Head of Elk: American Revolutionary War: 1781

Source numbers are hyperlinked to a list of references provided at the end of this page.

    Washington issued instructions to the Hon. General the Marquis de la Fayette to take command of a detachment, set to "act against the Corps of the Enemy now in Virginia, in conjunction with the Militia and some Ships from the Fleet of the Chevalier Des touches," first marching from New Windsor, New York, to the Head of Elk. The Marquis was directed to arrange with the Quarter Master General Vessels to be ready at the Head of Elk, to convey the force "down the Bay to Hampton Road, or to the point of operation," &c.[1]

    Washington informed Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, that a quantity of arms and clothing had been taken on board French ships, sailing out of Newport, Delaware, on behalf of the State of Virginia; and, confirmed that a detachment of the Army, under Major General the Marquis de la Fayette, was proceeding by land to the Head of Elk, from whence this force would "fall down the Chesapeak in Transports." Should Jefferson "have occasion to write to the Marquis," he was instructed to "let your first letter go by land under cover to the Qr Master to the Head of Elk. Any subsequent ones by boats to the same place, because they will meet the Transports in the Bay." [1]

    Washington's letter instructed Major General Arthur St. Clair, to form a temporary "Battalion of eight Companies of 50 Rank and File each,* three Officers to a Company and two Field Officers to a Battalion," or, if this was not practicable, companies "at 40 rather than lose the reinforcement, or even half a Battalion of 200 under the command of one Field Officer rather than none." Transports would be provided at the Head of Elk. *out of the Philadelphia line. [1]

    This letter was to be delivered to St. Clair by Major General the Marquis de la Fayette if, upon the Marquis' arrival in Philadelphia, it appeared that a reinforcement from the Philadelphia was, in fact, forthcoming. [1]

    The expedition of General Lafayette, which
  Washington detached from his army, then in the
  vicinity of New York, which was designed to co-
  operate with a force already there against the
  traitor, Benedict Arnold, who at that time was
  ravaging the country along the James River and
  the lower part of Chesapeake Bay, passed through
  this county in 1781. The troops which composed
  this expedition numbered 1,200. [2]

    Washington directed the Chevalier Destouches, after his successful foray into the Chesapeak, to return again to that Bay, in order to assist the Marquis de la Fayette who was en route to the Head of Elk:

    Permit me to observe that to give success to the
  expedition it will be not only necessary to protect
  the passage of the [Marquis'] Troops to the point of
  operation, but to block up the Bay afterwards to
  prevent the retreat of the Enemy or succours going
  to them. [1]

Washington then instructed the Marquis that upon arrival at Head of Elk, he (the Marquis) should "immediately embark the Troops if the Transports are ready," but to remain in the Elk River until it was "ascertained beyond a doubt ... that the French Squadron is again the Bay of Chesapeak." [1]

    The detachment under the Marquis "came from Trenton down the Delaware River and up the Christiana Creek to Christiana Bridge, from whence they marched to the Head of Elk, where they arrived on or about the 6th of March." [2]

    The following letter was put under cover to Colonel Miles with directions to send it to the Head of Elk, and orders to the Quarter Master there to destroy it, should the Marquis have sailed:

 To M. General the Marquis De la Fayette.  Virga.
  Dear Marquis,
  I have the pleasure to inform you that the whole Fleet went out with a fair Wind this Evening about sun set. You may possibly hear of their arrival in Chesapeak before this letter reaches you; should you not, you will have every thing prepared for falling down the Bay at a moments [sic] warning. We have not yet heard of any move of the British in Gardiners [sic] Bay. Should we luckily meet with no interruption from them, and Arnold should continue in Virginia till the arrival of Mr Des touches, I flatter myself you will meet with that success, which I most ardently wish, not only on the public but your own account.
  I am &c.
  G. Washington.
New Port  8th March 1781.  10 OClock P.M.  [1]

