Sunday, November 6, 2022

Revolutionary War comes to the Tatnall and Lea mills in Delaware

During the Revolutionary War the Tatnall and Lea flour mills of Brandywine, by Wilmington, Delaware furnished flour to the American army. Washington and Lafayette visited Joseph Tatnall. Before the battle of the Brandywine, Washington ordered the top grinding stones of the mills to be removed and hidden from the British troops.

Thanks to our veterans and those still in service.

Joseph Tatnall (1740-1813) was the father-in-law of Thomas Lea, Sr (1757-1823) who was the father-in-law of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, the first Marylander to write a cookbook (in 1845). Elizabeth Ellicott (1793-1858) of the famed Ellicott Mills, married Thomas Lea, Jr. (1789-1829) in the Quaker meeting house in (now) Ellicott City MD in 1812.

"These mills [Tatnall and Lea mills] were an important factor in furnishing to the American army, during the Revolution, the staff of life. No mills of such importance existed in the colonies at that time. When the British landed at the head of Elk in 1777, having in view the invasion of Philadelphia, Washington ordered the dismantling of the Brandywine Mills to prevent the possibility of them falling into the hands of the British. The mill-stones were thrown out of gear and some of them taken several miles away and secreted." [Conrad]

"During the period of the Revolutionary War, the owners of these mills, through Robert Morris, Washington’s financier, supplied very considerable quantities of flour and meal to the patriot troops encamped at various times in this region. Shortly before the memorable battle of the Brandywine, Washington ordered the dismantling of several mills in Northern Delaware and contiguous portions of Pennsylvania for fear that they might fall into the hands of the British whom it was apprehended would cross the Brandywine in the vicinity of Wilmington, and be operated by them for the sustenance of their army. These mills were among them. The order, signed by Washington, and cautioning the utmost haste and great secrecy in the removal of the “running” or upper stones to a safe distance, is still preserved. The work was duly accomplished. Soldiers, coming with wagons to the Brandywine, conveyed them to Chester County, Pennsylvania. After safety had been assured, Thomas Lea was sent to ask a return of the stones, and Washington, although signifying his willingness, neglected, amid the hurry and confusion of the time, to give an order. They were ultimately recovered, for by the order of the great commander himself, they had been marked to distinguish them from others taken at the same time.

It was during the Revolution that wheat and flour brought the highest (apparent) prices ever known in the history of milling. The old books at the Brandywine Mills show that in 1780 wheat was bought at twenty-four dollars a bushel, and that some three or four hundred barrels of flour were sold for the gross sum of twenty-one thousand pounds. It is unnecessary to say that the currency was somewhat inflated at that period.

Joseph Tatnall was the most distinguished of those worthy men whose memories deserve notice in this community; and the rising generation ought to be informed that Mr. Tatnall was a true patriot. He alone dared to grind flour for the famishing army of the Revolution, at the risk of the destruction of his mill.

His house was the home of General Lafayette during his sojourn here, and that patriot remembered his kindness. On his return to New York in 1825, he inquired for Mr. Tatnall, then deceased. As he passed through Brandywine, he requested that the procession might be detained a few minutes at his son's door, while he payed his respects to the representative of his worthy friend.

Gen. Washington, and other officers, received his hospitality during their residence here; you will hear more of his patriotism in the sequel. When President, and passing south, once he alighted at Mr. Tatnall's gate, entered the yard and knocked. Mrs. T. came to the door, and wished to send for Mr. T., but the General preferred to go to the mill, and leave his chariot at the gate. These gentlemen walked back to the house, followed by crowds of boys, rejoicing at the fine chance offered them to see the man whom the people delighted to honor. One of the joyous boys, lately deceased, an old gentleman, related the incident with much zest as a remembrance of General Washington." [Montgomery]


Head Quarters, October 31, 1777.

"Sir: As soon as the Schuylkill is fordable, I shall send over a large body of Militia to you, for the purpose of executing some particular matters. The principal are, to endeavour to break up the Road, by which the Enemy have a communication with their Shipping over the Islands, if it is practicable and to remove the running Stones from the Mills in the Neighbourhood of Chester and Wilmington. This last, I would have you undertake immediately with your present force, as I have information that the Enemy are about making a Detachment to Wilmington, probably with an intent to take post there, and secure the use of the Mills.

To execute this matter at once, you should impress a sufficient number of Waggons for the purpose, without letting any person know what they are for, and send them under good Officers with Sufficient parties to the following Mills. Lloyd's about two Miles on this side of Chester. Shaw's about one Mile back of Chester. Robinson's on Naamans Creek and the Brandywine Mills. If there are any others that I have not mentioned, contiguous to the River, they are also to be dismounted. Many of the Mills have spare runners, they must also be removed.

The stones should be marked with Tar and Grease or in some other manner, that it may be known to what Mills they belong, that they may be returned and made use of in future. And they should be moved to such distance, that the Enemy cannot easily recover them. If there is any Flour in the Mills, it should be removed, if possible, after the Stones are secured.

I am informed that there is a considerable quantity in Shaw's particularly, which there is reason to believe is intended for the Enemy. It is very convenient to the navigation to Chester Creek and should therefore be first taken care of. I beg you may instantly set about this work for the reason before mentioned. That no previous alarm may be given, let a certain day and a certain hour be fixed upon for the execution of the whole at one time, and even the Officers, who are to do the Business, should not know their destination till just before they set out, lest it should take wind." [Library of Congress]


Conrad, Henry Clay.History of the State of Delaware, vol. 2, 1908
Library of Congress American Memory online
Montgomery, Elizabeth. Reminiscences of Wilmington. 1851



Nov 9 Wed 7 Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778. Ricardo A. Herrera author. Mount Vernon HERE TAPE HERE

Nov 10 Thu 6:30 When Hell Came to Sharpsburg MD. Battle of Antietam, Se 17, 1862 (Civil War) … “was the bloodiest day in American history… the emotional, physical, and financial havoc the battle wrecked on the people of Sharpsburg. [??may cover food, loss of crops…?] author Steven Cowie. American Civil War Museum. HERE TAPE HERE

Nov 12 Sat 1:30 The Story of the Hollywood Canteen. “The Hollywood Canteen was Hollywood's creative and spirited answer to WWII.” April Clemmer $20 HERE

Nov 15 Tue 1:30 The Company’s Sword: The EIC [East India Company] and the Politics of Militarism 1644-1858. Christina Welsch author. The British in India Historical Trust £5 HERE


Nov 7 Mon 6 The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood. author Tristram Hunt, directory of Victoria and Albert Museum. Hudson Library & Historical Society, Ohio HERE. TAPE HERE fascinating man

Wedgwood International Seminar website HERE TAPES HERE


©2022 Patricia Bixler Reber
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