For the last couple of weeks I talked about the Pennsylvania militia over the winter of 1777-78 and the British occupation of Philadelphia. The takeaway from that is that it was a mess and that it nearly got itself wiped out during the British attack at Crooked Billet. The only thing that prevented complete destruction was the militiamen’s ability to run and hide.
With the Pennsylvania militia dispersed following Crooked Billet, and with the coming of warmer weather, General Washington grew concerned that the British might attempt an offensive on Valley Forge. To make sure this did not happen, he deployed a division to move closer to Philadelphia in order to keep an eye on British. He handed this command of the Continentals to Major General Lafayette.
Recall that the Marquis de Lafayette had been a Continental officer for less than a year. The nineteen year old French army captain with zero combat experience received a commission as major general based, primarily on his willingness to work without pay and the hope that his family connections with the French Court might help to secure the much needed alliance.
The injury, however, meant that Lafayette spent the next couple of months convalescing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When he returned to duty in November, Washington assigned him a small independent command. Lafayette led a minor raid on a British Camp at Gloucester, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. That was enough to win the command of a division. After Congress dismissed Major General Adam Stephen for his conduct at Germantown, Washington gave Lafayette command of that division.
After that, Congress assigned Lafayette to lead a new offensive to retake Quebec. The thought was that a French leader might inspire the local Quebecois to rise up against the British and join the movement for independence. While the mission began with great intentions, it ran smack into the reality that there were no supplies to begin the campaign. The whole plan fell apart before it even got started. Lafayette had to return to Valley Forge having accomplished nothing.
With all of that experience, and with the young general no longer a teenager, having had a birthday in the fall, Washington turned over one-third of his active army, about 2200 soldiers, to Lafayette so that he could lead them toward Philadelphia and protect the rest of the army at Valley Forge from a surprise attack.
When we consider the Marquis’ meteoric rise to power in the Continental Army, it might be a good idea to consider the entire top leadership of the army at this point. The army had begun by assigning top leadership posts to men of mixed experience. The first three years of the war had shaken out many of the bad ones and led to the loss of many good ones. Lafayette was the 18th major general commissioned by the Continental Congress.
The most senior major general in the army, Artemas Ward, was a New England officer and resigned shortly after the war left New England in the spring of 1776. The next most senior officer, Charles Lee was a British prisoner of war. Number three, Philip Schuyler, had lost his command just before the battle of Saratoga and was living at home, although technically still serving. Number four, Israel Putnam had not inspired much faith as a commander and had been pushed off into an unimportant command in upstate New York. The next two men, Generals Montgomery and Thomas had both died during the Quebec campaign. Montgomery was killed in the attack on Quebec. Thomas died of smallpox. Number seven, General Horatio Gates was still an important commander, but was on the outs with Washington after the circumstances surrounding the Conway Cabal.
Number ten, John Sullivan had just faced court martial for his actions at Brandywine and his attack on Staten Island. However, he still had Washington’s confidence. Washington had just deployed him to Providence, Rhode Island to replace General Spencer following that resignation. Some had wanted number eleven, General Nathanael Greene to take that post in Rhode Island, since he was from that state. However, Washington had recently pressured Greene to take on the role of Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, meaning he was no longer in a position to assume command of soldiers in the field.
Benedict Arnold had only recently moved up to number twelve on the list. Recall that Congress had appointed five other major generals in February 1777, skipping over the more senior Brigadier General Arnold. When it finally granted the commission after Arnold’s leadership at Danbury, Arnold was number seventeen on the list. Arnold had tried to resign, just before heading off to Saratoga because Congress would not make him more senior. After his critical role in winning Saratoga, Congress finally granted his request for retroactive seniority, putting him at number twelve on the list. However, Arnold had severely injured his leg at Saratoga, and that prevented him from assuming any command for the time being.
Number thirteen on the list, William Alexander, aka Lord Stirling, was one of the newest major generals that still had Washington’s favor. He commanded one of Washington’s divisions. Four other generals who received their appointments on the same day as Stirling: Thomas Mifflin was the failed quartermaster, who was at this time serving on the Board of War with General Gates. Arthur St. Clair was court martialed after giving up Fort Ticonderoga. Although he did not get another field command, he continued to serve as an aide to General Washington. Adam Stephen, as I just said, had been removed from the army for his performance at Germantown. Benjamin Lincoln was still respected, but also recovering from injuries after Saratoga.
That brings us to number eighteen, Lafayette, who had made his way to division commander. Just to round out the list, There were six more major generals by the spring of 1778. Philip de Coudray had served for about a month before drowning. Johan de Kalb, who had arrived with Lafayette was now also a division commander. Robert Howe of North Carolina was serving as commander of the southern department. Alexander McDougall was running the show in upstate New York, along with Israel Putnam. Thomas Conway had received his commission in December 1777, and had resigned by April following his tiff with General Washington.
|Friedrich von Steuben|
Friedrich von Steuben, who had done such a great job training the soldiers at Valley Forge, finally received recognition in May, 1778 with his own commission as major general, as he continued to serve as inspector general of the army. Von Steuben would be the last major general to be commissioned for the next two and a half years. Congress would not commission anyone else until late 1780.
