4. A Hero’s Home

Historic Rock Ford was the residence of Edward Hand (1744-1802), who may have been the most unsung Patriot military hero of the American Revolution. That conviction led me to dedicate my second book, The Road to Assunpink Creek, to Hand and the soldiers he led into battle on January 2, 1777—which was not, well, an offhand decision.

Hand’s Heroics

On that pivotal day in our struggle for independence from Great Britain, the Irish-born colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment led a remarkable defensive action along the road from Princeton to Trenton, New Jersey, against a British-Hessian force that outnumbered his contingent by more than six-to-one. In so doing, he may very well have forestalled the destruction of George Washington’s army and paved the way for one of the most remarkable military maneuvers in history. The rebel forces successfully parried the enemy thrust, then counterattacked the redcoats at Princeton in the climactic victory of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that reversed the course of the Revolutionary War.

You have to (ahem) hand it to those Pennsylvania riflemen, but especially their colonel who demonstrated inspiring leadership at a critical moment for young America’s fortunes. He went on to become a brigadier general, a breveted major general, and a steadfast associate of General Washington—perhaps best known for being the last adjutant general (chief administrative officer) of the Continental army. Shortly after the conflict ended, the commander-in-chief wrote his comrade-in-arms to express “my entire approbation for your public conduct.”

Hand’s House

With the war over, Hand returned home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he would build Rock Ford, a Georgian-style brick mansion on several hundred acres of land he had purchased. Here he lived from 1794 until his death, along with his family and their servants and laborers—both enslaved and free. Hand practiced medicine, served first as a member of the Congress of Confederation and then the Pennsylvania Assembly, and later as a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Tradition has it that he played host to Washington during the president’s 1791 visit to Lancaster.

Today, Historic Rock Ford consists of 33 acres at the southeastern edge of Lancaster City enveloped by Lancaster County Central Park. The street address is: 881 Rockford Road, Lancaster, PA 17602.

A registered National Historic Landmark, the mansion is recorded in the Historic American Building Survey. It’s widely considered one of the most important examples of Georgian domestic architecture in Pennsylvania and the most intact building in Lancaster County built before 1800. The mansion’s elegant rooms feature an exceptional display of period furnishings and decorative arts.

You could say the folks at Rock Ford deserve a hand (oh, please) for their efforts to preserve the general’s legacy and home, and to educate the public about the realities of eighteenth-century life in America. Find out more about what they have to offer on their website.

Hand in Hindsight

I’ve taken the Rock Ford tour, and for any history lover it would be an absorbing experience. But for an aficionado of eighteenth-century Americana, I can’t think of a better place to visit. Most Americans don’t know who lived here, but I wish they did. This site ought to be regarded as one of the leading shrines to a new nation’s spirit and enterprise—hands down.

3. Hail Hale-Byrnes

What is it?

Situated on the banks of White Clay Creek near Stanton, Delaware, the historic Hale-Byrnes House dates from circa 1750. Built by millwright Warwick Hale, who left it to his son Samuel, the house was purchased first by David Finney of New Castle who added the south wing, and then by Quaker Daniel Byrnes (1730-1797) in 1773. Byrnes, who became prosperous operating a grist mill on the creek, added the house’s service wing. The southern section has four fireplaces and is a fine example of Georgian brick architecture. This was the first building in Delaware to receive the State “Heritage Plaque” and is a registered National Historic Landmark.

Where is it?

The house is located on old Route 7 just south of Stanton, near the intersection of Route 4 East and Route 7 North. The street address is: 606 Stanton-Christiana Road, Newark, DE 19713.

What happened here?

On September 6, 1777, three days after the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, General George Washington held a council of war in the Hale-Byrnes House with other officers of the Continental army, including the Marquis de Lafayette who turned twenty that day. From there the American troops marched north to Chadds Ford in Pennsylvania, where they unsuccessfully engaged a British-Hessian army under General William Howe at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11.

Kim Burdick oversees this treasured link to our colonial past. She is a retired history instructor, founder and chairman of the American Revolution Round Table of Northern Delaware, and former chairman of the Delaware Humanities Council. The author of Revolutionary Delaware: Independence in the First State (The History Press, 2016), Kim has written frequently for the Journal of the American Revolution, including her 2015 article, “A Quaker Struggles with the War,” about pacifist Daniel Byrnes. She recounts the depredations Byrnes suffered at the hands of his Patriot neighbors because he stubbornly adhered to his religious convictions in refusing to support the war effort, as well as his letter to President Washington in 1793 seeking compensation for eight wheels of cheese as “the Army had my property to Live upon and I think the States aught in Justice to pay me a Reasonable price for it.”

