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Backstory extras:
Monument dedication becomes history lesson

By robin brown, The News Journal
Tuesday, September 9, 2008


The backstory on the Battle of Cooch's Bridge

Many at Friday evening's dedication of the Pencader Heritage Area Association's "Field of Valor" monument and a pair of state historical markers -- one for the Battle of Cooch's Bridge, one for the campaign that included that battle -- said they were surprised to learn that historic documents held the names of many who fought there, which were researched by and shared at the event by archaeologist Wade P. Catts.

Catts also crafted the text for the "Field of Valor" monument, created without a budget by a committee led by association member Bill Conley, and the state historical marker about the Battle of Cooch's Bridge. The Delaware Public Archives supplied the blue-and-gold standing markers unveiled at each end of the association's interpretive area at Dayett Mills Road and Old Baltimore Pike, as well as the text for the marker detailing where the Battle of Cooch's Bridge fit into the Revolutionary War's Philadelphia Campaign.

At the request of Delaware Backstory, Catts agreed to share the text of his comments at the ceremony -- held 231 years and two days after the Battle of Cooch's Bridge. His text follows.

Archaeologist Wade P. Catts shares research on Battle of Cooch's Bridge

First, I want to thank Bill Conley and the members of the Pencader Heritage Area Association for allowing me to speak on this occasion, and for recognizing the need for a commemoration of the Americans who fought September 3rd 1777 at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge or Iron Hill, as it is often referred to in the records.

At the distance of 231 years, it is nearly impossible to identify the names of all of the men who served in the Light Infantry Corps. Contributing to this difficulty are the temporary character of the Corps, the multi-state background of its personnel, and the fragmentary condition of the documentary record. What information we do have can be pieced together from dispatches and correspondence, muster rolls, pension records, diaries and memoirs.

The corps was formed by order of General Washington on August 28 – one week before the battle – and existed for about one month. During that brief period the corps fought at Cooch’s Bridge (September 3), Brandywine (September 11), and at the aborted battle of the Clouds (September 16).

Under the command of Brigadier General William Maxwell of New Jersey, the corps was composed of officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men drawn from each of the nine brigades serving with the main Continental army. Washington’s order specified that for the light infantry to be successful the chosen men were to be experienced and dependable marksmen.

The Continental soldiers in the Light Corps came from the states of New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Added to their numbers were militia companies from New Castle County and Pennsylvania. All totaled the Light Corps numbered perhaps 800 men.

While we cannot know the names of all who fought here, we do know the identities of some. Officers included Colonel Alexander Martin of North Carolina, destined to be governor of that state; French and Indian War veteran Major Francis Gurney of Philadelphia, who was wounded at the battle, and later became a Trustee of Dickinson College; and Colonel William Heth of Virginia, who had already given his right eye at the battle of Quebec for the cause of American liberty. Colonel James Dunlap hailed from Carlisle Pennsylvania, and brought with him militia riflemen from that frontier part of the state. A young lieutenant, Derrick Lane of New Jersey, became a leading citizen and founder of Renssalear County in New York. Perhaps the most noteworthy of all was Virginia Captain John Marshall, destined to become a Chief Justice of the United States.

Others who served at Cooch’s Bridge did not survive the war, including Captain Jacob Turner of North Carolina, killed only a month later at Germantown; Virginian Lt. Colonel Richard Parker, who was killed during the siege of Charleston; and Virginia Captain Charles Porterfield, who lost his life at the battle of Camden in South Carolina.

The casualties at Cooch’s Bridge are the men we know the least about. They lay beneath this battlefield somewhere, between today’s village of Glasgow (known then as Aiken’s Tavern) and the vicinity of the bridge. Buried by the British pioneers, their remains are unmarked, and we do not know if they are buried singly or in groups.