    After the [Marquis de la Fayette's] expedition
  arrived at Head of Elk, a little fleet was soon
  gathered together in the Elk River, to relieve
  himself of the command of which Lafayette sent for
  Commodore Nicholson, of Baltimore, and on the 9th
  of March the expedition set sail and reached
  Annapolis in safety the next evening. Lafayette
  expected to receive aid from the French fleet,
  which had sailed from the north a short time before,
  and was supposed to be in the lower part of the
  Chesapeake, and which, had all gone well, would
  have co-operated with him in the attempt to capture
  Arnold. But, unfortunately for the success of the
  enthusiastic young Frenchman, the British had
  dispatched a large squadron to reinforce the one
  already co-operating with Arnold, which overtook
  the French fleet near the mouth of the Chesapeake.
  A severe action took place, and, although the
  French had the best of the fight, they concluded,
  inasmuch as some of their vessels were badly
  crippled, and the English had succeeded in getting
  into the mouth of the Chesapeake during the heavy
  fog, to abandon the enterprise.
    ...He [the Marquis] thereupon sent orders to the
  troops which were still at Annapolis to be ready to
  move at a moment's notice. At this juncture,
  Washington, who had been apprised of the state of
  affairs, recalled the expedition, which at this
  time was blockaded in the harbor of Annapolis by
  two vessels detached from the British fleet for that
  purpose. Lafayette found means to rejoin his little
  fleet at Annapolis and for a while thought seriously
  of returning by land, but that plan was abandoned
  as impracticable on account of the want of horses
  to transport the artillery and stores. ... [2]

    ...After much  delay, it was resolved to run the
  blockade, if  possible, and return to the Head of
  Elk by water.  The following plan was adopted:
  Two sloops of about  sixty tons' burden were fitted
  up with two eighteen  pounders each in their bows
  and a traveling forge in their holds. At 10 o'clock
  on the morning of the 6th of April, these vessels,
  each manned by two hundred volunteers, sailed boldly
  out of Annapolis Roads to attack the British vessels,
  which, on their approach, not relishing the hot shot
  of the Americans, left their moorings and dropped
  down the bay, thus opening a passage for the American
  fleet, which followed the two gun-boats, and reached
  the Head of Elk the same night. At that place
  Lafayette found letters from Washington counter-
  manding the order of recall and ordering him south-
  ward again to assist General Greene. [2]

1781-04-11    The army under Lafayette left the Head of Elk on
  the morning of the 11th of April, and marched to
  the Brick Meeting-house [at Nottingham], which they
  reached about an hour before sunset, and encamped
  in the meeting-house woods. The author is indebted
  to James Trimble for the following description of
  the interesting scene, he having derived his infor-
  mation from those who witnessed it: "The leading
  divisions were rapidly followed by others until the
  whole woods, then containing about thirty acres,
  seemed filled with horses, wagons and men, but the
  villagers were surprised to see so many people
  settle down so quickly in exact order, the men
  cooking their suppers, and sentinels walking around
  the entire body. None of the inhabitants were
  molested except to replenish their empty canteens
  at the old-fashioned draw wells in the vicinity.
  William Kirk, then in about his twelfth year,
  informed me that in company with others he went the
  next morning at the first appearance of daylight to
  see the Frenchmen before they left, but found the
  road already filled with the army in motion, in
  compact order." Upon this occasion Lafayette spent
  the night in the old stone house upon the plantation
  of the late Marshall J. Hunt, a short distance north-
  east of the village of Rising Sun, then occupied by
  Job Haines.
    On taking his leave the next morning, the general
  presented each of Mr. Haines' sons with a piece of
  money, giving his son Lewis a gold coin, his name
  being the same as that of the general's sovereign.[2]

    Some of the army are said to have encamped near
  Harrisville the same night, which seems quite
  probable, from the fact that Lafayette spent the
  night about midway between that place and the
  Brick Meeting-house, The next day the army crossed
  the Susquehanna in scows at Bald Friar Ferry, and
  proceeded to Baltimore. The troops under General
  Lafayette were all from Northern States, and though
  they had willingly engaged in the expedition down
  the bay, they became dissatisfied when ordered to
  engage in a summer campaign in the South. They were
  poorly clad and without shoes, and showed so much
  discontent that it was predicted when they left
  Bald Friar Ferry, that not one-half of them would
  reach Baltimore. But by hanging one deserter and
  severely reprimanding some other delinquents,
  Lafayette preserved his little army intact and
  safely reached Baltimore, where the wants of his
  army were supplied. [2]

    Washington's letter to Major General the Baron De Steuben opened with:

    I have received your favour of the 23d ulto. As soon as I had ascertained the point of General Phillip's having sailed with a detachment from New York, I sent directions to the Marquis to proceed to the Southward and put himself under the orders of Major General Greene. I was in hopes my letters would have reached him at Annapolis or met him in his march from thence to the Head of Elk. But unfortunately as things were circumstanced he had found an opportunity of returning by Water to the Head of Elk and by that means brought the detachment near one hundred miles back again. He however was to recommence his march on the 13th and as he is very light, he will move as quick as it is possible for Troops to do. ... [1]

    The Legislature, by the act of 1780, confiscated the
  property of all disloyal persons, and by subsequent
  acts sought to make it available for the redemption of
  bills of credit or paper money, which it was found
  necessary to issue to defray the expense of carrying
  on the war. Commissioners were appointed to take charge
  of this property and dispose of it for the purpose
  before-named. The first emission of these bills of
  credit, which were somewhat in the nature of a forced
  loan, and similar in character to modern shinplasters,
  was authorized by the act of May, 1781, and John
  Dockery Thompson, Henry Hollingsworth, Thomas Hughes,
  Benjamin Brevard, and John Leach Knight, were appointed
  to superintend the issuing of the bills in this county.
  Several subsequent issues of paper money were made, and
  the enactments in reference to them contain many allu-
  sions to red money and black money, which can only be
  explained and properly understood, in connection with
  the fact that some of these issues of paper money were
  printed partly with red ink, while others were printed
  wholly with black. A large quantity of this confiscated
  property was in this county. [2]

    To the Hon. Robert Morris, Esq., Superintendent of Finance, Washington said that, Provisions were "necessary at the Head of Elk to carry the Troops down the Bay," on the order of "three hundred Barrels of Flour, as many of Salt meal and eight or ten Hogsheads of Rum." Washington had written to the Count de Grasse, to request him "to send up his light Vessels of every kind to Elk." [1]

   Questions proposed by Count De Rochambeau to and General Washington's Answers to them. [Transcriber's note: The list, below, containt extracts pertaining only to Head of Elk.]
  7th. How will the Artillery and the Baggage be carried from the place of debarkation to the Head of Elk or any other place where they shall embark on the day?——The number of Carriages necessary for the transport of the Artillery and Baggage is so much greater than can be procured in the Country between Christiana and Elk, that I would propose that all the teams fit for further service, upon our arrival at Trenton, should be sent across the Country to Wilmington; the deficiency may be made up in that Neighbourhood.
  8th. If the Troops embark at Trenton to go down the Delaware what Road will the Waggons and Horses take. Must they be sent to the Head of Elk to be embarked there, or will they be sent to Susquehannah Ferry to be brought down to Alexandria?——They will be sent to Wilmington for the reasons above assigned, which is exactly in the Route to the Head of Elk. It will be determined upon our arrival at Elk whether they are to proceed by land or sent down the Bay by Water.
  9th. May we depend upon some Ships of the Americans for the transport of the Troops upon the Bay: Would it not be proper to write to the Chevalier de la Luzerne and desire him to speak to Mr D'Anmour Count of France at Baltimore[?]——I have every reason to believe that there are few or no Vessels at this time at Baltimore or at any place in the upper part of Chesapeak Bay, and for that reason your Excellency will be pleased to remember that we in our joint letter, recommended it to Count de Grasse to send up all his Frigates and Transports to Elk River. But as it is a matter of the utmost importance, it may not be amiss for your Excellency to repeat the request either immediately to Count de Grasse or through the Minister of France.
  10th. It seems that it ought immediately to be sent to Philadelphia to prepare the Hospitals and Provisions for the march to the Head of Elk and further.——It will perhaps be more expedient to delay this until our arrival at Springfield, lest doing it sooner should expose our design.
  Kings Ferry  22d Augt 1781. [1]

    The Troops were expected to arrive at the Head of Elk by the 8th September. Washington directed the Count de Grasse to send up "all your Frigates and Transports to the Head of Elk" by that date. [1]

   In his marching orders to Major General Lincoln, Washington stated that the Artillery and Ordnance Stores would be sent to Head of Elk by land.[1]

    On the subject of provisions, Washington wrote to Robert Morris, Esq.:

    I think you may with safety prepare a few hundred
  Barrels in Philadelphia, at which place the French
  will have a quantity of bread baked, and the remainder
  at the Head of Elk and upon Chesapeak. [1]

