Robert Kirkwood was born in Newark DE in 1756. He had eight sisters and no brothers. He
attended the Newark Academy (fore-runner to the University of Delaware) and worked the family
farm on Polly Drummond Hill. He was named a lieutenant of the 1st Delaware Regiment in the
Continental Army on December 9, 1775. In 1776, the Delaware Battalion, under the command of
Captain Robert Kirkwood, was assigned to Mifflin's Brigade under Gen. Thomas Mifflin of
Pennsylvania. He participated in every battle in which George Washington fought in 1777. In the
August 16, 1780 Battle of Camden, Kirkwood's troops won fame and were called "The Blue Hen's
Chickens" after that. This battle reduced his regiment from eight companies to two by reason of
death and capture. At the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Captain Kirkwood repulsed the
British cavalry, and made a famous bayonet charge ordered by Colonel John Eager Howard. He
was with General Washington in his pursuit and defeat of Cornwallis.
As a captain in the regular army, he joined a 1791 military expedition led by Arthur St. Clair, the
governor of the Northwest Territory. In November 1791, Kirkwood was killed by Native
Americans from the Miami tribe in a major defeat near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, after
having survived 32 Revolutionary battles without a disabling wound.
He was a graduate of Newark Academy (later renamed the University of Delaware), which chose
the Blue Hen as its mascot to honor Captain Kirkwood. Kirkwood also held a certificate of
membership in the Society of the Cincinnati.
Kirkwood is the great grandfather of Robert Kirkwood Martin, constructor of the Gunpowder
Water works which supply the city of Baltimore, and grandfather of General R. H. K. Whitely of
The First Two Years of War: 1776-1778
On January 17, 1776, six months before the Declaration of Independence, Robert Kirkwood (at age
twenty) was commissioned a First Lieutenant in Col. John Haslet's Regiment of Continental
troops. Kirkwood fought in 32 battles of the Revolutionary War, recording his observations in a
Journal and in an Order Book that have survived to this day and have been published.
In August of 1776 the Delaware Regiment fought in the battle of Long Island -- the first battle for
our new nation's survival. Since the terms of enlistment were for only a few months at this early
stage of the war, few men remained in the regiment at the end of the year. Kirkwood was
promoted to Captain in December of 1776 and went home to recruit in Delaware, so he was not
present at the battles of Trenton (Dec '76) and Princeton (Jan '76). Col. Haslet was killed during
the battle at Princeton.
In April of 1777 the Delaware Regiment was reformed and two of the senior Captains were
promoted -- David Hall to Colonel, and Joseph Vaughan to Major.
Kirkwood was with the Regiment for the battles of Brandywine (Sept '77) and Germantown (Oct
'77). During the latter Col. Hall was so badly wounded that he never again fought. Major Joseph
Vaughan was now promoted to lead the regiment as a Lt. Col.
In June of 1778 the British abandoned Philadelphia (nine months after taking the city).
The Last Five Years of War: 1779-1783
In Feb 1779 (after a furlough) Kirkwood and the Delaware Regiment travelled to South Carolina,
where Kirkwood survived and escaped capture in the disastrous first battle of Camden SC on Aug
16, 1780. During this engagement some 20% of the 250 men in the Delaware Regiment were killed
and 30% (including Lt. Col. Vaughan) were captured. The remnants of the Delaware Regiment
were then brigaded with the Maryland Regiment for the remainder of the war, and Captain
Kirkwood was the Delaware contingent's senior officer.
The Americans retreated across the Carolinas; American General Nathaniel Green reported
"For more than two months more than one-third of our men were nearly naked,
with only a breechcloth about them... and the rest were as ragged as wolves."
But the Americans won the race with the British forces to cross the Dan River in VA, so the
Americans could gather strength and inflict serious damage on the British at Guilford Courthouse
NC, Hobkirk Hill SC, the siege of Ninety-Six SC, and Eutaw Springs SC.
There are numerous reports by general staff officers of the Delaware Regiment's bravery under fire.
Kirkwood's own accounts of the battles were brief. For Cowpens SC, one of the major victories of
the war, he wrote in his journal simply,
Jan 16 - March'd to the Cowpens - 12 miles.
Jan 17 - Defeated Tarleton.
The Eight Years after the War: 1784-1791
At the close of the war (Sept 30, 1783) Kirkwood was brevetted Major and returned to Newark DE.
In recognition of his service during the Revolution Delaware gave Robert Kirkwood 100 pounds
(Delaware was then using British units for currency). He married Sarah England. They had a son
Joseph R. in 1784 and a daughter Mary. They moved to Odessa and then to St. Georges Station
(now called Kirkwood) where Sarah died in 1787.
Also in 1787 Kirkwood paid $2,204 to buy 260 acres of land in Jefferson County of the North West
Territory (now Ohio). He moved there and was a justice of the peace in that area in 1790.
Kirkwood was one of the founders of what is now the town of Bridgeport OH, 6 miles NW of
what is now Wheeling WV. In 1788 Virginia gave Kirkwood 1,920 acres of land in Belmont
County in the North West Territory (20 miles south of his land in Jefferson Co.)
The Northwest Territory had been ceded by the British to the Americans as part of the settlement
of the Revolutionary War, but the British encouraged the Indians who inhabited the area to fight
the new settlers. The Indians were a confederation of the Shawnee, Delaware, Ottowa, Iriquois,
Chippewa, Miami, and Pottawotami tribes. Several major battles ensued.
In March of 1791 an expedition under the command of the Governor of the Northwest Territory,
Arthur St. Clair, set out to build a line of forts. Robert Kirkwood was commissioned a captain in
the Second Regiment of U.S. Infantry (one company of which was raised in Delaware).
On Nov 4, 1791, at Fort Recovery [60 miles NW of Dayton OH, on the Indiana border] 1,000
Indians attacked the 1,000 soldiers (plus about 200 support people) and killed some 700 of them
(including Robert Kirkwood). This was Kirkwood's 33rd battle.
One of his companions described the scene as follows:
There, resting beneath a tree, lay old Kirkwood scalped, his head smoking like a chimney.
Note that "old" Kirkwood was only 35 years of age.
A monument was erected near Fort Recovery in Ohio to honor Kirkwood and others who died
there. In 1938, a highway was named in honor of Major Kirkwood. The Robert Kirkwood
Highway comprises a part of Delaware State Highway 2 in New Castle County. A small village at
a crossroads on DE Rte. 71 also bears his name. The Major Robert Kirkwood Reserve Center is the
headquarters of Detachment 2, 11th Battalion, 98th Regiment (formerly 9th Battalion / 80th
Regiment Health Services) of the United States Army.
The Major Robert Kirkwood Chapter of the Delaware Society of the Sons of the American
Revolution has a Color Guard whose members wear the frontiersman uniform used when the
Delaware Continentals fought in remote regions of the Carolinas, far from good cloth and family
A North Carolina unit of the Brigade of the American Revolution (BAR) portrays Kirkwood's
Company—the remnant of the Delaware Regiment which fought with the Maryland Brigade after
the Delaware Regiment was devastated in the first Battle of Camden.
"The First Combat Infantryman", by Col. Stedman Chandler, pp 29-34 in the June, 1961, issue of
Army (published by the Association of the U. S. Army).
Revolutionary Patriots of Delaware (1775-1783) by Henry C. Peden, Jr. (Family Line Publications,
Westminster Hall MD, 1996).
Transcript of a speech by Roger Martin at an DESSAR dinner 1997Nov11 (with further references).
|Delaware Military History