In case you were wondering, that left General William Thompson of Pennsylvania as the senior brigadier in the army. Thompson, who had been the twelfth brigadier appointed, had been taken prisoner in 1776, just after he received his commission. He would remain a prisoner until late 1780, hence no promotion. Next was number twenty-one, General John Nixon, who had been so badly wounded at Saratoga that he could never take up a command again. The senior brigadier still on active duty was Samuel Parsons, who originally had been number 24 on the list. By this time, aside from Thompson and Nixon, all of those above Parsons had been promoted, killed or had resigned. Parsons was serving in upstate New York. He would finally break through to major general in October 1780, when Congress finally resumed promotions. So that’s how the Continental leadership stood at that point.
Meanwhile, the British leadership was also undergoing a major change. General William Howe had tendered his resignation the prior fall, frustrated by London’s failure to provide him with sufficient soldiers to run all the military campaigns that he thought necessary to crush the rebellion.
When General Clinton arrived in Philadelphia in early May, he bought his orders from London and worked with General Howe to transition the leadership. The two men spent the next couple of weeks discussing the state of affairs and next steps.
Meanwhile, most of the British officers were sorry to see Howe go. Despite his inability to bring the war to an end, Howe remained a popular leader with the officer corps. Two junior officers, Captain John André and Captain Oliver De Lancey, raised a collection of 3312 guineas from the rest of the officers to throw a massive farewell party for General Howe. That would be about $750,000 in inflation-adjusted US dollars. Of course many people on their own purchased costumes and other items for the event, with total expenses for the party running several million dollars in inflation-adjusted terms.
Among the events was a regatta of decorated barges down the Delaware River, with cannon salutes. The lead barge was General Howe, along with his brother Admiral Lord Howe and General Sir Henry Clinton. Along with them were guests, including General Howe’s mistress Elizabeth Loring. At least twenty seven barges moved down the Delaware from Knight’s Wharf near Vine street to a point near Old Swedes Church south of the city, about a mile and a half in total. Accompanying them were at least three bands aboard barges. As the flotilla passed navy warships or regiments lined up along shore, cannon salutes marked their passage. When the lead ship reached its destination, all the ships stopped while all the bands played “God Save the King.”
Next, the honorees and their guests, led by the military marching bands, paraded through the streets to the estate of Joseph Wharton, known as Walnut Grove, just south of the city. Again they paraded past regiments that lined up to honor their commander and thousands of locals who turned out for the parade. The group passed under two triumphal arches, one built to honor Admiral Howe, and the other to honor General Howe.
|Walnut Grove, site of the Mischianza|
It was here that John André declared his love for a young woman named Peggy. Many of you who know about André may think this was Peggy Shippen. In fact, no, it was Peggy Chew, daughter of Benjamin Chew, the colonial Chief Justice whose house had played such a prominent role at the Battle of Germantown. Peggy Shippen and her sister had planned to attend. However, their Quaker father saw the satin costumes that the girls intended to wear and found them indecent. He forbade his daughters from attending. Peggy responded by what her father called “a bout of hysteria.”
Following the tournament, the party moved into a grand hall of the home, which was extravagantly decorated for the event using what was described as a “Turkish theme.” Celebrants enjoyed drinks and light snacks and then enjoyed playing cards for some time with real gold. Howe’s game of choice was a game called faro.
At midnight the guests sat down for a grand banquet. In a city that had been perpetually short on rations, a banquet was especially extravagant. A band played through the night and Captain André read a poem to honor General Howe. The celebrations continued until dawn on the 19th, when revelers finally made their way home.
Celebrants aside, most of the locals found the event inappropriate. Mrs. Henry Drinker, a Quaker, wrote in her diary:
This day may be remembered by many from the scenes of folly and vanity promoted by the officers of the army under pretext of showing respect to General Howe. … How insensible do those people appear, while our land is so greatly desolated, and death and sore destruction has overtaken and impends over so many!
Mrs. Drinker was not alone in thinking the extravagance was inappropriate. Ambrose Searle, secretary to Admiral Lord Howe, wrote in his journal: “Our enemies will dwell upon the folly & extravagance of [the mischianza] with pleasure. Every man of sense among ourselves, though not unwilling to pay a due respect, was ashamed of this mode of doing it.” That said, it was a night that few would ever forget.
