Sunday, January 10, 2021

ARP183 Doan Brothers & Crooked Billet

By the spring of 1778, General Washington had fought off the political attempts to replace him and was ready to put the training of his new army, which had drilled under General Von Steuben all winter, to challenge the British in occupied Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Militia

The news had arrived in April that France had joined the war against Britain.  Hopes ran high that perhaps French supplies, and soldiers would arrive soon to assist the Continentals.  As a result, Washington did not want to risk his army on an all-out assault on Philadelphia, like Germantown.   Many wanted to wait and see if the French would arrive to supplement an attack that would have a greater chance of victory.  If the British remained in Philadelphia until a French fleet arrived at the Delaware, the British might be trapped.  At that point, a combined American and French attack on the city would have far more impact.  Until the French arrived, that could not happen.

At the same time, Washington was not a man to sit around and do nothing.  British supplies in Philadelphia were dwindling.  Washington focused on efforts to prevent people from the countryside from selling food or other supplies to the British in Philadelphia.  A French fleet in the Delaware Bay might even help to starve out the British.  The Americans left small units near the city to interdict any attempts to bring in food or anything else into the British lines.

Much of the control of these soldiers around Philadelphia was left to the local militia.  The Continentals were struggling to survive at Valley Forge.  The local militia knew the area better and were most useful in such missions as blocking civilians, rather than going into combat against the British.

John Lacey

The man in charge of the Pennsylvania militia north of Philadelphia was General John Lacey.  The young militia general, a Quaker from Bucks County, was not very experienced.  He had been only twenty years old when the war began.  

Gen. John Armstrong

Shortly after fighting broke out at Lexington, Lacey had set aside his Quaker principles to join the local patriot militia.  Coming from a pacifist community, there was little enthusiasm for the military, nor much of a militia tradition.  In January of 1776, Lacey raised a company of 64 men from his community.  That was enough to confer upon him the rank of captain.

Lacey’s company served in the regiment under the command of then-Colonel Anthony Wayne.  The regiment joined the Continental Army and Lacey received a continental commission.  He served under Wayne during the Quebec campaign as the Americans were forced to retreat back to New York.  It is not clear exactly what happened, but Lacey and Wayne had some sort of dispute.  Lacey ended up resigning his commission and returning to Pennsylvania. There, Lacey took a position as a lieutenant colonel in the local militia.  

The war returned to the area as General Howe began his Philadelphia campaign at the end of the summer of 1777.  Colonel Lacey took command of a regiment of militia draftees to go to the support of the state.  Pennsylvania raised about 3000 militiamen for the campaign.  Lacey fought at Germantown and in some smaller skirmishes that fall.  Another militia commander, General John Armstrong, led the militia army during this campaign.  You may recall that Armstrong had command of one of the four divisions that Washington deployed at Germantown.  Lacey also fought under Armstrong at Whitemarsh.

Gen. James Potter
At the end of the fighting season, after the Continentals retreated to Valley Forge, Armstrong received an appointment to serve as one of the Pennsylvania delegates to the Continental Congress.  He turned over command of the militia to General James Potter.  General Potter served as commander for only a few weeks before he requested leave to go home to care for his sick wife.

Potter’s decision to return home was not unusual.  Militia were not expected to remain in the field after an immediate danger had passed.  That was what the Continentals did. With the British now in their winter quarters in Philadelphia and the Continentals settled into Valley Forge, the Pennsylvania militia mostly went home for the winter.  This made perfect sense.  There was no food or shelter to keep an army in the field.  The officers and men could return home, rest up over the winter and feed themselves, then turn out again in the spring when the fighting season began again.

Even so, some militia needed to remain in the field during this time.  In January 1778, the Pennsylvania executive council promoted John Lacey to brigadier general and put him in command of the militia.  Lacey was just 23 years old at the time.  There was, however, not much militia to command.  The militia on active duty had dwindled to under 600 by the time Lacey took command.  The primary mission of those still on duty was interdicting supplies that civilians were attempting to take to Philadelphia for sale.

Lacey received word of his promotion and got word from General Potter to report to his camp.  By the time Lacey arrived, Potter had already left for home and no one was in charge.  There were only sixty men in the camp, guarding guns and equipment for an army of 3000.  Lacey took command and received instructions from General Washington to focus on interdicting commerce into the city.  The state had promised Lacey that he would receive another 1000 militia to support these efforts.  Those promised reinforcements never came.  His total force of about 600 actually fell to under 250 over the next few weeks.

