Elk Landing in the Revolutionary War
By Jon B. Carpenter
Historic Elk Landing is situated at the confluence of Little Elk Creek and Big Elk Creek in Cecil County, Maryland. The landing is located the head of navigation in Chesapeake Bay, as far up as an oceangoing vessel could get. The location has strategic importance as it allowed for movement of troops across the Del-Mar-VA peninsula to Christina Creek, tributary of Delaware River/ Bay. The inter bay connection was an important trade route before, and after, the American War for Independence (AWI). The surrounding countryside contains rich agricultural farmlands of Cecil County, MD; Kent County, MD New Castle County, DE; Chester County, PA and Lancaster County PA, an area known as “the breadbasket of the colonies” due to the large amounts of small grains grown in the region. This “breadbasket” provided critical flour for the Continental Army during the AWI. Elk Landing is located very near the actual Fall Line where there was abundant water- power for mills and separated the large- scale plantation economy on the Atlantic Coastal Plain from the smaller farms and small grain economy of the Piedmont region. Elk Landing was owned by the Hollingsworth family since 1705. The Hollingsworth family were engaged in various mercantile businesses in Philadelphia, Head of Elk, and Baltimore and Richmond and prior to the War, also engaged in trade with firms in the British islands in the Caribbean.
Howe’s Landing. August 1777.
In the summer of 1777, Sir William Howe, British Commander in Chief in North America, planned to launch an assault on the American capital city of Philadelphia, PA. Sir William worked closely with his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe. To coordinate the movement of an entire army from New York City to Philadelphia in an amphibious operation. The British commanders assembled a fleet of 228 vessels to transport the army. (Chernow, 2010 p. 301). (This was likely the largest fleet of British ships since Sir Francis Drake fought off the Spanish armada in 1588.) On July 23, 1777 Howe’s armada departed from Sandy Hook, leaving George Washington to guess Howe’s destination (Chernow, 2010, pp. 300-301). Washington guesses correctly that Howe’s destination was Philadelphia and began to move the American Army South, to counter the British move. On August 24, Washington marched his army through Philadelphia. The next day, August 25, 1777 Howe’s fleet began to offload troops on the shores Elk River, Cecil County MD.
The British plan had been to ascend the Delaware River to assault Philadelphia. However, they received intelligence that the Americans had fortified the area below Philadelphia and had sunk hulks in the River’s channel to block passage of vessels headed upstream. The British commanders chose to land at the head of Chesapeake Bay. While at sea, the British fleet was struck by a severe storm which scattered many vessels. When the British landed their force on August 25, 1777 the fleet at been at sea for over a month. Many horses had died, and numerous soldiers were ill. The British force included infantry, cavalry, and artillery units and a contingent of Hessian mercenaries under the Command of Baron Wilhelm Von Knyphausen. The size of the invasion force was s between 15,000-17,000 troops. (Exact number unknown).
General Howe brought a printing press aboard one of the ships and upon landing he had a proclamation printed and distributed notifying residents of the region that he was on scene to restore
order and that citizens that were staying at home, not actively opposing crown forces, would be treated with courtesy and respect. (Johnston, 1881, p. 328) General Washington and his staff rode to Gray’s Hill East of present-day Elkton and watched the landings from the top of the hill. Washington realized he could not get the American army on scene in time to oppose the British landings bur ordered local militia units from Maryland and Delaware to turn out. The British spent a day or two regaining their land legs and recovering from the arduous sea voyage.
The British column under Charles, Lord Cornwallis landed on the Elk Neck peninsula and marched towards Head of Elk (modern Elkton). The Hessian column under Von Knyphausen landed on the south shore of the Elk River at courthouse point where the Cecil County Courthouse was located. Kynphuasen’s Hessians were supplemented by British troops under General James Agnew. When the British marched towards Head of Elk American militia opposed the crossing of Little Elk Creek and were able to delay the British Advance for several hours. According to McGuire (2006) British commanders sent for German Jaegers (riflemen) who were brought to the front and their accurate fire caused the Americans to retreat.
The British then invaded the town and set up headquarters at Jacob Hollingsworth’s tavern. (Johnston, 1881, Chapter XX.) One leading citizen of the town, Robert Alexander, had been a delegate to the First Continental Congress but upon arrival of the British invasion force decided to give his allegiance to the crown. He sailed to England when the British fleet left. He wife was an American patriot and remained at Head of Elk. The newly formed State of Maryland confiscated one third of her property as compensation for her husband’s treason. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander were never reunited.
