American Revolution: Battle of Cooch's Bridge

Lord Charles Cornwallis
Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Cooch's Bridge was fought September 3, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - Armies & Commanders:

Americans

British

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - Background:

Having captured New York in 1776, British campaign plans for the following year called for Major General John Burgoyne's army to advance south from Canada with the goal of capturing the Hudson Valley and severing New England from the rest of the American colonies.

  In commencing his operations, Burgoyne hoped that General Sir William Howe, the overall British commander in North America, would march north from New York City to support the campaign.  Uninterested in advancing up the Hudson, Howe instead set his sights on taking the American capital at Philadelphia.  To do so, he planned to embark the bulk of his army and sail south.

Working with his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, Howe initially hoped to ascend the Delaware River and land below Philadelphia.  An assessment of the river forts in the Delaware deterred the Howes from this line of approach and they instead decided to sail further south before moving up the Chesapeake Bay.  Putting to sea in late July, the British were hampered by poor weather.  Though aware of Howe's departure from New York, the American commander, General George Washington, remained in the dark regarding the enemy's intentions.

  Receiving sighting reports from along the coast, he increasingly determined that the target was Philadelphia.  As a result, he began moving his army south in late August. 

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - Coming Ashore:

Moving up the Chesapeake Bay, Howe started landing his army at Head of Elk on August 25.

  Moving inland, the British began concentrating their forces before beginning the march northeast toward Philadelphia.  Having encamped at Wilmington, DE, Washington, along with Major General Nathanael Greene and the Marquis de Lafayette, rode southwest on August 26 and reconnoitered the British from atop Iron Hill.  Assessing the situation, Lafayette recommended employing a force of light infantry to disrupt the British advance and give Washington time to choose suitable ground for blocking Howe's army.  This duty normally would have fallen to Colonel Daniel Morgan's riflemen, but this force had been sent north to reinforce Major General Horatio Gates who was opposing Burgoyne.  As a result, a new command of 1,100 handpicked men was quickly assembled under the leadership of Brigadier General William Maxwell.

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - Moving to Contact:       

On the morning of September 2, Howe directed Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen to depart Cecil County Court House with the right wing of the army and move east toward Aiken's Tavern.  This march was slowed by poor roads and foul weather.  The next day, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis was ordered to break camp at Head of Elk and join Knyphausen at the tavern.

  Advancing east over different roads, Howe and Cornwallis reached Aiken's Tavern ahead of the delayed Hessian general and elected to turn north without waiting for the planned rendezvous.  To the north, Maxwell had positioned his force south of Cooch's Bridge which spanned the Christina River as well as sent a light infantry company south to set an ambush along the road.

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - A Sharp Fight:

Riding north, Cornwallis' advance guard, which was comprised of a company of Hessian dragoons led by Captain Johann Ewald, fell into Maxwell's trap.  Springing the ambush, the American light infantry broke up the Hessian column and Ewald retreated to obtain aid from Hessian and Ansbach jägers in Cornwallis' command.  Advancing, jägers led by Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig von Wurmb engaged the Maxwell's men in a running fight north.

  Deploying in a line with artillery support, Wurmb's men attempted to pin the Americans in place with bayonet charge in the center while sending a force to turn Maxwell's flank.  Recognizing the danger, Maxwell continued to slowly retreat north towards the bridge (Map).

Reaching Cooch's Bridge, the Americans formed to make a stand on the east bank of the river.  Increasingly pressed by Wurmb's men, Maxwell retreated across the span to a new position on the west bank.  Breaking off the fight, the jägers occupied nearby Iron Hill.  In an effort to take the bridge, a battalion of British light infantry crossed the river downstream and began moving north.  This effort was badly slowed by swampy terrain.  When this force finally arrived, it, along with the threat posed by Wurmb's command, compelled Maxwell to depart the field and retreat back to Washington's camp outside Wilmington, DE.

Battle of Cooch's Bridge - Aftermath:

Casualties for the Battle of Cooch's Bridge are not known with certainty but are estimated at 20 killed and 20 wounded for Maxwell and 3-30 killed and 20-30 wounded for Cornwallis.  As Maxwell moved north, Howe's army continued to be harassed by American militia forces.  That evening, Delaware militia, led by Caesar Rodney, struck the British near Aiken's Tavern in a hit-and-run attack.  Over the next week, Washington marched north with the intention of blocking Howe's advance near Chadds Ford, PA.  Taking a position behind the Brandywine River, he was defeated at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11.

  In the days after the battle, Howe succeeded in occupying Philadelphia.  An American counterattack on October 4 was turned back at the Battle of Germantown.  The campaign season ended later that fall with Washington's army going into winter quarters at Valley Forge.       

Selected Sources