Delaware’s Colonel John Haslet (1727–1777)

"Troops Leaving the Dover Green," by Stanley Arthur. (Courtesy of Delaware Division of Historic & Cultural Affairs)

Born in Straw Dungiven, County Londonderry, Ireland,[1] thirty-year-old John Haslet was the young, widowed minister of Ballykelly Presbyterian Church. Arriving in America in 1757, he became a captain in the Pennsylvania militia and participated in the November 26, 1758 action at Fort Duquesne. Twenty years later, he would be killed at the Battle of Princeton.

Russ McCabe, now-retired administrator of the Delaware State Archives’ Historical Marker Program, spoke at a 2002 dedication of a monument to Haslet at Battle Monument Park in Princeton:

Haslet was kind of a fighting preacher . . . My guess is, before the revolution, Haslet was probably recognized by the political establishment in Delaware as being a little bit too radical . . . Many Scotch-Irish immigrants moved to America in hopes of gaining some independence from an English government that kept them from schools and leadership positions . . . I think there was a bit of resentment toward the English because of the way they were treated in Ireland.

William G. Whiteley had earlier described Haslet as “tall and athletic, and of generous and ardent feelings, as his birth-place would indicate.”[2]

By 1764, Haslet had settled in Sussex County, Delaware. Records of the Presbyterian Historical Society of America do not show him as practicing the ministry but refer to him, instead, as Doctor Haslet. He married a widow, Jemima Molleston Brinckle, and had four children, Ann, Jemima, John, and Joseph.[3] In 1765, Haslet’s thirteen-year-old daughter Mary, came from Ulster to join them. In 1767, he bought a tract of land consisting of more than 400 acres called “Longfield,” just inside the northern limits of Milford, Delaware. It appears that these were peaceful years for the family, but the world was changing, and the most exciting and dramatic years of Haslet’s life were yet to come.

In September 1775, as requested by the Continental Congress, leaders from the Lower Three Counties of Pennsylvania (Delaware) formed a Council of Safety to draft militia regulations, confirm the appointment of militia officers and raise and supply troops.[4] By January 21 the Delaware Council had completed its task. The roster of field and staff officers was headed by the name of Col. John Haslet, with Gunning Bedford as lieutenant colonel; Thomas McDonough as major; Rev Joseph Montgomery, chaplain; Dr. James Tilton, surgeon; Robert Ball, quartermaster; and Thomas Holland, adjutant. “Each company is to consist of 1 Captain, 1 1st Lieutenant, 1 2nd Lieutenant, 1 Ensign, 4 Sergeants, 4 Corporals, 1 Drummer, 1 Fifer, and at least 68+ Privates.”[5] The Delaware Continentals soon grew to about 800 men, becoming the army’s largest battalion. [6]

An action-packed year followed. On March 27, 1776, Henry Fisher of Lewes reported that HMS Roebuck, a forty-four-gun British frigate and a tender, had entered the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The Committee of Safety quickly ordered four “row galleys” to “exert their utmost endeavors to take or destroy all such vessels of the enemy as they might find in the Delaware.”[7] Haslet, already under orders to send his Sussex County militia to the Continental Army for training, quickly deployed two companies of his battalion to Lewes.

On April 7, members of Haslet’s battalion at Lewes were sent to unload provisions. The men arrived to find the Roebuck’s tender off shore, firing her “swivels and musketry.” Haslet’s men immediately pulled their supply schooner up on the beach and “Marched along the strand to return fire.”

kept up a constant fire . . . until we perceived the distance too great. We then left off firing and unloaded the schooner, though several hundred shots were fired at us to prevent it. Our people picked up many of their balls rolling on the sand . . . Fortunately, however, one of our swivels cut their halyards and down came their mainsail, which compelled them to anchor once more . . . This spirited little skirmish [removed] from the minds of the patriots the exaggerated impression of the invincibility of the British ships and sailors, and they flocked to the shores of the bay in readiness for another encounter.[8]

On May 7, Colonel Haslet wrote to Caesar Rodney[9] from Cantwell’s Bridge (Odessa, Delaware) that he had received a message that the Roebuck and Liverpool were now off the coast of Port Penn and moving upstream between the mouth of the Christiana River and Chester, Pennsylvania. Two of the Delaware Regiment’s companies were now stationed at Wilmington and one remained in Lewes to keep an eye on British warships and Tory activity.

On June 15, within sight of British 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 argued with each other about a proposal to create their own independent state. Rodney, McKean, Read, and the other colonial leaders knew they would be accused of treason against Britain if America lost the war, but daringly decided that the Delaware colony would be free not only from Britain, but also from governance by the Penn family.

