Rolling on the River: Delaware in the American Revolution


January 25, 2017
by Kim Burdick Also by this Author


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Under English rule, trading vessels sailed back and forth from the Delaware River and Bay to Philadelphia, New York, the British Isles, Southern Europe, Madeira, and the West Indies.  Raw materials were sent to England for manufacture, traded with non-British entities, and the proceeds spent on British-made goods. Daily runs between Cape Henlopen, New Castle and Philadelphia were key to the prosperity of what would become the State of Delaware.

Following the French and Indian War, reaction to British attempts to tax and regulate trade was so negative that Parliament repealed all but the tax on tea. The Tea Act quickly backfired.  When news came in September 1773, that the tea ship Polly was on its way, it was obvious that the first Americans to meet her would be Delaware River pilots. They, along with Captain Ayres of the Polly, were warned not to bring that ship upriver.  A handbill read, in part:

What think you, Captain, of a Halter around your Neck—ten Gallons of liquid Tar decanted on your Pate—with the Feathers of a dozen wild Geese laid over that to enliven your Appearance? Only think seriously of this—and fly to the Place from whence you came—fly without Hesitation—without the Formality of a Protest—and above all, Captain Ayres, let us advise you to fly without the wild Geese Feathers. [1]

Despite the threats, the Polly was intercepted south of Philadelphia.  On Christmas Day, nearly seven hundred chests of tea ordered by the Quaker firm of James & Drinker were formally refused. The ship was stocked with fresh provisions and water, and Captain Ayres sent to “convey the tea back to its old rotting-place in Leadenhall Street.”

When Parliament shut the Port of Boston, it seemed likely that Philadelphia might also be punished. On July 6, 1774, worried Delawareans met at the New Castle Courthouse, with Sussex Countians meeting separately in Lewes on July 23. Thomas McKean attended both meetings, reminding Delawareans that the Intolerable Acts prohibited farmers from ferrying their own wool, “though the rivers, waters, havens, etc. are given to us by our Charters.” On August 1, delegates from all three counties met in New Castle.  Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, and George Read, “or any two of them,” were appointed to meet with “the sister Colonies … in order that all may unite in promoting and endeavoring to attain the rights of the Colonies as British subjects.” [2]

That September, fifty-five delegates representing every colony but Georgia met in Philadelphia.  Paul Revere rode into town on the 17th to present Massachusetts’ statement, the Suffolk Resolves, suggesting that the colonies form their own military, refuse to pay British taxes, cut off trade with Britain and its colonies in the West Indies, and create their own government.  The delegates agreed, appointing twenty-four members to create a list of American rights and grievances, devise redress, or secure Britain’s acquiescence.

When London learned of the formation of this Continental Congress, a forty-four-gun British frigate began patrolling the Delaware River and Bay, interrupting commerce, collecting intelligence, and chasing smugglers.

A Second Continental Congress met on May 10, 1775. George Read, Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean once again represented the Lower Three Counties. John Dickinson served as a Pennsylvania delegate.  Although it was agreed that a Continental Army was needed, an Olive Branch Petition was drafted and approved. When this peace missive arrived in England, the King refused to read it, officially declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.[3]

Fear escalated. Henry Fisher of Lewes was asked to establish thirteen alarm posts following the river from Cape Henlopen, Mispillion River, Murderkill River, Bombay Hook, Port Penn, and further north to Philadelphia.  The lower alarm posts were equipped with small boats and cannon.

