Forgotten Warrior: The Brave and Meritorious Robert Kirkwood


February 23, 2018
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


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“Solid obedience is always the fruit of the confidence, respect, and affection, which a corps has for its chief.”[1]

For the armies of the Revolution, few men were as vital to maintaining unit cohesion than company-grade officers—ensigns, lieutenants, and captains—who played a key role in transferring orders from higher up the chain of command. Junior officers were likewise expected to play a delicate balancing act. Very often drawn from the same communities as the men under their command, they were expected to foster an air of professional rapport with their men, but never at the expense of the appropriate mantle of authority which was imperative to the preservation of discipline. Leading by personal example was the requisite duty for company-grade officers who expected men to follow them into combat. “Remember,” George Washington had instructed his junior officers in 1756, “that it is the actions, and not the Commission, that make the Officer and that there is more expected from him than the Title.”[2]

Among the company-grade officers who served in the Continental Army, few would earn a combat record as distinguished as that of Delaware’s Robert Kirkwood. Kirkwood was born in 1756, son of his namesake father, a Scots-Irish immigrant.[3] Although the elder Kirkwood’s occupation was “yeoman farmer,” it’s clear that he was a substantial member of his community as well as a thoroughgoing patriot. Kirkwood farmed a homestead in New Castle County and served as an elder in White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church. In May 1775, Kirkwood, Sr. was part of a committee of correspondence composed of justices of the peace and grand jurors who were tasked with raising money for “our suffering brethren at Boston.”[4]

All told, the vigorous Scotch farmer sired some nine children, but Robert, Jr. was the only boy in the bunch. Family tradition holds that he was a precocious scholar; if his reputation and diary entries are any indication, he was raised with a rigid sense of duty and rectitude. When the Revolution erupted in 1775, Kirkwood was pursuing studies at Newark Academy, where the pastor of his home church, the Rev. Alexander McDowell, served as the institution’s president.[5]

In January 1776, the Delaware Council of Safety complied with Congress’ request to raise a single regiment for service in the Continental Army. Among the well-connected young men who received commissions in the regiment was Robert Kirkwood, who was appointed a first lieutenant on January 17.[6] Placed under the command of Col. John Haslet, great things were expected of the Delaware regiment. The troops were well-uniformed, rigidly drilled, and armed with newly-imported muskets. By the time the regiment arrived in New York in August, Haslet was pleased to note that his regiment was “highly complemented on our appearance and dexterity in the military exercises and manoeuvres.”[7]

Kirkwood would experience his baptism of fire during the inauspicious campaign of 1776, participating in some of the most legendary battles of the northern theater. When Crown forces crumpled the patriot lines on Long Island on August 27, the regiment saw some of the fiercest fighting on the right flank before joining in the desperate retreat across the flooded marshes that flanked Gowanus Creek. On October 22, the regiment mounted a nighttime raid on Crown troops at Mamaroneck, New York. Six days later at White Plains, the Delaware regiment played a key role in the stubborn defense of Chatterton’s Hill. None of the fights could be regarded as American victories, but the regiment came out of the campaign with a well-earned reputation for coolness under fire. A delighted Haslet reported that the men in his battalion, which was increasingly regarded as one of the most reliable units in the Continental Army, “have been complimented as the first in the service.”[8]

With the regiment’s term of enlistment about to expire at the end of the year, Delaware authorities made plans to constitute a new regiment. One of the first officers to receive a commission in the new unit was Robert Kirkwood, whose commission as captain was dated December 1, 1776. Dispatched to Delaware for recruiting duty, Kirkwood consequently wasn’t present for the battles at Trenton and Princeton.[9] He did, however, raise his company rather quickly, receiving orders to march his men for Philadelphia on February 7, 1777.[10] It was clearly anticipated that the regiment would embark on lengthy and dangerous business; on March 18, Kirkwood assigned legal power of attorney to his father.[11]

An essay that appeared in Kirkwood’s journal that summer revealed his thoughts as he set out for service that could very well cost him his life. He regarded the Revolution as an epic contest for liberty and expressed little but disdain for the enemy, observing that the “Supreme Joy” of Britons “Seems to be Ravageing, fighting, and Shedding of blood.” Appropriately enough for a young combat officer, Kirkwood felt that the only way to confront such aggression was with force of arms. Kirkwood concluded by reminding his fellow soldiers that “on your Beheavour Depends your future enjoyment of peace and liberty, or your Subjection to a Tyrannical Enemy, with all its Griveous Consequences. When, therefore, you Come to Engage – think of your Ancestors – & think of your posterity.”[12]

