Head of Elk: American Revolutionary War: 1777

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  The Legislature [of Maryland] passed an act in the spring of 1777, authorizing the governor to purchase land and contract for the erection of a good, substantial stone or brick building to be used for the accommodation of new recruits or soldiers passing through it. ... Probably for the want of means, the building was not erected.
  Washington had done what he could to retrieve the fortunes of the Continental cause at Princeton and Trenton, and in the Spring of 1777, his army occupied northern New Jersey, and having been largely reinforced was so formidable that General Howe resolved to accomplish by stratagem what he had failed to do by force, namely, the capture of Philadelphia, then the capitol of the infant Republic. To this end he embarked his army on board his brother's fleet, intending to reach Philadelphia by sailing up the Delaware. But learning that this was impracticable on account of the obstructions in the river, he abandoned the original plan and entered the Chesapeake Bay. [1]

    Three thousand troops, British and Hessian, "had embarked from [New York] City and Staten Island on board Transports." Their destination appeared to be Chesapeake Bay, in order "to make a landing on the Eastern Shore or to proceed to the Head of Elk," and ultimately, to capture Annapolis and Baltimore. [2]

    The Continental Army was reinforced by the spring of 1777. [1]

    General Sir William Howe set sail from New York City with approximately 15,000 men. He embarked on a campaign to take Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress. General Henry Clinton remained in command in New York City with British and loyalist forces. Howe and his force landed at Head of Elk on Chesapeake Bay August 25. [3]

    General Howe's objective was to capture Philadelphia. A British fleet, consisting of "three hundred sail of men-of-war," sailed up Chesapeake Bay, then "up the Elk River, and landed on Elk Neck, nearly opposite Court-house Point, at which place they were encamped on the 27th." [1]

    The Americans...had large quantities of grain, salt,
  and other stores at the Head of Elk, and owing to the
  fact that salt was scarce and difficult to obtain, they
  were very anxious to remove it to a place of safety.
  In order to do this, as well as to be in a position to
  watch the movements of the British, Washington left
  Philadelphia on the 24th of August,... [1]

    An estimated 2,000 British (though this number may have been incorrect) began to land "about Six Miles below Head of Elk opposite to Cecil Court House." Washington ordered the militia under Major General Armstrong, Pennsylvania, to march to Wilmington, Delaware, there to await further orders; also, to send for General Potter, to come to Wilmington. Washington wished to check any attempt made by the British to seize horses, carriages, and cattle. [2]

    ...on the 25th, [Washington] encamped on Red Clay
  Creek, with his headquarters at Wilmington. His army
  consisted of about 11,000 men. The Pennsylvania and
  Delaware militia, under Generals Armstrong and Rodney,
  were ordered to press forward to Head of Elk, and
  secure the stores deposited there; but they failed to
  do so, and most of the stores fell into the hands of
  the enemy. Generals Green and Weedon reconnoitered
  the country between Wilmington and Head of Elk, and
  Washington himself rode through heavy rains to the
  latter place on the 25th, to make a personal
  reconnoissance. It was upon this occasion that
  Washington passed the night in the old brick house
  just west of the Episcopal church, then occupied by
  Jacob Hollingsworth as a hotel. General Howe occupied
  the same room on the night of the 27th of August. [1]

    Washington wrote to the Hon. John Hancock, President of Congress, outlining his plans to marshall soldiers and the militia to Wilmington. "There are a great quantity of Public & private Stores at the Head of Elk, which I am afraid will fall into the Enemy's hands, if they advance quickly; among others there is a considerable parcel of Salt." Washington went to Head of Elk that day. [2]

