The “B Team” of 1777: Maxwell’s Light Infantry


April 10, 2018
by Gabriel Neville Also by this Author


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On the topic of Maxwell’s Light Infantry, Lt. Col. William Heth’s views were crystal clear. “Maxwells Corps ’Twas expected would do great things,” he complained in a letter, “we had opportunities—and any body but an old-woman, would have availd themselves of them—He is to be sure—a Damnd bitch of a General.”[1]

The subject of his ire was New Jersey Brig. Gen. William Maxwell, who led the temporary light infantry unit for one critical month in the fall of 1777. Maxwell’s Light Infantry is mentioned in most histories of the Philadelphia Campaign, but deserves a closer look. It played a key role in two significant engagements and performed quite well. Maxwell himself deserved criticism, though exactly how much is hard to determine now. His second in command, Indian fighter Col. William Crawford, likely deserves more recognition than he has received.[2]

Continental Riflemen
For the American army early in the war, “light infantry” usually meant “riflemen.” Though accurate at long range, rifles took longer than muskets to reload and could not carry bayonets. They were good for sniping at, harassing and delaying the enemy. However, in a traditional line of battle they were inferior weapons. In close combat, they were almost useless. Riflemen were sometimes issued spears to defend themselves from bayonet charges. They had other problems, too. Col. Peter Muhlenberg of the originally all-rifle 8th Virginia Regiment told Washington in February, “The Campaign we made to the Southward last Summer fully convinces me, that on a march where Soldiers are without Tents, & their Arms continually exposd to the Weather; Rifles are of little use.”[3]

Muhlenberg’s observation came just as Washington was starting to treat brigades as the basic elements of the army, a role previously played by regiments. As part of this transition, he created an elite rifle corps, to which he would give specialized assignments. Most of Virginia’s regiments originally had two or three rifle companies and Col. Daniel Morgan spent May and June culling out the Virginia line’s best sharpshooters. In battle, Morgan’s Rifles were to harass the enemy’s flanks. At other times, they were to serve as scouts and rangers—highly mobile and usually in a forward position.[4]

On June 22, British Maj. Gen. William Howe finally began evacuating New Jersey. Morgan’s men harassed his rear, joined by part of Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s brigade and an ad hocunit of Virginians that later formed the nucleus of Maxwell’s Light Infantry. As described in the account of Sgt. William Grant, “there was a detachment of 150 Riflemen chosen from among the Virginia regiments, dispatched under the command of Capt. James Dark a Dutchman, belonging to the eighth Virginia Regt to watch the enemy’s motions.” This was in fact Captain WilliamDarke, who wasn’t actually German (“Dutch”), though many or most of his regimental comrades were. According to Grant, Darke’s men were the first to engage in the battle of Short Hills. Afterward, “Capt. Dark collected the remains of his shattered party in the best manner he possibly could and continued to execute his orders in reconnoitering and sending intelligence to the Camp.” When the British left, Darke returned to the main army “with scarce two thirds of the men we took away.”[5]

Maxwell’s Light Infantry
When Howe sailed away with his army, Washington sent Morgan’s still-new rifle battalion north to reinforce Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates in New York. When Howe was seen entering the Chesapeake, Washington considered recalling Morgan but instead ordered the formation of a replacement force. On August 28, he instructed several brigades to supply men to form a new “light infantry.” The battalion was to consist of “one Field Officer, two Captains, six Subalterns, eight Serjeants and 100 Rank & File from each brigade.” Captain Darke was among the officers selected. Command of the light infantry, wrote John Marshall, “was given to general Maxwell, who in the course of the last winter had acquired some reputation as a partisan.”[6]

There were several brigades to draw from. Four from Virginia, three from Pennsylvania, one from New Jersey (Maxwell’s own brigade, now commanded by a colonel), as well as a recently-arrived regiment from North Carolina. It does not appear that all of the brigades actually provided troops, however, and the new corps was evidently dominated by Virginians.[7]

Maxwell was an Irish-born veteran of the French and Indian War who had substantial military experience and was called “Scotch Willie” by his soldiers. He participated in the Braddock Expedition of 1755 and may have been at the Battle of Carillon (Ticonderoga) in 1758. As colonel of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, he marched to relieve survivors of the Canadian campaign in early 1776. Washington put him in charge of clearing the Delaware River of boats when fleeing the British in December. Maxwell served well during the winter “Forage War” in New Jersey.[8]

