Tuesday, April 14, 2015

General Washington in Milltown

One of the things I really love about doing the kind of hodgepodge "research" that I do is the times when interesting and significant stories just pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Well, OK, they usually come from somewhere, whether it's something I happen to run across or something that someone sends to me. In this case, it was the latter. Recently, Donna Peters, who is a whiz at mining old newspapers for MCH-related stuff, sent me the article below. It's not all that long, but it managed to raise two separate and fascinating issues, neither of which I had known about before. The following appeared in the August 19, 1857 edition of the Delaware County American:

ONE OF THE RELICS. - It is said that General Washington and Staff held a council of war on the evening previous to the battle of Brandywine, in the house on the old Harlan property, now belonging to Mr. Allen Ward, in the Milltown, Mill Creek Hundred. The room pointed out for this important conference is little more than ten by twelve feet, and is still in good repair. Although the present owner has erected a substantial brick dwelling adjoining, we presume he intends to preserve this momento of the days of the revolution. The American army was posted in great force at this point, as the British were expected to take the route to Philadelphia, but they changes there course, keeping farther to the north, and the Battle of Brandywine, at Chaddsford, was the result. The house alluded to above, is built of logs, dovetailed together, which are in a remarkably good state of preservation; there are four rooms and a passage on the first floor, and five on the second, with a garret above; the floors are oak, and although they are said to be 112 years old, look as though they might last for a century to come. Attached to the ceiling, in the entry, is a three cornered box, which is of the shape of the military hat worn in the revolution, and it is generally supposed that it may have held the chapeaux of Washington. The descendants of the Harlans may know something of his history, and we have no doubt that they might furnish an interesting chapter in regard to it.

In this post we'll deal with the first of the two issues, the one that probably jumps out at most people first -- Washington held a War Council in Milltown?!? I admit that I had never heard that story before, but I was understandably both intrigued and skeptical. Obviously we know that the Continental Army was encamped near Marshallton for several days, lying in wait for the Biggest Thing That Almost Happened in MCH, the Battle of Red Clay (I hope they wouldn't have called it the Battle of Cuckoldstown). There are even several well-known stories already of Washington meeting with advisers at various locations in the area, ranging in veracity from (in my opinion) the likely (the Hale-Byrnes House), to the questionable (Delcastle Recreation Area), to the dubious (the Council Oak at Brandywine Springs).

There's really no question, though, with Washington being in the area for a few days, that he would have met with his aides and advisors multiple times. The question now is, why would he have done so at the Harlan's house? To answer this, I turned to the closest thing I know to an expert on the subject -- Walt Chiquoine. While maybe not technically an "expert", Walt has done extensive research over the years on the topic of the MCH-related events of early September, 1777. And though he hadn't come across this particular story before, Walt was able to give some valuable insight into what was going on here at the time. Since I don't think I could encapsulate it any better, here's what he had to say:

The Battle of Brandywine was fought on Sept. 11th. The story says Washington held a council of war at this house the night before the battle - that can't be, they were already at Chad's Ford, but he may have been there Sept. 8th. [Not the evening before the battle, but the evening before they left for the battle.] I think that is very credible, although it has to be reasoned out.
The Continentals were entrenched behind Red Clay and Christiana Creeks on Sept. 8th. The Brits made a feint towards the Continental lines, but rather than attack, they marched north and camped along the Limestone Road ridge. The encampment stretched from Carousel Farms to Southwood Road. Washington waited all day for an attack, but then got the reports of the British movements. He was befuddled, and that is evident in his writings. I can imagine that on the evening of Sept. 8th, Washington himself went to see what was going on - he had a reputation for that, some felt he could be reckless. From his HQ in Newport, Washington went to Milltown, perhaps with some senior staff, to meet with junior officers who were right under the nose of Cornwallis' light infantry. Can't believe he would bring his generals here for a council of war, it's more likely that he returned to Newport to hold that full council.
Late that night of Sept. 8th, Washington and his council made the decision to abandon their position and march towards Chad's Ford. Sources say that they departed about 2 AM on Sept. 9th and marched to the Brandywine. In Washington's own words of Sept. 9th to the President of Congress, he says "Upon reconnoitering their Situation, it appeared probable, that they only meant to amuse us...while their real intention was to march by our Right..." It has never been so stated, but I think this story suggests it was Washington himself who did the "reconnoitering". It fits his character, and I'm inclined to believe it.
So to sum it up very briefly, the British were encamped along Limestone Road from just above Milltown all the way to Hockessin. Washington was confused as to what they were doing and it wouldn't have been out of character for him to come take a look for himself. While he was there, it's logical that he would have talked to someone on his staff about the situation, and would have used a house nearby. The most nearbyest were in Milltown.

