Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I had the opportunity to speak with David Price, following the release of his new book “John Haslet’s World” about the colonel who commanded the regiment known as the Delaware Blues early in the early part war. This is Price’s third book covering the ten crucial days of the war starting with Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.
David Price is also a historical interpreter at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania. He conducts guided tours at the park, as well as at Princeton Battlefield State Park in New Jersey.
I spoke with Mr. Price over a remote call to discuss the life of Colonel Haslet.
Michael Troy (MJT): David Price, thank you for joining me on the American Revolution Podcast.
David Price (DP): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
MJT: You’re here today because you’ve written a new book about Colonel John Haslet. What prompted you to write about John Haslet? How important is he to the story of the American Revolution?
DP: Well, the genesis of this book, Mike, was my first literary effort: Rescuing the Revolution: Unsung Patriot Heroes and the Ten Crucial Days of America's War for Independence. John Haslet was one of several individuals who I profiled in that book, in a series of biographical vignettes, which focus primarily on the contributions that each of these people made to the Patriot cause during what was perhaps the ten most inspirational days in American history, and perhaps the most pivotal moment in the war for independence.Washington's Crossing, which is the Bible for people like me, who are historical interpreters, or, in some cases, perhaps, hysterical interpreters, at Washington Crossing Historic Park. That's a joke, by the way. You have to read that book, and you have to have a decent command, shall we say, of the material, in order to be able to give a tour there, under the auspices of the friends group.
So the more I read about him, the more I was impressed by what he did, and, and the kind of character he displayed in the course of his revolutionary service. So around the time that I was wrapping up that book, and I guess, the germ, if you will, or a seed, I want to use the right metaphor here, had been planted, to perhaps do something a little more elaborate on Haslet.
I came across the book by Fred Walters, John Haslet: A Useful One, which, as far as I know, at least that point was the only book that had been written about him. It's a self-published work that came out, I believe, in 2005. very engaging read, I enjoyed it immensely. But it's written in the form largely, not entirely, but largely in the form of a historical novel. There's a good deal of, well frankly, fictional material and their imaginary dialogue and scenes, a lot of useful information to and proved to be very helpful to me.
My initial reaction after reading it was, well, Fred has this subject covered pretty well. And I don't need to pursue Colonel Haslet any further. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that Haslet deserved an effort by someone to craft a more conventional account of his life, a nonfiction work about the colonel and his Delaware regiment.
Now I should add parenthetically that since his first book, Fred Walters did publish, what I gather is a more conventional work, a nonfiction account, a biography of the colonel, which I believe is entitled John Haslet’s American Journey. But it was published exclusively in a Kindle edition.
I decided to go ahead and pursue this idea of trying to write a book about Haslet, just to see, you know, when I was starting out, I was just with the mindset of well, let's see how this goes and, and what it looks like. And it was a challenge to produce something that is a book length, because as I pointed out, in the preface to the book, there's not a lot known about his pre-Revolutionary War life. We don't even know exactly when he was born. This is someone about whom, and I mentioned this too, in the preface, or in the introduction, we don't even know exactly what he looks like. There are physical descriptions of him, but there is no authentic visual representation of him by an 18th Century artist, not by anyone who was alive when he was. There are only two images that I'm aware of which we discussed in the book, one of which is the cover image from the Stanley Arthurs painting, a reversal of the image of Haslet in the Stanley Arthur's painting that hangs in the Delaware public archives building. But in any case, I just like to push ahead with the project.
The other thing, I think, that was pushing me to do this was, at some point, when I was writing the second book, it occurred to me that it would be a neat idea if I could do a trilogy on the ten crucial days. I'm not aware that any other author has done that.
So what distinguishes Haslet from anyone else in terms of his contribution to the patriot cause? Well, he created one of the elite regiments in the Continental Army in 1776. It started out as I believe, the largest regiment in the army in the early months of that year. They started recruiting in January, and by May, they were up to almost 800 men. They were fully uniformed. And I think They were perhaps the only regiment in the army that could make that claim fully uniformed, fully armed under Haslet's tutelage and that is adjutant Thomas Holland, formerly of his Britannic Majesty's army, they molded these this force into an efficient, elite fighting unit.
MJT: Before we get into the details of the Delaware Blues, I want to ask one thing. You said we don’t know much about Haslet’s pre-war life. We know that he came from Northern Ireland, right? And that he settled in Kent County, Delaware. Do we have any information about why he left Ireland, and why he settled in Delaware?