Virginia’s Col. William Crawford was second in command of the light infantry and may have done most of the actual commanding of the troops. Sergeant Grant wrote that each brigade “detached a party of 100 light armed men, as scouts, under the command of Col. Crawford.” Several 3rd Virginia men were noted by their regiments as “with Colo. Crawford.” Maxwell’s correspondence with Washington, however, shows that the general was consistently in overall command.[9]

Colonel Crawford was a marginally literate Indian fighter and frontiersman who had known and done business with Washington since before the French and Indian War. He served with Washington in the Braddock Expedition in 1755 and the Forbes Expedition of 1758. He lived near Fort Pitt on land claimed by both Virginia and Pennsylvania. He was lieutenant colonel of the 5th Virginia Regiment and later colonel of the 7th Virginia regiment. He was at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, but then returned home. He wrote to Washington apologizing for not returning, blaming “the Great probebility of an Endien War” and the recent deaths of two brothers. Washington granted him leave but Crawford nevertheless resigned from command of the 7th Virginia on March 4 and was still at Fort Pitt in April. He appears to have returned to the army sometime in July, still a Continental officer but without a command.[10]

There is no surviving roster of the Light Infantry’s officers or enlisted men. However, field officers leading the corps are mentioned, with some color, in the pension application of William Walker of the 4th Virginia Regiment, who attested: “The following are the names of the field officers commanding this party, [Lieutenant Colonel] Rich[ard] Parker, [Lieutenant] Colonel [William] Heath [Heth] with a glass eye, Colonel [William] Crawford with his leather hunting shirt, pantaloons and Rifle, Colonel [Alexander] Martin from North Carolina.” Others are mentioned in the memoirs of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the account written by Sergeant William Grant, the journal of British Capt. John Montrestor, and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story’s 1835 eulogy of Chief Justice John Marshall. The available sources combine to provide a partial list of officers:[11]

Brig. Gen. William Maxwell (New Jersey)
Col. William Crawford (Virginia)
Col. Alexander Martin (2nd North Carolina)
Lt. Col. Richard Parker (2nd Virginia)
Lt. Col. William Heth (3rd Virginia)
Maj. Charles Simms (12th Virginia)
Capt. William Darke (8th Virginia)
Capt. Charles Porterfield (11th Virginia)
Capt. Andrew Waggoner (12th Virginia)
Capt. Archibald Dallas (Spencer’s Additional)
Lt. John Marshall (3rd Virginia)[12]

The order to create the new light infantry went out late on August 28, and was implemented quickly. On August 30, Washington was already sending instructions to Maxwell, orders that were often very detailed. Whether this is evidence that Washington lacked confidence in his subordinate is open to interpretation. As for his incoming correspondence, Maxwell clearly annoyed Washington with too many letters. “As the Service of the Horse is particularly wanted in the Neighbourhood of the Enemy,” Washington wrote him tactfully, “it will be unnecessary for you to trouble yourself with writing so frequently.”[13]

Instructed to keep a close eye on all enemy movements, the light infantry was at least briefly extended as far west as Head of Elk (Elkton), Maryland, near where Howe had landed. On August 31, Maxwell missed an opportunity to capture a British raiding party that was collecting livestock from the countryside. Washington expressed “regret” to Maxwell that “a proper Number of Men had not been detached immediately after them.” Going forward, Washington advised that “the Troops should not be harass’d by being indiscriminately employed on every slight occasion but that their Exertions should be reserved for objects worthy of attention and where there is a well-grounded hope of Success.”[14]

Captain Darke led a group of Maxwell’s men into a skirmish which was described by Sergeant Grant.[15]

[We] took several by roads, untill we had got past several of the Hessians posts undiscovered, and proceeding toward an iron work where they had another post, we discovered a few of the Welch fusileers cooking at a barn in the middle of a large field of Indian Corn. Capt Dark resolved to take them if possible, on which account he divided his men into 6 parties of 25 each, under the command of a Lieu[tenant] and 2 Serjeants. The party on the left to which I belonged, he ordered to surround the field, which we did, but were discovered by those whom we thought to surprise, who were only a few of a party consisting of fifty that were out foraging. They drew up immediately and marched out of the field; upon which our Lieu[tenant] and 4 of his men fired upon them, which they returned with a whole volley, and plyed us very warmly from among the trees for some considerable time, untill the other parties came up and attacked them in the rear; whom they also gallantly repulsed and put to flight. The party I belonged to upon the approach of the rest, retreated[16]

