John Haslet’s World: An Ardent Patriot, the Delaware Blues, and the Spirit of 1776 by David Price. (Nashville, TN: Knox Press, 2020)
“‘Noted for his bravery and devotion to the cause of Liberty, Colonel John Haslet died a hero to his state and nation.’” (p. 221)
The above statement is the final sentence of text inscribed on the Colonel John Haslet memorial, dedicated by the State of Delaware at the end of 2001. The marker is appropriately located at Battle Monument Park in Princeton, New Jersey, the site of Washington’s unlikely victory on January 3, 1777. Colonel Haslet was killed during the battle as he sought help for a wounded comrade.
David Price’s latest work, John Haslet’s World: An Ardent Patriot, the Delaware Blues, and the Spirit of 1776, is his third book about what Revolutionary historians frequently refer to as the “Ten Crucial Days,” covering the events between December 25, 1776 to January 3, 1777. Price devotes his energies and writing talents to the men who fought for Washington and the infant nation. Washington and his commanders get attention, obviously, but Price writes about those who fought, died, were wounded, dressed in rags, and walked on swollen feet through snow and water. Their efforts helped the nation survive its birth against overwhelming odds. Although the biographical data on Haslet is limited, Price provides an exciting and intense narrative about Haslet’s role at Long Island, White Plains, Mamaronek, Trenton and finally, Princeton.
In Part I, “A New Beginning,” John Haslet immigrated to Philadelphia in 1758, when he was thirty years of age. Born in Ulster, Haslet was later educated at the University of Glasgow and became a minister, with medical training. There were many Scotch-Irish who migrated to the British North American colonies, and they had a strong influence on American colonial society. When Haslet arrived, he quickly became involved in the French and Indian War, earning the rank of captain and fighting in the woods of western Pennsylvania and the Ohio River Valley. After the British victory in Quebec, Haslet moved his family to the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania, which would become the colony of Delaware in 1770. Haslet became one of the largest landowners in Kent County, and like all influential landowners, he owned several slaves. He was heavily involved with Delaware politics, serving as a delegate to the Delaware General Assembly. One of his closest friends was Caesar Rodney, and theirs was a relationship that would be important to them both until Haslet’s untimely death.
Part II, “The Tempest,” takes the reader back in time to the end of the French and Indian War and the unbearable financial difficulties of the British empire. The familiar story of unfair British taxation and repression after the Boston Tea Party directly involved Haslet, who served on a committee in the Assembly that tried to think of ways to assist Boston. By the time the Revolution began, Haslet had been serving as a militia captain in his community. He was chosen to lead a special regiment from Delaware, which became known as the “Delaware Blues” because of their blue uniforms (the color blue, according to Price, was associated with Whig opposition to Tory government). Now a colonel, Haslet was responsible for training and preparing his regiment for the defense of Delaware’s borders. Caesar Rodney made his own mark on history when he traveled overnight from Dover to Philadelphia so that he could cast the deciding vote on Delaware’s approval of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The Delaware Blues and their colonel were ordered by Congress to head north, as described in Part III, “Doing Battle.” They fought bravely at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, but the victory belonged to the British. The fate of the young nation was in danger due to the conditions of the army: disease, not enough supplies, starvation, desertion, and the prospect of enlistments ending by the end of the year. Haslet and Rodney continued a lengthy correspondence during this time, offering details about the conditions on both the battlefield and the halls of Congress. Haslet organized a raid on Loyalist forces at Mamaroneck (Skirmish of Heathcote Hill) in October 1776. The well-executed raid would be written about by military historians for years afterwards. The Delaware Blues lost some men and leaders later at White Plains, but Washington’s army survived to fight another day after dealing William Howe’s army a costly victory.
The truly gripping narrative makes up the fourth part of the book, “No Greater Sacrifice.” After Haslet agreed to extend his enlistment past January, his regiment was one of the last to cross the Delaware River in the famous surprise attack on the Hessian camp at Trenton. Haslet and his Delaware Blues then became important participants in the Ten Crucial Days. When General Hugh Mercer was wounded at the Battle of Trenton on January 3, 1777, Haslet tried to rally his troops to assist Mercer. Sadly, Haslet was struck in the head and was killed instantly. Price describes his death as an honorable one, supposedly bringing Washington to tears. The disintegration of the Delaware Blues into other regiments symbolically paralleled the fate of their commander.
In the Epilogue, Price continues his story of Haslet after the Colonel’s death. Haslet was first buried in Philadelphia, but then his body was removed in 1841 and reinterred in Dover, Delaware. The monument over his grave honored Haslet’s “virtues as a man, His merits as a citizen, and His services as a soldier.” (p. 244) His marker, mentioned at the beginning of this review, was dedicated in December of 2001. A picture of the actual table and text is included. All the people and battles mentioned in the book are included in an Appendix, “John Haslet and the Delaware Regiment of 1776: A Chronology of Events.” Whereas the text of John Haslet’s Worldis really about the events, people and places surrounding the figure of Colonel Haslet, the Appendix is strictly focused on Haslet and his soldiers.
The sources that David Price used for his book should be familiar to most Revolutionary historians. Many focus on the Delaware region, and include naval and military records. Price relied to a great extent on a valuable 1941 publication by Christopher L. Ward, The Delaware Continentals, 1776-1783. The Ten Crucial Days is a well-documented story about Washington’s forces. His Excellency usually gets the credit for the successes at Trenton and Princeton, but Price brings the attention in his works to those who made the victories possible. Readers who immerse themselves in John Haslet’s World encounter these heroes, led by a man who gave the last full measure of devotion (Old Abe’s famous words) to the Glorious Cause. The history of Delaware and its early leaders is a valuable addition to Haslet’s own story.