Digging into Del. school property’s history unearths ties to George Washington

A nearby historical marker had vanished, so teachers didn’t know the campus of Delcastle Technical High School was part of America’s fight for independence.

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This photo of the area near Newport where Washington and the Continental Army had their encampment was taken in the late 1800s

This photo of the area near Newport where Washington and the Continental Army had their encampment was taken in the late 1800s. (Delaware Public Archives)

About a decade ago, Delcastle Technical High School teachers Donato Rufo and Dave Battafarano decided to research the property where the sprawling campus stands.

Much to their surprise, the hilly land on the outskirts of Newport once stood host to George Washington and some 11,000 members of his Continental Army during the American colonies’ journey to independence from Great Britain.

The historic events occurred 243 years ago, in September 1777, about five miles south of Wilmington.

It was two years into the Revolutionary War and Washington’s army had just lost a skirmish with British troops at Cooch’s Bridge, near Newark. That proved to be the war’s only battle in Delaware.

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Delcastle Technical High School
The land where Delcastle Technical High School sits is steeped in history. (Delcastle Technical High School)

The Continental Army retreated about 10 miles to the northeast, settling along Red Clay Creek in the Newport, Stanton and Marshallton area. That’s where Gen. Washington hoped to block British troops as he moved north toward the war’s prize — the colonies’ capital city of Philadelphia. Washington’s troops remained at the Delaware site for six days, digging in for a major battle.

“Washington decided that this spot would be where they would make their stand, And that this spot was where they would stop the British,” Rufo said while dedicating the site this month with military historians, state officials and school administrators. “This was almost hallowed ground. This was almost a battlefield.”

Instead, the enemy skirted north to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Washington’s troops followed, culminating in the legendary Battle of Brandywine won by the British.

Battafarano, Rufo’s teaching and research colleague, said a historical marker was once located nearby, but vanished decades ago, perhaps after an automobile accident.

Now their efforts have drawn the support of military historians and leaders, and have spurred the Delaware Public Archives to erect a new one on campus.

Gen. Washington mentioned the encampment in a 1777 letter to Congress
Gen. Washington mentioned the encampment in a 1777 letter to Congress. (Delcastle Technical High School)

Titled “Washington’s Earthworks,” the new landmark says in part that the “the American army occupied a strong defensive position … and blocked the British Army’s route to the Red Clay [Creek] and beyond. Soldiers built earthworks and destroyed bridges to defend the principal road to Philadelphia.”

The teachers noted Washington mentioned the encampment and the movement to Chadds Ford in a letter he penned to Congress on Sept. 9, 1777.

“The enemy advanced yesterday with the seeming intention of attacking us at our post near Newport,’’ wrote the general.

Instead, the British stopped about two miles away and “only meant to amuse us in Front, while their real intent was to march” toward Philadelphia “and cut us off from it,” Washington wrote.

The teachers also found the text of an address Washington gave to the troops on the Delcastle property.

“The eyes of all America, and of Europe are turned upon us, as on those by whom the event of the war is to be determined,’’ the general told the men. “And the General assures his countrymen and fellow soldiers, that he believes the critical, the most important moment is at hand, which demands their most spirited exertions in the field.”

Teachers Dave Battafarano (left) and Donato Rufo
Teachers Dave Battafarano (left) and Donato Rufo re-discovered the school’s ties to the Revolutionary War. (Delcastle Technical High School)

Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789.

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Battafarano said the teachers’ own quest could serve as a lesson to students.

“It all started with our research for our school and just trying to teach our kids … that something pretty special happened here,’’ he said, “and that the grounds of our school are not just where they come every day to do their thing, but there was actually historical significance here.”

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