In December, Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island was appointed commander-in-chief of the newly-created Continental Navy comprised of seven ships: two 24-gun frigates, the Alfred and the Columbus; two 14-gun brigs, the Andrea Doria, and the Cabot; and three schooners, the Hornet, the Wasp, and the Fly. Because the river was frozen, Hopkins’ fleet had to wait in Philadelphia until February 11, 1776.   Fearful that the Continental Naval Committee was “taking the Bread from their mouths,” the Delaware River pilots asked Henry Fisher to be their spokesman.  In response, the Naval Committee approved ten Delaware River pilots to serve as “scouts of the waterway” to send dispatches of enemy activity along the coast to Philadelphia throughout the war. [4]

On March 27, Henry Fisher sent word that the British ship Roebuck and a tender had entered the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The Philadelphia committee immediately ordered four row galleys to report to the Lexington under command of Capt. John Barry, to “exert their utmost endeavors to take or destroy all such vessels of the enemy as they might find in the Delaware.”    Captain Lawrence with the Salamander and Captain Hause with the guard boat Eagle were sent to Lewes.  The Eagle and supplies were to be placed at Henry Fisher’s disposal.

Soldiers under Col. John Haslet were also deployed to Lewes.  On April 7, one of the Roebuck’s tenders attacked an American merchant ship.  Gunfire from the Delaware Continental Regiment and cannonfire from the merchant ship helped check the Roebuck.  Haslet reported to George Read that he had the Roebuck’s third lieutenant and three soldiers in custody.  They had been taken from a tender about four in the morning after “the helmsman fell asleep [and] Providence steered the boat ashore.” [5]

The pension records of Samuel Lockwood, a volunteer in the Delaware militia, describe the events:

At Lewestown, Sussex County, state of Delaware, early in the beginning of the year 1776, served under Capt. David Hall, afterwards Colonel Hall … alternatively guarding at the lighthouse which was on Cape Henlopen (about the distance of one mile from Lewestown) and working on the fort at Lewestown … This whole year was occupied by the company to which he belonged by guarding at the lighthouse and working as aforesaid, always taking their muskets, etc., with them. And whenever they heard two cannons (which was the signal), they laid by their laboring tools, seized their arms, and repaired to the point where there was danger apprehended and again, when the alarm was over, returned to their work unless the time for their relief had arrived. [6]

The Roebuck and the Liverpool began moving north.  On May 8, 1776, thirteen row galleys and the Continental schooner Wasp attacked them below Chester, Pennsylvania. The exchange of fire lasted nearly four hours.  At dusk, the Roebuck ran aground and the Liverpool was forced to anchor until the firing stopped. The next day, the Roebuck floated off the sand bar and the American row galleys resumed attack. Firing constantly, the Roebuck and Liverpool were chased six miles back down the river to New Castle, where they moored for the night. William Barry, an American prisoner on the Roebuck, reported that there were

many shots betwixt the wind and water: some went quite through, some in her quarter, and was much raked fore and aft … one man was killed by a shot … Six were much hurt and burned by an eighteen-pound cartridge of powder taking fire, among whom was an acting lieutenant, and several were hurt by splinters. [7]

George Read wrote Caesar Rodney pleading for more powder and lead for the troops at Lewes.

On June 15, 1776, within sight of British war ships prowling the river, thirty Delawareans met in the New Castle courthouse. The men squabbled about the need for the change in government recommended by the Continental Congress and with each other about a proposal to create their own independent state. A state composed of only three counties, all bordered by the Delaware River, seemed both stupid and dangerous, and Rodney, McKean, Read, and all other colonial leaders would be accused of treason against Britain if America lost the war. Eventually, it was decided that the Lower Three Counties of Pennsylvania would be free not only from Britain, but also from governance by the Penn family.

Caesar Rodney was now Delaware’s highest ranking officer, and although due to be at the Continental Congress, William Adair, a resident of Sussex County, noted in his diary, “June 19-20, Colonel Rodney came to try Tories with 1,000 men viz Colonel Haslet’s Battalion, also a fair representation of riflemen to reduce a Tory insurrection here. Witnesses examined for four days. Tories ordered to bring in their arms and ammunition.” On June 23-25, Adair wrote, “Robinson, Manlove and Ingram fled to Somerset, are raising an insurrection at Snow Hill.”[8]

