Monday, May 23, 2011

The Biggest Thing That Almost Happened in MCH

The southeast corner of Mill Creek Hundred once came very close to being one of the most famous, or possibly infamous, locations in American history. -- I know that sounds like a pretty strong statement to make, but after doing a little reading, I really think it's true. More than 230 years ago, something monumental could have occurred here, forever altering the future not only of the surrounding area, but possibly of the nation itself. Instead, all that remains is the memory of a tense few days, and some rolling pieces of earth.

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
As it happened, Howe did defeat the Americans a few days later at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, but Washington and his troops were able to retreat. Soon after, Philadelphia did fall to the British, and the Americans spent the long, hard, but ultimately history-changing winter at Valley Forge. As you can see, far from being just a quick stopping point along a longer march (which I always assumed it to be), the encampment along Red Clay Creek was suppossed to be, and could have been, much greater. As a decisive victory for either side, it would have been one of the most important locations in American history. Even as a major, but survivable, clash as the Battle of Brandywine turned out to be, the land on which it was fought would be as hallowed and cherished as that of Brandywine Battlefield in Chadds Ford. It also means that wherever the engagement occurred, whether it was along the creek, to the east in Christiana Hundred, or to the west in Mill Creek Hundred, there would be a major historical site in the area, which no doubt would have altered the development of the area. If William Howe had made a different decision in that steamy late summer of 1777, the Battle of Red Clay would certainly have been the biggest thing to ever happen here.


  1. Scott-

    Thanks for the article. I've heard about Washington's activities in the area but never really found out too much details. As a child, I often wondered if the forests and streams I played in were at one time occupied by Continental soldiers. Now I can imagine soldiers marching past what would eventually be the site of my old school; perhaps stopping to rest where I would play ball. Now, I wonder if the scouts passed along Hercules Road.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Very interesting spin, thanks Scott. It did all depended on General Howe. He was later recalled to London (replaced by Clinton) and dragged before Parliament to explain, in my words here, why he was reluctant to crush Washington's army on several occasions.

    The movement of two armies (combined, maybe 30,000 people and soldiers, hundreds of wagons, plus large herds of cattle and sheep) that were essentially living off the land must have been a little traumatic for the area. I'm glad that they were spared the serious battle of which you speak. Suppose the British had won that battle; wonder what Washington would have done.

  3. Great article. I just read a book on Delaware history, and it says Washington had 12,000 men camped in the area, waiting for the fight that never came. I have been told that there was once a Delaware Historical marker commemorating this event on Stanton Road, right around where old Pearsons Hardware store is. Maybe that was the end of Washington's defenses, the other end being in Marshallton. I am going to get in touch with the historical markers people, and see if a new sign can be placed there. Important historical events like this should not be forgotten, and although no battle took place here, it is interesting to wonder how history could have been changed.

  4. That is interesting Dave. I knew of the one in Marshallton, but not in Stanton. I was wondering, just wondering mind you, if that one was to commemerate the French Encampment in 1782 on thier return from Yorktown following the final battle of the war. Now that RT4 in that area is part of the W3R, a National Parks System Historical Trail, it would be great addition. You are right saying these events should not be forgotten. This area is indeed an area that could have changed American History. I guess you can say..."It did". Let us know what the markers people say.
    Scott.....Good post!

  5. Dave C-

    Are you perhaps thinking of the marker at the Hale-Brynes House? It reads: "The general officers of American army September 6, 1777, were directed to meet at the brick house by White Clay Creek and fix proper picquets for the security of the camp. Recorded in order book by Captain Robert Kirkwood."

  6. Bill H.

    I do not remember the old Stanton Road historical marker myself, but my older brother (57 years old) says it was hit by a car and bent down, and remained that way until it was removed sometime in the 1960's. He thinks it mentioned Washington's camp being nearby, but I will let you know for sure when I contact the historical markers program. It was one of those old black and white historical signs.

  7. I was wondering if Dave C. ever made contact with the markers people about the sign he referenced in Stanton.

  8. I know it has been a while since this post has been discussed but I wanted to pass along something I found to go along with historical marker discussion above. If you read this editorial from 1938 it sounds like there was a marker in Stanton somewhere to indicate eathworks. I have heard before there were some down past by where Happy Harry's sits. You need to copy and past the entire url.,6086313

  9. mark j
    there's a sign on mckennanas church rd, across from the golf course, by the soccer field and that Foote house

  10. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.