After Head of Elk
The Hessian column on the south shore of Elk River camped on the night of August 31 near the courthouse then marched east. There was a small skirmish with Delaware militiamen at St. Augustine church. Local legend reports that Von Kynphausen had 19 deserters executed and buried in a mass grave on Welch Point. The British column moved east and joined with the Hessian column near Aiken’s Tavern (modern Pencader, DE). An American force of about 700 marksmen under General William Maxwell opposed the British at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge on September 3, 1777. (Wikipedia, n.d.) When ammunition ran low, the Americans retreated. The Americans retreat north and east, using streams as natural defense point until the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777 where the Americans are defeated. Several battles follow that autumn, (Battle in the Clouds, Paoli, Germantown) until Washington moves the Continental army to Valley Forge for the winter and the British invest Philadelphia.
Elk Landing’s Importance as a Supply/Depot.
The British fleet left the Chesapeake Bay shortly after discharging their passengers and Americans took possession of Head of Elk and the area remained in American hands through the remainder of the Revolutionary War. Sometime during the skirmishing around Head of Elk, Lt. Col. Henry Hollingworth was wounded in his neck and was sent to Wilmington, DE to recover. He was then assigned as Commissary for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and is one of the people endeavoring to keep the American army fed during their brutal, wintering over at Valley Forge. Hollingsworth had trouble finding draft animals and wagons to transport flour and other foodstuffs to the army. He had to keep teamsters and ship’s crews on the payroll even when they were not delivering supplies so they would not abscond. A complaint was lodged against Colonel Hollingsworth in with Congress alleging that he was wasting government funds. Eventually, an investigation was initiated. However, the governor of Maryland backed the Colonel’s decision, and he was absolved of any wrongdoing by acting Secretary of War Timothy Pickering (T. Pickering, 1781). A local account stated that over the course of the Revolutionary War, over one million pounds of beef moved through Elk Landing on the way to feed the army. This estimate is probably based on the number of live cattle that passed though the site as it was more efficient to drive live cattle to the army than to transport salted and packed beef. Grain, flour, and salt were also moved through Elk Landing.
La Fayette and Elk Landing
In April 1781, Marquis De La Fayette passed through Head of Elk while leading a small American army in pursuit of Benedict Arnold, now a British Brigadier, who had been rampaging through Tidewater area of Virginia. Lay Fayette ‘s troops were badly in need of clothing and shoes. (Bernier, 1983 p. 115). Later, that spring, the French Marquis would return to Head of Elk before returning south again to engage enemy forces. When British General Cornwallis retreated to the Yorktown peninsula, and the French fleet blockaded the entrance to Chesapeake Bay the Americans sensed an opportunity and began the siege of Yorktown.
Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route
In the late summer of 1781, the combined Franco-American Army under the command of General George Washington and the Compte de Rochambeau marched south from New England on the way to Virginia. In early September, the army was encamped at Head of Elk, while Washington worked to procure enough vessels to transport the army down the Chesapeake Bay. Some troops embarked by water but a portion of the army marched overland via Baltimore. The baggage train and heavy siege guns followed by land. Following the American victory at Yorktown, American troops again passed through Head of Elk on their return north.
The Case of Fortune Stoddard
In December 1781, after The Yorktown campaign, a contingent of Rhode Island Regiment troops, including Fortune Stoddard, an African American, was quartered in a house in Head of Elk. Johnston (1881 p.346) states that this was the residence of one Jane Clark who might also have sold alcohol. (This may have been an ordinary or tavern). The Rhode Island troops were billeted on the first floor while upstairs a group of watermen led by their Captain, James Cunningham, was quartered. According to Rees (2009, pp. 22-23) one evening, the watermen, apparently intoxicated, came downstairs and began verbally abusing and physically assaulting the Rhode Islanders, particularly Stoddard. A brawl ensued a chair was thrown, and Rhode Island Captain Ebenezer Wales intervened in the fight. The watermen retreated but vowed to return. The next day, the watermen returned, demanded alcohol which the homeowner refused to provide. The watermen began breaking furniture, and two Rhode Island soldiers went upstairs to investigate the noise. One soldier was knocked to the floor and the Rhode Islanders retreated downstairs. The watermen pursued but the rest of the soldiers were prepared with loaded muskets. Cunningham grabbed on soldier’s musket and struck him in the head. Stoddard then fired his musket. The shot struck Cunningham in the groin causing a fatal wound.
When General Washington learned of the incident, he wrote to the Continental army officer in charge:
Philadelphia 30th December 1781
I am informed by Louis Gilpin Esq. a Justice of the Peace at Head of Elk that an inhabitant has been killed by a soldier; and the Coroner’s Inquest has returned it Murder- you will thereupon immediately deliver the murderer up to the Civil Authority; and I shall depend upon you taking all possible pains to forward any incidents of the same kind in the future.