In July, news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence arrived in Sussex County along with a message: “Resolved, That an order issue to Colonel Hazlet, of the battalion in Delaware government, to station one company at Lewistown, and to march the remaining seven companies of his battalion to Wilmington, and there remain until further order of this Congress.” Haslet rejoiced at the news and wrote to Caesar Rodney:

I congratulate you, Sir, on the important day which restores to every American his birth-right; a day which every freeman will record with gratitude, and the millions of posterity read with rapture. Ensign Wilson arrived here last night. A fine turtle feast at Dover anticipated and announced the declaration of Congress; even the Barrister himself laid aside his airs of reserve. Mighty happy.[10]

Lt. Enoch Anderson wrote that when the militia from New Castle County arrived at Lewes, all was in turbulence. He was stopped below Dover by armed Tories who searched his saddle bags and condemned him as one of the “damned Haslet’s men,” but then permitted him to proceed and even helped to repack his saddle bags. In a tavern near Lewes he was surrounded by swearing Tories but managed to escape after buying them “a jorum of rum.”[11]

Two weeks later, the Delaware Regiment was ordered by Congress to head north to Philadelphia. By August 3, Haslet’s entire regiment of nearly 800 men was present, fully equipped and armed.

The 1st Delaware Regiment would see combat for the first time at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, under the command of Brig. Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling. At Long Island, Maryland and Delaware troops were responsible for holding Gowanus Road, on the far right of the Continental Army line. Haslet later described how his Delawares stood with “determined countenance’” although nearly surrounded, and when ordered to leave, could only retreat by wading and swimming across Gowanus Bay.

William Whitely tells us that “The Delawares, being well-trained, kept and fought in a compact body the whole time, and when obliged to retreat, kept their ranks, and entered the lines in that order, and were obliged, frequently while retreating, to fight their way through bodies of the enemy.”[12] The Americans were soundly defeated. Washington lost about 970 men killed, wounded or missing and 1,079 taken captive—almost half the troops engaged in that battle. Of the Delaware Regiment, Colonel John Haslet reported two privates killed, two officers and twenty-three men missing.[13]

Two nights later, George Washington entrusted the Delaware and Maryland soldiers to be the rear guard as he secretly withdrew his army.

Even in the midst of battle, Haslet kept a sharp eye on the news from home. He grumbled when he received the news that Delaware had adopted its State Constitution on September 20, 1776. This was the first state constitution written by a convention elected for that purpose subsequent to the Declaration of Independence, but it had not been submitted for popular approval and Haslet remarked that the state delegation had “done as little as possible and modeled their new government as like the old as may be.”[14] And in October, he wrote Nicholas Van Dyke “a most flaming letter, running O’er with Patriotism, praying him not to let People attend the Noxtown fair rather than ye Election & sell their Birthright for a piece of Ginger Bread.”[15]

On October 22, 1776, when Haslet and his Delawareans arrived in White Plains, New York, Robert Rogers of French and Indian War fame and his regiment, the Queen’s Rangers, were encamped six miles away, near the village of Mamaroneck. Harry Schenawolf, in his Revolutionary War Journal article “Battle of Mamaroneck, New York—A Pretty Affair” writes: “A brief council decided to cut off Rogers’ regiment from the bulk of Howe’s army. The task went to “the redoubtable Colonel Haslet,” commander of the “Delaware Blues,” the only regiment in addition to Maryland’s that looked and paraded like real soldiers. They had fought well alongside their southern brethren on Long Island and, though reduced by casualties and sickness, they still formed an imposing force.”[16]

Haslet wrote to Caesar Rodney:

On Monday night, Lord Stirling ordered me out with 750 men to attack the enemies outposts 10 miles from here . . . which was done, and their guards forced. We brought in 36 Prisoners, a Pair of Colours, 60 Stands of Arms, as many blankets, and a variety of plunder besides. The party we fell in with was Col. Rogers, the late worthless Major. On the first fire he skulked off in the dark. His Lieut & a number of others were left dead on the Spot; Had not our Guards deserted us on the first onset, he and his whole party must have been Prisoners. On our side, three or four left dead, and about fifteen wounded . . . his Lordship was so highly pleased with our success, that he thanked us publicly on the parade, ordered all the plunder into my possession, to be sold at auction, and distributed by me among the party . . . his [Lord Stirling’s] brigade is counted the boast of the army, the post of honor on all occasions, assigned us.[17]

Action continued when less than a week after Mamaroneck, British General Howe landed his troops in Westchester County. His plan was to cut off Washington’s army from New England and upstate New York. Simultaneously, George Washington was inspecting the terrain around White Plains. Alerted that the British were advancing, he ordered the 2nd Connecticut Regiment under Joseph Spencer to slow the British advance, and sent Haslet and the 1st Delaware Regiment, along with Alexander McDougall’s brigade, Rudolphus Ritzema’s 3rd New York Regiment, Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment, William Smallwood’s 1st Maryland Regiment, and the 1st New York Regiment and 2nd New York Regiments, to reinforce nearby Chatterton Hill.

