Battle of Cooch's Bridge
The Battle of Cooch's Bridge, also known as the Battle of Iron Hill, was a battle fought on September 3, 1777, between the Continental Army and American militia and primarily German soldiers serving alongside the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. It was the only significant military action during the war on the soil of Delaware (though there were also naval engagements off the state's coast), and it took place about a week before the major Battle of Brandywine. Reportedly, the battle saw the first flying of the American flag.
After landing in Maryland on August 25 as part of a campaign to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, British and German forces under the overall command of General William Howe began to move north. Their advance was monitored by a light infantry corps of Continental Army and militia forces that had based itself at Cooch's Bridge, near Newark, Delaware. On September 3, German troops leading the British advance were met by musket fire from the American light infantry in the woods on either side of the road leading toward Cooch's Bridge. Calling up reinforcements, they flushed the Americans out and drove them across the bridge.
After having successfully captured New York City in 1776, British military planners organized two expeditions to divide the Thirteen Colonies and, they hoped, decisively end the rebellion. One expedition was to take control of the Hudson River by a descent from Quebec, while the other was targeted at the colonial capital, Philadelphia. In pursuit of the latter objective, Lieutenant General William Howe embarked an army numbering about 18,000 (plus about 5,000 camp followers) onto transports in late July 1777, and sailed from New York City to the Chesapeake Bay. The Continental Army of Major General George Washington remained near New York until Howe's objective became clear. Howe's plan was gauged to the south, intending to move against Philadelphia via the Chesapeake. Washington marched his army, numbering about 16,000, through Philadelphia, and established a camp at Wilmington, Delaware. Riding further south and west to perform reconnaissance on August 26, Washington learned that the British had landed.
On August 25, Howe's army disembarked below a small town called Head of Elk (now known as Elkton, and located at the head of navigation of the Elk River) in Maryland, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Philadelphia. Due to the relatively poor quality of the landing area, his troops moved immediately to the north, reaching Head of Elk itself on August 28. Advance troops consisting of British light infantry and German jägers went east across Elk Creek and occupied Gray's Hill, about one mile (1.6 km) west of Iron Hill, near Cooch's Bridge, which was a few miles south of Newark. The bridge was named for Thomas Cooch, a local landowner whose house was near the bridge.
Washington would normally have assigned the duties of advance guard to Daniel Morgan and his riflemen, but he had detached these to assist Horatio Gates in the defense of the Hudson River Valley against the advance of General John Burgoyne. Since they were unavailable, he organized a light infantry corps consisting of 700 picked men from Continental Army regiments (including future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who would go on to fight in the coming battle) and about 1,000 Pennsylvania and Delaware militia, and placed them under the command of Brigadier General William Maxwell. These troops occupied Iron Hill and Cooch's Bridge. General Nathanael Greene advocating moving the entire Continental Army to this position, believing the Christina River to be a more defensible point, but Washington declined, instead ordering Maxwell to monitor British movements and slow its advance while the rest of the army fortified the Red Clay Creek and Wilmington. Maxwell's men were encamped on either side of the road leading south from Cooch's Bridge toward Aiken's Tavern (present-day Glasgow, Delaware) in a series of small camps designed to facilitate ambushes. On August 28, Washington, atop Iron Hill, and Howe, on Gray's Hill, observed each other as they took stock of the enemy's position; one of the Hessian generals wrote, "These gentlemen observed us with their glasses as carefully as we observed them. Those of our officers who know Washington well, maintained that the man in the plain coat was Washington."
On September 2, Howe's right wing, under the command of the Hessian general, Wilhelm von Knyphausen, left Cecil County Court House and headed north, hampered by rain and bad roads. Early the next morning, Howe's left wing, headed by troops under the command of Charles Cornwallis, left Head of Elk, expecting to join with Knyphausen's division at Aiken's Tavern, about 5 miles (8.0 km) east. Cornwallis reached the tavern first, and Howe, traveling with Cornwallis, decided to press on to the north without waiting for Knyphausen.
A small company of Hessian dragoons led by Captain Johann Ewald headed up the road from the tavern toward Cooch's Bridge as Cornwallis's advance guard. These were struck by a volley of fire from an American ambush, and many of them fell, either killed or wounded. Ewald did not, and he quickly alerted the Hessian and Ansbach jägers, who rushed forward to meet the Americans. This began a running skirmish that Major John André described as follows: "Here the rebels began to attack us about 9 o'clock with a continued irregular fire for nearly two miles." Howe rode to the front lines, and seeing Iron Hill crawling with enemy soldiers, ordered his troops to clear it. At this time, much of Maxwell's force was defending Iron Hill, while the rest were protecting Cooch's Bridge. The jägers, numbering over 400 men led by Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig von Wurmb, formed a line and, with the support of some artillery, advanced on the Americans. Von Wurmb sent one detachment to Maxwell's left, hoping to flank his position, and supported the move with a bayonet charge against the American center.