Stoddard was tried in Cecil County, convicted oof manslaughter, and sentenced to be branded “on the brawn of the left thumb with a hot iron.” (Johnston, p.346, Rees, p. 22) Stoddard was confined to jail, being held in lieu of court costs. Cecil County government suggested that Stoddard be sold into slavery but fortunately, Rhode Island Regiment Colonel Jeremiah Olney appeal to general Washington to intercede on Stoddard’s behalf. On August 5, 1782 General Washington wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln,
“I have the honor to enclose you a Letter from Colo. Olney with some other Papers relating to a soldier of the Rhode Island Regiment who has been in confinement in the state of Maryland since last Winter. As it will be extremely unjust and cruel to that the soldier should be any longer confined or should be sold to pay the Charges of Prosecution, I request you take the matter up as soon as possible and procure his release.” G. Washington, personal correspondence, August 5, 1782)
Secretary of War Lincoln referred the matter was referred to Congress:
“War Office August 10th., 1782
By the enclosed papers which I have the honor to lay before Congress, they will be informed that on 22nd. Of December last a soldier of the Rhode Island regiment killed one James Cunningham, for which act he has been tried by the laws of the state of Maryland and acquitted of murder; but found guilty of manslaughter, and is now detained in jail for costs, which amount to about 24 pounds, which some must be discharge by the public or he will be sold to refund the expense. This I am convinced would be a real injury to the service; besides, it would cost much more than that sum to procure a man to serve in his stead during the war—
I beg leave therefore to submit to the consideration of Congress the propriety of passing the following resolve.
Whereas Fortune Stoddard a soldier in the army of the United States has been tried and punished by the civil authority of the State of Maryland for an offence against the las of that State and is now kept in custody for the fees.
Resolved, That the Executive of the State of Maryland be requested to discharge the said Fortune Stoddard from his confinement and charge the United States with the fees, and that the amount of the said fees be charged by the United Sates to Rhode Island.” (B. Lincoln personal correspondence, August 10, 1782, Rees, p. 24)
Despite Secretary of War Lincoln recommendation, Congress passed the following resolve:
“Resolved, That the executive authority of the State of Maryland be requested to discharge from confinement Fortune Stoddard, a soldier belonging to the Rhode Island Regiment, confined for costs accrued in a late prosecution, and charge such costs to the United States, transmitting to the Secretary of War the account thereof, in order that the same be charged to the said soldier and deducted out of his pay.” (Worthington, 1914, Journals of the Continental Congress Vol, Vol 23, p. 527., Rees, p. 25)
Just when Fortune Stoddard was released is not exactly clear. His name appears on several muster rolls of the Rhode Island regiment in 1782-1782. He is still listed as “confined in Maryland” on the muster roll for the months of July, August, and September 1783 near the end of the war.
Family search.org. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783;
At some point, Stoddard was released from custody. This writer located Stoddard, residing in Newport, RI in both the 1790 and 1800 United States Censuses. Rees (2019, p. 23) states that Stoddard returned to Rhode Island, raised a family and in 1805 was working as a chimney sweep. Fortune Stoddard’s story is a compelling story and deserves to be told. The above- mentioned incidents are represent just a portion of the rich history Elk Landing, Head of Elk and Cecil County during the Revolutionary War.
• B. Lincoln, (personal correspondence, August 10, 1782)
• Bernier, O. (1983) La Fayette Hero of Two Worlds.
New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, Inc.
• Chernow, R. (2010) Washington: A Life.
New York, NY: Penguin Books
• Family search.org. United States Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783;
• Johnston, G. (1881) History of Cecil County, Maryland, and the early settlements around the head of Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River.
Elkton, MD: by the author.
G. Washington (personal correspondence, December 30, 1781)
G. Washington (personal correspondence, August 5, 1782)
• George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: George Washington to
Commanding Officer, Head of Elk, Maryland. (1781) [Manuscript/Mixed Material]
• Retrieved on March 1, 2021 from the Library of Congress,
• McGuire, T.J. (2006) The Philadelphia Campaign, Volume 1.
Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books
• Rees, J. U. (2019) “They were Good Soldiers” African Americans in the Continental Army, 1775-1783.
Warwick, U.K. Helion & Company.
• T. Pickering (personal communication, August 19, 1780)
• Wikipedia (n.d.) Battle of Cooch’s Bridge.
Retrieved on March 3, 2021 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cooch's_Bridge
• Worthington, C. Ford (ed) (1914) Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 Vol 28. P. 587.
Washington D.C: Government Printing Office