    In a letter dated at Mr. Russel's, at the Head of
  North East, on the 27th of August, and addressed to
  Governor Johnson, by Benjamin Rumsey, he states that
  there were about one hundred men under arms, of
  which number about sixty-two were at North East and
  Charlestown. He complains of the want of arms, and
  speaks of two Hessian deserters, who had come to
  North East that morning.
    The two days after the British landed were stormy,
  which probably prevented them from advancing sooner;
  but on the morning of the 27th of August, two brigades
  of light infantry under Howe marched by the old road,
  traces of which may be seen at this time, that led
  from Elk Ferry to the Head of Elk, leaving a large
  division of the heavier troops, under command of
  Generals Knyphausen and Agnew, at Elk Ferry, with
  instructions to cross the Elk River to Bohemia Manor.
  The British did not confine themselves to the road
  after crossing Little Elk Creek, but spread over the
  fields on each side of it, their pioneers or vanguards
  tearing down the fences and other obstructions to make
  way for the others. ... After reaching the Head of Elk
  (now Elkton) the British encamped on the plain, north-
  west of the town, where they remained for several days.[1]

    Washington returned to Wilmington. Only a distant view could be had of the British from Iron & Grey's Mills, near Elk, and their numbers were indeterminate. The Public Stores were removed from Head of Elk, except about 7,000 bushels of corn—which the Commissary was ordered "to get off as soon as possible." A scarcity of teams had made the transfer of Stores difficult: Washington ordered more teams from Wilmington, "to expedite the measure." Part of the Delaware Militia were stationed at Head of Elk, with 900 more expected from Pennsylvania. [2]

    While the British were at Elkton they destroyed
  a large quantity of grain that was stored in a
  warehouse that stood in the hollow near where Prices
  [sic] hotel now stands. ... The British tore the
  weather-boarding off this warehouse and filled the
  ditch full of grain. The British General appears to
  have left a part of his force here for some time,
  probably a small garrison, to hold the town and keep
  his line of communication with the fleet in the river.
    The Americans had a small body of troops at Elk
  Forge, which was a place of much importance at that
  time, and had been in operation for about sixteen
  years. They also had a line of posts or stations by
  way of Kennet Square to Philadelphia, and kept up
  communication by means of couriers on horseback,
  who changed horses at each station.
    While the British held the town they were in the
  habit of sending out foraging parties, and the
  Americans at the forge had their scouts on the alert,
  in order to be informed of their operations. ...
    During the time that the British were in Elkton
  and vicinity they sent a detachment of troops to Elk
  Forge, who committed many depredations there and
  destroyed much of the property that they found. Most
  of the stock had been removed and concealed in
  anticpation [sic] of the raid. The people, for a
  distance of twelve or fifteen miles round Elkton, in
  Delaware, and Pennsylvania, took pains to conceal
  their horses and cattle by driving them to secluded
  places in the woods. Many of them had taken the more
  valuable portions of their portable property and fled
  to places of safety, where they remained until the
  danger was past. ... [1]

    In a letter to Brigadier General Cadallader, Washington wrote,

    "General Howe has advanced part of his Force
  about two miles this side of the Head of Elk and
  from the information of deserters and prisoners,
  there is reason to believe he is either marching
  or soon will be, towards Philadelphia. If that is
  his object, and of which there can be but little
  doubt, I think many important advantages would be
  derived from the Militia's hanging on his Rear or
  Right flank, after he leaves Elk, while he is opposed
  by this army in front or in such other way, as shall
  seem most advisable from circumstances. But then, I
  am wholly at a loss to whom to address myself
  respecting the Militia on the Eastern Shore, not
  knowing their Officers or where they are assembled.
    "The Congress thought proper to point out Genl
  Smallwood and Col Gist to arrange and conduct them;
  who owing I suppose to a miscarage [sic] of the
  dispatches that were sent them have not yet reached
  this place, nor have I heard any thing of them.
  Matters being thus circumstanced, and as the aid of
  the Militia is extremely necessary and no time is
  to be lost in obtaining it, I must request your Good
  Offices and interest in assisting to assemble, spirit
  up and forward them in the best manner you can,
  towards the Head of the Bay, that they may be in a
  situation to annoy the Enemy should they make a push
  against Philadelphia, giving such advice and direction
  to the Officers as shall appear to you necessary and
  proper." [2]