On July 1, Thomas McKean angrily paid for a rider to hasten from Philadelphia to find Rodney. Delaware’s vote on the Declaration of Independence was tied; Thomas McKean voting for, and George Read voting against.  A second and final vote would be taken the next day. Caesar Rodney wrote to his brother that he arrived in Philadelphia “in time Enough to give my Voice in the matter of Independence.” [9]

Delaware was now asked to supply 600 men for a Flying Camp of militia units from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. They were assigned to guard the vulnerable coastline, protect the Continental Army’s supply lines, suppress roving bands of Tories and act as a ready reserve when George Washington’s army need reinforcement.  460 Delawareans were recruited.   Their term expired on December 1, 1776.   Two weeks later, Caesar Rodney’s brother, Thomas, and thirty-five Kent Countians left Dover to join Washington and his men in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In his diary, Thomas Rodney described Washington’s crossing of the Delaware:

Our light Infantry Battalion (composed of the Dover company and four companies of Philadelphia militia under Captain George Henry) were embarked in boats to cover the landing of the Brigade. When we reached the Jersey shore we were obliged to land on the ice, 150 yards from the shore. The River was also very full of floating ice and the wind was blowing very hard, and the night was very dark and cold, and we had great difficulty in crossing but the night was very favorable to the enterprise … about 12 o’clock the remainder of my company came in, and in the evening, we heard of General Washington’s success at Trenton and that he had captured 900 Hessians. [10]

During the crossing, Delaware Regiment ’s Col. John Haslet fell into the icy river. He survived, marched ten miles through the wintry blasts to fight the Hessian troops garrisoned in Trenton, then was killed on January 3 at the battle of Princeton.

Wartime activity in the Delaware River and Bay continued.  A message was received from Jacob Bennett that he had been taken by a British ship of war south of Cape Henlopen and saw a local boat arrive carrying livestock for the British.  On January 27, 1777, the General Assembly resumed session in New Castle. Orders for arresting Loyalists Boas Manlove and Thomas Robinson, Esquires, were read and laid on the table. In March, after evading several arrests, Manlove, Robinson, and colleague John F. Smyth, fled to the British ship Preston.

In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress ordered a survey of the Pennsylvania side of the river, noting places where the enemy might land. This was to extend “down the river as far as Christina Creek.” Construction of forts at Billingsport and Red Bank, New Jersey, and Fort Mifflin on Mud Island, and installation of underwater obstacles called chevaux-de-frises, began while Britain’s Liverpool and Roebuck continued to patrol.

In April, 1777, the Continental Congress advised Delawareans to prepare for an attack.  New Castle’s location on the river caused the Delaware Assembly to move inland to Dover.  On April 10, British men-of-war appeared in the bay where an encounter took place between the British ships Roebuck and Perseus, and an American ship, Morris.  On June 4, Sussex County resident William Adair noted in his diary, “Roebuck blowed off her guns in ye road, 2 ships came up the Bay” and again on the 9th, “The ships blowed off their guns today.”  In July Adair added, “Tories have robbed ten cattle in Mr. Kollock’s vessel, clothing, houses at Indian River.”[11]

On July 21, 1777, two hundred and sixty-one British ships arrived in the Delaware Bay. A British inventory listed “twenty-seven battalions of British and eight of foreigners; one regiment of light dragoons; a detachment of Artillery, consisting of british riflemen, the Queen’s rangers and four comp. of Pioneers.”[12]  Their goal was to capture the rebel capital of Philadelphia.  After learning from Roebuck’s Capt. Andrew Snape Hammond about the chevaux-de-frises installed below Philadelphia, the ships turned south, rounding the Delmarva Peninsula to head north into the Chesapeake.  These ships arrived at Head of Elk on August 25 and proceeded to land British troops.