Kirkwood quickly proved himself a resourceful officer who exercised initiative and remained composed under pressure. On the evening of June 15, Kirkwood was given the routine assignment of commanding a detachment of pickets west of Bound Brook, New Jersey. The area was notorious for the activity of Loyalist raiders—Kirkwood referred to the locale as a “den of thieves and murderers”—and he requested permission from Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to lead a nighttime scout beyond American lines. Sullivan signed on to the proposal and gave Kirkwood command of 100 men. Half of the detachment operated as pickets, and Kirkwood personally led the rest of the men about a mile and a half when he discovered that he had advanced beyond British lines. “I thought my situation,” Kirkwood later wrote, “none of the pleasantest.”[13]

Rather than abandon the patrol, Kirkwood opted to press his luck and went hunting for local Tories. He brazenly posed as a Loyalist officer and after calling at two farmhouses, struck up a conversation with an avowed Tory spy named Gower who was in the habit of regularly visiting American camps. Gower was a bit naïve for his business, chatted freely, and went so far as to offer advice on ambushing a rebel column in the neighborhood. “After I had got all the intelligence I wanted from him,” explained Kirkwood, “I made myself known; at which he was so struck that he could not speak a word.” By the next morning, Gower was in irons inside American lines.[14]

Kirkwood would remain on active duty for the remainder of the war, participating in countless smaller actions and most of the larger battles involving Washington’s main army. The Delaware regiment was present for the American raid on Staten Island on August 22, 1777, the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, and Germantown on October 4. The following June the regiment was again on the field at Monmouth in what would be the last of the big fights in the northern theater. Over the succeeding winter, Kirkwood regularly commanded minor patrols: on December 25 seizing seven prisoners near New Castle, Delaware; two weeks later, locating twenty-eight hogsheads of contraband rum.[15] Unfortunately, few details are known of Kirkwood’s service in Washington’s army, but he clearly emerged from the northern campaigns with the reputation of a dependable company commander.

He would build on that reputation during his service in the southern campaigns. On May 8, 1780, the Delaware regiment set sail from Head of Elk, Maryland for service in the Carolinas. On August 16, America’s southern army faced a crushing defeat at the Battle of Camden, and the fight was nothing short of a disastrous watershed for the Delaware troops. When raw militia fled the field in disorder, seasoned Continental troops paid a heavy price for holding their ground on the American right. Nearly surrounded by advancing Crown forces, the Delaware regiment lost about a third of its men during the fighting, many of them captured, including Lt. Col. James Vaughan and Maj. John Patten. A number of men in the regiment scattered during the confusion of the rout; Kirkwood and a handful of remaining fellow officers organized a breakout with about sixty Continentals.[16] Writing in his journal that evening, an exhausted Kirkwood simply referred to the fighting as “very Desparate.” [17]

Following the debacle at Camden, the southern army, including the Delaware regiment, would undergo major organizational restructuring. The regiment’s greatly depleted eight companies were consolidated into two companies of ninety-six men each; one under the command of Kirkwood, the other under the command of Capt. Peter Jacquet. By any measure, Kirkwood would earn an impressive combat record in the southern theater. His troops, who were some of the most seasoned veterans in the army, were designated as a light infantry company on October 7; as such, they were regarded as an elite unit and would play a key role in Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s southern campaigns.

Attached to Brig. Gen Daniel Morgan’s flying corps, Kirkwood’s company was at the epicenter of the fighting at Cowpens on January 17, 1781. Delaware Sgt. Maj. William Seymour recalled high morale in the ranks, “the men seeming to be all in good spirits and very willing to fight.”[18] Morgan opted to place riflemen and militia to his front, anchoring his main line with reliable Continental troops, including Kirkwood’s company.

When Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s lines closed in on the Continentals, Kirkwood’s men traded volleys with the 7th Regiment of Foot before joining in the legendary bayonet charge that wrecked Tarleton’s army. William Seymour was pleased with the performance of the Delaware troops, later writing that “all the officers and men behaved with uncommon and undaunted bravery, but more especially the brave Captain Kirkwood and his company, who that day did wonders, rushing on the enemy” with the bayonet.[19] The Delaware regiment paid a heavy price in the fighting, suffering 25 percent casualties.[20] Kirkwood and his exhausted men were then assigned as an infantry support for Continental dragoons that mounted a pursuit of the defeated British. With characteristic brevity, Kirkwood’s journal entry for January 17 was short and to the point: “Defeated Tarlton,” he wrote.[21]

Early in 1781, Kirkwood’s company was still assigned to the flying corps under the command of Col. Otho Holland Williams. On the evening of March 3, Kirkwood, leading his own men and a detachment of Virginia riflemen, was ordered out on a probe of enemy pickets near the old Regulator battlefield at Alamance, North Carolina. William Seymour recalled that it was after midnight when Kirkwood, accompanied by a guide, personally scouted toward the British camp before ordering his men forward. “When we came near the sentinels,” recalled Seymour, “they challenged very briskly, and no answer being made, upon which they immediately discharged their pieces.”[22] Following a confused exchange of gunfire, the Americans succeeded in capturing one of the British pickets before withdrawing. During the retreat, some of the men were worried about the possibility of a British counterattack. Rifleman James Morrison recalled that Kirkwood reassured his men and “told them on the retreat that they need not apprehend pursuit” as Lord Cornwallis “would suppose he was about to be seriously attacked and would not follow them that night.”[23]

When the armies clashed at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, Kirkwood and his men held a vital position on the right flank of the American army. Tradition holds that prior to the fighting, local farmer John Larkin requested permission from Kirkwood to fall in with his company. The captain, no doubt amused by the newcomer, simply replied “To be sure, Sir.”[24] Kirkwood’s troops would put up a stiff fight, solidly anchoring the American right. When the third and final American line was assailed by Crown forces, Kirkwood was attacked by troops under the command of Lt. Col. James Webster. Banastre Tarleton later wrote that the American “superiority of numbers and weight of fire obliged him [Webster] to recross the ravine, and take ground upon the opposite bank.”[25]

The following month Greene moved his forces toward the British stronghold at Camden, and for the better part of a week Kirkwood’s light infantry would regularly harass the enemy on the outskirts of the city. On April 19, Kirkwood was ordered out in advance of the army for a quick strike against Logtown, a small settlement just north of Camden that served as a British outpost. Kirkwood was instructed to seize the cabins and await further orders. At about 9:30 that evening he launched his attack and after a sharp two-hour fight took possession of the village. His men exchanged shots with enemy pickets for the better part of the night, and early the following morning the two sides tangled again in what Kirkwood described as a “smart schirmage.” The following day the Delaware regiment was at it again, joined by Lt. Col. William Washington’s dragoons for a sweep around the west of Camden. The Americans took a small redoubt, burnt a house, and seized forty horses and fifty head of cattle. On the 22nd, Kirkwood led yet another patrol “Southerly Round” Camden.[26]

On April 25, British forces in Camden responded to such hectoring, striking Greene’s position on Hobkirk’s Hill. Greene would later credit Kirkwood and his men with helping to avert disaster. The regiment was stationed as support for the advanced pickets and fought a stubborn delaying action when Crown forces assailed the American position. In Greene’s words, Kirkwood and his light infantry “lay in our front, and as the Enemy advanced he was soon engaged with them, and both he and his Corps behaved with great gallantry.” By Greene’s reckoning, Kirkwood’s stand had enabled him to hastily organize the main American line and made the “advantage expensive” to the British. Kirkwood and his men merited Greene’s “approbation,” concluded the general, as well as the “imitation of the rest of the Troops.”[27] Kirkwood’s own laconic description of the action was less dramatic. “The enemy sallyed out and drove us back,” he wrote.[28]

At the Siege of Ninety Six, Kirkwood’s company operated under the command of Lt. Col Henry Lee, and participated in the storming of the post on June 18. Although the main assault on the Loyalist-held Star Fort failed, Lee and Kirkwood succeeded in seizing a smaller stockade during a hard-fought diversionary attack; Kirkwood wrote that the Loyalists in the smaller redoubt “held out about an hour” before the position fell.[29] In his orders summarizing the frustrating failure at Ninety Six, Greene was characteristically effusive in his praise for the Delaware troops, writing that “The judicious and alert behavior of the Legion and those commanded by Captain Kirkwood…met with deserved success.”[30]

