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He was named a lieutenant of the 1st Delaware Regiment in the Continental Army on December 9, 1775. In 1776, the Delaware Battalion, under the command of Colonel John Haslet, was assigned to Mifflin's Brigade under Gen. Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania. He participated in every battle in which George Washington fought in 1777. In the August 16, 1780 Battle of Camden, Kirkwood's troops won fame and were called "The Blue Hen's Chickens" after that. This battle reduced his regiment from eight companies to two by reason of death and capture. At the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Captain Kirkwood repulsed the British cavalry, and made a famous bayonet charge ordered by Colonel John Eager Howard. He was with General Washington in his pursuit and defeat of Cornwallis.
As a captain in the regular army, he joined a 1791 military expedition led by Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory. In November 1791, Kirkwood was killed by Native Americans from the Miami people in a major defeat at present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, after having survived 32 Revolutionary battles without a disabling wound.
He was a graduate of Newark Academy (later renamed the University of Delaware), which chose the Blue Hen as its mascot to honor Captain Kirkwood. Kirkwood also held a certificate of membership in the Society of the Cincinnati.
A monument was erected near Fort Recovery in Ohio to honor Kirkwood and others who died there. On May 9, 1941, a highway was named in honor of Major Kirkwood. The Robert Kirkwood Highway comprises a part of Delaware Route 2 in New Castle County. Kirkwood, Delaware, a small village at a crossroads on Delaware Route 71, also bears his name. The Major Robert Kirkwood Reserve Center is the headquarters of Detachment 2, 11th Battalion, 98th Regiment (formerly 9th Battalion / 80th Regiment Health Services) of the United States Army. One of the New Castle County public libraries is called the Kirkwood Library. There is an historical marker for Robert Kirkwood adjacent to the library's parking lot.
The Major Robert Kirkwood Chapter of the Delaware Society of the Sons of the American Revolution has a Color Guard whose members wear the frontiersman uniform used when the Delaware Continentals fought in remote regions of the Carolinas, far from good cloth and family seamstresses.
A North Carolina unit of the Brigade of the American Revolution (BAR) portrays Kirkwood's Company—the remnant of the Delaware Regiment which fought with the Maryland Brigade after the Delaware Regiment was devastated in the first Battle of Camden.
- The Journal and Order Book of Captain Robert Kirkwood of the Delaware Regiment of the Continental Line. Associated Faculty Press, Inc., 1970.
Excerpt: "when the British advanced and attackd our Left Flank where the Malitia Lay, who give way, which give the Enemy's horse an opportunity to gain our Rear, their Infantry at the same time gaining our Flank, and their Line advancing in our front, which Caused the Action to Become very Desperate, which continued for the Space of Half an hour—in this action, Lt Col. Vaughan, Major Patten, six officers and Seventy Rank and file of our Regt was taken Prisoners with all the Cannon and Baggage of the Army—I can give no account of our Marches on the Retreat until we came to Salisbury which we Arrived at on the 21st" -September 21, 1780
Information about historical marker: http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=47261
- McKelvey, A. T. (1903). Centennial History of Belmont County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens. Biographical Publishing Company. p. 267.
- Francis, William (2014). Along the Kirkwood Highway. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 7-8. Retrieved December 23, 2016.