Sunday, November 7, 2010

Robert Kirkwood -- Revolutionary War Hero

Delaware Regiment at the Battle of Long Island
As far as the topics of these posts go, most times I'll plan them out beforehand and then go research them. Once in a while, though, something will pop up in a bit of serendipity and I'll know that it has to be my next subject. Such was the case with this one. After finishing the Judge Morris Estate posts, and completely unrelated to them, I happened to come across something whose timing left me no choice but to write up this post. As a result, around this somber anniversary, we'll take a look at arguably Mill Creek Hundred's greatest and most decorated war hero, Robert Kirkwood [if you know of a challenger for the title, let me know]. He's one native son whose story really should be as well known as his name.

Robert Kirkwood was born in 1756 on his family's farm on Polly Drummond Hill (hence the connection to the Morris Estate). Reports usually state that it was adjacent to White Clay Creek Presbyterian, so that would indicate that the Kirkwood property was on the west side of Polly Drummond Hill Road. He grew up working on the farm, and later attended the Newark Academy (the forerunner to the University of Delaware). He was living in Newark with his married sister when, after years of discontent in the colonies, armed conflict suddenly erupted with Great Britain. Kirkwood obviously felt the strong pull of duty towards his fledgling nation, for in January 1776, he enlisted in Col. Haslet's regiment and was commissioned as a lieutenant. In July, the regiment was ordered to report to New York, and it was here, at the disastrous Battle of Long Island (the American forces barely escaped under cover of darkness), that Kirkwood saw his first action.

Not long after this battle, both because (a) the regiment sustained heavy casualties, and (b) most soldiers had only enlisted for a few months, a new First Delaware Regiment of the Continental Line was formed, and Robert Kirkwood was promoted to captain of its second company. In December, Kirkwood returned to Delaware to recruit for the army, and therefore was not present for the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He rejoined the regiment in April 1777, and would remain with it for the duration of the war. In the late summer and early fall of 1777, Kirkwood and his Delaware Regiment were a part of Washington's army that briefly camped along the Red Clay Creek, and then participated in the Battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.

In early 1779, the Delaware Regiment was ordered south, and would remain there for the rest of the war. Their first battle was in Camden, SC, a battle in which their numbers and commanders were decimated. After Camden, the Delaware force was reduced to one company, under the command of Captain Robert Kirkwood. They fought valiantly in other battles with names like Cowpens, Ninety-Six, Hobkirk Hill, and Eutaw Springs. At the Battle of  Cowpens, one observer stated, "Captain Robert Kirkwood's heroic valor and uncommon and undaunted bravery must needs be recorded in history through the coming years!" After the second Battle of Camden, General Nathanael Greene wrote, "The extraordinary exertions of the cavalry, the gallant behaviour of the light infantry commanded by Captain Kirkwood, and the firmness of the pickets rendering the advantage expensive to the enemy, highly merit the approbation of the General and the imitation of the rest of the troops."

Because of their gallant and fierce fighting style, the Delaware troops began to be referred to by the name of a certain breed of fighting cock popular in Kent County -- the Blue Hen Chicken. The term would remain linked to veterans of the war, then later was used as the name of a popular newspaper. When the University of Delaware was looking for a mascot for its athletic teams in 1911, they reached back for the nickname of Kirkwood's men. In 1939, the Delaware Legislature officially named the Blue Hen Chicken as the Delaware state bird.

Kirkwood and his men were present at Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in 1781, but remained in the south for another couple years. In 1783, the gallant and highly-regarded Captain Kirkwood was brevetted to Major, and finally returned home to Newark. In recognition of his service, the state of Delaware gave him 100 pounds. He married Sarah England, daughter of Red Mill owner Joseph England, and they moved first to Cantwell's Bridge (now Odessa), then to St. George's Station (now called Kirkwood). They had two children, but after Sarah died in 1787, Robert moved his family west, into what was then called the Northwest Territories. He first settled just NW of what is now Wheeling, WV, in modern-day Ohio. The next year, the State of Virginia (who then controlled the land) gave him almost 2000 acres in recognition of his service to the young country.

The Northwest Territory was a dangerous place at that time, as numerous native tribes were in active conflict against the white settlers. In 1791, an expedition was raised to erect a line of forts through the territory, and Robert Kirkwood was commissioned a captain in the Second Regiment of U.S. Infantry (one company of which was raised in Delaware). By November, the force had made its way to what is now the Ohio-Indiana border. On November 4, 1791, a combined force of native tribes annihilated the American army, killing all but about 300 of the 1000 troops that Kirkwood accompanied into battle (only 48 escaped unharmed). As for Kirkwood himself, after surviving 32 engagements during the course of the Revolutionary War, this, his 33rd battle, would be his last. At age 35, war hero Robert Kirkwood was shot and scalped by native warriors. Nowadays, his name lives on with most Mill Creek Hundred residents because, in the 1930's, the state named the newly-completed route from Wilmington to Newark the "Robert Kirkwood Highway" in his honor, since it went right past his birthplace and boyhood home.


  1. Having grown up in Delaware, I moved to Camden, SC in 1978. I was amazed to learn of a community here named Kirkwood Commons after Robert Kirkwood. The same Robert Kirkwood that Kirkwood Hwy was named for.

  2. Thank you for posting. I am a decendent of Robert Kirkwood and share his name.

    1. That's really cool! It's a name that everyone here at least sort of knows, some people know a little more, but I feel like very few people appreciate fully. Definitely one that deserves remembering.

  3. My name is Lynette Kirkwood Bittner. I live in hendersonville, North Carolina. Recently went to Cowpens and learned about Robert Kirkwood. Trying to see if there is a connection. First read he had a daughter. Now i see he had 2 children. Do we know anything about the second child.