During the largely desultory war in the south, Kirkwood’s crack company of light troops operated regularly as infantry support for dragoons under the command of colonels William Washington and Henry Lee. Kirkwood’s services were clearly highly valued by both officers, and Lee in particular formed a close working relationship with the Delaware captain. On June 29, 1781, Kirkwood, who was then attached to Lee’s troops, received orders from Washington to join his command. Lee countermanded the order, explaining to General Greene that it was necessary “least an opportunity of striking might be lost…for want of force.” Hoping to forestall any squabbling, Lee asked Greene to notify Washington “least a stupid jealousy may arise.”[31]

Kirkwood and his men were back in action yet again at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781, for what would be the last major battle in the southern theater. The fighting initially went well for the Americans as Greene’s troops drove in the British lines. But when the attack faltered, Greene threw his reserves—William Washington’s dragoons and Kirkwood’s light infantry company—against the British right. According to Otho Holland Williams, Washington went into action prematurely. If only the dragoon commander had “taken on Kirkwood’s infantry behind his men, all would have gone well,” but for the impetuous cavalryman, any delay in waiting for infantry support “would have been inconsistent with his general feeling.”[32]

Washington’s horsemen crashed into crack British troops under the command of Maj. John Marjoribanks and were badly chewed up in the subsequent fighting. Washington himself went down wounded and was captured. As the survivors fled, Kirkwood charged onto the scene, wrote Williams, “with his bayonets,” driving back Marjoribanks and his men. The American attack, which opened with such promise, fell apart just as quickly. Greene was forced to quit the field in the face of a counterattack, but in the confusion, the Delaware troops apparently weren’t informed of the retreat. “Found our Army had withdrawn from the Field,” wrote a chagrined Kirkwood, “made it necessary for us Likewise to withdraw.”[33] When Kirkwood’s men gave up the field, they were proudly dragging, “with some difficulty,” a captured 3-pounder gun.

Such incessant campaigning nonetheless took a toll on the twenty-five-year-old captain. On October 5, Kirkwood recorded that he “Took the Ague and fever,” from which he suffered intermittently through the end of November. Whatever sickness plagued Kirkwood, the captain clearly possessed an iron constitution, recording that his company often marched at least ten miles per day during that period, which, for the light infantry, was a fairly moderate pace.[34] On January 1, 1782, Kirkwood, who had only briefly seen his home in six years, was granted a furlough. By the following year, the Delaware troops still under Kirkwood’s command had followed him north: one detachment stationed in Philadelphia, the other in Newark, Delaware.

From Philadelphia, Kirkwood wrote to the commander-in-chief and requested that the troops be consolidated at New Castle, Delaware, where he could better attend to the lax “Morals of the Men,” which had been compromised due to the seedy influences of Philadelphia. A transfer to New Castle, thought Kirkwood, “may have a powerful tendency, in checking their horrid ravages.” The tough campaigning of the previous two years had kept Kirkwood too busy to properly enforce regulations, or as he put it, “the severity of the southern Campaigns has prevented that Regularity, and Discipline so necessary.”[35] With major campaigning all but over, little was needed from the Delaware troops but idle garrison duty. Washington decided, for the time being, to leave the Delaware detachments where they were.

The war had left most officers’ personal finances badly neglected. Kirkwood and the remaining officers of the Delaware regiment unanimously agreed to forego the half-pay for life that was their due as veteran officers, requesting instead “commutation,” or a lump-sum payment of five years’ full pay.[36] In practice, most officers requesting commutation received not cash but nearly worthless “commutation certificates.” Kirkwood’s impressive combat record would initially earn him little more than hollow honorifics from the cash-strapped young republic. As part of a blanket “general brevet” granted to Continental officers at the close of the war, Kirkwood received a brevet, or honorary, promotion to the rank of major on September 30, 1783.[37] Henry Lee regretted that Kirkwood, who had “passed through the war with high reputation” as a combat officer, remained a mere captain due to the small force fielded by Delaware. “Kirkwood never could be promoted in regular routine,” explained Lee, “a very glaring defect in the organization of the army, as it gave advantages to parts of the same army, denied to other portions of it.”[38]