Well, he may have had personal and or political reasons for leaving Ulster when he did. His wife died, his first wife died about five years before he came to the colonies, which he did in 1757 or thereabouts. My understanding is there may have been some personal issues between him and members of the congregation. Her death may have had an emotional toll on him such that the belief’s that she died, probably died in childbirth. So he was left with a young daughter, that this may have taken a toll on him. And as such, it impacted his ability to perform his ministerial duties. And that may have led to some tension, shall we say, between the young minister and the members of his parish.
More generally, when he came to the colonies, it was in the context of this larger emigration movement, if you will, of the Scots-Irish, from Northern Ireland, to the new world during the early and mid 18th century, which was because of the harsh economic, the adverse economic conditions under which many of them lived and the restrictions, the rather onerous restrictions that have been imposed on them by British policy towards Ireland, towards the Presbyterian Church that was regarded as an unwelcome adversary, if you will, to the established Anglican Church. So I think there's a plausible argument to be made that was part of Haslet's motivation, perhaps maybe the dominant part of his motivation.
So when he came over here, I believe he was living initially with some cousins who had immigrated previous to him, in southern Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border, and started out as a preacher there. He would have been much in demand because the number of Presbyterian congregations in the area outran the number of available ministers. The supply of a latter was limited because the church insisted that their preachers be University educated. And so they weren't exactly a dime a dozen.
Haslet, who met that qualification because he had graduated with a degree in divinity from the University of Glasgow, which was then, I think it's fair to say, one of the most prestigious universities in the English-speaking world. He seems to have been perhaps disenchanted. I, you know, I'm reading something into this now, with his ministerial duties.
He abandoned those at least temporarily, to volunteer to serve as a captain with a Pennsylvania provincial regiment during the French and Indian War, the second Pennsylvania Regiment, and served with the expedition that was led by General John Forbes against Fort Duquesne, near or around the site of present day Pittsburgh in 1758.
After the war, after he’d been discharged, he returned briefly to Southern Pennsylvania. But he was living near the boundary line with what were then known as the three lower counties in Pennsylvania, which later in 1776 officially became known as Delaware. That was the unofficial name, I guess, at the time. So he had an opportunity to explore that area, the three lower counties, and over time, was drawn to Kent County, the middle of the three counties, between New Castle in the north and Sussex, in the south, and gravitated towards the Dover area, whether it was the land or the natural resources that were attractive to him, among others, or something in particular about the community, I'm not sure.
But in the early 1760s, he appears to have settled in there, and he would find a second wife, would remarry, and settle in, and establish what grew to be a large plantation, which he called Longfield. And he became by dint of his ambition, energy and entrepreneurial instincts, became a successful landowner. And he gravitated away from the ministry towards, initially becoming a physician. I use the term loosely like 21st century standards, but this was a man who continually, throughout his life, appears to have been reinventing himself. He was a minister turned militia captain, during the French and Indian War, turned physician, turned planter, then turned politician. He was elected to the Delaware colonial assembly five times, turned revolutionary activist and then ultimately turned regimental army colonel. He was a man of many talents, renaissance man, soldier, scholar, so seems to have been pretty successful at whatever he tackled.
MJT: You mentioned Haslet served in the Forbes Campaign during the French and Indian War. We also know that George Washington served as an officer on that campaign. Do you know if the two men interacted at all or got to know each other during the Forbes Campaign?
DP: I don't know that for sure, Mike. I know in the Fred Walters book, and again, there's imaginary dialogue there in a number of instances. So he has a conversation either between Haslet in Washington, then Colonel Washington, or Haslet and Hugh Mercer, who met Washington during the French and Indian War. During their service together, he became a friend of Washington's, moved to Virginia after the war, and established an apothecary practice where two of his patients were Washington's mother, Mary Ball Washington, and his stepdaughter Patsy. So there's no documented record that I'm aware of Haslet having met Washington. It's quite possible, if not likely, that he did.
I think what Haslet is probably best known for during his time with that expedition, was the letter that he wrote to a friend of his, Reverend Allison, in November 1758. When the Forbes expedition arrived at the remains of Fort Duquesne, after the French had attempted to blow the whole thing to smithereens, he provided the most full description that we have, the most complete description that we have of what the ruins of the fort, if you will, looked like at that point. And that is the first documented letter we have that was written by Haslet. The first of what was unfortunately, apparently a limited amount of correspondence that he produced. I say that because from the standpoint of just getting a better handle on him.