There were the unknown corporal and five men “killed by grapeshot” who died near the bridge. There was Ebenezer Carson of Pennsylvania, captured on September 3rd and still incarcerated in a New York prison over a year after the battle. There was William Honeyman of Pennsylvania, wounded in the chin and shoulder who continued to serve his country for the rest of the war in the Invalid Regiment in Philadelphia. There was Sergeant Richard Savage of New Jersey, who lost him arm in the fighting at Cooch’s Bridge. And there was Archibald Dallas, a captain in Spencer’s Additional Regiment, killed near the bridge and mill, and who left a young widow in Morris County, New Jersey. We can never know the accurate number of American casualties, partly due to the quality of the records and partly due to the passage of time, but it appears that battle of Cooch’s Bridge claimed about two dozen lives and wounded countless more.

In our time the battle of Cooch’s Bridge is often dismissed as a mere skirmish, a prologue to the more important engagements of Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown. Judging by the pension applications, filed by aged veterans in their seventies and eighties, this conclusion is patently false. Like our WWII veterans, memories of the Revolutionary battles left deep and profound scars on survivors. Their own words, recorded in their pension files, speak to the magnitude of the fight on September 3rd 1777. Adjectives such as “severe”, “bloody”, and “sharp” punctuate their recollections, clear indicators that, for those that fought here, Cooch’s Bridge was no mere skirmish. Even a British officer acknowledged the intensity of the fight, commenting that while many skirmishes were fought on the road to Philadelphia none were “considerable enough to deserve mention except the one at Iron Hill.”

Perhaps there is no greater tribute to those who fought than the words of Virginian William Walker, a Revolutionary War veteran of the battle. In his 1832 pension application – when he was 75 years of age – he pointedly noted that historians had overlooked the battle, but, continuing with pride, he stated that the soldiers who fought there on September 3rd 1777 “…deserved well of their country.”

Knowing the names of some of the men who fought and died here is important because it makes this commemoration personal, not an abstract remembrance of our colonial past. The names remind us that real people, with lives, families, and homes fought here. Some of them made the supreme sacrifice for their new country and to those individuals we owe a great debt. Our dedication of this memorial to the American casualties at Cooch’s Bridge, known and unknown, recognizes the sacrifices of those soldiers who gave their lives so that we can stand here today and do honor to their service.

Texts of the newly dedicated markers at Pencader Heritage Area Association's interpretive site:

DELAWARE'S FIELD OF VALOR

On 3 September 1777 an American light infantry corps under the command of Brigadier General William Maxwell engaged British and Hessian forces here in the Battle of Cooch's Bridge. Maxwell's Corps was composed of soldiers from New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and militia from Delaware and Pennsylvania. This plaque is dedicated to those soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country and whose remains rest beneath this field of battle. Their names and numbers are unknown. We will always honor their valor and courage.

Text of state historical markers, provided by the Delaware Public Archives

AMERICAN POSITION

Battle of Cooch’s Bridge

On September 3, 1777, an American Light Infantry Corps composed of Continental soldiers from New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, with militia from Pennsylvania and Delaware, was stationed west of Christina Creek between Aikentown (Glasgow) and nearby Cooch’s Bridge. Intended as an advance force with orders to give the British “as much trouble as you possibly can,” they were met by Hessian and British troops moving forward on present-day Old Cooch’s Bridge Road. Led by Brigadier General William Maxwell, the American marksmen battled enemy forces in a short but hard-fought engagement. Eventually outnumbered and facing artillery, the Americans withdrew towards Christiana after exhausting their ammunition. Maxwell’s Corps went on to fight with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine. Delaware Public Archives – 2008

THE PHILADELPHIA CAMPAIGN

Battle of Cooch’s Bridge

In August 1777, British forces under the command of General William Howe landed at the Head of Maryland’s Elk River. Their goal was the capture of Philadelphia, the capital of the young republic. On September 3, advancing troops were engaged by an American force under the command of General William Maxwell near Cooch’s Bridge. In a clash which cost each side as many as forty casualties, the Americans successfully delayed the British before withdrawing to join the main army. Despite subsequent defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, and enemy occupation of the capital, the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777 marked a turning point in the American Revolution. By enduring their losses and continuing to fight, the Americans exacted a heavy toll on the British while gaining valuable experience and confidence in their cause. Delaware Public Archives – 2008


Write to robin brown at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850; fax 324-5509; call 324-2856; or e-mail backstory@delawareonline.com

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