George Washington Papers

To George Washington from William Dewees, Jr., 4 December 1777

From William Dewees, Jr.

frankford [Pa.] Decbr the 4th 1777

Hond Sir

I Have Just Recd Information which I Beleive to be the Best Can be Obtaind that the British Army had Last Night Packd up all their Baggage & each Man four Days Provision Coock’d; their Horses hitchd to their Artillery & every Appearance of marching out Immediately But something happening which is Not accounted for the orders were Countermanded; the Reason Assignd to me is they Expect our army to move their Camp very soon as they Have Recievd such Information and think they will Do Better to attack when your army moves as they have heard you are advantagiously Posted; But it is Expected they are Determind to Attack you where you Now Are; on Saturday morning Next I Expect I shall be Able to Inform you Exactly when they will Attack for Beyound all Doubt they are Determind to Attack at all Events;1 I Have the Hounour to be Sir Your Most Obedt Humble Servt

⟨Wm Dewees, Jun.⟩

AL[S], DLC:GW. The signature has been clipped, but the docket reads in part “from W.D.” This letter was written by William Dewees, Jr., the ironmaster and part owner of the iron forge from which Valley Forge, Pa., took its name. Dewees recently had spent three weeks in British captivity in Philadelphia after being apprehended along with Joseph Cloyd on 24 Oct. 1777. Dewees, who apparently signed a British loyalty oath in order to obtain his release, swore an affidavit before Pennsylvania supreme executive council president Thomas Wharton, Jr., on 15 Nov. alleging that American prisoners of war were being mistreated by their British captors (see GW to William Howe, 14–15 Nov., and note 4, Howe to GW, 26 Nov., and Henry Laurens to GW, 8 Dec., n.2).

1The following Saturday was 6 December. Although GW did not receive further written intelligence from Dewees on or around that date, several accounts written at this time and later confirm Dewees’s intelligence. Elias Boudinot wrote in his journal a detailed account of his role in passing on to GW intelligence about a possible British attack that he received on the night of 3 Dec.: “In the Autumn of 1777, the American Army lay some time at White Marsh. I was then Commissary Genl of Prisoners, and managed the Intelligence of the Army. I was reconoitering along the Lines near the City of Philadelphia. I dined at a small Post at the rising Sun abt three miles from the City. After Dinner a little poor looking insignificant Old Woman came in & solicited leave to go into the Country to buy some flour—While we were asking some Questions, she walked up to me and put into my hands a dirty old needlebook, with various small pockets in it. surprised at this, I told her to return, she should have an answer—On opening the needlebook, I could not find anything till I got to the last Pocket, where I found a piece of Paper rolled up into the form of a Pipe Shank. On unrolling it I found information that Genl Howe was coming out the next morning with 5000 Men, 13 pieces of cannon, Baggage Waggons, and 11 Boats on Waggon Wheels. On comparing this with other information I found it true, and immediately rode Post to head Quarters. According to my usual Custom & agreeable to orders rec from Genl W. I first related to him the naked facts without comment or Opinion—He rec. it with much thoughtfulness, I then gave him my opinion, that Genl Howe’s design was to Cross the Deleware under pretense of going for New York.—Then in the Night to recross the Deleware above Bristol & come suddenly on Our Rear, when we were totally unguarded and cut off all our Baggage, if not the whole Army.—He heard me without a single observation, being deep in thought. I repeated my observations. He still was silent—supposing myself unattended to—I earnestly repeated my Opinion, with urging him to order a few redoubts thrown up in our rear, as it was growing late.—The Genl Answered me, Mr Boudinot the Enemy have no business in our rear. The Boats are designed to deceive us.—To morrow morning by day light you will find them coming down such a bye Road on our left. Then calling an Aid du Camp ordered a line thrown up along our whole front at the foot of the Hill. As I was quartered on that very Bye Road with 6 or 8 other Officers, a Mile in front of our Army, and no Pickett advanced of us. This opinion made a deep Impression upon me Tho’ I thot the General under a manifest mistake.—I returned to my Quarters first obtaining a Pickett to be put on that road in Advance” (Boudinot Journal description begins Journal or Historical Recollections of American Events during The Revolutionary War by Elias Boudinot: President of the Continental Congress, Commissary General of Prisoners in the Army during the Revolutionary War, Director of the Mint, etc. Philadelphia, 1894. description ends , 50–51).