Cooch’s Bridge
With the enemy intending to take Philadelphia, Washington planned to stop or delay their advance using the natural barriers available to him: creeks and rivers. The old King’s Highway through Wilmington was the most direct path for the British, and Washington positioned his army behind the Christiana Creek and a tributary, the Red Clay Creek, to block the expected advance. Maxwell’s Light Infantry was ordered to a more advanced position to reconnoiter and guard a key crossing of the Christiana at Cooch’s Bridge.[17]

On September 2, Washington gave Maxwell additional instructions:

As several accounts seem to agree, that the Enemy mean to come out to morrow Morning, I beg you will be prepared to give them as much trouble as you possibly can. You should keep small parties upon every Road that you may be sure of the one they take, and always be careful to keep rather upon their left Flank, because they cannot in that case cut you off from our Main Body.

He also reported, “I gave the Map that I promised you to the Engineers to Copy, but they have not yet done it.[18]The significance of the map is unclear, but may indicate that Maxwell engaged the enemy the next day with a less-than-perfect understanding of the terrain. In a second letter of the same day, Washington wrote, “I do not know where the sign of the Buck is, I therefore cannot say whether it will be proper for you to leave your present post to go and attack the party that is said to be thereabouts.” Maxwell’s letters are missing, so this is difficult to interpret. It may be that Maxwell desperately needed the map. Yet, Washington felt the need to state the obvious. “If [the Sign of the Buck] is upon your left, as I suppose it is, it will be by no means proper, because … the Enemy might advance from Grey’s Hill to Christeen and cut you off from us.” The tavern was, in fact, miles away to Maxwell’s left.[19]

The next morning, seven mounted Hessian jägers rode north toward Cooch’s Bridge. Maxwell’s men were ready. They ambushed the riders from behind a hedge, taking down six of them. As four hundred more Hessians raced forward on foot, the Light Infantry retreated while maintaining their fire, slowing the enemy’s advance. This was followed by intense close-quarters combat at the bridge and on nearby Iron Hill. Eventually, when ammunition ran low and enemy reinforcements arrived, Maxwell’s men ran for safety.[20]

The Battle of Cooch’s Bridge is remembered as a minor affair. Even John Marshall, who was evidently there, wrote only that “the column under lord Cornwallis fell in with, and attacked Maxwell, who made a short resistance, and then retreated over White-clay creek, with the loss of about forty killed and wounded.” William Walker remembered it differently when he applied for a pension in 1832. He called it “a very bloody conflict” and lamented that “no historian has noticed this.” With regard to the conduct of the light infantry, Walker said, “For myself I can say that this detachment on that day deserved well of their country.” Washington, too, was satisfied with their performance. Hessian records confirm that Maxwell’s men “were driven back into another woods with considerable effort” where they defended themselves “obstinately.” One Hessian officer said “the hunting sword was used as much as the rifle.” The engagement lasted for seven hours.[21]

Maxwell’s men continued conducting reconnaissance and looking for opportunities. Washington wrote the general on September 5 to report that “Several persons have mentioned that there is a Hessian General quartered at one Fisher’s, covered only by a small guard. This is well worth your attention and may afford a glorious opportunity for a partisan exploit.” The capture of an enemy general, possibly Wilhelm von Kynphausen, would have a been a major coup. For unrecorded reasons, however, it didn’t happen.[22]

Washington still expected Howe to proceed toward Wilmington, and ordered his men to be ready. After a feigned advance, Howe instead got around the Continental Army’s right on September 8. One soldier wrote, “Our troops were held in readiness and a large scout sent out under the command of Gen’l Maxwell, who in their route fired several times upon the enemy.” The enemy, he noted, “this night … by a by road, with good guides, got privately round our right wing of encampment and was advancing towards Philadelphia by the Lancester Road.”[23]

Washington responded quickly. Marshall wrote that the Continentals

moved very early in the night, and crossing the Brandywine, took post next morning behind that river, on the heights extending from Chadd’s ford, southeastwardly. The light corps under general Maxwell was advanced in front and advantageously placed on the hills south of the river, on the road leading over Chadd’s ford, in order to gall, and skirmish with the advanced parties of the enemy, if, as was expected, they should approach in that direction.[24]

At the Battle of Brandywine, on September 11, Maxwell’s Light Infantry expanded upon its tactic from Cooch’s Bridge. Three detachments were sent out to prepare ambushes along the road to Chadds Ford. Each ambush was designed to force the enemy to convert from a column into a line, slowing their advance. A single company under Capt. Charles Porterfield took the westernmost position near Welch’s Tavern and first engaged the enemy about six o’clock in the morning. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee recorded the start of the battle this way:

Three small detachments, commanded by the Lieutenant-Colonels Parker, Heth, and Simms, of the Virginia line, were early in the morning separately and advantageously posted by the brigadier contiguous to the road, some distance in his front; and Captain Porterfield, with a company of infantry, preceded these parties with orders to deliver his fire as soon as he should meet the van of the enemy, and then fall back. This service was handsomely performed by Porterfield, and produced the desired effect. The British van pressed forward rapidly and incautiously, until it lined the front of the detachment commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Simms, who poured in a close and destructive fire, and then retreated to the light corps.[25]

When the operation was complete, the detachments joined their comrades behind a log breastwork and held the enemy off for another hour and a half. General George Weedon witnessed this part of their maneuvers from high ground and praised their performance.

General Maxwell [was] posted on the Enemy’s Side in a wood with 800 light Infantry. At 1⁄2 past 8, The Enemy appeared & formed on the high Grounds in Front, they soon engaged Maxwell & he with great Firmness repulsed them twice with much Loss. They were reinforced & he retreated in good Order about 10, crossed & formed on the Banks of the River. The rest of the Army were Spectators of the Gallantry of this little Corps, who frequently crossed & skirmished with the Enemy in the Course of the Day.[26]

John Marshall assessed the casualties differently, recording that “by ten o’clock, Maxwell’s corps, with very little loss on either side, was entirely driven over the Brandywine below the ford.” Whatever the actual casualties, Maxwell’s men had contended with the enemy alone for four hours when they retreated across the Brandywine. They continued to fight all day.[27]

Every moment, the attempt [by the enemy to cross the river] was expected to be made. A skirt of woods with the river divided them from Maxwell’s corps, small parties of whom occasionally crossed the river, and kept up with them a scattering fire, by which very little execution was done. One of these parties, however, led by captains Waggoner and Porterfield, engaged their flank guard very closely, killed a captain, with ten or fifteen privates, cleared the wood of the enemy, and were at one time on the point of taking a field piece, which had been placed there to annoy the light infantry. The sharpness of the skirmish soon drew a large body of the enemy to that quarter, and the Americans were again driven over the Brandywine.[28]

When a massive flanking maneuver was discovered, Washington sent three divisions far to his right to block the enemy near the Birmingham Friends meetinghouse. Maxwell’s men remained at Chadds ford with General Wayne’s division “for the purpose of keeping Knyphausen in check.” In the end, the Americans fled the field. Darkness halted the fighting and allowed the Continental Army to escape. Never during those early hours when they were fighting alone did Maxwell’s men realize that the enemy had no intention of crossing the river until the main engagement had begun at Birmingham.[29]

The army retreated in the night to Chester, on the Delaware River. Over the next few days, they repositioned to block a presumed British attempt to cross the Schuylkill River at Swede’s Ford. Maxwell’s men were instructed to remain at Chester for an extra day to collect “the small detached parties, and the straggling soldiers who might yet be found in the neighborhood.”[30]

The Battle of the Clouds
On September 16, the two armies met again on the south ridge of Chester County’s “Great Valley.” As the enemy approached, Washington sent his men up the ridge in two columns, with General Wayne’s division leading the left and Maxwell’s Light Infantry leading the right. Sixteen year-old Jacob Nagle watched as Maxwell’s men engaged at the “Battle of the Clouds,” though he mistook them for Morgan’s men.

Our artilery was ranged along the ridge on the hill on the road side between the bridge and the enemy. Morgans rifelmen ware in a wood on the opposite side of the road next to Sculkill. The rifelmen begun the action with their advance guard and Hessions. But the enemy not being nearanuff, the artilery had not fired a shot, when it begin to rain, that we could not engage.[31]

After describing the difficulty of the retreat through the rain and mud, Nagle also noted that Maxwell’s men covered their escape. “All this time Morgans riffelmen ware on the wings, next to the enemy, against the Hissions, as they could use their rifels, having bearskins over their locks, and every now and then you would give a crack at each other.”[32]