The last question you may have, which I'll only briefly touch on now, is exactly what house he used, and where it was. For that answer, I'll show again the map section from the top of the post. This is from the 1849 map, with the Harlan House circled. Unfortunately this house is no longer with us, as it sat in the middle of what is now Milltown Road, between the McKennans Church Road and Limestone Road intersections. There is a whole other story about this house and its successor, mentioned in the news story. If the blogging gods are with me, another post will follow in the near future with much more information about this property and the folks who lived there.


  1. As I am reading for the first time about George Washington meeting his lieutenants in Milltown, I am looking out my mother-in-law's window at this very location. How cool is that!

    Has anyone ever identified the location in Newport where Washington met with his war council?

    1. Bill, Washington wrote letters from "Headquarters, Newport" for these few days, and it could mean anywhere in the vicinity. He usually compensated owners where he stayed, a practice that was well-documented, but there is no record of this short period. Don't think anyone has ever answered your question. Maybe in the future??

    2. Referring to Walts "anywhere in the vicinity"......I had heard Washington did some commanding from/stayed at a house that once sat at the corner of Telegraph Road and Rt7 in Stanton during that week in 1777. I dont know how accurate that is but if true I wonder if he could have called that Newport?

    3. LRCV-

      May be he was too embarrassed to refer to his headquarters being in Cuckoldston!

    4. HA...Glad you brought that up because I thought that!.....Can you imagine? In today's world that would have been grounds to go viral...lol

    5. Seriously though.....Kim Burdick over at the Hale-Byrnes House told me about the house. She is President of the Delaware Chapter of George Washington Society. She mentioned the house by name when she told me but I cant remember. Now thinking about it maybe she knows more about the article Donna came across.

    6. Orders and letters were issued from Wilmington between Aug. 25 and Sept. 6th. Very likely that Washington stayed in Stanton at some point in that period, maybe the house Denis noted. As of Sept. 6th, the Continental line was being established behind (east of) Red Clay Creek, and our dear Cuckoldstown could not have served as HQ. Orders and letters of Sept. 7th and 8th were issued from Newport.

      The only reference to a location in Newport was to Conrad Gray's tavern, where a general courts-martial was held on Sept. 2nd. No indication that this became HQ on the 7th, but it would be possible. That would be pure speculation, and I don't like to speculate.

      If anyone knows more, it would be Kim.

  2. Kudos to Donna P. This story was lost for 150 years.

  3. I sent a message to Kim Burdick saying her name was brought up over here on Scott's blog hoping she would have some kind of input. Below is what she responded back with:

    Hi, Denis,
    Thanks for alerting me to my name being mentioned on the blog. I tried to post the following but my computer kept throwing up a thing wanting a Google password, so, just in case it didn't get posted, here is what I have in my notes.

    McKenna’s Meeting House. Sept 8 At 3 a.m. on the 8th a general alarm was sounded in the American camp, and "all tents struck." The troops remained on alert for the next six hours. General Weedon's brigade was detached to the front to meet the attack. Weedon marched to McKenna's meeting house and stationed his troops on a rise to watch the enemy, by now but a half-mile away encamped at Milltown.
    Sept 8 [McGuire Phil-Camp. pg 160] “At 3 A.M. the General was beat and all tents struck. All the regiments were paraded, the men properly formed with an officer at the head of every platoon, and after wheeling to the right, we remained under arms until 9 o’clock. Then the alarm guns were fired and the whole army drawn up in line of battle, on the east side of Red Clay Creek, with Gen. Greene to the right. Here we remained for some time, when General Weedon’s brigade (of which my regiment was a part), was detached to the front to bring on the attack. We crossed the creek and marched about a league [3 miles] to an eminence near Mr. McCannon’s meeting house, and there awaited the approach of the enemy, who were within half a mile of us. They however encamped, which occasioned us to remain underarms all night, the sentries keeping up a constant fire.” [McGuire quoting McMichael, Diary, 149.]

  4. Also, Kims response to the question about the house in Stanton:

    Washington stayed at William Marshall's place which is indeed at the junction of Telegraph Road and Main Street, Stanton.

    Probably all of that property from the new drug store at Telegraph Road, the junk store, Clay and Clay office, on Main Street Stanton , turning north the school on Limestone Road was Marshall's property.

    Easy walking distance to Hale Byrnes House where the Council of War was held on September 6, 1777.