When you read his correspondence, you can see that this was an immensely learned man, very articulate, I'm sure he was that way, verbally, you know, as a preacher, obviously, he would have needed to be presumably, and as an officer, leading men in combat. I made the point somewhere in the book that given what he had studied as part of a rigorous curriculum at the University of Glasgow, this was someone who quite literally, could have led men into battle, in giving orders in Latin or Greek, as well as English. I don't think there would have been much occasion for him to do that, given that there was a conspicuous dearth of soldiers from ancient Greece and Rome serving with the Delaware Blues. But the point is he could have done it if he needed to. That's one of the things that's so impressive about the man. And what's so well qualified him to be an officer, both, you know, with the Pennsylvania militia during the French and Indian War, and then with the Continental Army in 1776. So I don't know the answer to your question. I don't know if he met Washington during the war. So I can't honestly tell you that he actually would have engaged with him to any extent prior to his regiment, joining up with Washington's army in Manhattan in August of 1776.
MJT: I find it interesting that Washington did have a great many contacts before the war with men who became leading figures in the Continental Army. I always wonder whether his opinion of them earlier in his life had much impact on the selection of these particular men for leadership roles during the war.
Now in this case, I don’t think Washington had much to do with Haslet becoming a colonel. He was very active in pre-war patriot activities and had a good relationship with Caesar Rodney, who was one of the Delaware delegates to the Continental Congress.
DP: Yeah, Rodney was Haslet’s friend and political ally, a political mentor. He is really the fellow who gave Haslet his jumpstart, shall we say, in the public arena, first propelling him into politics in 1770, when he recruited Haslet. They would have known each other as fellow Kent County landowners at the time, and apparently recruited Haslet to run, Rodney did, to run on his slate of candidates for the assembly 1770 and then, Haslet would be elected to four consecutive one year terms, was defeated in 74, then came back to win in 75.
As the revolutionary fervor intensified in the three lower counties in the early 1770s, they were both caught up with that, I think Haslet was the more radical of the two, perhaps because of his experience in Ireland as one of the many Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who were alienated by British rule, and kind of had a chip on their shoulder when they came over here. Notwithstanding his having fought on the side of the British during the French and Indian War. The Scots Irish ultimately comprise something like 40% of Washington's army, so they were clearly a significant force there.
MJT: I’ve always wondered how much Haslet may have influenced Rodney in the patriot cause. There was a pretty sizable Tory sentiment in lower Delaware before and during the early war. I wonder how much of Haslet’s radicalism and knowledge of British abuses had an influence on his associates before the war.
DP: Haslet, as I mentioned, he was a zealot. Caesar Rodney’s younger brother, Thomas Rodney, who was a political ally of Haslet, in fact they both, well Caesar too of course, but both the two radicals ran together on the same ticket as assembly candidates in 1774, unsuccessfully. I think the both of them influenced Rodney to a certain extent. And while he was a moderate, Caesar was, I think that gave him the ability to, shall we say, find common ground and as he sought to do with people of different political factions, which presumably was the key to his success to his high reputation among different factions, enabled him to serve as Speaker of the Delaware assembly for many years. There's no question that he was a supporter of the revolutionary cause.
|Troops Leaving the Green|
Haslett's response, which is written on Christmas Eve, probably about oh, maybe about two months after the birth of his last daughter, the fifth of his children. It would have been about a month after he had been re-elected to the Delaware Assembly. He agrees to serve and he writes, what I think is a very poignant letter, to Rodney accepting the command in the context of, what Haslett articulates as his deep-seated commitment to the cause of independence and to the support of the Continental Congress. So Rodney, more than anyone else, the revolutionary dynamos, I think I called them in the book, was really the person who got Haslet involved, and as you say, was a mutually influential relationship.
I relied heavily on the book that was published, I believe, by the Delaware Historical Society correspondence to and from Caesar Rodney, which has most of the letters that were written between Caesar and Haslet, especially as the campaign unfolded in 1776. And you get a sense, not just the political, but the personal connection that they had between them, Haslet was reliant on Rodney to kind of be a conduit, a go-between, to communicate between Haslet and his wife back in Delaware, and let her know what was going on with him and giving her assurance that Haslet was okay. But in some cases, shall we say, spearing the gory details, not letting her know exactly what he was having to endure in the course of his military service.
MJT: The Delaware Blues were famous for the fact that they did have a nice full set of military uniforms and military issued muskets at the beginning of the war. I’ve always wondered, how did they get that? Was it financing from the Delaware Government, the Continental Congress, or how did they get so well equipped compared to the other regiments?