The Americans, with little time to construct entrenchments, defended the hill against a combined British and Hessian force of approximately twice their size. At noon, British and Hessian artillery opened up on the American position. Haslet noted: “We had not been many minutes on the ground, when the cannonade began.” Hessian heavy field artillery, including fifteen pieces of six and twelve pounders, was stationed on an opposite hill. Heister, the divisional commander of Hessian troops, exclaimed that his field-pieces “made such a thunder-storm that one could neither see nor hear.”[18]

Haslet’s Delaware regiment anchored the American left, providing covering fire while the remaining American troops retreated to the north. The Delaware regiment was the last to leave the hill. The fighting was intense, and both sides suffered significant casualties before the Continentals made a disciplined retreat.[19] Haslet wrote to Caesar Rodney:

Part of the first three Delaware companies also retreated in disorder, but not till after several were wounded and killed. The left of the regiment took post behind a fence on the top of the hill with most of the officers and twice repulsed the light troops and horse of the enemy; but seeing ourselves deserted on all hands, and the continued column of the enemy advancing, we also retired. Covering the retreat of our party and forming at the foot of the hill we marched into camp in the rear of the body sent to reinforce us.[20]

Eighteenth-century American versions stated that the initial Hessian assault was repulsed once and some said twice, followed by another, more concerted effort involving British light infantry that proved successful. British accounts state that Chatterton Hill was taken in one assault after a severe bombardment by their artillery. Lieutenant Colonel Harrison, aide to Washington, succinctly summed up the action on Chatterton Hill: “Covering themselves with their cannon, they [British & Hessians] advanced in two divisions, and after a smart engagement, of about a quarter of an hour, obliged our men to give way.”[21]

Little more is heard from or about Haslet until early November when Stirling’s return for the Delaware Regiment showed only 273 present and fit for duty. They had moved over to New Jersey, their ranks decimated every day by sickness, lameness, and fatigue, and by the time they arrived in Brunswick, Lt. Enoch Anderson wrote that the men were “broken down and fatigued,” “and some were without shoes, some had no shirts.”

The force under Washington’s immediate command when he arrived in Newark, New Jersey, including the 1,200 men in Stirling’s brigade at New Brunswick, numbered 5,410. Of these, the terms of enlistment of 2,060 men were to expire within one week.

On November 17, three of Stirling’s brigades arrived in Brunswick, awaiting General Washington. The term of enlistment of the Delaware regiment was about to expire and preparations were being made to raise its successor. Haslet appointed Lt. Enoch Anderson captain of the new regiment. “It soon became known by the Regiment . . . Gloomy as times were, that very evening twenty-two of our old Regiment, and mostly of our old company came to me to enlist with me for three years or during the war.”[22]

On December 1, Washington added a postscript to his letter to Congress: “The enemy are fast advancing. Some of them are in sight now.” The British had appeared on the banks of the Raritan River. Enoch Anderson recorded that “in the afternoon . . . a severe cannonading took place on both sides, and several were killed and wounded on our side.” The exchange of fire, Anderson said, ceased “near Sundown,” at which time “orders were given to retreat.”

Haslet’s men were now assigned the position of honor and responsibility at the rear of the army and asked to cut down trees and destroy bridges to impede the march of the enemy. The Delaware Regiment was forming up when Haslet came back and ordered Anderson to take some men to burn all their tents as there were no wagons to carry them. “When we saw them reduced to ashes, it was night and the army far ahead. We encamped in the woods, with no victuals, no tents, no blankets. The night was cold, and we all suffered much, especially those who had no shoes.”[23]

It was dusk before they reached Trenton where they spent the next night. During the first week of December, Washington’s remaining 2,200 exhausted men evacuated New Jersey by crossing the Delaware River. By the time they reached Pennsylvania only 100 of Haslet’s men remained fit for duty. Discouraged by lack of supplies or any means of preventing the British from crossing into Pennsylvania, George Washington wrote to his brother, “I think the game is pretty nearly up.”[24]

Anticipating that the British would assume that the Continentals would stay in Philadelphia for the winter, Washington, in frustration, decided to go back across the river and make a surprise attack on Trenton. He put the soldiers to work collecting boats, which by December 24 were hidden at McKonkey’s Ferry in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When the word filtered out that men were needed, Caesar Rodney’s brother, Thomas, and thirty-five Kent Countians walked more than 113 miles from Dover, Delaware, to join Washington and his men on the 25th.