As the main Army headed for Yellow Springs, Maxwell and Wayne were ordered to follow and harass the enemy. They were instructed to coordinate with each other, but not to expect quick reinforcement. Maxwell took up a position just west of Valley Forge. Wayne was positioned south of him near the Paoli Tavern. Between them was the Great Valley which led to Swede’s Ford and Howe’s likely route to Philadelphia. The rain had made the ford impassible and Wayne saw an opportunity to pin the enemy against the river. “There never was, or never will be a finer Opportunity of giving the Enemy a fatal Blow than the Present,” he wrote to Washington, “for Gods sake push on as fast as Possible.” In a second letter he continued to urge a full-on attack. “I expect Genl. Maxwell on their left flank every Moment,” he urged again in a second letter, “and as I lay on their Right, we only want you in their Rear—to Complete Mr Hows business.”[33]

Instead, Wayne was himself surprised the following night by the enemy at the “Paoli Massacre,” losing nearly 300 men. What Maxwell was doing in the intervening hours is unrecorded, but there is no reason to suspect misconduct.[34]

Nevertheless, Maxwell’s Light Infantry was disbanded within days—possibly as soon as they returned to camp. No reason is given for it in the official record, though it is clear that Maxwell’s reputation had suffered mightily. Lieutenant Colonel Heth called him “a Damnd bitch of a General.” The Marquis de Lafayette called him “the senior but also the most inept brigadier general in the army.”[35]

On September 30, Heth formally accused Maxwell of being drunk while in command. He wrote to Daniel Morgan:

Since the action of the 11th—the particulars of which you have no doubt heard—I have not had a spare moment. –I was then wth a command of 200 from our Division under General Maxwell—who commanded a Corps of Light Infantry—It is now recalld—He was found unfit for such a command.—I petiond to be recalled, and have this day delivered His Excellency, such charges for Misconduct, and unofficer-like behavior, as must undoubtedly reduce him—He has some-how or another acquird a Character, wch by no means fits him—The bravery of the Corps on the 11th woud have added something more to his reputation, had the officers under him been such, as were afraid to speak their sentiments—You know my disposition—& therefore need not be told the style in which I have mentioned him.[36]

Heth’s sentiments require some context. He was very close to Daniel Morgan. Both were from Winchester, Virginia. Heth was a member of Morgan’s rifle company of 1775 and was captured with him during the expedition against Quebec. After their release, he helped Morgan form the 11th Virginia Regiment and remained with him until he was promoted in April of 1777. Anyone attempting to fill Morgan’s shoes would have been a size or two too small in Heth’s estimation. Heth’s critique was probably overwrought. He complained further of missed opportunities, but may have been ignorant of key facts. At the same time, however, some criticism was clearly due. Lafayette’s critique was nearly as harsh as Heth’s and Washington apparently blamed Maxwell for failing to pursue the British raiding party on August 31. It is also evident that Maxwell was sinking into alcoholism.[37]

An investigation was initiated and a report was returned to Washington on October 26:

The Court of enquiry having fully inquired into the complaints, exhibited by Lieut. Col. Heth, against Brigadier General Maxwell, while commanding the light-corps, are clearly of opinion, that they are without foundation; saving that it appears, he was once during said time disguised with liquor in such a manner, as to disqualify him in some measure, but not fully, from doing his duty; and that once or twice besides his spirits were a little elevated by spiritous liquor—The court submit to His Excellency’s better judgment, whether Genl Maxwell from these instances of deviation, ought to be subjected to a trial by court martial.[38]

Washington ordered a court martial and then reported on November 4 that, “The Court having considered the charges, and evidences, are unanimously of opinion, that Brigadier General Maxwell, while he commanded the light troops, was not at any time disguised with liquor, so as to disqualify him in any measure from doing his duty—They do therefore acquit him of the charge against him.”[39]

Whatever Maxwell’s actual merits as a commander, it was a season for scapegoats. The army had been repeatedly outflanked, and fled the field at Brandywine and Germantown. Others were charged with misconduct and fared worse. After all the proceedings were concluded, Maxwell joined Maj. Gen. John Sullivan and General Wayne in a letter to Washington arguing that false accusations should not go unpunished. They implied that if Washington did nothing, they might be forced to seek “satisfaction” on their own.[40]

Meanwhile, Colonel Crawford is barely mentioned in the record but must deserve some credit for the light infantry’s capable service. He was a very experienced soldier, having fought in the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War, Lord Dunmore’s War and the earlier campaigns of the Revolution. Though without a permanent command, he was still with the army for a time after the corps was disbanded. He then returned to his home near Fort Pitt. In 1782 he was captured by Indians and gruesomely tortured to death.[41]