The reputed source of Boudinot’s report was Lydia Barrington Darragh (Darrach; c.1728–1789), a Philadelphia midwife and maker of graveclothes and the wife of William Darragh. The Darraghs, Irish Quakers who had settled in America in 1775, lived at 177 South Second Street, almost directly across the street from Howe’s headquarters. The story of Lydia Darragh still circulated in the late nineteenth century when the following account was printed providing more detail of her involvement: “A superior officer of the British army, believed to be the adjutant general (Major [John] André), fixed upon one of their chambers, a back room, for private conference, and two officers frequently met there, with fire and candles, in close consultation. About the 2d of December the adjutant-general told Lydia that they would be in the room at 7 o’clock and remain late, and that they wished the family to retire early to bed, adding that when they were going away they would call her to let them out and extinguish their fire and candles. She accordingly sent all her family to bed; but as the officer had been so particular her curiosity was excited. She took off her shoes, put her ear to the keyhole of the conclave, and overheard an order read for all the British troops to march out late on the evening of the 4th and attack General Washington, then encamped at Whitemarsh. On hearing this she returned to her chamber and laid down. Soon after, the officer knocked at her door, but she rose only at the third summons, having feigned herself asleep. Her mind was so agitated that she could neither eat nor sleep, supposing it in her power to save the lives of thousands of her fellow-countrymen, but not knowing how she was to convey the information to General Washington, not daring to confide it to her husband. The time, however, was short. She quickly determined to make her way as soon as possible to the American outposts, where she had a son who was an officer in the American army. She informed her family that as she was in want of flour, she would go to Frankford for it. Her husband insisted she should take her servant maid with her, but to his surprise she positively refused. She got access to General Howe and solicited what he readily granted,—a pass through the British lines. Beyond the lines she was met by an American officer, Lieutenant-Col. [Capt. Charles] Craig, of the Light Horse, who knew her. To him she disclosed her secret, after having obtained from him a solemn promise never to betray her individually, as her life might be at stake with the British. He conducted her to a house near at hand, directed something for her to eat, and hastened to headquarters, where he immediately acquainted General Washington with what he had heard. Washington made, of course, all preparations for baffling the meditated surprise. Lydia returned home with her flour, sat up alone to watch the movements of the British troops, and heard their footsteps; but when they returned in a few days after, did not dare to ask a question, though solicitous to learn the result. The next evening the adjutant-general came in, and requested her to walk up to his room, as he wished to ask some questions. She followed him in terror, and when he locked the door and begged her, with an air of mystery, to be seated, she was sure she was either suspected or betrayed. He inquired earnestly whether any of her family were up the last night when he and the other officer met. She told him they all retired at eight o’clock. He observed, ‘I know you were asleep for I knocked at your door three times before you heard me. I am entirely at a loss to imagine who gave General Washington information of our intended attack, unless the walls of the house could speak. When we arrived near Whitemarsh, we found all their cannon mounted and the troops prepared to receive us; and we have marched back like a parcel of fools”’ (Bean, History of Montgomery County description begins Theodore W. Bean, ed. History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 1884. description ends , 167).

General Howe, in his letter to Lord George Germain of 13 Dec., confirmed that his intention was to “tempt the enemy, after receiving such reinforcement, to give battle for the recovery of this place [Philadelphia] or that a vulnerable part might be found to admit of an attack upon their camp” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 14:272–73). British officer Archibald Robertson wrote in his journal entry for 3 Dec. that “Orders were given out for the Army to march next morning in Two Columns. This Order was again Countermanded that night” (Lydenberg, Robertson Diary description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 158; see also André, Journal description begins John André. Major André’s Journal: Operations of the British Army under Lieutenant Generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, June 1777 to November 1778. 1930. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 67). Royal Artillery officer Francis Downman wrote in his journal entry for the same date that “the army had orders to march this morning at 6 o’clock in two divisions, but during the night countermanded; everything has been pretty quiet” (Whinyates, Services of Francis Downman description begins F. A. Whinyates, ed. The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, R.A., in France, North America, and the West Indies, between the Years 1758 and 1784. Woolwich, England, 1898. description ends , 54). British engineer John Montresor’s journal entry for 3 Dec. agrees: “Wind N.W. and Snow but only to skim the ground but not to lay. Orders for the Army to hold themselves in readiness to move to-morrow by 7 A.M. 4th. [Dec.] Wind N.W. The Army’s motion countermanded at 3 this morning. But at 10 this night they marched in 2 Columns, the right taking the Germantown Road under Lord Cornwallis, and the left the Manitawney Road along the Schuylkill” (Scull, Montresor Journals description begins G. D. Scull, ed. The Montresor Journals. New York, 1882. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vol. 14. description ends , 479–80). Hessian captain Johann Ewald says in his diary entry for 4 Dec. that on the previous evening “the army received orders to draw six days rations and to be ready to march at any time, which the enemy must have discovered at once. For toward midnight our patrols instantly ran into theirs, and at daybreak we found the enemy outposts pushed up in front of ours.

“In the evening a part of the army was ordered to break camp and set out toward Germantown in the following order: the two battalions of English light infantry formed the advanced guard, the Jäger Corps, the English and Hessian grenadiers and a number of 6– and 12–pounders, two English brigades, two troops of dragoons, the two Hessian regiments, Leib and Donop, and the Queen’s Rangers. The light infantry ran into an enemy post, which was attacked with the bayonet and beaten back to the first houses of Germantown; some twenty Americans were captured.

“On the 5th the army arrived at Chestnut Hill, where it encamped in a quadrangle” (Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 108–9).

Germantown magistrate John Miller says in his journal entry for 4 Dec. that the “enemy were much in motion—had pressed yesterday numerous horses, wagons, &c.” (Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania description begins John F. Watson. Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time; Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants, and of the Earliest Settlements of the Inland Part of Pennsylvania, from the Days of the Founders. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1850. description ends , 2:70). Miller also describes the British troop movements of 4 and 5 Dec.: “The whole of the enemy’s force, last night and this morning, passed through Germantown on their way to surprise General Washington at Whitemarsh. They did much damage as they went—wantonly burning and destroying houses and property in the night time. At ten o’clock, A.M., was heard a heavy firing begun on Chestnut hill, and lasting for two or three hours. . . . December 6th. The enemy and our light horse place us in much danger, as they patrol our streets alternately” (ibid., 70–71).

At daylight on the morning of 6 Dec. the Americans fell back from their outposts, and that night, Captain Ewald says, the British army “marched off, the light infantry forming the van and the jägers and Queen’s Rangers the rear guard. The villages of Cresheim and Beggarstown, through which the march passed, were set on fire by the rear guard. But since the regiments had already set fire to several houses, the conflagration was so great that the jägers and rangers could scarcely get through. The sight was horrible. The night was very dark. The blazing flames spread about with all swiftness and the wind blew violently. The cries of human voices of the young and old, who had seen their belongings consumed by the flames without saving anything, put everyone in a melancholy mood” (Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 109). For the subsequent skirmishes between the British and Americans that began on the following day, 7 Dec., see General Orders, 8 December.

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