The weather got progressively worse, clouds began to form above them, the temperature dropped, the rain changed to sleet, and then it began to snow. Stirling’s Brigade, including the remaining members of Delaware Continental Regiment, was the last to arrive and settle down for the night. Enoch Anderson observed with pride that while other soldiers were going off by the hundreds, “Our Regiment, although many of the men’s enlistments were up, stuck to. “But for all their dogged spirit and determination, there were only 92 of the regiment fit for duty.”[25]

At about 11 p.m. on Christmas night, a total of 2,400 Americans successfully braved the icy and freezing river, reaching the New Jersey side of the Delaware just before dawn. Thomas Rodney’s diary contains his description of Washington’s crossing 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.[26]

“It blew a hurricane,” recalled one soldier. During the crossing, several men fell overboard, including Haslet. He was quickly pulled out of the water. He survived, “suffering much from exposure, then marched ten miles on severely wounded legs and fought a battle without complaint.”[27]

Due to the ice on the river, the artillery arrived on the opposite shore at 3 a.m. The troops were not ready to march until 4 a.m. The Americans then marched nine miles south to Trenton. The Hessians had lowered their guard, and thinking that the bad weather would keep them safe had set up no long-distance outposts or patrols.[28]

According to Charles Green of the Delaware State Sons of the American Revolution, Haslet’s Delaware Regiment was among the last units to cross the Delaware River for the surprise attack. The Delawareans were at the center of the American line (under Stirling), and after several volleys from American cannon they charged down King and Queen Streets, overwhelming all opposition. This victory renewed hope for the cause of independence.[29]

The enlistment period of most soldiers was over, and winter was settling in. The army began to go home. After their victory at Trenton, Washington and his army returned to Pennsylvania, but not for long. On the night of December 29, they returned to New Jersey to attack the British again. On December 30, Col. John Haslet, Capt.Thomas Holland, Ens. John Wilson, Surgeon Dr. Reuben Gilder, and two privates were the only Delawareans to be found in the camp.[30]

On January 2 Cornwallis, seeking revenge, advanced on Trenton. He arrived at twilight with about 5,000 men. This British advance in what is known as “the second battle of Trenton” was slowed by defensive skirmishing by American riflemen. After assaulting the American positions three times, and being repulsed each time, Cornwallis decided to wait and finish the battle the next day.

At 2:00 in the morning, the American army quietly left the scene. To convince the British that they were digging in, 500 soldiers and two cannons were left behind. These men were to keep the fires burning and make noises with picks and shovels. With deceptive campfires still burning along the creek, Washington’s intrepid soldiers began an eighteen-mile march northward. This successful march through the night of January 2 and 3, 1777 is considered one of the great flank marches in American history.[31] When Cornwallis’s men launched their attack the next morning, the Americans were gone!

Gen. Hugh Mercer, a Virginia friend and colleague of George Washington, led a contingent of 300 men toward the British position in Princeton. Col. John Haslet, who had orders in his pocket detaching him from duty in order to recruit another Delaware regiment, had decided to stick with the army for one more battle, and despite pain in his legs, the fifty year old Haslet walked along beside Mercer’s horse.[32]

Mercer and his men unexpectedly encountered a superior force of British light infantry in an orchard and were forced to start shooting. They were soon surrounded by angry British regulars shouting, “Surrender you damn rebel!” When he ignored calls for his surrender, Mercer’s horse was injured, and Mercer himself was clubbed to the ground, smashed in the head by a musket and stabbed six or seven times before being left for dead.

Colonel Haslet, Mercer’s second-in-command, immediately took command of the Colonial troops. Trying to rally Mercer’s men, he fell back toward a barn. Moments later he was struck in the head by a musket ball and died instantly.[33]

Hearing the news, Caesar Rodney wrote about the attack that had taken the life of Delaware’s Col. John Haslet. “Good God—What Havock they have made. He that hath not seen it can have no Idea . . . Thus Ends a History which perhaps will afford you much more trouble than Real Satisfaction.”[34]

 

[1]Straw (from Irish Srath, meaning “wide valley”) is a small village in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. In the 2001 Census, Straw had a population of fifty-seven people. It is situated within Mid-Ulster District approximately one mile south-west of Draperstown.