William Heth, despite Maxwell’s insistence that he be punished, was promoted to colonel of the 3rd Virginia Regiment in April of 1778. He was captured at Charleston in 1780 and then retired from the army while on parole. General Maxwell, meanwhile, was induced to resign his commission in 1780, evidently because his drinking was out of control.[42]

Maxwell’s Light Infantry will forever be remembered as the “B team”—a temporary unit that filled in for one month while Daniel Morgan was away. It was, however, a critical month—and they performed well. Even Lieutenant Colonel Heth noted the “bravery of the Corps” in his letter to Morgan. Opportunities for partisan victories were missed or not attainable. It is true that they retreated in both major engagements, but they were supposed to. Armed mostly or entirely with rifles, their goal was never to hold their ground but rather to slow the enemy’s progress. They did that for seven hours at Cooch’s Bridge and for four hours at Brandywine. As one might expect from a chief justice, the most even-handed contemporary assessment may be that of John Marshall.[43]

General Maxwell was much complained of by his officers, and a court of inquiry sat upon his conduct, the result of which was his entire acquittal. Whether that officer omitted to seize the proper occasions to annoy the enemy, or the cautious and compact movements of general Howe afforded none, cannot be easily ascertained.  General Washington felt the loss of Morgan, and wrote pressingly to Gates after his successes against Burgoyne, to restore to him, as soon as possible, that officer with his regiment of riflemen.[44]


[1]William Heth to Daniel Morgan, October 2, 1777 in “Diary of Lieutenant William Heth while a Prisoner in Quebec, 1776,” Annual Papers of the Winchester Virginia Historical Society,1 (1931): 33.

[2]Thomas J. McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006), 156-157; Michael C. Harris, Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2014), 237; Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), 56-60; John F. Reed, Campaign to Valley Forge (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965), 90-93, 99-102, 118-120.

[3]Peter Muhlenberg to George Washington, February 23, 1777, The Papers of George Washington, W.W. Abbot, et al. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987-), Revolutionary War Series, 8:428; Charles Lee to George Washington, May 10, 1776, in The Lee Papers, Henry Edward Bunbury, ed. 4 vols. (New York: New York Historical Society, 1871-1875), 2:18-20; “Stubblefield Orderly Book,” Collections of the Virginia Historical Society, 6:172.

[4]E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra,A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787 (Richmond, Virginia State Library, 1978), 88-89; Robert K. Wright, The Continental Army (Washington: United States Army, 1986), 68-70; George Washington to Daniel Morgan, June 13, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 10:31. Morgan’s new unit was technically temporary and his men were listed by their regiments as on detached duty. The same was true of Maxwell’s corps when it was formed. The 8th Virginia Regiment and the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment may be seen as precursor rifle units. The latter was formed in 1775, reorganized as the 1st Continental Regiment for 1776, and may also have seeded the 1777-1783 iteration of the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment which was part of Anthony Wayne’s brigade. This may explain why Wayne’s brigade, or parts of it, was often paired with Morgan’s Rifles, Maxwell’s Light Infantry, and Captain Darke’s detachment of Virginia rifles. Fred Anderson Berg, Encyclopedia of Continental Army Units: Battalions, Regiments and Independent Corps (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1972), 94, 99.

[5]“Narrative of William Grant” in Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Procured in Holland, England and France,E.B. O’Callaghan, ed. (Albany: Weed, Parson and Co., 1857), 8:728-734. Grant’s report was written for the British after his defection.

[6]George Washington to Daniel Morgan, August 9 and 10, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 10:566; George Washington to Samuel Washington, August 10, 1777, Ibid.,10:580-581; George Washington to Israel Putnam, August 16, 1777, Ibid., 10:642; George Washington to Daniel Morgan, August 16, 1777, Ibid.,10:641; John Marshall, The Life ofGeorge Washington, 5 vols.(Philadelphia, G.P. Wayne, 1804-1807), 3:141.

[7]Harris, Brandywine, 405-406; “Journals of Capt. John Montresor, 1757-1778,” in G.D. Scull, ed., The Montresor Journals (New York: New York Historical Society, 1882), 445. Muhlenberg had been promoted to general since his letter to Washington. British Capt. John Montresor reported that the light infantry was formed of “120 men from 6 brigades making 720 men,” a number that would include officers.

[8]William S. Stryker, ed., Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey(Trenton: John L. Murphy Publishing Co., 1901), 1:7; Thomas Thorliefur Sobol, “William Maxwell, New Jersey’s Hard Fighting General,” Journal of the American Revolution, August 15, 2016,, accessed February 16, 2018.

