by Jack Grimes
While most people have heard of the “Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow,” hardly anyone outside of the state has ever heard of Delaware’s decapitated phantom night-rider.
These events allegedly took place during the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, September 3, 1777, when the opposing forces of Generals Cornwallis and Maxwell met one another in Delaware. The English were trying to recapture Philadelphia; the American troops’ task was to stop them. During this engagement one of Maxwell’s soldiers, Charles Miller, got his head blown off by a cannonball during a British artillery barrage.
The British flushed out the rebels, winning the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge with the loss of only 30 King’s regulars; it’s estimated the Colonists probably suffered about the same number of casualties during the fight before taking flight. This is the point where the historic record of actual events leaves off and fantasy and mythmaking take over. Witnesses claim to have seen Miller’s horse gallop away, either with his corpse still seated in the saddle or being dragged behind the animal, having a foot tangled in the stirrup.
That’s the last anyone saw of either the unfortunate soldier or the stallion, at least in this life. However, Miller’s ghost may have put in an appearance at the Battle of the Brandywine, fought on September 10, 1777. It was reported that as Maxwell’s attack began that morning a headless specter, riding a white horse, was seen among the English artillerymen with its saber drawn from the scabbard chopping off the heads of cannon crewmen so they couldn’t fire on the Americans’ positions.
The men of Maxwell’s light infantry had no doubt that it was their fallen comrade, Charles Miller, taking his vengeance against those whom he blamed for his untimely demise the month before. As the legend continued to gain popular momentum amid Washington’s Continental Army, it was later told how Miller’s ghost had intervened, saving Washington’s life by appearing just in the nick of time to lop off the head of a British sniper who had the rebel commander in chief fixed in his sights.
While the area is developing quickly these days thanks to I-95 providing easy access and the urban sprawl created by greedy land developers, the headless horseman can still be seen to this day in rural areas. Sometimes, the air thickens suddenly around the area of Welch Tract Church and Cooch’s Bridge where the fighting occurred. On these nights a sort of haze will settle over the woods; then the headless horseman rides again.
People who find themselves in these woods when the atmosphere changes suddenly become dizzy and disoriented; then shortly afterward, the ghost is sighted. Usually hoofbeats are heard prior to witnesses actually seeing the spirit. It’s been observed at times carrying what is presumed to be its own severed head; at other times people passing by have caught a glimpse of the apparition, which seems to be searching for something, presumably its head.
At times, the apparitions of a headless figure mounted on horseback appear suddenly, then vanish into oblivion just as quickly. Once Miller’s ghost has departed, the air returns to normal and witnesses quickly regain their composure. The aspect of losing one’s wits and being unable to focus one’s thoughts seems to happen not only to those who see spirits of the dead but, also to people who wander about inside crop circles or sacred sites like Stonehenge on the solstices or equinoxes. Perhaps they’ve briefly brushed another level of reality where living mortals are not supposed to go.
Some people who have seen the headless horseman say his ghostly steed will charge at them, covering vast distances in no time while its rider will swing his saber in a vain attempt to behead them. So it would seem that Charles Miller has become one of the spirits in chaos that the Book of Oahspe mentions, still fighting the American Revolutionary War centuries after everybody else has called it quits. So it shall always be until people renounce the ways of war forever and learn to live together in peace and harmony.
Jack Grimes is politician, astrologer, stockbroker, and writer of short stories. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.