DP: Well, I think it was Delaware. It was also the Continental Congress. And it was the influence of Caesar Rodney, as speaker of the Delaware assembly and as a member of the Continental Congress. So I think he had a lot to do with that, in terms of securing that financial support for the Delawares to be uniformed and to obtain arms, the muskets that they obtained, initially at least, were apparently among those that have been captured by the French, and were part of that cache of arms that they were covertly providing to the, shall we say the glorious cause, to use Washington's term in 1776. So that was how they came to be so well equipped relative to everybody else starting out.
MJT: Like most of the middle and southern colonies, Hazlet’s regiment joins the Continental army after the Siege of Boston is over. He begins the war in New York. I guess his first real taste of real combat, or at least that of his regiment, he wasn’t there, was at the Battle of Brooklyn. Right?
Yeah, and the reason he wasn't there, when the battle began, he would have arrived on the scene at some point during a fighting on August 27. I point out the book, this was one of many mistakes that Washington made at the time. This was his first major battle as commander of the Continental Army. One of his most grievous errors was that he insisted on holding a court martial the day before the battle. Actually it was started two days before the battle. It was on August 25, and then it carried over to the 26th, of a Prussian officer who would join the army, Continental Army, named Herman Zedtwitz, and who had allegedly sold secrets to the enemy. Washington was so aggrieved at that, that he insisted on holding this court martial right then and there, notwithstanding the fact that he was getting some faulty intel, I think, about the location and the intent, shall we say, the enemy's intent that could be presumed from that, of General Howe’s forces, at that point.
He had every reason to believe, I think, that a battle was imminent. And yet he insists on holding this court martial, and he insists on having, I think it was something like thirteen officers there to serve at this court martial, including Colonel Haslet, including his Lieutenant Colonel Gunning Bedford, including William Smallwood, who was the colonel the Maryland Regiment, which would fight side by side with the Delawares throughout the war. They were the so-called sister regiments, if you will, two elite units.
The court martial runs until late the day on the 26th. So they can't get across the East River to the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights until the 27th, after the battle had begun in the early morning hours. When Haslet arrives, his men are then with the Marylanders and another. Well they started out with a Connecticut regiment and with some Pennsylvania militia who were part of this force that was commanded by Lord Stirling, aka General William Alexander from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who were holding off, were heavily outnumbered. There were about 2000 of them to start, but their numbers dwindled as casualties mounted, and they were fighting this holding action for several hours against a force of British and Hessian regulars under the command of General James Grant, who are continuously being reinforced as the morning wore on. And so at one point, I think, Stirling's brigade is outnumbered by more than four to one.
Also, they're being hemmed in by another British force under General Cornwallis, which had been part of the famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, I guess, British flanking movement, led by General Clinton through the Jamaica Pass overnight, where they did an end run around the Americans, a pass that they had really neglected to guard. I mean, I think there were five militia officers on horseback who were guarding that whole pass. That's another mistake made by the Continental Army. And so Howe’s army arrives behind their left and center lines at about nine in the morning. And that really sets the stage for what's going to happen, for what becomes a near disaster.
Miraculously enough, most of the American troops were able to scamper back to their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. Stirling's Regiment, they weren't really aware of what was going on in the rear so they were fighting this whole action for several hours, until it becomes apparent to Stirling that they can't hold off the enemy anymore.
This was the Delaware Blues first real military action. In this fight, according to tradition, or legend or whatever, General Washington, who has come across the East River and is in the Brooklyn fortifications and is observing the action with his spyglass says something like “what brave fellows I must this day lose.” Now I don't know if he said that, whether he was referring specifically to the Maryland regiment or the Marylanders and Delawares. You probably get a different answer about that, depending on who he talks to. But he clearly had a very high opinion of the Delawares considering how he would subsequently use them. So it's entirely plausible that he was including this in his expression of approbation.
At the moment, the pivotal moment, when General Stirling decides we can't continue to hold out, he takes part of his force, and he leads a desperation last ditch effort to hold off the British advance while the rest of his force, he orders to retreat across the Gowanus Creek, which is the only way of escaping, a creek with wide marshes on both sides. At this point, the tide is coming in. The Delawares and some of the Marylanders are able, most of them anyway, to make their escape across the creek under very difficult conditions, swimming across, and of course, they're under fire from the enemy, artillery fire, while they're doing this.
Fred Walters says something in his book. I don't know if he's relying on a specific account. But I think it's entirely imaginable that this would have happened that Colonel Haslet, having recently arrived on the battlefield would have among others gone down to the water's edge, to the Gowanus Creek to personally help rescue as many of those soldiers as he could pull them up out of a muck onto dry land, and get him to safety.