Almost simultaneously, George Washington led 11,000 American soldiers down Philadelphia Pike into Wilmington. Washington wrote to John Hancock and William Livingston from Quaker Hill, “How far the Enemy have it in view to extend themselves in a Line from Bay to Bay, I cannot determine; but the idea has taken pace with many … It is another Effort to seduce the people to give up their rights and to encourage our soldiery to desert.”  [13]

Following the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, British Gen. William Howe dispatched the 71st Regiment (Frazer’s Highlanders) and some Hessians under the command of Col. Johann von Loos down Concord Pike into Wilmington. Howe’s purpose was to use Wilmington as a point of rendezvous with the British fleet.  On October 5, news came from Lewes that “36 sail of the enemy ships went past this town up the Bay, and this evening 47 more were seen from the Light house standing in for the Cape, they have anchored in our road.”  On October 23, the British ship Augusta caught fire near Fort Mifflin and exploded, the blast causing bottles to rattle in Wilmington.

The winter of Valley Forge followed. Under Brig. Gen. William Smallwood’s command, Delaware and Maryland soldiers garrisoned Wilmington, serving as a buffer between the American supply depots at Head of Elk and the British in Philadelphia. In March, George Washington at Valley Forge received good news from Captain John Barry:

Port Penn, March 9, 1778

Dear General

Tis with the Greatest Satisfaction Imaginable I inform You of Capturing Two Ships & a Schooner of the Enemy. The two ships were Transports from Rhode Island Loaded with forage One Mounting Six Four Pounders with fourteen hands Each the Schooner is in the Engineering Department Mounting Eight Double fortified four Pounders & twelve four Pound howitz Properly fitted in Every Particular & Manned with thirty-three men…the schooner is unloaded but have not as Yet the Manifest of the Cargo But are a Number of Engineering Tools on Board.

… By the Bearer Mr John Chilton have Sent You a Cheese Together with a Jar of Pickled Oysters which Crave Your Acceptance.  should have Remitted the Particulars Together with the Letters & Dispatch for General De hester Before But a fleet of the Enemys Small Vessels appearing in Sight Obliged me to Burn One of the Ships & am afraid the Other will share the same fate after Discharging her But am Determined to hold the Schooner at all Events.  Inclosed You have the Articles of the Schooners Capitulation as we Sent a flag on Board her. After Boarding the two Ships & am Sir with Due Respect Your Excellncies Most Obedient Humbl. Servt

John Barry[14]

The following day, Smallwood wrote to George Washington from Wilmington:

Our People were attacked at 2OClk off Pt Pen by a 20 Gun Ship & an Armed Sloop which it was supposed were convoying the Remainder of the Forage Fleet—I have received Intelligence that many of the Enemy are out of Philada above their Lines towards German Town but the Intelligence is not to be depended on. W.S.

N.B. one of the Lieutenants gives an Account of 100 Transports being ordered ’round to Delaware abt the middle of this Month &c. [15]

That spring, Captain Snape Hamond ordered the Pearl, stationed between Chester and Reedy Point, to destroy all rebel boats found in Delaware’s creeks.  George Read reported that “a considerable body of the Enemy, supposed to be 700, landed this morning about Liston’s Highlands and were on the march up the Thoroughfare Neck.” The British ship Camilla proceeded to patrol between Reedy Island and Bombay Hook, removing the rebel boat Fame out of a creek just above Reedy Point.  The commander of Delaware’s continental regiment, Charles Pope, wrote to Caesar Rodney from Duck Creek that “30—or 40 marines landed & took off some cattle etc., & returned … at eight o’clock this morning. The fleet consisting of about 35 sail weighed and stood Down the Bay.”[16]  From Lewes, it was reported that a “fleet of 40 Sail” was seen going up the Bay and that “English burn the 2 last vessels ashore, ye woods burn. John Whiltbanck, Loyalist, Went with Negroes to ye English.” [17]

Because New Castle was dangerously close to the river, the Delaware Assembly once again met in Dover. Caesar Rodney was elected President of Delaware.  In the spring of 1778, Caesar Rodney wrote:

