The Battle of Cooch's Bridge was the first battle in the Philadelphia campaign. On July 23, 1777, British Gen. Howe left New York City with an armada of 265 ships carrying 18,000 troops. From the shore Continental Army scouts followed the progress of the British fleet, and Commander-in-Chief George Washington led most of the Continental Army south from New York to oppose the British wherever they might land. Because the Americans had strong defensive positions on the Delaware River, Howe decided to sail around the Demarva Peninsula and land at the top of the Chesapeake Bay.
On August 25 Howe's troops began disembarking at Turkey Point and other locations southeast of Head of Elk (now Elk Landing), Maryland. They were exhausted after a month in very cramped quarters on hot summer waters. They had run short of rations and had killed most of their horses. They needed some time to recover and to secure new horses for the upcoming battles to capture Philadelphia.
On that same day most of the Continental Army -- some 11,000 Continentals under General George Washington -- marched into Delaware. They dug entrenchments along the top of the steep northern bank of Red Clay Creek, blocking the most direct route from Elk Landing to Philadelphia. Continental cannon stood nearly wheel-to-wheel from Stanton -- where the flank was protected by extensive marshland -- to Greenbank Mill on Newport Gap Pike.
Three days later Generals Washington, Greene, and Lafayette rode with a strong troop of horse to the top of Iron Hill and then to Gray's Hill to observe the British beachhead around Head of Elk, several miles away. On their way back a violent storm blew in and forced them to spend the night in a local farmhouse before reaching the safety of American lines.
The British army had developed a new tactic -- forming temporary light infantry units that could move quickly and operate independently to clear the way so that the main army could move without distraction. Washington formed a similar unit in Delaware to impede the enemy's progress.
On August 28 he ordered each of the nine infantry brigades now in Delaware to detach one hundred of their most reliable infantrymen and seventeen officers to form a light infantry corps. On August 30 he appointed Brigadier General William Maxwell as commander of that corps. The permanent brigades were supplied by individual states, with troops and officers almost exclusively from that state. Since Maxwell's corps had officers and men from many states, this was our first truly national unit.
For this emergency duty, several Delaware militia battalions were assigned to (and paid by) the Continental Army. Strange as it may seem, the Delaware Continental Regiment was not in Delaware at this time. It was involved in the raid on Staten Island on Aug 22, led by Maj. Gen John Sullivan (NJ).
Cooch's Bridge was located in the midst of swampy terrain at a three-way fork in the road from Wilmington to Elkton. Washington anticipated that the British would move toward the bridge around the south side of Iron Hill. He instructed Gen. Maxwell to deploy his Light Infantry Corps and the First Battalion of Delaware militia near Cooch's Bridge and to use them to harass and delay any British advance.
On the morning of September 3, 1777, a British column of nine thousand men under General Cornwallis advanced up the road from Aiken's Tavern (present-day Glasgow). They followed what is now Route 896 onto Old Cooch's Bridge Road. In the lead were Hessian and Ansbach jägers. The word jäger means hunter, and these troops were excellent marksmen, familiar with fighting in the woods. About a half-mile south of Cooch's Bridge, the Hessians were fired upon by elements of Maxwell's corps waiting in ambush. After a sharp exchange of gunfire the Americans fell back to a first defensive position, then to a second, and finally to the house, mill, and riverbanks near Cooch's Bridge, where they made a determined stand. They may have marked the safe rallying point by flying the stars and stripes.
British attempts to outflank the Americans were frustrated by swamps and streams on both sides of the road, swollen with
water from the storms of the previous two days. Eventually the British brought up several light cannon and drove the outnumbered and out-gunned Americans down the road to Christiana. Several cannonballs have been found on the Cooch property.
The British continued two miles further north to take over the town of Newark, blocking a possible American attack on their base at Head of Elk via the Elkton road. Cornwallis used the Cooch home as his headquarters for the next five days. Two days after the battle his aide, Major John Andre, drew a map showing British units posted around the Cooch house. The officers drank all of Cooch's liquor, and the troops burned Cooch's grist mill when they left.
Maxwell's Corps and the Delaware militia returned to the main Continental lines at Stanton. This area (north of Christiana) was sufficiently secure for the Americans that on September 6 Washington held a staff meeting in the Hale-Byrnes house in Stanton with Generals Greene, Lafayette, Maxwell, Sullivan, and Wayne.
The harassing action let the British forces know that the invasion would meet stiff resistance. The dead were buried on the field, and Maxwell's unit was disbanded within a month, so there is no known casualty report for this unit.
Historians have reviewed reports from various sources and estimate that 25 to 40 died on the U.S side and perhaps half that many on the British side (many were Hessians from the lead units). Several times this number were wounded. The Americans carried their wounded away; the British set up a field hospital in the Presbyterian Church at Aiken's Tavern The town of Christiana was a river port that played a major role in shipping goods north and south without putting out to sea, where the British navy ruled the seas. However, at this time it was located between the two armies. Capt. William Dansey wrote to his mother that on September 5 he led the British 33rd Infantry in a raid on the town, where they "captured the horse, arms, colours and drums belonging to a rebel colonel of the Delaware militia" -- probably Delaware militia Col. Samuel Patterson, who had a home and mill in Christiana.
Deciding that a frontal attack on Washington's well-prepared positions in Delaware was not wise, Howe marched his army to Kennett Square PA, about fifteen miles to the north. Washington made a similar move north and fortified the high ground along the Brandywine River at Chadds Ford. The stage was now set for the Battle of the Brandywine, only two miles from the Delaware border.