The veteran captain would enjoy a less than idyllic transition to civilian life. Soon after returning to Delaware, Kirkwood wed Sarah England and went into business in “mercantile pursuits.” The couple had three children, one of whom died in infancy, and somewhere around 1787 Sarah died as well. Apparently leaving his children to the care of relatives, the young widower headed west soon thereafter, settling in the Northwest Territory near Wheeling, West Virginia.[39] He quickly established himself as a significant member of the settlements, and territorial Gov. Arthur St. Clair appointed Kirkwood a justice of the peace for Washington County on December 26, 1789.[40] The home Kirkwood built was a stout log structure referred to as Kirkwood’s Blockhouse. Such blockhouses were common on the frontier, and afforded isolated settlers the opportunity to “fort up” with neighbors in the event of Indian incursions.

Kirkwood’s home reflected the ever-present dangers of life on the post-Revolutionary frontier, where the war was far from over. Although the 1783 Treaty of Paris had officially ended the war in the east, the agreement meant little or nothing to the tribes of the Northwest Territory. During the 1780s, a formidable tribal confederacy had coalesced around Miami and Shawnee leaders who were determined to resist further American expansion. Indian war parties continued to strike settlements from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, as well as settler’s convoys headed downstream on the Ohio River. Militia raids into the tribal heartland, as well as a humiliating defeat of federal forces in the autumn of 1790, failed to stem the flow of Indian attacks.

By 1791, Congress authorized an expansion of the army to include two regiments of regular troops and two regiments of federal levies. The force, bolstered by Kentucky militia, was entrusted to the command of Maj. Gen. St. Clair, an experienced, if ill-starred, veteran of the Revolution. On March 4, 1791 Kirkwood was commissioned a captain in the newly-raised 2nd United States Regiment.[41] St. Clair’s army was to rendezvous at Cincinnati before striking north toward the Miami heartland at the headwaters of the Maumee River. Over the succeeding months, recruits began making their way down the Ohio River.

During the middle of April, Indian attacks increased in the vicinity of Wheeling, and on May 2, one of the war parties struck Kirkwood’s home. Fortunately, the captain wasn’t alone. A detachment of soldiers was present when the cabin came under attack, and after a spirited fight, the Indians were driven off. Eastern newspapers reported “A body of about 40 Indians attacked the house of Robert Kirkwood, opposite the mouth of the Wheeling, killed a Sergeant Walker…and wounded Ensign Biggs and three of his men.”[42]

The sudden rash of attacks prompted Col. David Shepherd, Virginia’s county lieutenant in charge at Wheeling, to solicit federal assistance. On May 6, Shepherd penned a request for help to Secretary of War Henry Knox, citing a lack of ammunition and arms. The bearer of the letter was Robert Kirkwood, who, Shepherd explained, “will be able to give you a perfect account, as he was in one of the actions.” When Kirkwood met with Knox, his personal pleas clearly worked. By the end of the month, Knox informed the governor of Virginia that “the verbal communications of Captain Kirkwood stating the deplorable situation of the inhabitants” had prompted the secretary to order one hundred muskets, two barrels of powder, and four hundredweight of lead made available to the militia at Wheeling.[43]

When St. Clair finally pushed north from Cincinnati in September 1791, he was woefully behind schedule, badly supplied, and at the head of an undisciplined mob of raw recruits. Kirkwood, who had commanded some of the finest infantry in the Continental Army, led far different makings into the wilderness. Adjt. Gen. Winthrop Sargent would write that most of the troops had been recruited “from the offscourings of large towns and cities” and were utterly incompetent in “the arduous duties of Indian warfare.” Even Kirkwood’s 2nd Regiment, thought Sargent, was hastily “brought into the field, without time for instruction and never having fired even a blank cartridge.”[44] It was a recipe for disaster.