And he reports afterwards, in his account of the battle that the Delawares return, torn from shot shell. But he was not personally involved in that first battle. And yet, he was well aware by virtue of any reports, this is correspondence to Caesar Rodney after the battle, from the comments that he received from other officers. He knew that the Delawares had acquitted themselves very well in this initial encounter, and notwithstanding a disappointment at what had happened, could take justifiable pride in how they had fought and had proven that their esprit de corps wasn't just for the parade ground. It also carried over to actual combat.
MJT: That’s certainly one of the most famous moments for the Delaware Regiment in the course of the war. Eventually the survivors were able to escape across the East River to Manhattan in a near miraculous escape.
The Delawares, along with the Marylanders in that case, acted as a protective rearguard for Washington's army. Somebody had to stay in the trenches while the troops were withdrawing across the East River, which took them all night into the next morning to do and the Delaware's and the Marylanders were assigned to do that, presumably General Washington, or at his behest. And this would be the first of several instances during the 1776 campaign, when they played a role like that. So they would have been one of the last units to go across the East River to Manhattan.
MJT: It seems like Washington really did rely on them for some of the more critical actions that he needed. Quite frankly if there had not been fog that following morning, they probably would have been captured or killed by the enemy. That’s how perilous it really was.
Their next encounter with the British was, if I can pronounce it right, at Mamaroneck.
DP: Yes, you’ve got it. The battle of Mamaroneck, which I've been told is known by locals up there in Westchester County as the skirmish of Heathcote Hill, I guess battle of Mamaroneck makes it sound more impressive. It was a large-scale skirmish, I suppose you could call it. There were about 750 soldiers under Haslet’s command, mostly again, Delaware and Maryland units with some Virginians, against about 500 loyalists soldiers who were serving in what was called the Queen's American Regiment, under the command of Colonel Robert Rogers, of French and Indian War fame.
How that came about was that Haslet was ordered by the brigade commander, Lord Stirling, who was familiar with the area. He had received intel about the location of Rogers’ unit. Rogers was regarded as a real scoundrel, as a turncoat by Washington and those under him. And it was hoped that they could ambush this unit and ideally capture Rogers, I think that that was really the intent.
So he directs Haslet to lead this overnight attack, gives them some specific directions. They have local guides from Westchester County, and they march overnight to the scene, or the site, of Rogers’ encampment, which is pretty close, I think, you know, maybe a couple of miles away or not much more than that, from the main body of British troops under General William Howe. As Haslet’s men were marching down there, they realized they were fairly close to the main enemy force. So it was kind of a precarious maneuver in that sense.
They struck the loyalist unit at about four the morning. Remember, it was dark out. So it was hard to know who was what, where. There was a great deal of confusion. Some of the loyalists soldiers in order to confuse the Americans were shouting things like, “surrender you Tory dogs” so there was a lot of confusion in this fighting.
Ultimately, Haslet comes away with a, shall we say, an incomplete victory. So for all his zealotry, in the cause, it didn't supersede his sense that he needed to exercise prudent military judgment in a situation like this. So because of the confusion, and not knowing exactly how many enemy soldiers are there and where they are, he decides to order a, won’t call it a retreat, but we'll say advanced in a different direction. They come away with I believe, 36 prisoners and a substantial number of arms, at relatively few casualties. To that extent, even though it's a skirmish, it's a rare success for the patriot cause during what as you know, was an otherwise very dismal New York campaign.
Unfortunately, the luster of their success, such as it was, was tarnished by the fact that on their return to Stirling’s encampment, in the early morning hours of October 22, they run into a unit of Pennsylvania riflemen, who I guess had been similarly engaged. They had also been sent out from the brigade to launch an overnight raid against the enemy, and they apparently had been pretty successful in that. But these two units, the Delawares and the Pennsylvanians, when they come across each other. The Pennsylvanians mistake the Delaware's for enemy troops. Now whether it was because of their blue uniforms, maybe they thought they were Hessians. Whether it was because they were wearing mitre caps, which traditional accounts of the regiment have always said was the case, although that's been disputed by some military historians. And if they were wearing mitre caps, that also would have made them appear to be Hessian soldiers. In any case the Pennsylvanians fired on the Delawares. And there was an exchange of firing. Nine Delawares were killed, and six Pennsylvanians.
