Referring to the catastrophic event of Sept. 11, a leading citizen predicted in a letter published in a Philadelphia newspaper that it would unite Americans and "rekindle determination" to press forward to achieve a common objective. The citizen was Thomas Paine, penman of the American revolution; the Sept. 11 to which he alluded was in 1777; and the event was the defeat suffered in the Battle of Brandywine.

That loss would be followed by others, with the British enemy occupying Philadelphia, the young nation's capital and largest city, while General Washington's army endured a horrible winter at Valley Forge. Four years later, Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown and two years after that Britain formally recognized American independence with the Treaty of Paris.

In a sense, the army that would, with help from a French ally, defeat what was acknowledged to be the militarily most powerful nation in Europe began its professional development in Delaware, Thomas McGuire told some 400 people who turned out on Aug. 23 for a lecture opening the Delaware Heritage Commission's commemoration of the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Cooch's Bridge. McGuire is a history teacher at Malvern (Pa.) Academy and a recognized authority on the Philadelphia Campaign, about which he is writing a new book.

Cooch's Bridge -- the only land battle fought on Delaware soil and one of only two military engagements, the British naval bombardment of Lewes during the War of 1812 being the other -- took place on Sept. 3, 1777. The first engagement in the

campaign to capture Philadelphia, it pitted a force of British regulars and German mercenaries against Colonial troops led by Brig. Gen. William Maxwell and militia, including companies from all the hundreds of northern New Castle County commanded by Col. Caesar Rodney, a Delaware signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Fithian, curator of archaeology for Delaware state museums, said research since celebration of the national bicentennial a quarter century ago is not so much revisionist history as it is documentation for reassessing Delaware's role in the Revolution. "Events in Delaware were much more important than has been previously realized," he said.

British troops advance on Cooch's Bridge during the re-enactment. (Photo by Frank Mazlewski Jr of Iron Hill Digital Designs, courtesy of the Delaware Heritage Commission)

There apparently is considerable public support for that viewpoint as evidenced by the impressive turnout. The commission said 900 were on hand for the re-enactment the next morning and 750 for the afternoon rerun despite having to cope with the first significant rainfall in several weeks.

While it would be hard to ignore such widespread interest, McGuire described it as reasonable. "They were real people. They came through here and some of them died here," he said.

There is still a bridge which carries what is now known as Old Baltimore Pike over the Christina. Although both the road and the span are modern, at least part the house which stands adjacent to both not only stood there then but also was occupied, as it is now, by a family named Cooch.

Contrary to some popular belief, the Battle of Cooch's Bridge was neither a skirmish nor a mismatch of professionals against amateurs, McGuire said.. Maxwell's command consisted of about 1,000 troops of whom between 700 and 800 were  handpicked to include, on Washington's order, the best soldiers from every regiment. It was organized as a brigade of  light infantry, a shock formation patterned on the British model and roughly the equivalent of a regimental combat team of modern-day Army Rangers. Opposing him was the advance elements of an army of 18,000 landed at what is now Elkton, Md., with the intent to march on Philadelphia. The lead force was commanded by the same Lord Cornwallis.

Washington had expected to engage the British along the main road to Philadelphia, which then ran through Christiana and Stanton. His main force was dug in in strong defensive positions along Red Clay Creek west of Newport. After the British drove the outnumbered and outgunned Americans -- they had no artillery -- from the field at Cooch's Bridge, they camped in that area for three days. Cornwallis made his headquarters in the Cooch house. To avoid the roadblock, he decided to march west to Kennett Square, Pa.. Washington's obvious move to keep his force between the enemy and the capital city set the stage for the Battle of Brandywine at Chadds Ford, Pa., a week later.

The 225th anniversary of that battle will be commemorated at Brandywine Battlefield (Pennsylvania) State Park on Sept. 22, postponed for obvious reasons from the actual anniversary date.

Two days after the Battle of Brandywine, Scottish Highlanders came to Wilmington and captured John McKinly, president of the Delaware State, as the chief executive or governor was then known, and a brigadeier general of militia.. He was held as a prisoner of war aboard a British ship in the Delaware River until paroled the following April. While in prison, he lost his political position to Thomas McKean, never to regain it.

What was particularly notable about the Battle of Cooch's Bridge re-enactment on Aug. 24 was that the day's activities began on the lawn of the home of Edward Cooch, the seventh generation of his family to live in the area. Part of his home dates from 1760. That makes it unusual, if not unique, among historic sites in that direct descendents of those present during the original event have lived there continuously.

Cooch's father wrote what Wade Catts, a West Chester, Pa.-based archaeological and historical researcher, who also spoke on the battle on Aug. 23, said is still the definitive work on Cooch;s Bridge although new details have come to light since it was published in 1940. The new material consists primarily of letters and other documents from British and German sources.

For all the new understanding that the weekend commemoration produced, it failed to resolve one critical question -- the veracity of the Delaware claim to be the place where the so-called Betsy Ross flag was first unfurled in battle.

McGuire ignored the point during his lecture and sidestepped a direct answer during the question-and-answer session which followed. He said only that American military tradition of carrying the national colors did not begin until the Mexican War. "Before that, it would have been regimental flags that were carried. They were of various designs but the picture of [Revolutionary] troops carrying the [traditional] flag is a 19th Century picture, not an 18th Century one," he said.

Betsy Ross is alleged to have produced the banner with 13 white stars in a circle on a field of blue and 13 alternate red and white stripes at the behest of Washington. That design was adopted by the Continental Congress in June, 1777, but Ms. Ross's role was not general knowledge until the story was told by one of her descendents during observance of the national centennial in 1876.

Be that as it may, Cooch -- who is 86 and is still a practicing attorney and who was present for the lecture but did not respond then --  made it a point during his talk about the battle before the re-enactment to repeat the claim that the historic flag was present and even had a judge attest to the existence of "considerable circumstantial evidence" that the story his father related in his book is true. Cooch's argument was based on the fact Maxwell's brigade led the march of Washington's troops from Philadelphia to Wilmington and Newport and that contemporary accounts describe the new flag as being carried in that parade. "If General Maxwell was at the head of the column, [his unit] would have been the one to carry the flag and they still would have had it at the time of the battle," Cooch said.

The Delaware Air National Guard color guard at the opening ceremony presented a flag of that design but neither side in the sham battle which followed carried any flag.

The judge who rendered a somewhat equivocal ruling in favor of the theory wasn't exactly objective. He was Richard Cooch, of Superior Court, Edward Cooch's son.

Posted on August 25, 2002

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