[9]“Narrative of William Grant,” 733; National Archives and Records Administration, Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, Cpl Thomas Burrows (958:2220), Pvt. Joseph Sidebottom (956:143), Pvt. William Shugars (968:1080), Pvt. Weedon Wilkerson (956:2094), and others (accessed at Thanks to Wade Catts for information on the 3rd Virginia Regiment muster rolls.

[10]C.W. Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition Against Sandusky Under Col. William Crawford in 1782 (Cincinatti: Robert Clark & Co., 1873), 104; William Crawford to George Washington, February 12, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 8:314-315; George Washington to William Crawford, February 20, 1777, Ibid., 8:376; Sanchez-Saavedra,Guide to Virginia Military Organizations,45, 51, 146; “Narrative of William Grant,” 732; William Crawford to the President of Congress, April 22, 1777 in C.W. Butterfield, ed., The Washington-Crawford Letters (Cincinatti: Robert Clarke & Co., 1877), 64-65.

[11]William Walker pension application,, accessed February 8, 2018.

[12]William Walker pension; “Narrative of William Grant,” 733; Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, revised edition (New York: University Publishing Company, 1870), 89; Scull, Montresor Journals, 446-447; “Life, Character and Services of Chief Justice Marshall, by Joseph Story” in John F. Dillon, ed., John Marshall: Life, Character, and Judicial Services, 3 vols. (Chicago: Callaghan & Company, 1903), 3:335. Story, who knew Marshall very well, said the chief justice was “present at the skirmish with the British light infantry at Iron Hill.” Montresor also identifies a Captain Cumming as killed at Cooch’s Bridge, possibly a militia officer. A list of 8th Virginia Regiment enlisted men detached to Maxwell, compiled from muster roll notations, is at

[13]George Washington to William Maxwell, August 30, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 11:95; George Washington to William Maxwell, September 1, 1777, Ibid.,11:115.

[14]George Washington to William Maxwell, September 1, 1777, Ibid., 11:114.

[15]Lee, Memoirs, 87.

[16]“Narrative of William Grant,” 733.

[17]George Washington to William Maxwell, September 3, 1777, Ibid., 11:139-140.

[18]George Washington to William Maxwell, September 2, 1777, Ibid., 11:127-128.

[19]George Washington to William Maxwell, September 2, 1777, Ibid., 11:128; Delaware Code Online,, accessed February 8, 2018.

[20]Thomas J. McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign, 1:152-155; Harris, Brandywine,135-137. Maxwell’s force was joined by local militia in this battle.

[21]Marshall, Washington, 3:142; Marie E. Burgoyne and Bruce E. Burgoyne, eds., Journal of the Hesse-Cassel Jaeger Corps and Hans Konze’s List of Jaeger Officers (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2008), 8, quoted in Harris, Brandywine, 137; Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, Joseph P. Tustin, trans. and ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 77-78; George Washington to John Hancock, September 3, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 11:135-136.

[22]George Washington to William Maxwell, September 5, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 11:153-154; George Washington to William Maxwell, September 5, 1777, Ibid.,11:154-155.

[23]“Diary of Joseph Clark, attached to the Continental Army, from May, 1778, to November, 1779.”Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, 7 (1855):98;Harris, Brandywine,142-145, 216.

[24]Marshall, Washington, 3:142-143.

[25]Lee, Memoirs, 89.

[26]George Weedon to John Page, September 11, 1777, transc. Bob McDonald,

[27]Marshall, Washington, 3:143.

[28]Ibid., 3:145-146.

[29]Ibid., 3:148.

[30]Ibid., 3:154.

[31]John C. Dann, ed., The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, From the Year 1775 to 1841 (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 10.

[32]Dann, Nagle Journal, 10.

[33]George Washington to Anthony Wayne, September 18, 1777, Papers of George Washington, 11:265-266; George Washington to Anthony Wayne, September 18, 1777, Ibid.,11:266; Anthony Wayne to George Washington, September 19, 1777, Ibid.,11:273; McGuire, Philadelphia Campaign,1:301-304.

[34]Anthony Wayne to George Washington, September 21, 1777,Papers of Geroge Washington, 11:286-287.

[35]William Heth to Daniel Morgan, October 2, 1777 in “Diary of William Heth,” 33; Marie Joseph Paul Yves roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Stanley J. Idzerda, ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977-), 1:94, quoted in Harris, Brandywine, 209.