For his part, Robert Kirkwood seems to have been sick for much of the campaign. Writing from the newly constructed Fort Hamilton on October 3, Capt. Samuel Newman wrote: “I am ye. only Capt. in our regt. Who is well enof to do duty. Kirkwood has been confin’d ever since we came here.”[45] The following day the army forded the Great Miami River in frigid water up to their waists. Although a number of convalescents were left behind, Kirkwood accompanied his men. According to Capt. Jacob Slough, Kirkwood was something of a living legend in the officer corps; men who had heard of his exploits during the Revolution would “speak of him in the most exalted terms.” Kirkwood took Slough under his wing, the latter writing that “we became fast friends.” “I passed many nights with him on guard,” wrote Slough, “and benefitted greatly from his experience.” Apparently, Kirkwood remained ill as the army groped its way north over the following month. Slough recalled that Kirkwood had been sick during the first few days of November but “was always ready for duty.”[46]

On the morning of November 4, 1791, the Indian confederacy struck St. Clair’s encampment at the headwaters of the Wabash River. In a furious fight that lasted a harrowing three hours, the American army was cut to pieces in what would prove to be the worst American defeat of the nation’s Indian wars. At the outset of the fighting, Slough caught sight of Kirkwood “cheering his men,” but at some point the Delaware captain was badly wounded and helped to the rear. When Slough was shot through his right arm and went to have the wound dressed, he found his “friend Kirkwood lying against the root of a tree, shot through the abdomen, and in great pain.”[47]

Slough returned to his own company but when the American position began to collapse, he ran to Kirkwood and “proposed having him carried off.” Painfully gripping what was clearly a mortal wound in his stomach, Kirkwood brushed him off. “No, I am dying,” Kirkwood said, “save yourself if you can, and leave me to my fate.” According to Slough’s account, the dying Kirkwood then uttered the unthinkable and asked Slough to shoot him. The Indians were closing in fast, and Kirkwood is reputed to have said, “God knows how they will treat me.” For Slough, it was a nightmarish ordeal. “You can better judge of my feelings than I can describe them,” he would later write, “I shook him by the hand, and left him to his fate.”[48]

In a desperate attempt to save the remnants of his army, St. Clair was forced to leave his wounded on the field. Obviously revealing a good bit of angst over the decision to abandon the wounded, Maj. Ebenezer Denny later explained that there was no alternative. “Delay was death,” he recorded in his diary, “no preparation could be made; numbers of brave men must be left a sacrifice.”[49] Among those left to their fate on the battlefield was Robert Kirkwood.[50] Although the particulars of his final terrifying moments will never be known, it was no doubt a horrific end. A handful of survivors were taken captive, but victorious tribesmen scalped, mutilated, and dismembered nearly all of the abandoned American casualties. In all, the army reported a loss of 630 killed and 283 wounded.[51]

On February 1, 1792, a burial detail returned to the site of the disaster. Winthrop Sargent described a grisly spectacle that he would never forget. The corpses of the fallen were “mangled and butchered with the most savage barbarity; and indeed, there seems to have been no act of indecent cruelty or torture which was not practiced on this occasion, to the women as well as men.” The burial detail was unable to complete the job, explained Sargent, as the bodies were frozen to the ground and were “breaking to pieces in tearing them up.”[52] Another army burial party arrived at the site on Christmas Day, 1793. George Will recalled that “when we went to lay down in our tents at night, we had to scrape the bones together and carry them out, to make our beds.”[53] Will thought that the burial party interred about 600 jumbled sets of bones. The final resting place of Robert Kirkwood remains unknown; if indeed the indomitable soldier’s remains were ever recovered, they were, appropriately, buried alongside those of his men.[54]

Kirkwood cenotaph, Fort Recovery, Ohio. (Author)

Perhaps the most fitting eulogy for Kirkwood would come from personal testimonies of the men he had served beside. Without exception, every soldier who left a written record of the fallen captain spoke of him with the highest regard. Hezekiah Ford thought “Captain Kirkwood certainly was an officer of much respectability and distinction.” Guilford Dudley described him as “a brave and experienced officer, who had fought in every considerable battle…with great and unsullied reputation.”[55] William Seymour described Kirkwood as an officer “whose heroick valour and undaunted bravery must needs be recorded in history till after ages.”[56] An authority no less than Nathanael Greene thought that “No Man deserves better of his Country than Capt Kirkwood.”[57]

When his old comrade-in-arms Henry Lee learned of Kirkwood’s death, he wrote to George Washington lamenting the loss of the “entrepid Kirkwood,” which he described as “a sad testimony of the doleful casualtys of war.”[58] Lee would later observe that Kirkwood’s fate was “singularly hard.” It was the thirty-third time that Kirkwood had risked his life for his country, explained Lee, and “he died as he had lived, the brave, meritorious, unrewarded Kirkwood.”[59]


[1] Roger Stevenson, Military Instructions for Officers Detached in the Field, Containing a Scheme for Forming a Corps of a Partisan (Philadelphia: R. Aitken, 1775), 51-52.

