|Name:||Battle of Cooch’s Bridge (Iron Hill)||Total Forces:||450||293|
|Col./Ally Cmdr.:||William Maxwell||Ships Lost:||–||–|
|Brit./Ally Cmdr.:||Ludwig von Wurmb||Ships Captured:||–||–|
The Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, also known as the Battle of Iron Hill, was a skirmish fought on September 3, 1777, between American militia and primarily German soldiers serving alongside the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. It was the only significant military action during the war in the state of Delaware, and took place about a week before the major Battle of Brandywine.
After landing in Maryland on August 25 as part of a campaign to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, British and German forces under the overall command of General William Howe began to move north. Their advance was monitored by a light infantry corps of Continental Army and militia forces that had based itself at Cooch’s Bridge, near Newark, Delaware. On September 3, German troops leading the British advance were met by musket fire from the American light infantry in the woods on either side of the road leading toward Cooch’s Bridge. Calling up reinforcements, they flushed the Americans out and drove them across the bridge.
After having successfully captured New York City in 1776, British military planners organized two expeditions to divide the Thirteen Colonies and, they hoped, decisively end the rebellion. One expedition was to take control of the Hudson River by a descent from Quebec, while the other was targeted at the colonial capital, Philadelphia. In pursuit of the latter objective, Lieutenant General William Howe embarked an army numbering about 18,000 (plus about 5,000 camp followers) onto transports in late July 1777, and sailed from New York City to the Chesapeake Bay. The Continental Army of Major General George Washington remained near New York until Howe’s objective became clear. Howe’s plan was gauged to the south, intending to move against Philadelphia via the Chesapeake. Washington marched his army, numbering about 16,000, through Philadelphia, and established a camp at Wilmington, Delaware. Riding further south and west to perform reconnaissance on August 26, Washington learned that the British had landed.
On August 25 Howe’s army disembarked below a small town called Head of Elk (now known as Elkton, and located at the head of navigation of the Elk River) in Maryland, about 50 miles (80 km) south of Philadelphia. Due to the relatively poor quality of the landing area, his troops moved immediately to the north, reaching Head of Elk itself on August 28. Advance troops consisting of British light infantry and German jägers went east across Elk Creek and occupied Gray’s Hill, about one mile (1.6 km) west of Iron Hill, near Cooch’s Bridge, which was a few miles south of Newark. The bridge was named for Thomas Cooch, a local landowner whose house was near the bridge.
Washington would normally have assigned the duties of advance guard to Daniel Morgan and his riflemen, but he had detached these to assist Horatio Gates in the defense of the Hudson River valley against the advance of General John Burgoyne. Since they were unavailable, he organized a light infantry corps consisting of 700 picked men from Continental Army regiments and about 1,000 Pennsylvania and Delaware militia, and placed them under the command of Brigadier General William Maxwell. These troops occupied Iron Hill and Cooch’s Bridge, and Maxwell sent out patrols to monitor British movements. Maxwell’s men were encamped on either side of the road leading south from Cooch’s Bridge toward Aiken’s Tavern (present-day Glasgow, Delaware) in a series of small camps designed to facilitate ambushes. On August 28 Washington, atop Iron Hill, and Howe, on Gray’s Hill, observed each other as they took stock of the enemy’s position; one of the Hessian generals wrote, “These gentlemen observed us with their glasses as carefully as we observed them. Those of our officers who know Washington well, maintained that the man in the plain coat was Washington.”
On September 2, Howe’s right wing, under the command of the Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, left Cecil County Court House and headed north, hampered by rain and bad roads. Early the next morning, Howe’s left wing, headed by troops under the command of Charles Cornwallis, left Head of Elk, expecting to join with Knyphausen’s division at Aiken’s Tavern, about 5 miles (8.0 km) east of Head of Elk. Cornwallis reached the tavern first, and Howe, traveling with Cornwallis, decided to press on to the north without waiting for Knyphausen.
This map was created by Sean Moir for the Pencader Heritage Area Museum in Newark, DE
A small company of Hessian dragoons led by Captain Johann Ewald headed up the road from the tavern toward Cooch’s Bridge as Cornwallis’s advance guard. These were struck by a volley of fire from an American ambush, and many of them fell, either killed or wounded. Ewald did not, and he quickly alerted the Hessian and Ansbach jägers, who rushed forward to meet the Americans. This began a running skirmish that Major John André described as follows: “Here the rebels began to attack us about 9 o’clock with a continued irregular fire for nearly two miles.” The jägers, about 300 men led by Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig von Wurmb, formed a line and, with the support of some artillery, advanced on the Americans. Von Wurmb sent one detachment to Maxwell’s left, hoping to flank his position, and supported the move with a bayonet charge against the American center. Maxwell fell back, avoiding the flanking maneuver, and the battle dissolved into a running skirmish as the Americans retreated.
The battle lasted for much of the day; at Cooch’s Bridge, Maxwell’s men made a stand until they “had shot themselves out of ammunition” and “the fight was carried on with the sword” and bayonet (the latter being a weapon Maxwell’s militia lacked experience in using). The Americans eventually retreated across Cooch’s Bridge, taking up a position on the far side. Von Wurmb and the jägers stopped their pursuit at Cooch’s Bridge, and occupied Iron Hill. A battalion of British light infantry that had been sent across the Christina River in an attempt to flank Maxwell’s force became mired in swampy terrain, but emerged in time to help dislodge the Americans from that position. The militia retreated back toward the main Continental Army camp near Wilmington.
Casualty reports for the British range from 3 killed and 20 wounded to about 30 each killed and wounded. One British deserter reported that nine wagonloads of wounded were sent toward the fleet. The Americans claimed 20 killed and another 20 wounded, and Washington in a letter to Congress said the losses were “not very considerable”; however, the British reported burying 41 Americans, and Howe’s official report claimed “not less than fifty killed and many more wounded.” General Maxwell was criticized for his leadership by a number of Washington’s subordinates. One foreign officer with service in the army of Prussia commented to Henry Laurens in reference to Maxwell, “Your Soldiers are very good Mans, so good as any brave Mans in the World, but your Officers my Dear Colonel, your Officers…”
Lt. Col. Ludwig von Wurmb, portrait c. 1788
This was the only battle of the revolutionary war that was fought in Delaware. General Cornwallis occupied the house of Thomas Cooch for a time. The British continued their advance toward Philadelphia, and the two armies clashed again in the major Battle of Brandywine on September 11. The British victory in that battle paved the way for their eventual entry into and occupation of the city of Philadelphia. This success was more than offset by the failure of the expedition to the Hudson, in which General Burgoyne surrendered his army after the Battles of Saratoga, in October 1777. News of Burgoyne’s surrender greatly changed the war, because it (and the Battle of Germantown, fought after the British occupied Philadelphia) was a major factor in France’s decision to enter the war as an American ally in 1778.
The site of the battle has been preserved as the Cooch’s Bridge Historic District, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, the Cooch family sold the state some land as well as development rights for an additional 200 acres (81 ha) of land in the area of the battlefield. They also established a $1.5 million fund to restore and maintain the property, and granted the state a right of first refusal to purchase the Thomas Cooch house, which remained with the family.
In 2007, the 230th anniversary of the battle was commemorated by a re-enactment event hosted by members of the recreated 2nd Virginia Regiment.