The story takes place in the late summer of 1777 -- well into the third year of the War for Independence, and just prior to what would become the darkest days of the struggle. The British had occupied New York the year before, and everyone knew their next major objective would be to take Philadelphia -- the colonial capital. Not wanting to march across New Jersey (can you blame him?) and cross the Delaware River, British Gen. William Howe opted to transport his army by ship around the Delmarva Peninsula, and disembark at Elkton, MD. They would then proceed by land to Philadelphia, but how? The most direct (and by Washington's thinking, most likely) route would be from Elkton, along the King's Road through Christiana, Stanton, and Newport, through Wilmington, and then northward to the capital. The American general decided that he would make his stand along this route.
On August 25, 1777, Washington and his army arrived in Wilmington to intercept Howe on his way to Philadelphia. Over the next couple days, Washington and his generals surveyed the area, and on discovering the British disembarking at Elkton, decided to send part of his army west to take up defensive positions. Battalions were sent to Christiana Bridge (Christiana), Newport, and White Clay Creek east of Newark. This last group marched out of Wilmington early on the 28th, and "proceeded through Wilmington, Newport, passed Rising Sun Tavern at Stanton, and encamped to the north of the White Clay Creek and east of White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church." So from the sound of it, they marched along what is now Route 4 (Maryland Ave., Newport Pike) through Newport to Stanton, then west along Telegraph Rd. and Old Capitol Trail, until finally turning north on Polly Drummond Hill Rd. They stayed there for two days, camping on part of the Kirkwood farm, owned by the father of soldier Robert Kirkwood.
Washington, however, became unsure about the defensibility of these positions, so early on the 30th he had all of his troops, save a few pickets at Christiana, fall back to a new position along Red Clay Creek. It was here that Gen. Washington wanted to have a decisive, and potentially conflict-ending, engagement. Still expecting the British to take the flattest course towards Philadelphia, the American commander positioned his army to defend the road from Christiana to Wilmington, choosing the Red Clay as his defensive line. The troops were camped roughly in a triangular formation, from (what's now) Marshallton, to Stanton, and back to Newport. The map below gives some idea of the layout. All that remains today of this event is a rise of ground on the eastern side of the creek between Marshallton and Kiamensi.
The Continental Army remained along the Red Clay, artillery pointed westward, waiting for the chance to engage the Redcoats. Buoyed by recent minor successes of his own and in the North, Washington thought that a major defeat here of Howe's army could end the war and secure Independence from the Crown. As the events of a week or so later would show (The Battle of Brandywine), this was probably not likely to happen. From his HQ on Quaker Hill in Wilmington, Washington kept tabs as best as he could on the enemy. He knew they had marched from Elkton to what is now Glasgow, and he expected them to then proceed northeast towards his position. On September 3, a small detachment of sharpshooters was sent to harass the enemy at Cooch's Bridge, which they did before falling back with minor casualties. Little did they know at the time, this Battle of Cooch's Bridge would be the only action seen on Delaware soil.
For the next few days, the Americans sat and waited in their camp along the Red Clay, while the British finished unloading their fleet and gathering their army. On September 8, the British Army finally began to move. Through disinformation and a small detachment of Hessians, Howe kept the Americans believing that he was on his way to meet them at The Battle of Red Clay. The Hessians made their way all the way to Miltown, where they set up a camp. A brigade of Americans kept an eye on them from the heights near McKennan's church (Red Clay Creek Presbyterian), I believe possibly from about where Delcastle Rec is now.
Of course, as we all know and Gen. Washington soon figured out, the main British Army was not coming toward their entrenchments along the Red Clay. Instead, they headed north to Newark, through northern Mill Creek Hundred, and ultimately up to cross the Brandywine in Pennsylvania. The Americans stood armed and waiting for battle the entire day of September 8, but the enemy never came. Interestingly, there seems to be some thought that had Howe pressed on toward the Americans, he may have been able to outflank them and trap them here. If that had happened and Washington's army was defeated, then the Battle of Red Clay might have been the place the Revolution died (at least for a while).
|Gen. William Howe|