That part of the British army, under Gen. Knyphausen
  and Agnew, probably crossed the Elk River shortly
  after the departure of the light troops under Gen.
  Howe, for they were encamped near Court-house Point on
  the 31st of August. This division was composed of
  Hessians and Scotch Highlanders. They appear to have
  spread over the greater part of Sodom, and were
  encamped for a short time near St. Augustine Church,
  the windows of which they destroyed.
    A detachment of the British army also crossed the
  Elk River, and landed at Welsh Point. It is probable
  that it was this detachment that afterwards joined
  that part of the army that was commanded by General
  Howe, at Grays Hill. ...
    ... the British carried away [from the court-house
  on Court-house Point] with them all the public
  records except a few that had been removed to the
  Head of Elk for safety, ... Some of the records were
  found in New York and brought back to the county
  after the close of the war. These were transcribed,
  but many of the original records were never recovered,
  which accounts for the imperfect condition of the
  land records previous to the beginning of this [the
  19th] century." [1]

1777-05 to -08
    Washington's Revolutionary War expense account included the following item pertaining to Head of Elk:

     Aug 28: To Secret Services while the two Armies were
   manœuvring in the Jerseys——and til the British Sailed
   for the Head of Elk ... Dollr 580. Lawful £52.10.0.

     To the Exps of a Reconnoitre to the Head of Elk with
   a large party of Horse ... Dollr 185. Lawful £22.15.0.[2]

    From Wilmington, Washington issued orders to Colonel Mordicai Gist, 3rd Maryland Regiment, to remove to George Town on the Sassafras river, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, or "elsewhere on the East Side of Chesapeak Bay," there to join with other Militia who were assembling to assist in

    "repelling the Invasion of the Enemy by way of
  Chesapeak Bay." The assembled force were then to
  march "immediately towards the Head of Elk within
  a convenient distance to harrass and annoy the
  Enemys [sic] right flank and the parties they may
  send out, either while they remain there, or in
  any march they may attempt towards Philadelphia or
  into the Country." [2]

Washington directed Gist particularly to extend his care

    "to the Cattle, Horses and stock of all kinds,
  lying contiguous to the Enemy and within such a
  distance, that there may be a probability of
  their falling into their hands. These must be
  driven out of their reach, and all Waggons and
  Carts removed that might facilitate the movement
  of their Baggage and Stores. ... You will speak
  to the Quarter Masters and Commissaries of
  Provisions and Forage and agree with them upon a
  mode by which you may be supplied with such
  necessaries, as you may have occasion for, in the
  line of their respective Departments." [2]

  In addition, Washington wrote,

    "If there should be any Mills in the Neigh-
  bourhood of the Enemy, and which may be liable
  to fall into their hands, the Runners should be
  removed and secured, this can be of no injury, or
  but a temporary one to the proprietors, while it
  will effectually prevent the Enemy from using the
  Mills. Grain too, should be carried out of their
  way, as far as circumstances will admit." [2]

    Washington believed that the main body of the British were in the neighbourhood of Elk:

    "There has been some skirmishing between our
  Scouting parties, but with little loss. We have
  taken about 70 or 80 British prisoners and there
  have been several Deserters from the Sea and Land
  Service together." [2]

In his History of Cecil County, Johnston wrote:

    Just after this fight the British burned Coochs
  mill, and indulged in many other acts of wanton
  destruction of property. ...
    With the exception of the removal of the records
  of the county and the capture of the public stores
  at the Head of Elk, the British did little damage
  in this county. They seem to have taken pains to
  conciliate those who were opposed to them, and not
  to have hesitated to plunder their friends. [1]

    Because there were considerable numbers of cattle and horses at and in the neighbourhood of Nottingham, Maryland, and the distance from Nottingham to Head of Elk was "not so great as to discourage the Enemy from attempting to make themselves masters of such valuable Articles," Washington directed Brigadier General Maxwell to "contrive means for driving the cattle and removing the effects to some place of greater security." [2]

    The British seem to have proceeded slowly and
  cautiously. For a time they were encamped on the
  plain north of the town. Afterwards they occupied
  a strong position on the summit of Grays Hill. On
  the third of September their lines extended from
  Glasgow, then called Aikens or Aikentown, to a
  point some distance northwest of the Baptist church
  on Iron Hill. On that day severe skirmishing took
  place between them and the Maryland and Delaware
  militia, near Coochs Bridge and the Baptist church
  on Iron Hill. In these skirmishes the Americans
  lost about forty men, the British somewhat less.
    Just after this fight the British burned Coochs
  mill, and indulged in many acts of wanton destruc-
  tion of property. ...