We are constantly alarmed in this place by the enemy and refugees.  And seldom has a day passed but some man in this and the neighbouring counties is taken off by the villains.  So, that men near the Bay who I know to be hearty in the Cause, dare neither act nor speak lest they should be taken away and their houses plundered.[18]

On May 4, a delegation from the British government that had been sent to attempt reconciliation was sailing past New Castle, where they waited for an armed sloop to take them to Philadelphia. One noted, “as we passed … [we] were insulted by a party of riflemen who fired several shots at us, which, though striking at too great a distance to occasion the least alarm, yet manifested the malevolence as well as rashness of their intentions.” [19]

By June, nearly 300 British merchant ships and transports were anchored along Delaware’s coastline. Many loyalist families, hoping to find sanctuary, left with these ships when the British evacuated Philadelphia.   On July 11, Caesar Rodney noted that the enemy had entirely left the Delaware River, and that Admiral d’Estaing’s large French fleet was patrolling the Delaware coastline.[20]

Things remained relatively peaceful in Delaware until summer of 1781, when thousands of soldiers, horses, cattle and baggage trains crossed New Castle County, following Philadelphia Pike to the Wilmington riverfront, then Maryland Avenue through Newport and Stanton to Old Stanton-Christiana Road.  Turning west at Christiana, they followed Old Baltimore Pike into Maryland. Their destination was Yorktown, Virginia.

After Yorktown fell the war was effectively over, but there was military action in the Delaware Bay when British Capt. Josiah Rodgers of the General Monk ordered the American ship Hyder Ally to surrender. On April 8, 1782, American naval Lt. Joshua Barney replied with a broadside of grape, canister and round shot, killing some sailors and marines. He ordered his ship to port and unleashed another round of shot.  The boats were so close that the enemies’ shouted commands were heard. The quick-thinking Barney then gave his sailors quiet directions while in a loud voice ordering them to do something else.  As he had apparently intended, the two vessels collided and their riggings became entangled. The Americans fastened the General Monk to their ship to prevent her breaking loose and fired broadside. After less than thirty minutes of close-quarters combat, the Americans captured both the General Monk and the Charming Molly. [21]

Further upstate, constable Robert Appleton’s house was plundered by Loyalists who took him captive, hauling him to Bombay Hook. Joined by six more men, the Loyalists demanded he preach a Methodist sermon. When he refused, he was whipped, forced to destroy official papers, and made to promise that he would never serve papers on Tories again.  Serving another warrant a few weeks later, Appleton was again captured and beaten. [22]

While these things were taking place, soldiers continued passing through the state, all needing food, clothing, and supplies. Among those headed north that summer was the duc de Lauzun, returning to America from France.  The whole trip had been an unpleasant adventure:

We arrived off the coast of America, at the mouth of the Delaware … at daybreak we sighted an English squadron of seven men of war bearing down upon us under full canvas. We were forced to raise anchor and enter the river without pilots … M. de la Touche sailed two leagues farther up the channel, then seeing that no hope remained, decided to put ashore the packages from the court, the money, and passengers. We were put ashore about a league from the nearest habitation, without having brought away so much as a shirt a piece.   I was still in a fever, I could barely stand, and I should never have been able to reach a house had it not been for a powerful negro who gave me his arm… the French and American doctors were agreed in their opinion that I must die before the end of the autumn… Then M. de Rochambeau sent one of his aides-de-camp with letters for the Chevalier de la Luzerne, and wrote bidding me do everything in my power to come to camp… I mounted a horse and rode to camp, death being no worse on the road than in Philadelphia.[23]

On April 11, 1783, the Continental Congress declared the cessation of arms against Great Britain. In New Castle, a peace celebration was held along the banks of the finally quiet river.


[1]    Broadside printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), December 7, 1773.

[2]   John Coleman, Thomas McKean: Forgotten Leader of the Revolution (Rockaway, NJ: American Faculty Press, 1975), 113-114.