When Haslet gets back to camp and reports to Stirling, notwithstanding his disappointment that they didn't capture Rogers, he, according to Haslet’s account, and what's been written by others, is highly complimented by Stirling and by the rest of the command. In fact, one of Washington secretaries, Harrison, writes a dispatch or letter to I believe, was governor Trumbull of Connecticut, the same day, making note of the fact of Haslet’s raid. So obviously, this was something that the army’s command had been apprised of, in short order. And I'm sure they were appreciative of any good news they could get at that point.
MJT: It seemed like Haslet had a pretty good and conspicuous record of service in battle, and again a short time later at Chatterton’s Hill during the fighting at White Plains he was also again, a conspicuous leader. Over the New York Campaign, the Continental Congress promoted, I think, fifteen people to brigadier general, and notably Haslet was not one of them. Do you have any speculation on why that was? I’ve always wondered if it was that Delaware was not deemed large enough to justify a general from that state.
DP: Yeah, I think it was political considerations more than anything else, that politics did enter into decisions like that, to the extent that the Congress was continuously cognizant of the needs or the interests of the larger states who were going to provide most of the manpower for the army, and wanted to assure their ardent support for the cause. So I think that more than anything, was what intruded into the decision making process. Although I believe that had Haslet lived, that he would have been promoted to brigadier general, probably in 1777.
And at least according to what he writes, he does write about this in his, what we believe was his last letter, which was to Caesar Rodney on New Year's Day 1777. And he talks about his disappointment at not being promoted. He thought he had Washington support for the promotion, and he may very well have. But clearly, in his mind, he did. And he tells Rodney that he is disappointed, but he will not take any rash action until he's had a chance to meet with him and talk to him about this, which, of course, he never got the opportunity to do. And that was he was killed two years later. I think. I mean, he certainly merited it.
Segwaying from what you were saying, prior to your question, you reference White Plains, and the stand that Haslet and his men made at Chatterton’s Hill. It's almost miraculous, really, that Haslet lived as long as he did, when you consider the situations that he was in. Prior to that, he was afflicted with a serious bout of dysentery for about a month, from mid-September to mid-October. And in one of his letters to Rodney, he kind of suggests that, at one point, he was like, he didn't care whether he lived or died. Eventually he did come out of it, but it took him a while. And he was not a young man. Certainly by the standards of that time, he was almost 50 years old.
Then at Chatterton’s Hill, he almost gets the head blown off. When a British projectile hits the carriage of the cannon that he, Haslet, is helping to move on top of that wooded ridge at the time. And of course, you know, he's subject to the same risks, if you will, as his other men, aside from injury on the battlefield, disease, as I mentioned, exposure to the elements, which he claimed was, after the Battle of Long Island, how he and other members of his regiment became ill. And then, of course, he falls, falls into the Delaware River - I shouldn’t laugh about it - on the return trip, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and he's marching around on semi frozen legs for the last week of his life. That's why I say you know, I mean, it was almost miraculous that he did survive as long as he did.
MJT: He certainly went through an awful lot, and so did his men. I think the Delaware Blues had at least half their men on disability at one point during the White Plains Campaign. Disease really took its toll on everybody. But they did stick it out. Was Haslet with Charles Lee, or did he retreat across New Jersey with Washington?
DP: He came across with Washington. His unit was briefly serving under Lee after the battle of White Plains, but they came across with Washington. They were actually in New Brunswick or Brunswick, as they would have called it, when Washington's army arrived there on December 1, in the course of their retreat across 80 to 90 miles of northern and central New Jersey and four rivers. This is another instance at New Brunswick, when Haslet regiment serves as a protective force for Washington’s Army, while the main part of the army is making its escape, or its withdrawal southward. They're holding off the British, not by themselves or others. There was famously perhaps the battery commanded by then 21 year old New York artillery captain, who you might have heard of, named Alexander Hamilton. That's when he wasn't singing. Then they will act as the rearguard of Washington's army as it's retreating from Princeton down to Trenton.
Yeah, I think that you get a sense as kind of these numerical indications of what was going on with the Delaware Blues during this period. As I mentioned, they started out with close to 800 men, there appears to be a great deal of variance, shall we say, between different accounts in terms of how light or how heavy their casualties were at the Battle Long Island or Battle of Brooklyn. But there’s a regimental roll call on October 3, where 348 Delawares report present and fit for duty. Then on November 3, I believe it is 260. And then on December 22, three days before the crossing, you're down to 108, 92 privates and 16 officers.
