Ordered to cut off supplies to British troops occupying Philadelphia, a young Patriot officer played a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Just before midnight on April 30, 1778, Brig. Gen. John Lacey Jr. walked the perimeter of his unit’s encampment north of the crossroads village of Crooked Billet, 17 miles north of British occupied Philadelphia. For the past three months the Pennsylvania militia officer and the troops under his command had patrolled the area between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, under orders from General George Washington to prevent local Loyalists from providing food and other supplies to the Crown forces holding the colony’s capital.
At 23 years old Lacey was one of the youngest senior officers in the Continental Army. Commissioned in 1776 as a company captain in the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, he had served under Colonel Anthony Wayne during the latter part of the ill-fated 1775–76 Canadian campaign, then at Fort Ticonderoga through late 1776. Chafing under Wayne’s uncompromising command, Lacey had resigned his Continental commission, but in May 1777 he had accepted an appointment as a lieutenant colonel in the Bucks County militia, first leading men into combat that November at White Marsh. Politically astute and well connected, by January 1778 he had ascended to flag rank.
As the Continental Army had struggled through the previous winter, commander-in-chief Washington had become convinced that aid provided to British forces by Loyalists was helping to sustain the enemy at a critical time in the fight for American independence. Assigned to halt the flow of supplies into Philadelphia was Brig. Gen. James Potter, a veteran who had fought under Washington from Trenton to Germantown. When the Irish-born officer secured a leave of absence to care for his ailing wife, however, the assignment fell to the well-regarded and newly promoted Lacey. Initially flattered, the young Pennsylvania militia general would soon come to regret having accepted the assignment.
For British forces seeking to quash American independence, 1777 had been a mixed year. On October 17 Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne had been compelled to surrender his entire command after the Battle of Saratoga. However, less than a month earlier Britain’s commander in chief in North America, General Sir William Howe, had defeated Washington in several engagements and captured Philadelphia in an almost textbook military campaign.
The most populous city in North America, with some 25,000 residents, and headquarters of the Second Continental Congress, Philadelphia would have seemed a war-winning objective for any 18th-century general. However, the British never quite fully comprehended the administrative flexibility of the nascent republic, which was loosely governed under the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, when Philadelphia fell, the rebel legislators simply packed up and moved to Baltimore. While Washington and his forces went into winter camp some 25 miles upriver along the Schuylkill at Valley Forge—which, though less than ideal, was easily defensible and relatively close to Philadelphia should an opportunity arise to attack the city—the British settled in for a relatively comfortable occupation.
That occupation was not without its logistical challenges, however. Although the British remained secure and uncontested behind a series of fortifications, the garrison’s size—some 16,000 men—required a steady stream of supplies to feed both the troops and the civilian population. The Patriot-held Delaware River forts of Mifflin and Mercer blocked initial attempts to resupply the city by water, and even after Howe’s troops drove the Americans from both forts, harsh winter weather made shipborne resupply problematic. Out of necessity the British turned to the surrounding countryside for food and other supplies.
Fortunately for the Crown forces, many residents of Philadelphia and the surrounding area remained loyal to King George III and were glad to be rid of the Continental Congress. The outbreak of war had crippled the city’s lucrative trade with Britain and stemmed the flow of British currency. To compensate, Congress and individual states had issued vast amounts of paper money. But it depreciated rapidly, and as the occupation drifted into 1778, Loyalist farmers brought a steady stream of food and other supplies to the British garrison in return for the king’s coins. It was this logistical flow into the capital Lacey was to halt.
Washington kept in regular contact with the young general, issuing specific instructions. “Protecting the inhabitants is one of the ends designed,” the commander in chief wrote Lacey on January 23, “and preventing supplies and intercourse with the enemy the other. This, perhaps, with the utmost vigilance cannot be totally affected. But I must entreat you to take every step that may render it possible.” As the winter dragged on, Lacey’s responsibilities increased. But despite being promised a minimum of 1,000 troops, the young brigadier rarely had more than a few hundred ragged men at his disposal—a number insufficient to defend his own headquarters let alone complete his overall mission.
Lacey did manage to become a thorn in Howe’s side, as farmers caught trying to smuggle provisions to the British garrison were seized and flogged, their supplies and horses confiscated. But his ill-equipped and outnumbered force remained little more than a nuisance. On February 2 Lacey informed President Thomas Wharton Jr. of Pennsylvania’s Executive Council of his predicament. “My strength is reduced so low,” he wrote, “that I am under the necessity of collecting the small remains into one body, as it is impossible to do any service in the weak and scattered condition in which I had them posted.” On February 15 he had more bad news for Wharton: “My force is at last reduced to almost a cipher. Only 60 remain fit for duty in camp. With this number you must of course suppose we are in no wise capable of guarding so extensive a country as this, nor even safe in our camp.”