The Doan Brothers

In addition to interdicting food, Lacey’s militia had to deal with emboldened Tories who still roamed through the greater Philadelphia area.  Although the British Army did not venture into Bucks County, many loyalists who lived in the area assumed that the arrival of the British would mean that the patriots would soon be gone.  Many of Tories were either out for revenge for the way they had been treated, or were seeking benefits from the British for showing their loyalty.

Some good examples of these types are a group known as the Doan Gang.  Almost every element of the Doan’s story is disputed.  Some view them as heroic Robin Hood types while others portray them as bloodthirsty outlaws.  As with many things the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  I want to tell their story because it is interesting.  But my version is simply based on reading the versions of others, many of which have a sketchy provenance.  So please don’t take my interpretation as definitive.

Five Doan brothers, Moses, Aaron, Levi, Mahlon, and Joseph, as well a cousin Abraham formed the core of what became known as the Doan Gang.  Before the war, in 1770, Moses got into a fight with his father and left the family farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  For some time, he lived with a local Indian tribe.  There, he learned to live off the land and got to know the unsettled areas of the county rather well.

According to Doan family lore, the father of the family, Joseph Doan, was a Quaker and a loyalist.  When the patriots took control of Pennsylvania, they demanded that he pay taxes to them.  Doan refused to recognize the taxing authority of these rebels and would not pay.  As a result, the patriots threw the family off of their land and reduced them to poverty. 

Others dispute this story, saying that Pennsylvania records show that it did not seize the farm until near the end of the war.  However, it is possible that the eviction took place years before and the paperwork was filed much later.  

Whatever the reason, Moses opposed the patriot cause and enlisted his brothers and his cousin into a group that would wreak havoc against the patriots.  In July of 1776, shortly after the British landed at Staten Island, Moses and his brother Levi met with General Howe on Staten Island and offered their services as spies.

By some accounts, it was Moses who discovered the failure of the Americans to secure the Jamaica Pass on Long Island and provided the British with that intelligence.  This allowed the British to move behind the Continental lines and easily flank the Americans at the Battle of Brooklyn.  The British nicknamed Moses as “Eagle Spy” for the accuracy of his intelligence.

Another story says that Moses learned of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776 and rode to see Hessian Colonel Rall in Trenton.  The colonel refused to see Doan, who instead left a note for him about the attack.  According to that story, Rall put the note into his vest pocket and continued playing cards

The Doans also may have worked to free British prisoners.  After British prisoners began disappearing from Lancaster and not being found again, the Americans put an officer into the prison, pretending to be a captured British officer.  After several weeks, he was spirited away from the prison, traveling at night and hiding in the secret rooms of loyalists during the day.  The officer identified the leader of this escape mission as Abraham Doan.  As the group prepared to cross the Delaware River into British-occupied New Jersey, Abraham confronted the officer whom he suspected of not being a real prisoner.  The two men fought, and the officer escaped.  Later, the undercover officer identified the safe houses and arrested 15 people who cooperated in the escape of the British prisoners.  The Doans, once again, escaped capture.

In addition to serving as scouts and agents for the British, the Doans mostly made a living by engaging in home invasions and stealing horses.  There are stories of the gang breaking into houses at night, then beating and threatening the homeowner to give up whatever gold he had hidden on the property.  Those who want to portray the Doans as loyalist heroes say they only went after the property of known supporters of the patriot cause and particularly targeted tax collectors. Others say the attacks were more indiscriminate.

Whatever the truth, the Doans developed a reputation among locals in Pennsylvania as ruthless outlaws.  After the British took Philadelphia, the group focused primarily on stealing horses to sell to the British.  By some accounts, the group stole over 200 horses in the region.  The Doans, whose faces were well known to locals, tended to move only at night, and spent days living in caves or other remote sites where they could avoid detection.

In February 1778, officials in Bucks County raised a posse to capture the Doan gang.  The posse came up empty.  The group was too effective at avoiding detection.

There are many stories that paint Moses Doan as a local hero. One story from this time says that Moses Doan came across a woman from Philadelphia who had snuck out of the city to purchase some flour for her starving family.  Her husband was a patriot who was serving in Valley Forge at the time.  On her return to the city, she encountered Moses Doan and explained her plight.  Despite the fact that she was the wife of a patriot, Moses gave her a purse full of money and warned her that a British guard was just up the road.

