The Revolutionary spirit
Gallery: Thomas Cooch House [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
By LISA FIELDMAN
The Thomas Cooch House rests on a rise along the banks of the Christina Creek. off of Old Baltimore Pike. Just a stone’s throw from Cooch’s Bridge Battlefield, the dwelling has witnessed a great deal of history for over two centuries.
The Hon. Richard R. Cooch now owns the property, and he shares ownership with his sister, Elizabeth Merritt Cooch. The house has been treasured by the family for 257 years.
Thomas Cooch immigrated to America from England in 1746, and purchased 200 acres in Pencader Hundred. The farm included a small house, a gristmill and a sawmill. Fourteen years later, he built the stately home that stands today. Over the years, Thomas added approximately 850 more acres to his land holdings.
In 1936, the home was included in the Historical American Building Survey. The survey provided 1,000 unemployed architects with ten weeks of work during the Depression. The survey also documented structures of architectural excellence, as well as “plain structures which by fate or accident are identified with historic events.” The Cooch House’s inclusion in the survey was due to its involvement with the Battle at Cooch’s Bridge, the only Revolutionary War battle fought in Delaware.
Thomas Cooch served in the French and Indian War as a Captain, was a member of the Colonial Assembly, and presided as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas. In 1775, a militia was organized in preparation for the Revolutionary War, and Thomas was elected Colonel for the lower half of New Castle County.
In July of 1777, British and Hessian troops under the command of Gen. Cornwallis and Gen. Howe approached the Head of the Elk with the intent of marching on Philadelphia. Having sailed from New York, they planned to travel up the Delaware River to New Castle. But the plan was foiled by rumors that the area was heavily protected. Additionally, there were no river pilots to be found to guide them around the shifting sand bars in the Delaware River. As a precaution, any river pilot suspected to be a British sympathizer had been jailed or was kept under close scrutiny.
As the British were heading up the Chesapeake, Thomas Cooch packed his family off to safety at a family-owned farm in Lancaster County. Cooch was in his 80s at this time and too old to fight, but his son, Thomas, enlisted with the New Castle County unit.
The Delaware Militia was called out to meet the advancing British troops. The Militia was under the command of Brigadier General Caesar Rodney, and included soldiers from New Castle and Kent counties, as well as men from the Cecil Militia. The British marched on Aikens Tavern (what is now Glasgow), and headed towards Cooch’s Bridge. Gen. William Maxwell, heading a special corps of light infantrymen, was headquartered in the Cooch house, and his men were concealed in the woods and countryside leading up to the bridge. The Militia planned a series of ambush and retreat tactics to impede the British troops’ progress. Gen. Washington’s intent was for the Militia to harass the British, buying him time to move his troops into position to defend Philadelphia.
Early on Sept. 3, the British advanced on Cooch’s Bridge, only to be pushed back time and again by bullets from the surrounding woods and gullies. These setbacks continued until the British reached the bridge and met with rest of Maxwell’s troops. With the arrival of Hessian reinforcements, Gen. Maxwell ordered his troops to withdrawal to a position at Welsh Tract Church.
The final battle at the church found the colonists outnumbered and no match for the British artillery. The Delaware militiamen were forced to retreat. It is remarkable that 800 colonists fought against 2,000 British and Hessian soldiers during this engagement, yet the Militia did not lose any men as prisoners. Though there is no official documentation, it is believed that the British may have suffered more casualties.
After the battle, Gen. Cornwallis moved his headquarters into the Cooch House for a few days before advancing on Philadelphia. The house withstood the invasion with minor damage. However, the gristmill was burned down. Before vacating his home, Thomas Cooch possibly removed the millstone so the British could not use it to provide flour for the troops.
Judge Cooch shared an interesting historical anecdote. When the family returned home, there were hoofmarks scarring the first floor of the house. “The horses had value, so they were kept safe in the house during the night,” he said. Today the hoof marks are gone, lost with the flooring in a later fire.
After the war, the Cooch House was once again the center of the family’s life. It remained unchanged until a rear wing and the third story were added in 1865. Several original outbuildings still stand on the property. Behind the home is a blockhouse built in the late 1600s. Judge Cooch believes the structure was originally used for protection from Indian attacks. Men in the blockhouse could fire on their attackers through rifle slots under the eaves. There is also a thick-walled ice house, which would have held ice blocks most likely cut from the frozen Christina River.
The surrounding countryside may have changed, but time seems to stand still on the Cooch farm. Judge Cooch referred to the property as “a little bastion of green” in an area that is seeing more and more development.
“My father grew up here,” he said, reminiscing about Edward (Ned) Cooch. “In the 1920s, there was just a dirt road out front. When my father heard a car coming, he would run down and watch it pass by.”
In 1901, the Cooch family conveyed a strip of land adjacent to their driveway to the State of Delaware for a monument. A large granite marker sits inside a ring of four cannons that bear casting dates of 1863. The plaque explains that the location was the site of the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge. It also mentions that the battle “claims to have been the first in which the Stars and Stripes was carried.” Historians have long debated this claim.
Wade Catts is a local archaeologist and historian who studies the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge. He firmly believes the newly minted flag was not carried during the battle. He said he would be happy if it was true, but has yet to find any evidence to support the theory.
“There is no consensus and no support for Cooch’s Bridge being the place that the flag was first flown,” he said. “While it’s a nice story, there is no ground in historical fact that the flag was there. The flag story does a disservice to the battle; it’s just a sound bite. The battle was significant of its own accord.”
Catts is writing a book about the battle. There are have been no other publications written about the conflict since Edward Cooch’s 1940 volume, “The Battle of Cooch’s Bridge.” Catts’ research includes resources that were not available in 1940, including translated German accounts of the engagement.
“A lot of information came about after the Bicentennial,” he said. “Cooch’s Bridge is a remarkable battle because it sets the tone for how the Philadelphia Campaign was fought. It shows that the Americans were not going to roll over for the British as they worked their way towards Philadelphia.”
The new Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in April, has a Liberty Tree, which is a custom dating back to Colonial times. Colonists planted the trees as symbols of hope and confidence in their country. The trees were used as places to gather and to post broadsheets so the hot topics of the day could be discussed. The museum requested soil from various battlefields, historic homes and graves of Revolutionary heroes. “We gathered up a cup of soil from near the bridge and sent it up,” Cooch said. “It was mixed with soil from other battle sites and spread around the Liberty Tree.”
The Thomas Cooch House is a historical and cultural gem. In 2003, the land was put under conservation easement. Over the years, the Cooches have opened their property to many local and international historical societies. The Ambassador of France visited during a Revolutionary War event in 2006, and the descendants of Rochambeau have also been welcomed. Count Rochambeau fought alongside Washington to defeat the British at Yorktown, and Cooch’s Bridge is one of the last few preserved places he camped. In 1977, Judge Richard Cooch co-chaired a reenactment event that was attended by a huge crowd marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle at Cooch’s Bridge.
Judge Cooch continues the family custom of being active in community. Many of his ancestors served their country through military duty and political service. There is a strong tradition of stewardship that runs through the generations.
To some, the care of a historic site might be seen like a burden, but the Cooch family feels it is their duty to preserve an integral part of history, and they do so with grace and sometimes humor. At one time, a print of Gen. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown hung over the mantel in the home’s living room.
“My father hung it there for revenge,” Judge Cooch with a smile.
Visit the Cooch’s Bridge Battlefield memorial on Dayett Mills Road in Newark, or stop by the Pencader Hundred Museum at 2029 Sunset Lake Rd., Newark, Del., to learn more about Delaware’s role in the Revolutionary War. The Thomas Cooch House is privately owned and not open to the public.