Thursday, July 20, 2017

"They Fight all Day and Dance all Night!": The Delaware Regiment

The 1st Delaware Regiment certainly earned their monument, in front of the Delaware Legislative Hall

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to look at an exceptional group of men from the state of Delaware. To say that one group of soldiers were the best in a particular army is subjective: but we can certainly say that the 1st Delaware Regiment meets our criteria for being one of the best units in the Continental Army. The regiment fought at most of the major battles of the American War of Independence when the time it was raised under Col. John Haslet on December 9th, 1775, to its final engagement at Combahee River in 1782. It served, famously, at Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, Fort Mifflin, Monmouth, Stony Point, Camden, Cowpens, Guilford Court House, Hobkirk’s Hill, the siege of Ninety-Six, Eutaw Springs, and the siege of Yorktown. It was the only major formation of troops from Delaware in the Continental Army, and never numbered more than 550 men on the battlefield. Despite this, it won a reputation that set it apart from the rest of the army.

These troops were often brigaded with soldiers from the state of Maryland, who, like them, forged a reputation as some of the best soldiers in North America. It is quite possible that these Maryland soldiers will receive their own post in a number of months.

Resident's of the State of Delaware often remember these men for inspiring the University of Delaware's mascot: the Blue Hens. According to legend, the men of Captain John Caldwell's company were famous for holding gamecock fights, with a specific breed of chicken called the Kent County Blue Hen. Again, according to the mythology that has surrounded the unit, Capt. Caldwell brought these Blue Hens with him on campaign, which combined with the blue coats of the soldiers, led to a regimental nickname.[1]
A Delaware soldier in 1780, as reimagined by Don Troiani

Returning to the realm of history, rather than legend, the fighting prowess of these soldiers is beyond dispute. Other soldiers and officers frequently praised the unit. Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, praised the unit in his memoirs, saying, "The state of Delaware furnished one regiment only; and certainly no regiment in the army surpassed it in soldiership."[2] These words are echoed in the writings of other officers, who insisted that most continentals believed that these men were a cut above the ordinary soldier.[3]

The service record of the regiment is impressive. The regimental commander, John Haslet, gave a vivid description of the important role the Delaware troops played in the Battle of Long Island.  However, Haslet was tragically killed in action during the Battle of Princeton, leaving the regiment under the command of David Hall. The regiment continued to win fame, and see its numbers' dwindle. In 1780, the Delaware regiment fought together for the last time, under the inspired leadership of Baron De Kalb. At Camden, Robert Kirkwood, desperately trying to keep his men engaged in the fight, waved his sword and shouted, "By the living God, the first man who falters shall receive this weapon in his craven heart!"[4] Kirkwood's word's succeeded in preventing his men from running away, but roughly 50% of the 275 remaining soldiers became casualties. After this disaster, Continental Army leadership decided to split the regiment into independent companies. Captain Peter Jaquett took one company, Captain Robert Kirkwood took the other. Both companies consisted of 96 men.[5]
A older reimganing of Haslet's men in 1776

These men proved their worth once again at the battles of Cowpens and Guilford Court House in 1781.  Both Kirkwood and Jaquett's companies operated with Henry Lee's cavalry forces, so his quote above implies more than a passing familiarity with their work. On the other hand, the Delaware companies were also often used to stiffen the main battle line, such as at Cowpens and Guilford. At Cowpens, Kirkwood's company lost 25% of its men in the firefight and hand-to-hand struggle against the 7th Fuziliers.[6] Kirkwood himself was a veteran of 32 battles by the time the war ended.[7] Without dispute, we can assert that the Delaware troops were some of the most experienced veterans in the Continental Army.

Although often acknowledging it's good service in his writings, George Washington did not go out of his way to heap praise upon the unit. In 1781, General Nathanael Greene called it a "fine" regiment of soldiers and singled it out for praise. A later anecdote states that Greene commented to Robert Kirkwood, the commander of two remaining Delaware companies: "Ha! Your soldiers are singular fellows, they fight all day and dance all night!"[8]

A reimagining of the Delaware troops at different points in the war.

Haslet and Kirkwood have both entered the pantheon of American heroes. Indeed, even within Kirkwood's own lifetime, rumors about his legendary fighting prowess began to circulate, in no small part thanks to Captain Jaquett.[9] One early nineteenth-century historian referred to Kirkwood as the "American Diomed[es]," a reference to a famous Greek hero from the Trojan War.[10] However, the most telling anecdote comes once again from Henry Lee. Lee indicates that Kirkwood, "passed through the war with a high reputation."[11] Kirkwood later fell during Arthur St. Clair's disastrous campaign against Native Americans in the 1790s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the reputation of the regiment among historians has never been in doubt. Christopher Ward, the author of the most recent regimental history, argues that the regiment, "has received from the historians[,] due praise."[12] He provides a litany of previous historians' praise for the regiment.

So, by all five categories outlined in the series introduction, the Delaware Regiment appears to have been one of the best regiments in the Continental Army, and perhaps one of the best regiments in the whole of the eighteenth century.

Please feel free to share this post if you know individuals who might be interested.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] P. Benson de Lany, "Biographical Sketch of Robt. Kirkwood," Graham's Magazine, vol 28, pg 104.
[2] Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Vol 1, pg 182-183.
[3] Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 4, pg. 517.; William Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, Vol 1, pg 352.
[4] de Lany, "Biographical Sketch," pg 104.
[5] Pension Application of Peter Jaquett, Delaware Archives, RG2545
[6] Babits, Devil of a Whipping, 105.
[7] Babits and Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, 62.
[8] de Lany, "Biographical Sketch," pg 104.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, Vol 1, pg 443.
[11] Lee, Memoirs of the War, Vol 1, pg 183.
[12] Christopher Ward, The Delaware Continentals, 89.


  1. Thank you for the great article. I am Delaware Regt reenactor from Southern California starting in 1994 with a few years off until returning in 2016.

    Sons of the Blue Hen and Game to the End!

    Jon Burk
    (Using my daughter's account to post.)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jon! I am glad you enjoyed the post!

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