Although the woman tried to avoid the British guard, he discovered her and attempted to confiscate the flour.  Doan then reappeared and appealed to the soldier to let her go with her flour.  When the soldier refused, Doan grabbed him by the throat and told the woman to run.  When she was out of sight, he shot the soldier in the head with a pistol and disappeared back into the night.  The death of the soldier brought out a guard to hunt down the killer.  Doan allegedly killed another pursuing soldier and an officer that night as he made his escape.

Another story puts Doan in more of a mixed light.  The gang engaged in a home invasion.  Although the Doans made up the core of their group, many times the gang grew as large as several dozen men.  On this night, one of their company was man by the name of “Foxy Joe”. As the group threatened the life of the homeowner, demanding that he turn over his gold, Foxy Joe made advances on the man’s wife, presumably an attempt to rape her.  Moses discovered the man, beat him nearly to death, and threw him down a flight of stairs.  Afterward Moses apologized to the husband for the incident.  His men were thieves, not rapists.

The Doan Gang continued to harass the people of Bucks County for years after the British left the area.  As I said, some considered them to be loyalists simply stuck on the wrong side of the war.  Others saw them as nothing more than brutal criminals, taking advantage of the chaos of war.  But the legend of the Doans is one that remains a part of local history.

Loyalist Conflict

The Doans, of course, were not the only Tories in the area.  While many were pacifist Quakers, there were others who were willing to resort to violence for King and country.  A key target of the loyalists were patriot leaders and their families. 

When John Lacey became commander of the state militia, loyalists threatened to attack his family and burn his farm. Lacey had to protect, not only his own family but those of other prominent patriots, as well as other potential targets.

Captain Richard Hovendon, who had raised a loyalist group called the Philadelphia Light Dragoons, raided a mill in Bucks County in February.  The group stole or destroyed material that was expected to be made into 500 uniforms for the Continental Army.  The raid also led to the death or capture of several dozen Continental soldiers who were guarding the mill.  Hovendon would go on to serve under Banastre Tarleton during the southern campaign.

General Lacey’s lack of experience contributed to his problems.  There is one letter from General Washington, advising the young General Lacey to keep his guards on the move and not stationed in a fixed location.  Doing so would give the British an easy target and would also allow smugglers to know to avoid that location.  On another occasion, Lacey had to write Washington to inform him that his men accidentally mishandled some cartridges, leading to an explosion, which destroyed six or seven thousand cartridges and injured five of his men.

Also during his first weeks as general, the militia continued to return home.  At one point Lacey reported that he had only 160 men left on duty in the entire region.  This was not entirely Lacey’s fault.  Not only did bad weather keep the men at home.  Pennsylvania had failed to pay the militia that had turned out the prior fall.  This failure to provide promised compensation did nothing to encourage men to turn out again for additional winter duty.

The men who did continue to serve got most of what they needed from the goods they confiscated from people smuggling goods into the city.  This also led to complaint that men were claiming goods were being smuggled, that they simply stole from local farms.

You may recall back in Episode 178 I talked about General Wayne and Commodore Barry distracting the British so they could drive a herd of cattle from New Jersey back to Valley Forge.  As they passed through Bucks County, Lacey was directed to provide a guard.  He did not have the manpower and failed to do so.  The British under Captain Hovendon’s Royal Dragoons managed to steal most of the herd and redirect it to the British in Philadelphia.

By spring, Lacey at least had a few months of experience, and militia began to return to duty in greater numbers.  

Crooked Billet

On April 27th General Lacey was in command of about 400 militia which encamped near Crooked Billet Tavern.  This is near the present town of Hatboro, about sixteen miles north of Philadelphia.  It was close enough to British lines to invite an attack.  The British had frequently raided into this area over the winter.  

Robert Abercromby
Despite this, Lacey kept his militia in camp for several days.  Local Tories informed the British of their location.  Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe of the Queen’s Loyal Rangers organized an attack party made up primarily of loyalist militia, but also including some regulars.  Simcoe divided an attack force of about 850 men.  The two groups marched out of Philadelphia on the night of April 30th.  Simcoe would attack from the northeast, while a second group under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby would attack from the southwest.

The militia had put out pickets, who discovered the attackers just before dawn on May 1.  The pickets, however, refused to fire a warning shot, instead hiding to avoid capture themselves.  The two groups descended on the main camp, opening a ruthless attack on the surprised militia.  Lacey attempted to mount a defense, but quickly realized that his men would not stand.  The majority of the outnumbered and surprised militia fled into the woods, abandoning everything to their attackers.

The militia lost about 20% of its force, with 26 killed, 8 wounded and 58 captured.  According to the Americans, the British massacred many of the wounded, including setting men on fire and watching them burn to death.  

