bridge.

Howe ordered a simultaneous advance on both flanks of the enemy. On the American right, the attempt of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Abercromby's light infantry got entangled in the woods and bogged down in what was known as "Purgatory Swamp," advancing no further. On the left, Captain Carl August von Wreden with a body of Hessian grenadiers succeeded in gaining the American flank and "cannonaded [them] with some amusettes and charged with bayonets," driving the Americans back in disorder. Major John André wrote that "their flight afterwards became so precipitate that great numbers threw down their arms and blankets." Accounts of casualties vary widely, but probably approached thirty British and 60 American. What was intended to be little more than a delaying action had turned into a bloody skirmish; the initial tenacity of the Americans, as well as their propensity to break when pressed with the bayonet, was a portent of things to come.