Harrying Lacey and his men were patrols of British dragoons and Loyalists troops. In February the renowned Queen’s Rangers, under Major John Graves Simcoe, along with a group of locally recruited Loyalists, swept the countryside, capturing prisoners and supplies en route to Washington at Valley Forge. Among the booty were desperately needed bolts of cloth and a herd of 130 cattle, which Loyalists promptly herded into Philadelphia.
Washington berated Lacey for not having better protected the cattle. “I am sorry to say,” the commander in chief wrote, “that the loss is imputed to your having refused to let the drovers have a guard when they applied for one. I shall be glad to know whether it is so…[and] what could be your reason for refusing.” Lacey admitted the lapse, but blamed it on his lack of adequate troops. At the time he had scarcely 400 inexperienced, ill-equipped and poorly armed men. Had he provided an escort, he insisted, it would have left his encampment open to attack.
It was a prescient statement.
Despite being poorly armed and outnumbered by the British, Lacey and his Pennsylvania militiamen continued to patrol Bucks and Montgomery counties through the early spring of 1778, making examples of anyone caught with supplies intended for the enemy.
In April a frustrated Howe, who had submitted his resignation the preceding fall, was preparing to return to Britain. Before leaving, however, he wanted to sew up any unfinished business—including the elimination of Lacey and his nettlesome command. Toward that end, Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers, who had gotten wind of Lacey’s location from a Loyalist spy, obtained permission to launch an attack. Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour, Howe’s intelligence aide, gathered a group of officers to hatch a plan.
Weeks earlier the militia commander had set up headquarters north of the namesake tavern at Crooked Billet (present-day Hatboro), sending patrols from there to scour the countryside between the Delaware and Schuylkill. From his various raids and scouting parties Simcoe was very familiar with the area and prepared a detailed plan of attack. In overall command of the operation was French and Indian War veteran Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby, who ranked among Britain’s most adept field commanders, with a reputation for incorruptibility.
In addition to the 430 men of the Queen’s Rangers, Abercromby had 14 companies of light and heavy infantry from his own 37th Regiment of Foot, and two troops of 17th Dragoons under Major Richard Crewe. Two local Loyalist units—a troop of Philadelphia Light Dragoons, under Captain James Kerr, and Chester County Dragoons, under Captain Jacob James—would also take part in the action. All told the British force comprised some 850 men. Having learned from the fiascos at Lexington and Concord that large, slow-moving incursions into the countryside were vulnerable to attack from smaller, more mobile Patriot units, the British planned a quick and decisive strike against Lacey. Abercromby even brought along additional horses should it prove necessary to mount the infantrymen.
Simcoe’s plan—which called for the British column to reach Crooked Billet undetected at first light—hinged on a classic “pincer” double envelopment. The Queen’s Rangers would approach Lacey’s left flank and rear, thus forestalling a retreat east to the safety of nearby hills, while infantrymen lying in ambush along the road west toward the Horsham Meetinghouse would cut off any possible retreat to the main army at Valley Forge. As the Queen’s Rangers launched their assault, a third body of British troops would march up the York Road through Crooked Billet to attack Lacey’s front. Trapping the Patriots between them, the British would destroy Lacey’s command once and for all—in theory, anyway.
The British set the attack for the morning of May 1, Abercromby’s troops departing their Philadelphia barracks the previous afternoon. Guided by Loyalist scouts familiar with the country, the column advanced some 4 miles to the tavern crossroads of Rising Sun. There it split into the planned assault groups—Simcoe leading approximately 325 men, Abercromby with the main force of about 525.
Despite Simcoe’s meticulous preparations, his plan soon began to unravel. During the night march his column came on a Loyalist patrol under Captain William Thomas. Simcoe’s foreknowledge of the partisans’ presence prevented a “friendly fire” incident, but the encounter slowed his advance. Abercromby, too, was delayed, and both were still on the march when dawn broke. A few miles from Crooked Billet an early rising turkey hunter spotted Abercromby’s column, which soon fell afoul of one of Lacey’s patrols. Fearing capture, however, the Patriot scouts failed to fire their muskets in warning as prearranged. Their officer sent a runner back to camp. Abercromby, not knowing the disposition of Simcoe’s column and concerned his infantrymen would not reach the point of ambush in time to surprise the Patriots, sent Crewe, his dragoons and a detachment of light infantrymen ahead to make preparations. After reaching the ambush site undiscovered, however, Crewe decided on his own initiative to scout ahead. He was approaching the York Road intersection on Pennypack Creek, a quarter-mile from town, when fired on by a sentry on the bridge. Having lost the element of surprise, Crewe led his riders on a gallop into Crooked Billet. The light infantrymen dismounted and took cover, while the dragoons continued to their assigned station just shy of the Patriot camp.
