The following biography of Governor Nathaniel Mitchell, possibly the most important individual in the history of Laurel, was published in the Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware in 1899. Recently I acquired a copy of this rare two-volume set, sometimes called Runk’s History of Delaware (after the publisher, J. M. Runk & Co.), and will be sharing a few excerpts on this blog.
Governor Nathaniel Mitchell
Nathaniel Mitchell, one of the early governors of Delaware, was an ardent patriot and distinguished soldier and officer of the Revolution. He was born in 1753, at, or near, what is now Laurel, in Sussex county, Delaware, son of James and Margaret (Dagworthy) Mitchell, and nephew of Gen. John Dagworthy, of Delaware. Little is known of his early life or opportunities for securing an education. He was commissioned adjutant in Col. John Dagworthy’s Delaware battalion of militia in 1775; captain in Col. Samuel Patterson’s Delaware battalion of the “Flying Camp,” from June to December, 1776; captain in Col. William Grayson’s Additional Continental regiment, January 20, 1777; major in the same regiment from December 23, 1777, when he was transferred to Col. Nathaniel Gist’s Additional Continental regiment, April 22, 1779. He was brigade major and inspector to Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, 1779-81. Retired from service January 1, 1781, prisoner of war 1781, and paroled.
Major Mitchell was a delegate from Delaware to the Continental Congress in 1786-88, and governor of the State from 1805 to 1807. (See sketch of the governors). He was a delegate to the general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati at Philadelphia in May, 1787. He died at Laurel, Delaware, February 21, 1814, and was buried in the cemetery of the old Broad Creek Episcopal Church, near that town. Major Mitchell left descendants, but little is known of them or of his wife.
Many interesting reminiscences of the life and character of this ardent patriot have been preserved, but after such a long lapse of time have almost been lost sight of. In a fragmentary copy of “The Constitutionalist, or the Defender of the People’s Rights,” published September 19, 1804, is found a long tribute to his memory, by “An Old Officer,” from which much that is interesting is gleaned. This writer says that he was not one of those modern patriots, noisy and boisterous after danger has passed, who sheltered themselves in hiding places and courted the clemency of their foes; nor was he one of your wild enthusiasts who thought that the Americans knew nothing about freedom, and that it was a notion imported into the country by foreigners. No; he was one of those men who fought and suffered for his country; who was a true friend in its most perilous moments; who believed that his countrymen knew what liberty was, when they wasted their fortunes and shed their blood to procure it.
This same writer relates some events in his career as an officer in the army, which shows the material of which he was made. In 1776, when about twenty years of age, he forsook his family and the improvement which he was making, to fly to his country’s standard to aid in defending the right. He first joined the “Flying Camp” and the regiment was stationed at Amboy and remained till the time for which the men enlisted had expired. During this period frequent skirmishes between our troops and the British and Hessians took place. On one of these occasions Captain Mitchell particularly distinguished himself. A body of the enemy was sent over to attack our outposts. Captain Mitchell happily discovered the enemy approaching. He rallied his company, and although he had a smaller number of men, he succeeded in capturing nearly the entire detachment of British and Hessians.
When the force composing the “Flying Camp” was discharged Captain Mitchell was commissioned captain of a company in the regiment directed to be raised by Congress, and to be commanded by Colonel Grayson, of Virginia. A warm friendship existed between him and the Virginia colonel. Captain Mitchell addressed himself to the work of recruiting the company he was to command, and so great was his zeal and activity that his quota of men was secured long before the regiment could be formed. In 1777 they were marched to Philadelphia, where they remained till they were inoculated for the small pox. Upon the recovery of the men they proceeded to camp, and, Grayson’s regiment not having joined the army, they were attached to the Delaware troops. As soon as his own regiment arrived, Captain Mitchell was united to it, and his company fought gallantly at the battle of Brandywine. He was frequently seen encouraging his men, and bravely exposing himself, among the foremost, to the fire of the enemy. He greatly endeared himself to his men by his anxiety to secure and remove the wounded.
Not long after this affair Captain Mitchell was prostrated by a dangerous illness, supposed to be camp fever, which reduced him to great extremity, and from which he recovered slowly, owing to the hardships and privations of camp life. He was in this condition when the battle of Germantown took place, and was therefore unable to take part in that engagement.
Captain Mitchell shared the horrors of the rigorous winter at Valley Forge when the American army lay there, watching the British in Philadelphia. During that terrible season, Captain Mitchell was entrusted with highly important duties. He was placed at the head of a company in General Scott’s brigade, with orders to guard a dangerous outpost, and was constantly exposed to great danger, as the commanding general depended on him for information relating to any movement on the part of the enemy, so that the camp might not be surprised. He was also frequently called on to make sudden and dangerous incursions into the country to surprise or watch foraging detachments of the British, which made his duties at all times full of peril.
At the battle of Monmouth, he was in the advanced guard under the command of General Lee, who attacked the rear of the British army in their retreat across New Jersey. Upon this occasion, Colonel Grayson commanding the brigade, the command of the regiment was given to Captain Mitchell. It was exposed to the hottest fire of the enemy, and by a desperate resistance against a heavy column of their army, afforded time for the American troops to form, which were advancing hastily under an impression that the enemy was retreating. The regiment sustained a heavy loss in this engagement, but it nobly maintained the reputation of the American arms.
