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.