    Having decided to march "a very considerable detachment from the American Army, with the whole of the French troops, immediately to Virginia," Washington was en route from Chatham, New Jersey, to Head of Elk. He appealed to Governor Lee, of Maryland, for his aid and assistance in the arrangement for water craft at the Head of Elk—through the agency of the Hon. Robert Morris, Esq.—in order to transport the Army with their artillery, baggage, stores, &c., with particular attention to flour, rum, and salt meat, a quantity of forage for the cattle, and one month's pay in specie for the detachment under Washington's command, by the 8th September. [1]

    In the September following, the American army under
  command of General Washington, passed through the
  Head of Elk, en route to the siege of Yorktown. ...the
  troops embarked at Plum Point, where a number of
  transports from the French fleet were waiting to receive
  them. ...the army was nearly two days in crossing the
  Susquehanna, there being but one ferry-boat at the
  lower ferry; [remarked Claude Blanchard, in his journal:] ...
  "the Head of Elk is in a very dry soil, and one is
  drowned in dust there. Fever is very prevalent there,
  doubtless caused by the swamps in the vicinity." [2]

    Washington's headquarters were in the Head of Elk for several days. In a letter to Brigadier General Du Portail, he bemoaned the "want of a sufficient number of Transports to carry our whole force and apparatus from this place at once." However, looking ahead, he stated that:

    The Heavy Ordnance and necessary Stores will be
  forwarded immediately, and the Van of the American
  and French Armies consisting of 1000 Men each, will,
  I hope, be embarked to-morrow; The remainder of the
  Army will move by Land to Baltimore without delay as
  you advise, and I shall come forward myself with all
  possible expedition. [1]

To George Weedon or Alexander Spotswood, in Virginia, Washington advised, "The Waggons of the French and American Armies, the Cavalry, and the Cattle of both are upon their march from the Head of Elk to the point of operation below." [1]

    Owing to some apprehension about the security of the Troops embarking from the Head of Elk, Washington detained their departure until the 15th September. On that date, he advised Thomas McKean, Esq., President of Congress:

    Orders are this morning gone on to press them
  forward with every dispatch possible.
    I am distressed to find the supply of the Army
  collecting here on too precarious a footing, already
  they have experienced a want of Provisions. Every
  measure is taking that is in my power, to be better
  assured of our supplies in future, how far I shall
  succeed in my endeavours, time must discover. [1]

    In a subsequent letter to Mr. McKean, Washington wrote:

    The Vessels from the Head of Elk are now debarking
  their Stores and Troops except some few which are not
  yet arrived, and are accounted for, from their being
  dull Sailors, and are expected soon.
    I still find myself embarrassed for want of Provisions
  and sufficient means of transportation, but by superior
  exertions, I hope to surmount these difficulties and
  find myself soon before the Enemy's Works at York and
  Gloucester. [1]

To Colo. Stephen Moylan. 4th L. Dr.
  Sir: There being an absolute necessity of reinforcing General Greene with Cavalry as expeditiously as possible, you will immediately collect all the Men and Horses of the 4th Regiment and report to me the Articles of Clothing of which you stand in need that I may endeavour to furnish you out of a few things (though not of the proper kind for Dragoons) which are coming from the Head of Elk.
  As soon as you can put the detachment in condition to march, you will inform me, when you will receive further Orders.
  I am, &c.
  G. Washington.
  Camp before York  8th Octr 1781. [1]

With the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, the Revolutionary War ended, and America won its freedom from the British.

  October 23. Red Book No. 30. Letter 45.
  We do hereby become subscribers of the sums affixed to our names, on the scheme for an emission, in pursuance of the act for the emission of bills of credit not exceeding two hundred thousand pounds, on the security of double the value in lands, to defray the expences of the present campaign.

  Subscribers' Names; Real Estate in Lands; House:
  Joseph Gilpin; all his Real Estate; £100
  Sam'l Thomas; Part Triple Union; £200
  H. Hollingsworth; all His Real Estate; £500
  David Smith; Part of Susquehannah manor; £100
  Sam'l Gilpin; Part of a tract of Land call'd Coxes Park; £100
  Samuel Maffith; pt Vanbibber forest; £100
  Stephen Hyland; his Real Estate; £100
  Thos. Huggins; his real Estate; £150
  Da'd Ricketts; Real Estate; £100 [3]

