Head of Elk, Maryland
After the Deluge
On the soggy Tuesday morning of August 26th, General Cornwallis was assigned the task of scouting ahead.
He and two officers assigned to him, Brigadier General William Erskine and Lieutenant-General Charles Grey reconnoitered a few miles north toward the town today called Elkton.
Of immediate concern to Cornwallis was the condition of the roads, which were "very rugged and broken ground."
And, of greater concern was the absence of the expected outpouring of Loyalist support.
Young Militiamen Taunt the British
A spirit of optimism and defiance prevailed among the Delaware militia on the 27th. At least, it was probably a detail from the Delaware militia on a break from commissary duty. They decided to tease the British Royal Navy.
When a boat of British midshipmen crossed the Elk River to search for milk, "the rebels" captured the boat and its crew.
The boat — which had all of four oars — was immediately entered for the Patriot Cause.
Its captors rowed it out to a British galley, which they fired on. The galley fired back. The Americans rowed away unscathed.
But Where Were the Loyalists?
Howe had been swayed by such prominent Tories as Philadelphian Joseph Galloway that were he to come to Maryland, that Loyalists would eagerly support him. They would seize control of local politics, rally local support, and assist him in finding supplies, and some would take up arms in support of England.
Those promised Loyalists were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the countryside was hauntingly unpeopled. The officers found deserted fields and farms where cattle and horses had obviously pastured recently.
So Howe contrived a new tact to gain local support. Using a printing press carried aboard one of the ships, he ran off a proclamation which offered protection and amnesty to colonists willing to return to the mother country's bosom.
The broadside proclamation would, by and large, be disregarded by the three groups it was aimed at — soldiers, residents and patriots.
Desertions from the Continental Army continued at their normal rate.
Many residents of the area were more concerned about safeguarding their own interests than concerning themselves with politics.
These were farming families who had already spent several generations in the area and just wanted to be left alone. Also turning a deaf ear to Howe's exhortation were the local patriots and militiamen who remained true to the cause of independence.
Apparently, the militia were better equipped than the regular army to withstand the weather. Washington was able to write Congress on the 27th that "A part of the Delaware militia are stationed [at Head of Elk about six miles north of the British camp]; and about nine hundred more from Pennsylvania are now on the march that way."
The Delaware militia were formed by counties. They mustered under orders from the State of Delaware and its President. If the Congress's Continental Army and its Commander-in-Chief were in the neighborhood, they were supposed to cooperate. Fortunately, in August, 1777, that's what they were doing.
Even before Washington's arrival in Wilmington, President McKinly of Delaware had ordered the Kent and New Castle militia to march "to such places as may be most necessary to annoy the Enemy and prevent them from plundering the inhabitants." The Sussex militia, meanwhile, were instructed to stay in Sussex "for the defence thereof against internal foes & depredations of the enemy." Translation: Loyalists were numerous in Sussex County. The Sussex militia were to prevent Sussex Loyalists from giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Washington added his own urgent instructions to McKinley's and he reported to Congress that "There are a quantity of public and private stores at the Head of Elk, which I am afraid will fall into the Enemy's hands, if they advance quickly; among others, there is a considerable parcel of salt."