On a warm spring weekend in May 1778, a teenage general interrupted an extravagant party being held by British officers, leading to a contest of wits with a superior force. There was not much of a battle, but the action at Barren Hill, northwest of Philadelphia, was a classic example of 18th-century European military maneuvering carried out on American soil.
During the winter of 1777, the British army had occupied the capital of the rebelling colonies, Philadelphia, while General George Washington’s Continental Army shivered and starved at Valley Forge. Then, in early May 1778, spies from Philadelphia brought him word that the British were preparing to evacuate the city. Washington could only hope he was getting his money’s worth for this intelligence—his expense account included the item: “To Secret Services during the Enemy’s holdg. of Phila…$6,170.” That sum was equal to six months’ pay for about 150 privates in his army.
Washington’s response to that intelligence was to send a strong force across the Schuylkill River to protect Valley Forge and to discourage British raiding parties from carrying off supplies from the countryside, such as the 2,000 sheep and cattle they had appropriated in December. The 2,200 men and five cannons he detached for the mission would be commanded by Maj. Gen. Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de la Fayette.
Lafayette, as the Americans knew the marquis, was a skinny, red-haired 19- year-old who had already been married for three years. He had a 19-month-old daughter at home in France, and his 17- year-old wife was expecting another baby. For the young Frenchman, fighting the English had been a family tradition for generations; 300 years before he was born, a Gilbert Motier had ridden beside Joan of Arc as a marshal of France. In 1759, when Lafayette was 2, his father had been cut in half by a cannonball at the Battle of Minden during the Seven Years’ War. In the newly declared and still embattled United States of America, Lafayette probably hoped to run across William Phillips, the officer who commanded the artillery that killed his father. He would eventually come up against Phillips’ unit at the Battle of Charlestown in 1781, but Phillips had died of a fever before Lafayette could get a shot at him.
Not long after the 13 Colonies declared independence from Britain, Lafayette approached Silas Deane, an American agent in Paris, and offered his services. Lafayette hinted that he could help Americans get military aid from France, but said that his family would not permit him to join the Continental Army unless he was made a general. Deane took the bait and made an unauthorized promise. Lafayette then bought a 220-ton ship with two cannons and a crew of 30 to sail to North America. The asking price was 112,000 livres. He paid 40 livres cash and promised to discuss the balance with his financial manager.
King Louis XVI disapproved of French noblemen helping rebels against a king, and sent a courier to Bordeaux to talk Lafayette out of leaving, but the courier missed the ship. The king also issued an edict forbidding French officers from going to the British colonies without his permission and ordered any officers already headed there to return, “notably M. le Marquis de la Fayette.” A copy of the edict was supposed to be sent by ship to intercept Lafayette, but a bureaucrat in the Maritime Ministry returned it to the War Office because it was not submitted in triplicate, as required.
Lafayette’s ship stopped briefly in Spain, where a representative of his family caught up with him and sent him back to France by carriage. At Bordeaux, however, another Frenchman promised a general’s rank by Deane persuaded Lafayette to return to his ship. With agents of both the king and his family looking for him, Lafayette disguised himself as a courier and did duty as a post rider to get back to his ship in Spain. He finally reached Charlestown, S.C., out of money. He insured his ship with an American company, and shortly after the papers were signed, the ship was mysteriously wrecked on a bar near Charlestown. Lafayette collected the insurance and headed for Philadelphia.
The number of French officers applying for commissions was starting to annoy the Continental Congress, and Lafayette got a cold reception when he arrived in Philadelphia in July 1777. Congress, however, was also trying to coax the French into supporting the Revolution, and since Lafayette was willing to serve without salary and pay his own expenses, it signed him up. Washington took him out to dinner and let him review the army, which was camped at the Falls of Schuylkill. Lafayette kept pleading to command a division, hinting that he would like to attack Canada. Washington began to get irritated, but the young French major general did well in some scouting actions. He was wounded while commanding a fighting retreat at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, and he charmed everybody. In November Congress voted Lafayette command of a division.
At Valley Forge on May 5, 1778, Washington summoned Lafayette, told him that France had declared an official alliance with the United States against Britain, and kissed him on both cheeks. Then came the decision to send a force across the Schuylkill with Lafayette in charge.
The British had spies in Philadelphia, too. They learned that the Americans were on the move, and who was leading them. There was nothing the British generals would have liked better than to embarrass the new Franco-American alliance by capturing the famous French soldier.
“The boy cannot escape me,” wrote Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. Equally sure of nabbing Lafayette, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton invited the belles of Philadelphia’s Loyalist society to a proposed dinner party to meet the glamorous young Frenchman. A fast ship was rumored to be ready to take the prisoner to London after the party.
Unaware that he was considered prime prey, Lafayette forded the Schuylkill at Swede’s Ford at Norristown on Friday, May 18, and led his troops south to Barren Hill, a site selected because it could be seen from the highest point in Valley Forge. There, he posted Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor’s New Hampshire brigade and the artillery on high ground just west of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, facing south. The division’s left flank was set at some stone houses on Ridge Road, near Barren Hill Road. The right flank abutted steep bluffs along the Schuylkill. Brigadier General James Potter’s 600-man Pennsylvania Militia was sent north to guard the road from Whitemarsh. Captain Allan McLane’s company from Delaware was assigned to watch the Ridge Road to the south. With McLane were 50 Oneida Indians acting as scouts. That night the Oneidas held bow-and-arrow target practice on a swarm of bats in the empty 17-year-old stone church building.