Crooked Billet Monu-
ment (Hatfield, PA)
After the battle, Washington ordered an investigation in the murder of prisoners and wounded in order to make a complaint to General Howe.  The lieutenant who had been in command of the pickets was discharged for failure to follow orders.

A little over a week after the battle, General Potter returned from his winter at home, relieving General Lacey of command.  Lacey would continue to hold his militia title as general, but did not seem to serve in any active capacity after that.  A year later, he would turn to politics and served the last three years of the war as the Bucks County Representative to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council.

The Battle of Crooked Billet largely became forgotten, just another example of the incompetent local militia defeated by professionals.

Bordentown Raid

About a week after the attack at Crooked Billet, the British sent another small expedition across the Delaware River into New Jersey.  The Americans still had several ships and smaller boats upriver in Bordentown, New Jersey.  They also had some small supply depots there. On the night of May 7, the British sent a small raiding party upriver, landing at White Hill, New Jersey (today called Fieldsboro) which landed the next morning. 

This was a search and destroy mission.  The British burned any boats that they found as well as the houses of several leading patriots, as identified by local loyalists.  The Americans got word of the raid and scuttled several boats to prevent them from falling into British hands.  

The local militia also turned out and faced down the British raiders as they marched north to Bordentown.  According to local accounts the militia fired one volley, then turned and ran.  The British continued on into Bordentown.  There, they burned more houses, including that of Joseph Borden, son of the town’s namesake, as well as any ships that the patriots had not already destroyed.

Having satisfied themselves that they had destroyed any enemy property that they were going to find, the British returned to their ship and sailed back to Philadelphia before the end of the day.

The Bordentown raid, sometimes called the battle of Crosswicks Creek, was another minor raid that simply showed again that militia could not stop the regulars, but they still were not afraid to turn out and take pot shots at them.

Next week, The British throw a going-away party for General Howe, and General Lafayette almost gets captured at the Battle of Barren Hill.

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Next Episode 183 Mischianza & Barren Hill 

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Further Reading


Mulcahy, Peter The Doan Outlaws of Bucks County: The Life and Times of the Plumstead Cowboys

Hay, Donna “Moses Doan and Robert Gibson and the Immortality of a Reputation” SAR Magazine, Vol 111, No. 4, Spring 2017

Rowe, G. S. “Outlawry in Pennsylvania, 1782-1788 and the Achievement of an Independent State Judiciary.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 20, no. 3, 1976, pp. 227–244. JSTOR,

Lacey, John. “Memoirs of Brigadier-General John Lacey, of Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 25, no. 1, 1901, pp. 1–13. JSTOR,

Lacey, John, et al. “Memoirs of Brigadier-General John Lacey, of Pennsylvania (Concluded).” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 26, no. 2, 1902, pp. 265–270. JSTOR,

Smith, Charles Harper. "General Lacey's Campaign in 1778", Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Volume II (1941), No. 4, pp. 261–296

Radbill, Kenneth A. “QUAKER PATRIOTS: THE LEADERSHIP OF OWEN BIDDLE AND JOHN LACEY, JR.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 45, no. 1, 1978, pp. 47–60. JSTOR,

Zanine, Louis J. “BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN LACEY AND THE PENNSYLVANIA MILITIA IN 1778.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 48, no. 2, 1981, pp. 129–142. JSTOR,

Verenna, Thomas THE FOLLIES OF GENERAL JOHN LACEY AND THE PENNSYLVANIA MILITIA IN 1778” Journal of the American Revolution, April 8, 2015.

Zellers-Frederick, Andrew A. Close Call at Crooked Billet:

Revolutionary War Sites in Bordentown, New Jersey:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Brooke, Henry K. Annals of the Revolution: Or, A History of the Doans. John B. Perry, 1843 (Google Books).

Davis, W. W. H. The History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: Grant, Faires, & Rodgers 1876. 

Rogers, John P The Doan Outlaws, or, Bucks County's Cowboys in the Revolution, Doyelstown Democrat, 1895. 

Lacey, John “Memoirs of Brigadier-General John Lacey, of Pennsylvania” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1901: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, & Part 6

Simcoe, John Graves A Journal of the Operations of the Queen's Rangers: from the end of the year 1777, to the conclusion of the late American War, Exeter, 1789. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Jackson, John W. With the British Army in Philadelphia 1777-1778, Presidio Press, 1979. 

Rogers, Jennifer Hidden History of Bucks County, The History Press, 2019

Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


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