But you get a sense that these guys were dropping like flies. I mean, some of it was due to battlefield casualties. A lot of it was due to disease, exposure to the elements, malnutrition. Some men were leaving with authorization, and some without. Some were deserting. One of Haslet's officers, Lieutenant Enoch Anderson, who produced his own account, which I made considerable use of, of his service, who was promoted to captain by Haslet. I believe on December 3. He relates how he, among some other captains, were called to Haslet's headquarters. This was after the army had retreated, across the Delaware and they're in Bucks County. They're stationed in upper Bucks County, in and around Solebury Township. This is where Stirling's regiment was encamped, in and around the site of the Thompson-Neely House which is today part of the upper section of Washington Crossing Historic Park.
And according to Anderson, Haslet called these officers in and he tells them to go to Delaware, and assist in the effort to recruit a new regiment or, technically correct, a reconstituted Regiment, because obviously, the unit's numbers are dwindling. And Haslet is aware that there's an effort being made back in Delaware to recruit more men. He had been approached in mid-November, I guess, by a two-man delegation from the Delaware Assembly, asking him to agree to continue to serve as commander of the reconstituted regiment in 1777.
Congress, of course, the Continental Congress at this time, is providing incentives. They realize these one-year enlistments aren't going to cut it. We got to recruit new men for a new army, so to speak, one where they will agree to serve for a longer period of time, three years or the balance of the war, whichever comes first. Washington is desperately aware of how important this is to the future of his army. He writes, as I recall, in one of his many pieces of correspondence Around this time, in December, something like “if every nerve is not strained to recruit a new army will all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up.”
So Haslet sends a number of officers back to Delaware. And he tells them, I will stay here with the army. You go down there. Recruit as many men as you can, as quickly as you can, and bring them back to camp. This is around the middle of December. Yeah, maybe 10 days or so before the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware. At that point. I think he hopes that he has enough men left in the regiment for at least one more good fight.
And the other thing I’d mention is that, aside from the fact that your ranks were being depleted, was that the soldiers who were still there, the hardcore unit of his army that had still stuck it out. They were, in comparison with how they appeared when they first started out in their impressive blue uniforms. Most of these soldiers at this point were in rags. They were wearing civilian clothes, pretty much anything that they could get their hands on, as, of course many other soldiers were doing too.
MJT: I think that was true of the entire army at the time. I mean, they were really a mess. I think Washington’s army dwindled down to about 2000 men before Lee’s army could join them. They were just struggling with lack of everything, both men and supplies.
I think its worse was about 10% of its original size by mid-December. And of course, that fact, plus the condition of the men, many of them didn't have winter clothes, or shoes, or stockings or blankets. And the fact that at least half of his remaining soldiers were on the verge of going home when their one year listing expired on December 31. All of that was intel that British command was getting from their spies in the American camp.
MJT: But, of course, Haslet is one of the few people who does stick it out. His regiment plays a crucial role in the ten crucial days, crossing the Delaware and participating in the first battle of Trenton.
DP: Yes, he's down to, I don’t know if I mentioned this, but you know, after the first battle, most of his men go home because they believe that their enlistments are going to be up on December 31. There’s some question as to whether or not that was, in fact, the case. But Haslet decides not to make an issue of it. He knows the sacrifices they’ve made. He knows there's a new regiment, a reconstituted regiment that's being organized down in Delaware. And these men, you know, they're not aware that Washington is planning to renew the offensive to cross back over the Delaware for the fourth time that month, on December 29, and 30th, and 31st. So they leave. And when Washington finds out about it from Haslet he's furious.
MJT: Yeah, his regiment’s pretty much gone by that point. He was down to like a couple of officers, NCO’s and about two privates.
DP: He’s down to six men, including Haslet. He tells this to Caesar Rodney in his last letter on New Year's Day. He also says Washington was in a fit of rage. He ordered that the Delaware Regiment be pursued and that the men be brought back in chains, which wasn't practical. So that was just a cathartic moment, I guess ,for him to express his frustration, which I think was peak because he knew how valuable their service had been to the cause. And so it was probably a real shock to him that they had left.
As Christopher Ward, who wrote that iconic work about the Delaware regiment back in 1941. said, these Delaware soldiers had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to apologize for, given the service that they provided to the army, and the hardships that they had suffered and it wasn't unreasonable for them to conclude with three, four days left before they believed their enlistments expired, that it was appropriate for them to leave. And I'm sure some of them, as was the case with other Delaware soldiers who had left before that, but some of them I think probably were angling for positions in the new Regiment, and to take advantage of whatever Bennies the Congress was going to offer as incentives to serve in that regiment.
