Lafayette at Barren Hill, May 1778

The following text describing Lafayette's actions at Barren Hill in May 1778 is taken from pp.405-407 of Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, Including Battle Maps and Charts of the American Revolution by Henry Beebee Carrington (Promontory Press, date: 1974; combining works -- text and maps -- by author in 1877 and 1881), Comments within brackets are added by webpage editor.

With the opening spring [1778] General Howe found himself constrained to send detachments for supplies and forage, which became scarce in proportion as Washington's army infested the country. Colonel Mawhood and Major Simcoe engaged a militia force under Colonel Holmes, at Quinton's Bridge near Salem, New Jersey, on the eighteenth of March, with little credit and little plunder. On the twenty-first of March another expedition, under Major Simcoe, accompanied by Colonel Mawhood, engaged the militia at Hancock's Bridge, five miles south of Salem, and the incidents, as recorded in Simcoe's own journal, are not to his credit. On the first of May Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie, with Major Simcoe, engaged militia under General Lacey, at the Crooked Billet, in Montgomery, Pennsylvania, inflicting some loss, but gathering neither food nor forage.
To cut off and restrict these detachments, Washington, on the eighteenth of May, advanced General La Fayette, with twenty-one hundred chosen troops and five pieces of artillery to Barren Hill, about half the distance toward Philadelphia. His orders gave him command over all outposts and skirmishing detachments, contemplated the contingency of an early evacuation of Philadelphia by the. British army, and with caution as to prudence in taking his positions and risking doubtful movements, conferred large authority and discretion in the execution of his instructions.
It was practically a corps of observation, and it was the first really independent command of La Fayette, as a Major-general. The execution of his trust illustrates those peculiar traits of his character which had early attracted the favor of Washington, won his respect, and gradually deepened into an attachment almost paternal in its depth and endurance. The American Commander-in-chief, however reticent of his opinions, rarely failed to read men. He read La Fayette. With singular enthusiasm, great purity of character and purpose, unswerving fidelity to obligation, and thorough contempt the mean or dishonorable, this young French gentleman, now Major-general, combined a quick sagacity, sound judgment and quick execution.
Reference is made to map "La Fayette at Barren Hill." [Charrington's map has been substituted for this webpage] site for his camp was well selected. A steep, rocky ledge was on the right toward the Schuylkill as well as to the front where his guns were placed. Captain McLean's light troops and fifty Indian scouts were just below, near the Ridge road, and pickets were still further advanced on the road and in the woods. To the left was a dense forest, and just on its edge there were several stone houses well capable of defense Six hundred Pennsylvania militia under General Porter were posted on the Whitemarsh road. The sudden retreat of this body without notice or reporting their action, very nearly involved his command in a conflict with more than double its force. At the forks of the two roads there was a stone church in a burying ground which was inclosed by a stone fence ; and La Fayette established his headquarters close by.

General Clinton had already relieved General Howe from the command at Philadelphia. Five thousand British troops were ordered to surprise the American camp at Barren Hill, and Generals Grant and Erskine were associated in the attempt. This command marched , early on the morning of May nineteenth by the Lime-kiln and old York roads, and very early the next morning passed Whitemarsh, where it changed direction to the left toward Barren Hill, with the design , of cutting off La Fayette's retreat by Swede's Ford. General Grey with two thousand men crossed the Schuylkill and marched along its west bank to a point about three miles below Barren Hill to be in readiness to act in concert with the other detachments. General Clinton with a third division marched by Chestnut Hill, and up the Manatawny road to make enclosure of La Fayette's command within their enveloping forces the more secure. The plan was skillfully conceived. While General La Fayette, as he states, was conversing with a young lady then on her way to Philadelphia, (ostensibly to visit friends, but really to obtain information) he was notified that red uniforms had been seen in the woods, near the road from Whitemarsh to Swede's Ford, in his rear. One hundred dragoons had been ordered to join him. They had scarlet uniforms and his first impression was that they were close at hand. To assure himself, he immediately sent scouts into the woods and learned the real facts. He changed front immediately, occupied the church, burying ground and all strong points, and then "made a display of false heads of columns," as if preparing to advance promptly upon the enemy. General Grant halted his advance guard to await the arrival of the whole division, before engaging with the American troops. The British column then on the Ridge road, also halted, and waited for assurance that the right had really reached La Fayette's rear; and this was to be determined by an actual attack.
A country road ran from the church directly under Barren Hill to Matson's Ford, which was very little further from Valley Forge than Swede's Ford. This road was entirely hidden from view by the hill. The British right rested at the crossing of the two principal roads to both fords ; and as will appear from the map, they were nearer to Matson's Ford than La Fayette was; but supposed that they controlled all approaches.
General Poor was ordered to lead the retreat, and La Fayette brought up the rear. The troops retired in order and so promptly that the main body crossed the ford and occupied high and commanding ground as the British vanguard learned of the movement, and pressed on in pursuit. As the last troops crossed, a brisk skirmish ensued over the guns, which were the last to follow; but the retreat was perfected and the guns were saved.
General Washington had a distinct view of the British movement as it advanced, and fired alarm guns to warn La Fayette ; but the wisdom, coolness, and promptness of that officer saved his command. The American loss was nine, and that of the British was reported as three. La Fayette relates the fact, that " fifty Indian scouts were suddenly confronted by an equal number of British dragoons," and that "the mutual surprise was so great that both fled, with equal speed."
The congratulations of Washington were as cordial on the return of La Fayette as the greeting of the British troops on their return was cool and impassioned. No doubt had been entertained that the French Marquis would become the guest of the garrison that evening, and this was one of the minor disappointments of this fruitless expedition.

Below is a detail from a map executed by Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, the marquis de Lafayette's cartographer, who accompanied the Marquis during most of his American deployment. Of the six eighteenth-century Capitaine manuscript maps in American libraries, three depict 'the retreat' from Barren Hill.

[Henry Carrington's text, pp. 407-408, has this further to say about the event]

General Howe closed his official connection with the British service on the eleventh of May, but remained in Philadelphia until after the march to Barren Hill.
Extraordinary fetes, parades, salutes, and scenic displays, formed part of a demonstration in his honor before his departure. A regatta on the Delaware, a tournament on land, triumphal arches, decorated pavilions, mounted maidens in Turkish costumes, slaves in fancy habits, knights, esquires, heralds, and every brilliant device, made the eighteenth day of May memorable, from daybreak until dark. Balls, illuminations, fire-works, wax lights, flowers and fantastic drapery cheered the night hours, exhibiting, as described by Major Andre, "a coup de oeil, beyond description, magnificent." "Among the fairest of the ladies was Miss Shippen, the subsequent second wife of Arnold." At four o'clock on the morning of the nineteenth, the twenty-four hours of hilarity, adulation and extravagance closed, and the army hastened to Barren Hill to capture La Fayette.

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Page created 12 November 2007.