In Philadelphia, Clinton had just been appointed to succeed General Sir William Howe as commander in chief of British forces in America. Howe was preparing to leave for England, and 22 of his officers chipped in 140 pounds each to put together an extravagant farewell party. They called the event the Meschianza, which they claimed meant a mixture or medley, and held it at the late Joseph Wharton’s mansion just south of the city, with lawns sweeping 1,000 yards down to the Delaware River. At 3:30 p.m. on May 18, the guests gathered on Knight’s Wharf, up the river from the northern city limits. A flotilla of barges, decorated with flags and bunting, carried the revelers past the city waterfront, while cannons saluted, crowds cheered and bands on ships played “God Save the King.” The women wore specially designed medieval costumes, and men and horses dressed King Arthur–style jousted on the lawn. There was a huge buffet, dancing in a mirrored hall, 20 different fireworks displays starting at 10 p.m., a midnight supper with 430 places set with 1,200 dishes—all in all, the most ostentatious party thrown in Philadelphia up to that time, and possibly since.
Captain McLane, an independent colonial cuss who was wealthy enough to equip and pay his soldiers from his own pocket, decided to have some fun. Just before dawn, he and some of his 150 men, supported by a company of dragoons, left Barren Hill and galloped past the British emplacements spaced along Wissahickon Creek northwest of Philadelphia and—on a line across the north of the city—simulated an attack by dropping exploding iron pots of gunpowder and scrap metal. British sentries responded with muskets and cannons.
Loyalist Philadelphia civilians at the lavish party less than two miles to the south were frightened by the distant explosions. British officers assured the worried guests that the noise was part of the entertainment, while quietly dispatching frantic orders and causing pointless military confusion. The carousing finally broke up at 4:30 a.m. The British senior officers must not have had much rest on Saturday as they planned for the move against Washington’s boy general.
At 10:30 p.m. on May 19, British Maj. Gen. James Grant left Philadelphia with 5,500 Redcoats and German mercenaries, and 15 cannons. Grant disdained the American army and had once announced in Parliament that he could “march from one end of the continent to the other with 5,000 men.” For now, however, all he had to do was head north of the city, swing around to Whitemarsh, come down to the crossroads settlement of Plymouth Meeting— named for a 1703 Quaker meetinghouse—and cut off the American retreat route. His battle-wise veterans made the 20-mile march by sunrise.
Elsewhere, Maj. Gen. Charles “No Flint” Grey was leading 2,000 British grenadiers and a small contingent of dragoons up Germantown Road to hit Lafayette’s left flank at the ridge; curves of Germantown Road and Ridge Road are less than a mile apart at St. Peter’s Church. Grey was hated by the Americans because of his devastating surprise attack on sleeping Continentals at Paoli the previous autumn. He had earned his nickname by collecting the flints from his men’s muskets to ensure that they couldn’t fire during that attack, leaving it for them to slaughter the Americans with their bayonets.
Another 2,000 Redcoats were earmarked to march up Ridge Road to confront the Americans at Barren Hill and trap them against the river. That body was led by Clinton and Howe.
It was foggy and unseasonably warm at dawn on May 20 as columns of British soldiers trudged up Ridge Road. Their mounted advance guard, trotting ahead, then came upon the 50 war-painted Oneidas. The Oneidas, who had never before fought against mounted soldiers, whooped, the British horses reared and each group wisely turned around and rapidly went the other way. The commotion alerted McLane’s troopers, however. They captured two British grenadiers in the advance party, and questioned them about the enemy’s plans.
Potter’s outnumbered militia detected Grant’s approach and pulled back, but neglected to inform Lafayette that the enemy was on the way. He got a warning from Whitemarsh when a Captain Stone (some sources call him Stoy) of the militia was awakened in his home by the footsteps of passing British regulars. The excited captain leaped out of bed naked, jumped out a back window and ran for Barren Hill. He collapsed from exhaustion near Plymouth Meeting, but gasped his message to a citizen, variously known as either Rudolph Bartle or Richard Bartleson, who ran the rest of the way to alert Lafayette. Intelligence also came from McLane, who raced back to Barren Hill after leaving a company of riflemen to make contact with Clinton’s force on the ridge and fight a delaying action.
The British now had about 10,000 men maneuvering to catch the 2,200 Continental troops in a pincer envelopment, with the river at their backs. Lafayette knew that he didn’t have the numbers or the position to take on an army that outnumbered him 5-to-1. He also knew, however, that another road led down past Spring Mill to Matson’s Ford, a river crossing at the present-day town of Conshohocken. The road passed along rocky, wooded ground that was low and out of sight of the enemy.
The American soldiers had been drilling at Valley Forge since March under the direction of Prussian Maj. Gen. Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Among other things, they had learned to retreat swiftly in compact, orderly platoon columns, European style. Lafayette would now put their newfound discipline to the test. He calmly established a small rear guard around the church, sent out flag-bearing heads of columns to simulate the start of an attack against Grant, and pulled the bulk of his force back across the Schuylkill at Matson’s Ford. When Clinton and Grant moved their forces forward to close the trap, they were dismayed to bump into each other. The Americans had slipped out of the pincers.
The British caught up with the last American units at the river crossing. A brief skirmish ensued in which nine Americans were killed or captured, while the British counted two dead and seven wounded.
Lafayette quickly formed his men and cannons along the west bank of the Schuylkill. Judging that it would be suicidal to try an assault across the river, the British turned and marched back to Philadelphia, hot and exhausted. In extricating his little division from a trap in the face of 5-to-1 odds, the teenage French general had outwitted and humiliated some of Britain’s best generals.
Historians have since questioned the wisdom of Washington’s decision to send such a large contingent on the risky mission to Barren Hill. To military men, however, Lafayette’s smooth withdrawal was a clue that a new, professional Continental Army had emerged from Valley Forge, one that had a chance to take on the mighty British army and win independence for the American colonies. It would get a greater opportunity to prove its mettle a month later at Monmouth Court House.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.