[3]  See also

[4]  Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (New York: NAL Caliber Penguin Random House, 2015), 38-39. See also the Fisher papers at Historical Society of Delaware.

[5]  J. Thomas Scharf, History of Delaware, 1609-1888 (Philadelphia: I. J. Richards and Company, 1888), 1:227.

[6]  Samuel Lockwood, reprinted in John C. Dann, Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 166-167.

[7]   John W. Jackson, The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775-1781: Defense of the Delaware (New Brunswick, NJ; Rutgers University Press, 1974), 51.

[8] Harold Hancock, “Revolutionary War Diary of William Adair,” Delaware History, Volume 13 (1968-1969), 154-170.

[9]  George Ryden, ed., Letters to and from Caesar Rodney,1756-1784 (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Delaware, 1933), Letter no. 87.

[10]  Thomas Rodney, Diary of Captain Thomas Rodney, 1776-1777 (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware,1888. On-demand reprint by Kessinger Publication), 12-24.

[11] Hancock, “Revolutionary War Diary of William Adair,” 160.

[12] Robert Francis Seyboldt, Contemporary British Accounts of Sir General Howe’s Military Operations in 1777 (American Antiquarian Society, April 1930), 74.

[13]  Philander Chase and Edward G. Lengel, eds., Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, University of Virginia, 1994), 11:112.

[14] John Barry to George Washington, March 9, 1778, National Archives, Founders Online,

[15] William Smallwood to George Washington, March 9-10, 1778,  National Archives, Founders Online,

[16]   Ryden, Letters to and from Caesar Rodney, Letter no. 247.

[17]   Hancock, “Revolutionary War Diary of William Adair,” 164.

[18] Caesar Rodney to Thomas McKean, Dover, March 9, 1778. McKean Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[19] George James Howard, Earl of Carlisle, Manuscripts of Earl of Carlisle (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1897).

[20] Ryden, Letters to and from Caesar Rodney, Letter no.273.

[21] Mary Chase Barney, A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney (Boston, Gray and Bowen, 1832), 114.

[22]   Ray Raphael, People’s History of the American Revolution (New York: HarperCollins. 2002), 147.

[23] Armand Louis de Gontaut Biron, Duc de Lauzun, Memoirs of Lauzun, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (New York, NY, Brentanos, 1928), 214-21.


  • Kim, enjoyed this piece. Your comment about the blowing up of the Augusta reminded me that Thomas Paine happened to be close by and reported on it. He said the explosion was “a report as loud as a peal from a hundred cannon at once” and when he turned around he could see smoke “rising like a pillar and spreading from the top like a tree.” Paine was between Germantown and White Marsh. The description is in a letter written to Benjamin Franklin, May 16, 1778. The full letter is worth a read, covering military engagements the previous fall near the Delaware. It can be found online on the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website. Find the Timeline in the Complete Writings menu.

  • Good article but the title indicated all Revolutionary War on the Delaware River. However no mention of the 1779 Battle of Minisink at the convergence of the Delaware and Lackawaxen Rivers where where British Col. Joseph Brandt dealt the Patriots an ugly defeat and their bodies lay for 30 years on the remote battlefield before being recovered and buried with honors.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I agree. Some of my own ancestors lived along the Minisink Trail, but I am a Delaware historian and have been focusing on what happened down here.

  • Really good article on McLane! He fought at Germantown in 1777. I’ve seen references. You might like the reenactment of the battle at the Cliveden mansion of Benjamin Chew still standing, once a year around Oct. 4. My topic is still the Quaker Exile of 1777-1778 in the midst of the Philadelphia Campaign, which includes all the strategies the armies used to cope with the Quaker peace witness. I’m nearly ready to publish after four years. I’m an independent researcher in search of my first historical nonfiction publication. Your articles on Delaware have been very helpful. Thanks.

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