    After the capture of Yorktown, a part of the
  American army, under General Lincoln, passed
  through the Head of Elk on their way northward.
  It is stated, in a requisition made upon Colonel
  Hollingsworth by Henry Dearbourn, then Lieutenant-
  Colonel and Deputy Quarter-master, afterwards Major
  General in the war of 1812, that he was in want of
  one hundred and fifty beef cattle to drive on with
  the army for its subsistence. He also wanted at
  least thirty-four horse teams, and intimated that
  if they were not forthcoming "he would be under the
  disagreeable necessity of making use of the authority
  of the army for procuring them," which he seemed to
  regret lest it might distress those who had already
  contributed their full share. He adds, in a postscrip,
  that "20 wagon-loads of straw will be absolutely
  necessary for the troops in this cold season." [2]

    In his instructions to Major General Lincoln, primarily pertaining to marching orders into the states of New Jersey and New York, Washington added:

    Every necessary assistance is to be afforded at
  the Head of Elk in unloading, securing or removing
  the Public Stores and particular attention must be
  given to the sick and Invalids to get them forward
  or provided for in the most convenient manner. [1]

Washington directed Lieutenant William Colfax to convey the sick, invalids, and weak men, heavy stores, and other articles (papers excepted), "by Water, under the care of Mr. Holden, or yourself, to the Head of Elk, where they are to remain till the Waggons and other parts of the Baggage go round to that place by Land," after which the entire were to proceed to Philadelphia. [1]

    Washington reported to His Excellency, Thomas McKean, Esq., President of Congress, that "the greatest part of the Eastern Troops [had been embarked for the Head of Elk." Curiously, he mentioned an unavoidable delay in his own arrival at Philadelphia, owing to an event which has proven very distressing to Mrs. Washington.  [1]

    With winter setting in, Washington appointed Dr. Latimer to establish a temporary hospital at Wilmington, for the care of wounded soldiers arriving from Virginia. He requested assistance from John Dickson, Esq., Governor of Delaware, to furnish Dr. Latimer "with the proper powers or means to procure a building or buildings, suitable for the purpose and Carriages for the transportation of the Patients from the Head of Elk." [1]

To Joseph Gilpin Esqr  Head of Elk
  Sir: I am exceedingly sorry for the accident of which you inform me in yours of the 25th. The only reparation I can make, is to order the Soldier to be immediately given up to the Civil authority, for which purpose I inclose a letter to the Commanding Officer to the Head of Elk.
  I take it extremely kind of you, Sir, to have made an application to me upon the present occasion. You undoubtedly had a right by Law to have secured the offender by virtue of your own authority.
  I am &c.
  G Washington.
  Philadelphia  30th December 1781. [1]

To The Continental Officer, Commanding at the Head of Elk.
Philada  30th Decr 1781.
  Sir: I am informed by Joseph Gilpin Esqr as Justice of the Peace at the Head of Elk, that an Inhabitant has been killed by a Soldier, and that the Coroner's Inquest has returned it Murder. You will therefore immediately deliver the Offendor [sic] to the Civil Authority and I shall depend upon your taking all possible pains to prevent any accident of the like kind in future.
  I am &c.
  G Washington. [1]

In his History of Cecil County, Johnston elaborated on these circumstances:

    ...in December, 1781, some of the Rhode Island
  troops, who were quartered in the house of one
  Jane Clark, at the Head of Elk, got into a quarrel
  with a gang of watermen, who attacked them in their
  quarters in the night, and being driven away,
  returned and renewed the fight the next morning.
  Jane Clark kept a hotel, or at least sold liquor,
  and it was in evidence that the watermen were drunk,
  and probably the soldiers were in the same condition.
  The fight was ended by one Forteen Stodder, a negro
 from Rhode Island, shooting James Cunningham,
  the leader of the sailors, from the effect of which
  he died shortly afterwards. Stodder was indicted for
  murder, and was convicted of manslaughter and
  sentenced to be burnt in the brawn of the left thumb
  with a hot iron. The record of the court shows that
  the sentence was executed. He was probably the last
  person that was obliged to submit to this barbarous
  and inhuman punishment in this county. [2]



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.


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


State of Maryland. "October 23 [1781], Red Book No. 30, Letter 45." Laws of Maryland, 1785-1791. Vol. 47, pg. 533. Baltimore: Maryland State Archives. Online at msa.maryland.gov (accessed 2015-12-16).

Please cite your sources.

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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