At the end of the New Jersey campaign, the Virginia troops, to which Captain Mitchell belonged, were ordered to the southward. In the winter of 1779-80 he was appointed brigade major and inspector under General Muhlenberg; and in the succeeding summer he was stationed at Fredericksburg for the purpose of promoting and superintending the recruiting service. Having raised and organized a regiment at Chesterfield Court House, he received from Congress the commission of major. It was about this time that General Lee invaded Virginia, committing great depredations throughout the country. Major Mitchell was ordered to join General Muhlenberg, and received the appointment of adjutant general. General Muhlenberg marched into Suffolk, and during the campaign was employed in watching and repelling the incursions of the British from Norfolk. The country was greatly benefited by this service, though it afforded no occasion to the troops to distinguish themselves.
When Arnold invaded Virginia in 1781, wasting everything with fire and sword, Major Mitchell was appointed to the command of the advance guard, which opposed the advance of the British army. This handful of men frequently engaged with the enemy, and nearly one half was killed or wounded. He succeeded however, in cutting off several marauding parties, making a number of prisoners.
An anecdote of Major Mitchell ought not to be forgotten. Early one morning, being at the head of a scouting party, the principal object of which was to gain intelligence, he came up to the farm house of a poor widow, whose husband had lately fallen in battle, and found her bathed in tears, with several small children crying about her. He inquired into the cause of her distress, generously offering any relief in his power. She told him a party of British had just left her home, and had plundered her of everything necessary for the subsistence of her family, leaving her no food for her children, and she knew not how to prevent them from starving. “Be of good cheer,” replied the Major, “and I will try and make the plunderers restore to you their booty.” He instantly pursued, and fortunately soon came up with the party, consisting of about twenty men, who being encumbered with the pillage of several houses were able to move but slowly. He fell too suddenly upon them to allow any escape; and they were marched back to the widow’s with their stolen goods. The poor woman was desired to name the property that belonged to her, which was immediately restored; and for any article missing the plunderers were compelled to pay the full value. The major left the house with the prisoners, loaded with the blessings of the widow.
When the British had returned from Petersburg, he was ordered to throw a bridge of boats over the Appomattox, to remove and secure a quantity of flour, which was in danger of falling into the enemy’s hands. A party of militia was stationed to over the operation. The duty committed to the major was of the most laborious nature. From the small force allowed for its accomplishment, the service required incessant attention, and no diligence was spared to perform it. In the night, however, between the 10th and 11th of May, 1781, the militia having neglected to guard their posts, the British were enabled to surprise the major and his party, and captured him together with Major Mure and six other officers, who remained prisoners until the treaty of peace was signed.
Major Mitchell ever enjoyed the reputation of an active, brave and enterprising officer. He was always among the foremost upon dangerous occasions, and his operations were conducted with equal address and courage. He was a strict disciplinarian, but while he was exact in requiring attention to duty on the part of his men he was careful to supply their wants, and to protect them from every species of outrage and injustice. His conduct always manifested his warm attachment to the independence of his country. And before the unfortunate event which threw him into the power of the enemy, and for which he was not answerable, no exertion was omitted which could promote the Revolutionary cause. If other men were in higher stations and enabled to render more conspicuous services than Major Mitchell, it cannot be said that they were more zealous and faithful in the discharge of their duties.
In reviewing the military history of this brave and efficient officer, it may be mentioned as a singular historical fact that not far from the spot where he was captured by the British in the month of May, 1781, eighty-four years afterwards all that section of country bordering on the Appomattox, was the theatre of tremendous military operations, which culminated in the surrender of the Confederate army under General Lee to General Grant, and the greatest civil war of modern times was brought to a close.
Some time after the close of the Revolution Major Nathaniel Mitchell was married, but it is greatly regretted that the maiden name of his wife has not been preserved, nor is it known how many children, if any, they had. About this time he was appointed prothonotary of Sussex county, Delaware, and entered upon his duties with the same alacrity which marked his military career. His office soon became remarkable for the orderly arrangement of court records, his diligent attention to public business and the prompt execution of all his duties.
When Major Mitchell was named as a candidate for governor of Delaware, the people generally recognized his fitness for the position, and his nomination was well received. The country was sparsely settled at that time and politics did not enter into contests for office then as sharply as they do now. He encountered some opposition, of course, but was triumphantly elected and entered upon the duties of his office in January, 1805. His administration was quiet, but marked with the same diligence, method, and care which characterized him while performing the humbler duties of prothonotary; and he retired from its cares with the consciousness of having performed his duty to the best of his ability and leaving behind a clean record.
The private life of Governor Mitchell, as we learn from contemporary writers, was unexceptionable and exemplary. He had the easy gentlemanly manners of an old time officer who had mixed much with the world. His hand was always stretched out to every honest man, without regard to dress or appearance. The integrity of his character was unblemished, and calumny never ventured to attack it.