[2]Sunday, December 30. 2002. www.delawarenationalguard.com/dngnews/jan02/haslet.htm

[3]After Haslet’s first wife Shirley Stirling died, their daughter Mary, called Polly, born about 1752 was raised by relatives, following her father to America in 1765.

[4]archives.delaware.gov/collections/revolutionary%20war%20record/revguiderev.shtml#P87_1246

[5]www.1stdelawareregiment.org/history

[6]/revolutionarywar.us/continental-army/delaware/

[7]Jane Scott. A Gentleman as Well (Newark, University of Delaware. 2000), quoting Ryden. Letters Number 52.

[8]Scott. A Gentleman as Well, 101.

[9]Caesar Rodney (October 7, 1728, Dover, Delaware [U.S.]—June 26, 1784, Dover), delegate to the Continental Congress (1774–76, 1777–78), “president” of Delaware (1778–82), and key signer of the Declaration of Independence. Rodney had served as high sheriff of Kent county, Delaware (1755), and as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress (1765).

[10]William G. Whiteley, Esq., The Revolutionary Soldiers of Delaware. A Paper Read Before the Two Houses of the Delaware Legislature, February 15th, 1875 (Wilmington, DE: James & Webb, Printers, 1875).

[11]Enoch Anderson, Personal Recollections of Enoch Anderson, an Officer of the Delaware Regiments in the Revolutionary War (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1896), 28. See also: www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/anderson/16857/

[12]Whiteley, The Revolutionary Soldiers of Delaware, archive.org/stream/revolutionarysol01whit/revolutionarysol01whit_djvu.txt

[13]Roger Martin, “This Day in Delaware History,” Delaware State News, August 27, 2009.

[14]Harold Hancock, Liberty & Independence (Wilmington: Delaware American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1976), 59.

[15]Scott, A Gentleman as Well as a Whig, 137.

[16]Harry Schenawolf, “Battle of Mamaroneck, New York – ‘A Pretty Affair’ in the American Revolutionary War,” www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/battle-of-mamaroneck/

[17]Christopher Ward, The Delaware Continentals(Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1942; reprinted by Delaware Heritage Commission, 2001), 82.

[18]Harry Schenawolf, “Hamilton was Not a Hero,” www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/article-2-of-4-alexander-hamilton-was-not-a-hero-at-the-battle-of-white-plains-new-evidence-reveals-a-fabricated-lie-fooling-historians-countless-internet-posts-the-u-s-gov/

[19]Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York (New York: Walker and Company, 2002).

[20]John Haslet to Caesar Rodney, November 12, 1776, www.historycentral.com/Revolt/battleaccounts/NewYork/WhitePlaines.html

[21]www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/battle-of-white-plains/

[22]Ward, The Delaware Continentals, 98.

[23]Ibid., 100.

[24]George Washington to Samuel Washington, December 18, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0299.

[25]Richard M. Ketchum, Winter Soldiers (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1999) 198.

[26]Thomas Rodney, Diary of Captain Thomas Rodney, 1776-1777 (Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1888), archive.org/details/diarycaptaintho00rodngoog/page/n10

[27]David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford Press, 2004), 219.

[28]trentonhistory.org/Tour/Battles_of_Trenton_Script.pdf

[29]Shirley Walsh, August 27, 2002 at 09:26:05 www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/adair/3287/, citing Charles Green, “The Story of Delaware in the Revolution,” 67-68.

[30]Ward, The Delaware Continentals, 137.

[31]George Washington’s Mount Vernon, www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/10-facts-about-the-battle-of-princeton/

[32]Ketchum, Winter Soldiers, 295.

[33]Ibid., 304.

[34]Caesar Rodney to George Read Sr., January 23, 1777, RS Rodney Collection, Delaware Historical Society.

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2 Comments

  • Just discovered a 5th great grandfather was among Colonel Haslet’s privates: Joseph Greenwood lived long enough to file an old age pension in KY, detailing his service and what he witnessed at Long Island and White Plains. He mentioned his officers, including Colonel Haslet and the colonel’s death, also Lord Stirling and General (Mordecai) Gist. Greenwood served three tours—two as a Delaware Continental, and one for Maryland. Loved this article for filling in some of the details of those tours. If you visit Dover, the Delaware State Archives, the Dover Green, and Colonel Haslet’s gravesite are all within a short distance of each other.

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