Friday, June 28, 2013

National Guard Encampments at Brandywine Springs

Richard R. Kenney

Perhaps no place in Mill Creek Hundred has as rich and diverse of a history as Brandywine Springs. Normally when we think of these 60-some acres at Faulkland Road and Newport Gap Pike we think of its more than two centuries worth of use as a public site for rest, relaxation, and entertainment. The site has, in turn, hosted a colonial-era tavern/inn, a resort hotel, an amusement park, and a public state/county park. Lesser known are some darker stories, including several deaths and at least one tragic murder. But just as interesting and noteworthy as these chapters are the park's military connections, including one Victorian Era story in particular. (Hat tip to Terry Zitzelberger for making me aware of it)

Throughout its history, MCH has had occasional brushes with the military, whether it be Robert Kirkwood, the events of early September 1777, or the more recent presence in or near the hundred of several facilities used by the armed forces, reserves, or National Guard. It happens to be this last group that takes center stage in this story, which takes place at Brandywine Springs.

Probably unknown to most, Brandywine Springs does have several of its own military connections, including its very name. The hotel constructed in the 1820's was named "Brandywine Springs" in a blatant attempt to capitalize on the notoriety of the name "Brandywine", 50 years after the battle of the same name. An old story states Washington met with his generals here before the battle, although the veracity of the tale is open to question. Not open to question is the fact that the last use of the old hotel, before it burned in 1853, was as a military school. Less than a decade later, the fields on which we now play softball and football played host to the encampment of the 4th Delaware Regiment, prior to their marching off the help salvage the Union.

After the Civil War, as often happens in the aftermath of a difficult conflict, enthusiasm for things military began to wane. The populace, exhausted by four years of brutal, bloody strife, became disinterested in the military. Some of the recently discharged veterans, however, still longed for the camaraderie of army life, and several militia organizations sprang up. These were really more like fraternal organizations than military outfits, however, and most petered out after a few years. Only during the patriotic upswell of the Centennial in 1876 did the militia/guard movement truly grab a foothold. (A much better, more in depth history of all this is available here, by the way.)

Even though the patriotic fervor of '76, too, soon passed, these volunteer militia units were soon put to a new use -- suppressing the rising number of  incidents of civil unrest spurred by the labor movement of the post-war years. Militia units were used in a number of states as strikebreakers, sent to restore order during the often violent labor actions of the time. In Delaware, the late 1870's and early 1880's saw the formation of the modern National Guard here, under the leadership of Gen. James Park Postles. Under his guide, the various volunteer militia units became the cohesive National Guard of Delaware.

One of the new programs instituted by Gen. Postles (and his successor, Gen. Richard R. Kenney)  was a statewide summer encampment, first held in 1887. Two possible sites were chosen -- Brandywine Springs and Rehoboth. Although Rehoboth might sound like a good choice today, in 1887 it was no more than a small religious camp filled with mosquitoes and sand flies. Many of the officers and soldiers were less than thrilled about the seaside location, with one officer commenting, "If we go to Rehoboth we'll get nothing to eat but crabs and fish. We go to Rehoboth so that some investors can get some money out of it."

It seems that Rehoboth did turn out to be a poor decision, because after only one year in Sussex County the encampment was moved the following year by Gen. Kenney to Brandywine Springs. In 1888, the hotel and grounds were in their third year of operation by Richard Crook, but were not yet the full-blown amusement park they would be a few years later. The encampments of 1888 and 1889 seemed to have gone off quietly, a chance for guardsmen from across the state to gather, mingle, and drill. The week-long encampment of 1890, however, was a whole different story.

It got underway on Sunday, July 27, 1890, under the leadership of Brigadier General Kenney, with only a handful of minor incidents to report. (As reported here, in the July 28 issue of The Philadelphia Record.) The cadets from Delaware College (now the University of Delaware) were especially impressive to all, one of them even drawing his bayonet on Gen. Kenney when he failed to give the correct countersign while passing through the lines early Monday morning. Another similar incident took place when a Captain failed to give the countersign. As The Record reported, "After some parleying the sentry settled matters by throwing the Captain over a tent. The officer then withdrew." Since these incidents took place essentially in the middle of the night, one wonders where these officers were coming from.

These were not the only occasions of less than proper military conduct during the week. One night after taps, a large group of soldiers and civilians gathered around the artillery unit and began to "caterwaul". When one soldier yelled out the night's countersign (to answer the sentry if trying to enter the camp), an upset Gen. Kenney promptly changed the codeword. This caused mass confusion when numerous stragglers who hadn't heard the change wandered back into camp well into the early morning hours.

On another day -- a particularly hot and steamy one, as we know late July can be around here -- the camp's medical officer informed Gen. Kenney that the dress parade scheduled for 4 PM was an ill-advised idea. Word was never passed along, however, and the men were called into formation at 4. When Surgeon Marshall heard the call, he rode out onto the parade ground to dismiss the men, for which he was loudly applauded.

One evening during the week, two fifers were arrested for trying to pass a couple of women through the lines. I'm sure they were just attempting to educate the young ladies about the inner workings of the military lifestyle.

In addition to these incidents,  there were later charges from some of drunkenness and "wagons of whiskey". Others said the liquor came from local farmers looking to profit from the encampment. When you bear in mind that most of the men involved were not professional soldiers but simple farmers and laborers, all the accusations seem well within the realm of possibility.

The end result of the 1890 encampment was more than just some fun stories of a wild week at the Springs. There was real outrage and disgust at the goings-on there, and Episcopal Bishop Leighton Coleman (an influential personality in the region) even wrote about effects of the camp on the character of the young men present. It probably didn't help matters that Governor Benjamin T. Biggs was in attendance at the encampment, too. That same year of 1890, possibly partially due to the events at Brandywine Springs, the law authorizing (and more importantly, funding) the encampments was repealed. The state legislature apparently didn't think the $7,000-$9,000 pricetag was worth it any longer. The idea of the summer encampment would be revived early in the next century, no thanks to the events on the otherwise peaceful fields of Brandywine Springs in the summer of 1890.


  1. Very interesting.It is always good to hear a new story about Brandywine Springs

    1. Thanks. That space certainly has seen its share of activity over the past few hundred years.

      On a related note not far away, check out the Lower Red Clay Valley blog if you haven't recently (link below and along the right margin). Denis has a cool story about female sharpshooter guards employed at the County Workhouse during WWII.