What’s happening here?

During April through December, Hale-Byrnes House is open to visitors on the first Wednesday of each month from 12 to 3 p.m. (yes, that includes NOW) and at other times by appointment. In addition, it can be rented for meetings and weddings. Please note: the house is closed from January through March. You can email to halebyrneshouse@aol.com, which is the much-preferred method of contact, or leave a voice message at 302-998-3792. And you’ll find more information on the website, including the public programs—currently on Zoom—listed on its calendar of events.

History lives here. Check it out.

2. Eutaw Springs

Who Fought

Next Tuesday marks the 239th anniversary of one of the more obscure military encounters in young America’s quest for independence, and one of its bloodiest—at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, on September 8, 1781. Although this was the last major battle in the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, it has been eclipsed in historical memory by the climactic military event of the conflict one month later. The surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s beleaguered garrison at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19 to a Franco-American army commanded by George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau overshadowed the struggle in South Carolina.

Eutaw Springs Battleground Park is near today’s Eutawville, some fifty miles northwest of Charleston—then occupied by the British. Here some 2,400 Americans led by General Nathanael Greene, half of them Continental soldiers and the rest militia, collided with 2,000 British regulars and Loyalists under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart. The combatants were bathed in blistering heat during a four-hour engagement, one of the longest of the war, and over 1,200 were killed, wounded, captured, or missing—including more than a third of Stewart’s army and at least twenty percent of Greene’s.

Who Won

Both sides claimed victory. For the British, the outcome was arguably a tactical win because they held the field but a strategic setback. It sliced deeply into their limited troop presence in the Carolinas and failed to neutralize Greene’s army or rally public support for the royal cause. The same could be said of Greene’s clashes with the King’s forces at Guilford Courthouse and Hobkirk’s Hill earlier that year.

Colonel Otho Holland Williams of Maryland, who commanded a brigade in the battle, characterized it as a “steady and desperate conflict.” He argued that the “evidence [of victory] is altogether on the American side” as it regrouped after evacuating the field and set off in pursuit of the enemy army. The latter “relinquished the country it commanded” and withdrew to Charleston.

What It Meant

The civil war then raging between Loyalists and Whigs in the South continued into the following year, but the rebels controlled the countryside after the slugfest at Eutaw Springs. The British troops occupying Charleston and Savannah no longer ventured inland and would evacuate both seaports by the end of 1782.

Even before this battle, Nathanael Greene had described his troops’ combat experience during their remarkable Southern campaign in one famously memorable sentence. Reflecting on his success in wearing down their adversary by making British victories so costly while preserving the integrity of his army, the wily general wrote: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

In his second volume of Poems Written and Published During the American Revolutionary War, Philip Freneau memorialized the Americans who fell on that September day. His elegy, “At Eutaw Springs the Valiant Died,” ends with this verse: “Now Rest In Peace, our patriot band; Though far from nature’s limits thrown, We trust they find a happier land, A brighter sunshine of their own.”

1. Smallpox in the Revolution

In 1777, George Washington ordered that every soldier in the Continental army who had not already had smallpox be inoculated against the disease—by introducing a small amount of the pus from a recuperating victim through a cut in the skin. This scourge was rampant in the colonies as well as Europe, and had decimated the American force that invaded Canada in 1775. (The army’s commander-in-chief endured a mild version as a young man, which may have accounted for his sterility.) Some historians say this effort—America’s first major public health initiative—was Washington’s most unheralded contribution to winning the War of Independence. According to Michael Stephenson in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (HarperCoilins Publishers, 2007), “It would save his army.” In fact, one might say it gave the rebellion (ahem) a shot in the arm.

So our quest for independence led to a revolutionary development in public health, no less than in the political status of the thirteen colonies. Today, as we confront the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, it’s worth remembering how important the army’s conquest of a deadly disease was to America’s struggle for the right to rule itself—and that Washington’s judicious leadership on this issue was essential to achieving that outcome.