[36]William Heth to Daniel Morgan, September 30, 1777 in “Diary of William Heth,” 31.

[37]Sanchez-Saavedra, Guide to Virginia Military Organizations,64; Sobol, “William Maxwell.”. Identifiable “missed opportunities” include an attack on the Sign of Buck Tavern, the capture of a Hessian general, and pinning Howe against the flooded Schuylkill with Wayne. Maxwell could not have accomplished the first and third of these.

[38]General Orders, October 26, 177, Papers of George Washington, 12:1–2.

[39]General Orders, November 4, 1777, Ibid., 12:113.

[40]John Sullivan, William Maxwell and Anthony Wayne to George Washington, November 23, 1777, Ibid., 12:368-370.

[41]Pension Application of Benjamin Delaney,, accessed February 8, 2018; Butterfied, Expedition Against Sandusky, 379-392.

[42]Sanchez-Saavedra, Guide to Virginia Military Organizations,38, 178; Sobol, “William Maxwell.”

[43]William Heth to Daniel Morgan, September 30, 1777 in “Diary of William Heth,” 31.

[44]Marshall, Washington, 3:170.


  • Very interesting. I have studied the Jaeger accounts of this campaign extensively. Very neat to see the accounts from the other side. I think taking into account that Maxwell was facing an extremely capable enemy partisan force in the combined Feldjagerkorps is worth noting.
    Very interesting that your source mentions killing of the 6 mounted Jaeger at the beginning of the engagement at Cooch’s Bridge. The accounts on the other side (notably that of Johann Ewald who was commanding this advanced corp and was the uninjured rider) name them as dragoons from the main army that were specifically requested by Ewald when given the command.
    Ewald also notes the stubbornness of the light corps of Maxwell, and the individual valor of the enlisted men, yet notes the many missed opportunities of the Rebel Light Infantry.

    Excellent article and thoroughly enjoyed!

  • A month earlier than the formation of Maxwell’s light corps, the Northern Dept. facing Burgoyne’s advancing army, drew up a 450-man, musket-armed Corps of Light Infantry and attached it to Morgan’s rifle corps when they arrived. Documents from the period regularly maintain a distinction between the two groups with different firelocks–“Light Infantry” as opposed to “Morgan’s corps” or “riflemen.”

    I’m curious as to the makeup of Maxwell’s corps with regard to firelocks. The article states that Maxwell’s likely had mostly rifles. To the north, almost as soon as Morgan arrived, orders went out to add musketmen to the rifle companies. Any indication of a similar practice in Maxwell’s corps? The numbers of muskets vs. rifles, if any?

    1. My understanding is that digs at Cooch’s Bridge have produced projectiles from muskets as well as rifles. However, Maxwell’s Light Infantry was evidently reinforced by militia, which muddies things. It may be that this unit was not purely rifles which would explain the broader term “light infantry.”

  • Very well-researched article, Gabe. I am also curious as to the proportion of rifles to smoothbore muskets in Maxwell’s corps. If most of the army’s riflemen had already been detached to operate under Morgan, how many Continental riflemen would have been left with Washington to form this new unit? My inclination is that most of the formation’s rifles would have been in the hands of the 200-300 Chester County Militia assigned to Maxwell’s command, while the Continentals, aside from a few of the Virginians and Pennsylvanians, would have been equipped primarily with smoothbores. This would seemingly make more sense as to why the unit was termed “light infantry” rather than “rifle corps.”
    William Walker was clearly a Virginia Continental rifleman who served in the unit, so I don’t doubt the existence of other rifle-armed Continentals in the force, but I am skeptical that the proportion of rifles would constitute more than around 50% of the men serving under Maxwell.
    Would you be able to point me in the direction of more information on the numbers of riflemen in Continental line regiments prior to August 1777? What were the indicators that led you to conclude that not all of the brigades contributed to the corps and that it may have been dominated by Virginians?

  • Seems that General William Maxwell received his share of criticism from his “comrades in arms” and it is unfortunate that historically valuable correspondence of his was consumed in his house fire after the war. However it is interesting what the opposition had to say after several years of fighting. In a case following the actions in 1780 at Connecticut Farms and Springfield one of Maxwell’s respected enemy recorded an interesting episode. The very capable Jaeger Capt. Johann Ewald remarked that General Knyphausen at the time felt he could attack and surprise Maxwell and his Corps. Ewald then continued, “General Maxwell…was no mediocre general..”.

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