Just as the British began the Mischianza on the evening of May 18, Lafayette already moved his division out of Valley Forge, crossed the Schuylkill River, and set up camp on Barren Hill, just outside the British lines. Washington had ordered him to “march toward the enemy lines” so that he could provide a buffer for the rest of the army at Valley Forge, to stop any smaller incursions into the area. He was also supposed to obtain intelligence about enemy movements. This was Lafayette’s first independent command of any size.
|Barren Hill Battlefield|
On the evening of May 19, only a few hours after the end of the Mischianza, the British commanders received word of the force under the command of General Lafayette. They viewed it as an opportunity to capture some prisoners, especially the boy general. This would be an embarrassment to both America and France. Within hours, the British and Hessian force turned out, the bulk of the army around Philadelphia, about 16,000 soldiers. Part of the reason for the overwhelming force was that the British hoped that Washington might march from Valley Forge to try to rescue Lafayette’s division. If he did, it might give the British one final chance to defeat the Continentals entirely before abandoning Philadelphia.
The soldiers deployed in the predawn hours of May 20th, expecting to bag their quarry quickly and return back to the city that same day. General Howe even made plans for a victory dinner in Philadelphia, hoping to have Lafayette as the guest of honor.
Lafayette’s position on heights, just east of the Schuylkill River, prevented a retreat from that direction. The British sent a division of about five thousand soldiers under General James Grant to the north, so that the Continentals could not escape from the direction they came. They sent another division under the command of General Charles “no flints” Grey to attack the American left flank and keep them pinned against the river. Meanwhile General Howe was given the honor of personally leading the main force, along with General Clinton, that would assault Barren Hill from the south and demand Lafayette’s surrender.
The capture of General Lafayette and one-third of the Continental Army would have been a crushing blow. Fortunately for the Continentals, that would not happen. The Continentals picked the position because the heights gave them a good view of the surrounding area. Sentries were able to see the British Army marching toward them from far away, even though it was a nighttime advance.
|Gen. Lafayette on Battlefield|
This escape was dependent on Potter’s Pennsylvania militia putting up enough of a defense to halt the British under General Grant, and prevent them from cutting off the escape route. Potter, with his 600 militia took one look at the 5000 regulars advancing on him and decided, yeah, I’m not doing this. His troops scattered into the woods and made their escape without a shot fired. As Lafayette put it in his report General Potter “thought proper to retire” from the field.
However, Lafayette also remained on the heights with a rearguard. He ordered a small number of troops to march towards Grant’s regulars, appearing to be the head of a larger column. This forced Grant to halt his advance and put his men in line for battle. Another group of British dragoons rode toward the Continental lines, only to run into a company of fifty Oneida Indians who were serving in the Continental Army. The Indians gave a war whoop as they jumped out of the bushes. The British dragoons, fearing an Indian ambush, turned and fled. The Indians then caught up with the escaping column before the British figured out they were such a small force that the British could have easily overrun them.
As the British halted their advance and prepared for battle, Lafayette and the remaining rearguard hightailed it out of there, making their way down the sunken road and across the Schuylkill via a ford to the other side. The British, finding the Americans had escaped, were not prepared to chase them across the Pennsylvania countryside. Instead, they withdrew back to the city.
The Battle of Barren Hill, therefore only led to some very minor skirmishing. Some reports indicate three Americans were killed and nine British. Washington was pleased to hear of Lafayette’s escape. The British leadership were frustrated at their inability to surround and capture this inferior force with its back against the river.
A few days later, General Howe boarded a ship bound for London, never to return.
Next week: British in Rhode Island conduct several spring raids, which we know collectively as the Mount Hope Bay Raids.
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Next Episode 185 Mount Hope Bay Raids (Available January 24, 2021)
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Mischianza, Philadelphia: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mischianza-philadelphia
John Andre and the Mischianza: http://librarycompany.org/artifacts/meschianza.htm
Bishop, Morris “You Are Invited To A Mischianza” American Heritage Magazine, August 1974 Volume 25 Issue 5: https://www.americanheritage.com/you-are-invited-mischianza
The Battle of Barren Hill: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/battle-of-barren-hill-1778
“From George Washington to Major General Lafayette, 18 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0152
(from archive.org unless noted)
Biddle, Henry D. (ed) Extracts from the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759 to 1807, A. D., Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1889.
Lowry, Robert A Complete History of the Marquis de Lafayette, New York: R. Lowry, 1826.
Mauduit, Israel Strictures on the Philadelphia Mischianza or Triumph Upon Leaving America Unconquered, London: printed for J. Bew, 1779.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Commager, Henry Steele Commager (Ed) and Richard B. Morris (Ed) The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, 2002.
Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Jackson, John W. With the British Army in Philadelphia 1777-1778, Presidio Press, 1979.
Konkle, Burton A. Benjamin Chew, 1722-1810: Head of the Pennsylvania Judiciary System Under Colony and Commonwealth, Univ of Pennsylvania Press, 1932.
Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co, 1990.
Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.