[2] John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), 1:271.

[3] There’s been a measure of confusion regarding Kirkwood’s age, which seems to stem from Mark Boatner’s oft-consulted Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: David McKay Company, 1966), 584. Boatner lists Kirkwood’s lifespan as 1730-1791 (by possibly conflating Kirkwood with his father). Subsequent authors who apparently consulted Boatner unintentionally perpetuated the image of “old Kirkwood,” the aged company commander.

[4] Peter Force, American Archives (Washington: M. St. Clair and Peter Force, 1839), 4th series, 2:633.

[5] Michael K. Madron, Presbyterian Patriots: The Historical Context of the Shared History and Prevalent Ideologies of Delaware’s Ulster-Scots Who Took up Arms in the American Revolution (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2009), 10-11.

[6] Peter Force, American Archives, 4th series, 5:431.

[7] Christopher L. Ward, The Delaware Continentals, 1776-1783 (Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1941), 8-9, 17.

[8] Letter, John Haslet to Caesar Rodney, August 31, 1776, in Henry P. Johnston, The Campaign Around New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn: Long Island Historical Society, 1878), part 2: 52.

[9] Fellow officer Enoch Anderson later wrote that most of the regiment’s captains were dismissed for recruiting duty “about” December 12, 1776. Enoch Anderson, Personal Recollections of Enoch Anderson, an Officer of the Delaware Regiments in the Revolutionary War (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1896), 28.

[10] Public Archives Commission of Delaware, Delaware Archives, Military (Wilmington: Mercantile Printing Company, 1911), 1:89, 85.

[11] Delaware Public Archives; Delaware Land Records; Roll Number: 11, accessed through

[12] Joseph Brown Turner, ed., The Journal and Order Book of Captain Robert Kirkwood of Delaware Regiment of the Continental Line (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1910), 108-113.

[13] Letter, Robert Kirkwood, Jr. to Robert Kirkwood, June 23, 1777, in Delaware Archives, Revolutionary War (Wilmington: Charles L. Story Company Press, 1919), 3:1397-1399.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William Smallwood to George Washington, December 25, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, Smallwood to Washington, January 10, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives,

[16] Otho Holland Williams, “A Narrative of the Campaign of 1780”, in William Gilmore Simms, ed., The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858), 376.

[17] Delaware Archives, 1:115; Kirkwood, Journal and Order Book, 11.

[18] William Seymour, “A Journal of the Southern Expedition,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 7 (1883), 294.

[19] Seymour, “Journal”, 295.

[20] Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 105.

[21] Kirkwood, Journal and Order Book, 13.

[22] Seymour, “Journal,” 297. Seymour, who seems to have written his account subsequent to events, recollected the date of the action as March 6. Kirkwood, who was unable to write journal entries for the first several days of March, seems to have inadvertently recorded the date of the action as March 5. A number of modern authors have favored a March 7 or March 8 date, apparently due to a confused reading of Seymour’s timeframe. But in reports penned at the time of the incident, (which unfortunately weren’t available in print until 1994) both Nathanael Greene and Otho Holland Williams recorded Kirkwood’s foray as taking place over the evening of March 3-4, 1781. Dennis M. Conrad, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 7:393, 396. Virginia militiaman Oliver Porter recollected that he had served under Kirkwood in attacking a British picket “previous to the engagement” at Wetzell’s Mill, which took place March 6. Pension application of Oliver Porter, S32452, transcribed by C. Leon Harris, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters,

[23] Pension Application of James Morrison, S31269, transcribed by C. Leon Harris, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters,

[24] E.W. Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, Chiefly in the Old North State (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1856), 159.

[25] Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: T. Cadell, 1787), 274.

[26] Kirkwood, Journal and Order Book, 16-17.

[27] Dennis M. Conrad, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8:155, 151.

[28] Kirkwood, Journal and Order Book, 17.

[29] Ibid, 19.

[30] Dennis M. Conrad, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 8: 408.

[31] Ibid, 477.

[32] Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by its Participants (Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2002), 1190-1191.

[33] Kirkwood, Journal and Order Book, 23.