But yeah, I mean, he's down to six men, and they are the ones who will accompany him to Princeton on the overnight march on January 2, where he, this guy is almost 50 years old, the colonel on still somewhat, if not largely frozen legs from his spill in the Delaware River, marches 12 miles overnight on frozen ground and freezing temperatures to help lead the charge the next day when he will meet his fate.
MJT: Showing his usual battlefield bravery, he’s out in front, gets shot in the head and is killed, almost instantly. That was the sudden end of the budding military career of John Haslet.
DP: Washington won the battle of Princeton, basically, because he had about a four to one numerical advantage. It would be pretty hard for him to lose. He won in spite of his battle plan, not because it. He had this tendency to come up with these overly complex tactical approaches to battle. He did it at Princeton, and he was saved by the numbers, and by his own personal bravery. The unit that Haslet was serving in, he was with Mercer. Mercer’ brigade was the smallest unit in the army at that point there, but they were down to 350 men. Based on Washington's orders, they were racing ahead of the rest of the brigade, this small advanced guard of 120 men, to confront what they thought was a small British patrol leaving Princeton under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood.
Turned out they were heavily outnumbered, that is the advance brigade. And most of these 120 men, which included Mercer and Haslet, were riflemen from Pennsylvania and Maryland, which meant they didn't have bayonets, because the rifle couldn't accommodate a bayonet. So when they encountered Mawhood’s force and the British launched a bayonet charge, there was no way that that small advance guard could withstand that attack. And so at that point, Mercer falls from his horse, and he's stabbed seven times, and he’ll die 9 days later.
Haslet, tries to rally his man or come to the aid of Mercer. He takes a bullet in the head. Because of the failure to send out scouts to fully reconnoiter what was going on to get a sense of how big Mawhood’s force was, and where it was, Haslet's tiny force put themselves in a position where they were at severe risk, shall we say, and a number of very valuable, capable officers starting, of course, with Mercer and Haslet, would pay the ultimate price.
Washington recognized this in his correspondence after the battle. He realized how costly the battle had been, in terms of the many had lost and officers who would not be easily replaced. There is this long-standing legend, he shed tears over Haslett's lifeless body on the Princeton battlefield.
It was at that point, after he'd been killed, that it was found in his pocket, a written order, which Washington had given him a few days before the battle, to return to Delaware for the winter, to rest and to assist in recruiting a new regiment. So he didn't have to be at Princeton. Washington had given him express authorization to go home. But Haslet says in his letter to Rodney, two days before, he mentions this order, he says that he had to stay for a few days longer. So I think it was his intent to see the army established in its winter quarters up in Morristown, which of course, is where they went after the battle. And at that point, he would have felt that he could in good conscience, leave the army and go back to Delaware, and help recruit a new regiment.
MJT: The regiment does reconstitute and joins back up with Washington’s army without Colonel Haslet at its head. I guess, though, that’s the end of our story here because it’s the end of John Haslet’s world.
DP: Well, it's a remarkable story. I incorporate a short chapter about that in my book. I wasn't trying to emulate Christopher Ward's iconic history of the regiment, which is, in effect, a military history of war because they served in almost every major battle, except for the Saratoga campaign. But I thought it was important to have that context,
Even though they were a smaller unit, still the Delawares distinguished themselves, fighting alongside the Marylanders. As I said before, especially in the southern campaign, places like Guilford Courthouse and Eutaw springs, they really provided yeoman service. It's a remarkable story, I mean, certainly Haslet’s is and that of his regiment. But the service of the Delaware regiment throughout the war, I think it'd be hard pressed to find the unit, maybe the Marylanders, but it'd be hard pressed to find a unit that contributed more and sacrificed more in the course of the entire war for independence than the Delaware Blues.
What I've tried to do in each case is as I mentioned, these are part of a trilogy is to write about the 10 crucial days in a more focused way in the first two books, because the Haslet book goes obviously beyond that.
MJT: So, are you thinking about a fourth book now, or are you taking some time off?
DP: I am taking a break from writing a book. I wrote three books in five years. What I'm doing now is the series of blog posts on a new website that I launched, that I had created back in the summer. And so this blog post, which is under the heading “Speaking of which” on my website, which if I may interject here shamelessly dp author, that's dp as a David Price dpauthor.com, some of the blog posts on various revoir related topics. So, yeah, I have been putting a lot of effort into that.
MJT: Alright, David Price, I thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Your book again is called “John Haslet’s World.” It’s a great read, and on sale now along with your other two books. Thank you for joining the American Revolution Podcast.
DP: Thank you very much, Mike. It's been an honor to be here.
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Knox Press, 2020
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