    The people of Cecil County, as before remarked,
  were generally loyal to the cause of their country.
  There were, however, a few exceptions; but no person
  of good standing in society, except Robert Alexander,
  is believed to have joined the enemy. He belonged to
  an aristocratic family that formerly owned a large
  tract of land at Elkton, lying between the hollow and
  the Far Creek, which he inherited from William
  Alexander, the third husband of Ariminta Alexander,
  who afterwards married George Catto, and who was one
  of the most aristocratic ladies that ever lived in
  the county. This man Alexander joined the British
  fleet when it was in Elk River, and went away with it
  and never returned. He left a wife and several
  children, who then and for many years afterwards
  resided in Elkton. ... Robert Alexander...is said to
  have prepared a fine entertainment for the British
  officers, and to have gone down the river to welcome
  them to the town, but while he was away upon that
  errand the Americans came to Elkton and the feast
  fell into their hands.
    Robert Alexander acted as agent for the Tories
  from the State of Maryland, who, in 1788, claimed
  compensation from the British Government for their
  confiscated property. [1]

    Washington wrote a letter, similar to the one noted in the 1779-09-01 entry above, to Colonel William Richardson, 5th Maryland Regiment, issuing the same orders, to march up from Davis Town. [2]

    The British had moved nearer Head of Elk. In a letter to Brigadier General Rodney, Washington said that for the moment, Rodney could

  do no more than keep scouts and patroles towards
  the Enemy to watch their motions, but as soon as
  you are joined by more force from this State by the 
  Militia of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and by
  Richardson's Battalion, I would have you move as
  near the Enemy as you can with safety, that you may,
  if they move on towards Philadelphia, get between
  them and their Shipping and cut off their communi-
  cation with them or at least render it difficult.
  You will endeavour to check any parties that the
  Enemy may send out to collect Horses, Cattle or
  Forage; and give me intelligence of any occurrences
  that may come to your knowledge. [2]

Washington also desired to know if the British shipping had fallen down from Cecil Court House, and were out of sight. [2]

    Except the hardships incident to a state of war,
  which were greatly aggravated by the depreciation
  of the currency, ... there is little of interest to
  record in the history of the county in the interval
  between the years 1777 and 1781. During this period
  the inhabitants were often put to great inconvenience
  for want of salt and sugar, but were able to supply
  themselves with the fabrics used for clothing from
  their own manufactories, the old-fashioned spinning
  wheels and hand looms that were to be found in every
  thrifty farm-house, and had a surplus left to dispose
  of outside of the county. [1]

    The winter after the battle of Brandywine, the
  British occupied Philadelphia, and it is a well-
  established fact that some of the disaffected and
  mercenary citizens of the county, some of whom were
  indicted for the offense, were in the habit of
  smuggling provisions to them. ... The invasion of
  the county greatly demoralized the people. The new
  government was, at this time, only an experiment,
  and its ultimate success was doubtful; consequently
  the ill-disposed and lawless part of the citizens
  took advantage of the weakness of the civil
  authorities and did pretty much as they pleased.[1]



Johnston, George. History of Cecil County, Maryland. Elkton: published by the author, 1881 (pp. 322ff). Extracts transcribed by Alison Kilpatrick.


United States Government. George Washington Papers, 1741–1799. Library of Congress. Online at https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html (accessed 2015-12-09 to -17). Synopsis and extracts by Alison Kilpatrick.


United States Government.The George Washington Papers, 1741–1799: Time Line: The American Revolution. Library of Congress. Online at https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/1777.html (accessed 2015-12-17).

Please cite your sources.

Return to Head of Elk and the American Revolution index page.
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