Brigadier Gen. William Maxwell

General Sir William Maxwell, oil on canvas, by Henry Raeburn. circa 1810-1815.
General Sir William Maxwell, oil on canvas, by Henry Raeburn. circa 1810-1815.

When in 1777 George Washington was forced to send Daniel Morgan and his mountain men to reinforce Gen. Horatio Gates at Saratoga, he knew that Morgan's experienced troops couldn't be replaced by novice militiamen with no scouting and fighting skills. So Washington turned to an old hand, Gen. William Maxwell.

Maxwell, known as "Scotch Willie" for his hard-drinking tendencies, had demonstrated his hard-fighting character in the French and Indian Wars under British Gen. Edward Braddock. Maxwell was already commanding the 2nd New Jersey Battalion when Washington chose him to command the crack team that would become known as Maxwell's Brigade. Maxwell was elected to his position by Congress on Oct. 23, 1776.

This brigade included 700 men, 100 each drawn from the seven existing brigades to make an elite corps of light infantry troops who could respond with lightning speed at enemy-vulnerable points, then retreat as quickly as possible. Maxwell's Brigade would act independently from the rest of the Continental Army, attacking the British with guerrilla tactics learned from American Indians and seasoned militiamen. Maxwell's men frequently served as a probing arm for Washington's army -- ambushing, harassing, and screening enemy posts as forward scouts.

Late summer 1777 found American troops engaged in the Philadelphia campaign. On the march to Brandywine, Maxwell's Brigade engaged the British in a skirmish on Sept. 3 at Cooch's Bridge. The canny Maxwell stationed his troops on either side of the road to the bridge. As the vanguard of Lord Cornwallis's troops -- light infantry and Hessian chasseurs -- neared Cooch's Bridge, the Americans attacked from behind trees, rocks, and other natural barriers. When the fight escalated to bayonets and swords, the British had some natural advantages. But their 2nd Battalion failed to properly flank Maxwell's men, who cleared out immediately.

Perhaps for such gallant service, Maxwell’s Brigade is said to have been the first to fly the Stars and Stripes in battle during the Philadelphia Campaign.

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