Lacey had gone into camp at Crooked Billet because his 53 troops were too few to man the various forward outposts or maintain regular patrols. However, by the morning of May 1 the belated arrival of reinforcements had swelled his command to 300 able-bodied men, although owing to chronic shortages of muskets and ammunition many of the troops were unarmed. Lacey had ordered a patrol to set out by 3 a.m. on May 1 to watch the road to Philadelphia, but the scouts didn’t actually leave until nearly daylight. Their delay proved fortuitous for the British, who were able to make up much of the time they’d lost on the approach march.
Simcoe was closing on the Patriot left, about 2 miles east of Crooked Billet, when he heard musket fire from the Pennypack Creek crossing. He sent Kerr and his Loyalist dragoons across country to seize Lacey’s headquarters while urging his tired Rangers into position for the assault.
Despite their dallying and missteps, the British had achieved near total surprise, the defenders largely unaware of their predicament until Crewe’s men were almost on top of them. Lacey hurriedly dressed and rode into camp. By then his men were in near panic. The runner had arrived with word of Abercromby’s approach, and sentries reported the presence of enemy soldiers on three sides. The British trap was not completely closed, however, as Simcoe’s Rangers were still on the march, and an escape route north to Bucks County remained open.
Lacey decided to make a run for it. He ordered his men to assemble on the camp’s parade ground, had the horses hitched to the baggage wagons and set out for the cover of a dense thicket about a mile north. Before his column could cross the open ground in between, however, the Patriot rearguard came under attack by Kerr’s dragoons to the east and Abercromby’s infantry from the west and south. The attacking British also cut off the baggage train, few of its guards escaping death or capture.
As the main Patriot column approached the thickets, Simcoe attempted a tried-and-true ruse de guerre. Riding out well ahead of his rangers, he boldly demanded the Patriots surrender. When that failed, he hollered out firing commands, “Make ready!…Present!” hoping to cow them into giving up. The retreating militiamen ducked at the word, “Fire!” but Lacey wasn’t fooled. He closed his ranks, broke through Crewe’s flanking dragoons and led his men to relative safety in thick woods about a mile and a half away in Bucks County.
Lacey and his force may have escaped annihilation, but Crooked Billet had been a costly affair. The Patriots had lost 92 men—nearly one-third of Lacey’s command—with 26 killed, eight wounded and 58 missing. The British claimed only seven men wounded—a remarkably low casualty rate considering the number of troops engaged and their previous record when fighting in the American countryside.
Though it went down as a British victory, Crooked Billet was a close-run thing. Simcoe’s plan had fallen short in several respects. For one, it failed to take into account that the attacking troops would be exhausted after an all-night march and unable to vigorously pursue the enemy should he take to flight. Of course, Crewe made several serious errors. He had rushed in after discovery by Patriot sentinels, throwing off the timing of Simcoe’s assault, then inexplicably reverted to the original plan when logic should have told him to hit Lacey’s camp with as much force as possible. Moreover, the British had failed to consider that Lacey was a native of the area and knew every possible escape route.
The British tarnished their victory with what would now be classified a war crime, as recounted by Lacey in a post-action report to the commander of the Pennsylvania militia:
Many of the unfortunate who fell into the merciless hands of the British were more cruelly and inhumanely butchered. Some were set on fire with buckwheat straw, and others had their clothes burnt on their backs. Some of the surviving sufferers say the enemy set fire to the wounded while yet alive, who struggled to put it out but were too weak and expired under this torture.
Lacey wasted little time in assigning blame for the defeat at Crooked Billet. As soon as he had established a new encampment, he ordered a general court-martial of the two officers he had ordered out on patrol the morning of the attack, accusing them of disobeying his orders and neglecting their duty. One was acquitted and returned to his regiment for duty, while the other was found guilty and cashiered.
Lacey, on the other hand, suffered no consequences for his decisions at Crooked Billet. Although Washington bluntly wrote the young commander that the rout he’d suffered at the hands of the British “will ever be the consequence of permitting yourself to be surprised,” Pennsylvania Executive Council Secretary Timothy Matlack praised Lacey, calling his conduct “highly approved.” Within months of the debacle Lacey was again commanding Pennsylvania troops, in the Susquehanna Valley. That November he won election to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and the following year he joined the Executive Council.
While a relatively minor event in the history of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Crooked Billet served as an object lesson for both sides of that struggle: First, the fight demonstrated the inability of poorly equipped Patriot militias to resist large-scale British raids. Second, it showed that local tactical victories accomplished little toward Britain’s overall efforts to quash the revolution. Indeed, little more than six weeks after crushing the Patriots at Crooked Billet, the British evacuated Philadelphia, never to return.
Andrew Zellers-Frederick is a Revolutionary War historian and executive director of the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society [sigalmuseum.org] in Easton, Pa. For further reading he recommends With the British Army in Philadelphia, 1777–1778, by John W. Jackson, and Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps Called the Queen’s Rangers, by John Graves Simcoe.
First published in Military History Magazine’s May 2017 issue.