The battle lasted for much of the day; at Cooch's Bridge, Maxwell's men made a stand until they "had shot themselves out of ammunition" and "the fight was carried on with the sword" and bayonet (the latter being a weapon Maxwell's militia lacked experience in using). After seven hours of fighting, the Americans were forced to retreat from Iron Hill across Cooch's Bridge, taking up a position on the far side. Howe ordered the 1st and 2nd British Light Infantry Battalion to assist the jägers in taking the bridge. While the 1st Battalion under Robert Abercromby became mired in swampy terrain attempting to ford the Christina River, the 2nd Battalion reached the right of the jägers and the bridge was taken. Maxwell's army then retreated back toward Wilmington.
Casualty reports for the British range from 3 killed and 20 wounded to about 30 each killed and wounded. One British deserter reported that nine wagonloads of wounded were sent toward the fleet. The Americans claimed 20 killed and another 20 wounded, and Washington in a letter to Congress said the losses were "not very considerable"; however, the British reported burying 41 Americans, and Howe's official report claimed "not less than fifty killed and many more wounded". General Maxwell was criticized for his leadership by a number of Washington's subordinates. One foreign officer with service in the Army of Prussia commented to Henry Laurens in reference to Maxwell, "Your soldiers are very good mans, so good as any brave mans in the world, but your officers my dear colonel, your officers..."
General Cornwallis occupied the house of Thomas Cooch, and Howe's forces remained at Iron Hill for five days. In a letter to Congress, Washington justified the defeat by saying, "This Morning the Enemy came out with considerable force and three pieces of Artillery, against our Light advanced Corps, and after some pretty smart skirmishing obliged them to retreat, being far inferior in number and without Cannon." Certain that Howe would advance along the main road toward Wilmington in his bid to capture Philadelphia, Washington continued to fortify the city and the Red Clay Creek. He moved his headquarters from Wilmington to Newport, and the army formed defenses between Newport and Marshallton. While Howe's army remained in place, the two forces engaged in small skirmishes over the next few days. One officer under Howe noted that the rebel patrols, which usually consist of 10 to 15 dragoons and 20 to 30 infantrymen, now appear more often, and they fire at our posts occasionally."
Sensing an attack coming, Washington told his troops on September 5th, "Should they [the British] push their design against Philadelphia, on this route, their all is at stake—they will put the contest on the event of a single battle: If they are overthrown, they are utterly undone—the war is at an end." Two days later, upon hearing that British ships had left the Chesapeake, Washington was sure Howe's move was imminent. He rallied his troops, referencing Horatio Gates's successes against the British in the north, saying "Who can forbear to emulate their [Gates's army] noble spirit? Who is there without ambition, to share with them, the applauses of their countrymen, and of all posterity, as the defenders of Liberty, and the procurers of peace and happiness to millions in the present and future generations? Two years we have maintained the war and struggled with difficulties innumerable. But the prospect has since brightened, and our affairs put on a better face—Now is the time to reap the fruits of all our toils and dangers! ... The eyes of all America, and of Europe are turned upon us."
But the attack never came. Instead, on September 8, Howe moved his force north, through Newark and Hockessin into Pennsylvania. Upon realizing what the British were doing late in the night, Washington rushed his forces north as well to find a new defensive position. He settled on Chadds Ford, just across the Delaware border, upon the Brandywine River—the last natural defense before the Schuylkill River and Philadelphia. It was there that the two armies clashed again in the major Battle of Brandywine on September 11. The British victory in that battle paved the way for their eventual entry into and occupation of the city of Philadelphia.
This success was more than offset by the failure of the expedition to the Hudson, in which General Burgoyne surrendered his army after the Battles of Saratoga, in October 1777. News of Burgoyne's surrender greatly changed the war, because it (and the Battle of Germantown, fought after the British occupied Philadelphia) was a major factor in France's decision to enter the war as an American ally in 1778.
The site of the battle has been preserved as the Cooch's Bridge Historic District, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, the Cooch family sold the state some land as well as development rights for an additional 200 acres (81 ha) of land in the area of the battlefield. They also established a $1.5 million fund to restore and maintain the property, and granted the state a right of first refusal to purchase the Thomas Cooch house, which remained with the family.
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