[34] Ibid, 25-26.

[35] Robert H. Kirkwood, Jr., to Washington, March 7, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives,

[36] Kirkwood to Washington, April 13, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[37] A number of accounts suggest that Kirkwood received his brevet due to the personal intervention of George Washington. Congress, however, in what it termed “an act of justice,” granted a brevet promotion to all Continental officers under the rank of major general who had held the same rank since 1777. Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922), 25:632.

[38] Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1812), 1:183.

[39] P. Benson Delany, “Biographical Sketch of Robt. Kirkwood”, Graham’s American Monthly Magazine, vol. 28, no. 3 (March 1846), 102.

[40] William Henry Smith, ed., The St. Clair Papers: The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1882), 2:121.

[41] Francis B. Heitman, ed., Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution (Washington: W.H. Lowdermilk, 1893), 252.

[42] Richard M. Lytle, The Soldiers of America’s First Army, 1791 (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2004), 46.

[43] William B. Palmer, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers (Richmond: Superintendent of Public Printing, 1885), 5:300, 319.

[44] Winthrop Sargent, “Winthrop Sargent’s Diary while with General Arthur St. Clair’s Expedition against the Indians”, Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Publications 33 (1924), 242, 249.

[45] Samuel Newman, “Captain Newman’s Original Journal of St. Clair’s Campaign”, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (September, 1918), 67.

[46] Delany, “Biographical Sketch of Robt. Kirkwood,” 102-103.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ebenezer Denny, Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny, an Officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1859), 167.

[50] One story regarding Kirkwood’s demise is prolific—invariably without citations—throughout internet and print accounts. Such tales assert that an unidentified “friend” witnessed “old Kirkwood…scalped…his head smoking like a chimney.” It seems that Kirkwood, although he undoubtedly endured the grim fate of scalping, has been conflated with another unfortunate officer. The original account of the incident was penned by Ensign Micah McDonough (often misidentified as Michael), who served in Kirkwood’s company: “I saw Capt. Smith just after he was scalped, setting on his backside, his head smoaking like a chimney.” Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (New York: The Free Press, 1975), 116. The officer mentioned by McDonough was almost certainly Pennsylvania Capt. John Smith of the 2nd Regiment of Levies, who was killed in action.

[51] Denny, Military Journal, 171-173.

[52] Sargent, “Diary”, 271-272.

[53] James R. Albach, Annals of the West (Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven, 1856), 639.

[54] Since the aftermath of the battle, human remains from the site (modern Fort Recovery, Ohio) have been buried and reburied on several occasions. Most of the remains seem to have been interred beneath a monumental obelisk in 1912. The base of the monument is inscribed with the names of various officers killed at the locale, including that of “Kirkwood.”

[55] Pension application of Hezekiah Foard, S47187, transcribed by C. Leon Harris; Pension Application of Guilford Dudley, W8681, transcribed by Will Graves;

[56] Seymour, “Journal”, 290.

[57] Dennis M. Conrad, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 10: 292.

[58] Henry Lee to Washington, December 16, 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[59] Lee, Memoirs, 1:183.


  • Wonderful summery of a great combat leader. He deserves far more recognition. I don’t think you can find anyone who fought harder or was more dedicated to the American cause.

  • When I left Delaware in 1998 the Kirkwood Highway was as ugly a strip mall as you could imagine–not something a hero of the Revolution would have wanted to have his name on. This is not the kind of recognition Carl Judson had in mind.

  • I am a Kirkwood and have many family members from the same area and even have a family tree that puts me as a direct descendant of Capt. Kirkwood, while another tree that I have found puts me as a descendant of a David Kirkwood, (Another patriot in the revolutionary war.) Both timelines are similar and both come from approximately the same area in Ohio and both are Scots/Irish. My parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles have passed on, so there isn’t anyone I can ask to verify. Almost All generations of my family have served in war, so I guess the willingness to fight and stand up for what we believe in is in our blood. If I am related or not, I always love to read about Capt. Kirkwood’s victory’s, honor and dedication to our country. He asked for nothing in return except freedom.
    “In the battle near Fort Recovery, — his thirty-third engagement, — he refused to retreat with the defeated army, and died with his face to the foe on the 4th of November, 1791, at the age of forty-five.”
    Below is his Journal:

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