From Brigadier General John Lacey, Jr.
Camp Near Neshhamany Bridge1
York Road [Pa.] May 2. 1778
My Camp was Surrounded Yester Morning by Day Light With a body of the Enemy who appeared on all Quarters my Scouts neglected the Perseading night to patrole the Roads as they were ordered, but lay in Camp till Near day. one of the Scouts met the Enemy Near two Miles from the Camp, the officer who Commanded Says he Was So Near the Enemy before he Espide them, that he thaught it dangerous to fire but Sends off one of his party to allarm the Camp who did not Come, on the Disobediance & Misconduct of this officer, I have to Lay my Misfortunes.2
the Allarm was So Sudden I had Scarsely time to mount my Horse before the Enemy was within Musket Shot of My Quarters, (my party Lay in a little Wood Near half a Mile above the Billit on the York Road) I observing the party in my Rear, had got into Houses and behind fences their Numbers appearing Nearly Equal to Mine I did not think it advisable to attact them in that Situation, espessially as another Body appearing to the East of the Billet, not knowing what Numbers I had to Contend with, I thaught it Best & fixed a plan to open my way Under Cover of a Wood by Colo. harts which Lay to the left of my Camp for which my little party moved in Colloms the Baggage following in the Rear. I passed Mr Erwins3 but a little way before a fire began between my flankers & the Enemy I kep Moving on till I made the Wood, when a party both of foot and Horse Came Up the Byberry Road4 & attacted my right flank, the Party from the Billit Came upon my Rear & those in the Rear of my Camp Cut a Cross and fell upon my left flank a body of Horse the same time in our front Shewing themselves here we took trees and gave them a Very warm fire, which obliged them to give ground, their Horse suffered, Considerably for they Charged us, & were severely repulsed here we lost our Baggage from this I Continued my Corse. the Horse in froont giving way as we advanced, we Continued Scirmishing for upward of two Miles, when I mad a sudden turn to the left through a wood which Lost them and Came into the York Road Near the Cross Roads and Moved Slowly Down toward the Billet in hopes to take Some advantage of their out parties but they had retired toward the City. my people behaved well.
My Loss is Near thirty Killed & wounded the numbers taken Prisr cannot be assertained I think it cannot be many—Several were inhumanly Butchard after they had Surrendered.5 the Close of Some were Set on fire after wounded and Burnt to death Several good officers are among the Dead. three of the Enemies Horse were taken and five Left dead on the field the Riders being either killed or wounded, their Loss must be Considerable from the Blood found in the Road they passed along.
I have not got an exact return of my Brigade otherwise would Send it to your Excellency, Since my Last Return I have been Joined by Better than one Hundred and fifty men the Bigest part Came to Camp the Day before my allarm.
Intiligince is Just arived that the Enemy is at Newtown, that those out yesterday is joined by a Large Body, and is Supposed to be a forraging.
ADf, NHi. Another version of this letter, worded slightly differently, is printed in Register of Pennsylvania, 30 May 1829, pp. 142–43 [342–43].
Since January, Lacey had commanded the Pennsylvania militia covering the northern approaches to Philadelphia between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, intercepting parties of Tories and farmers entering the city. His small force fluctuated in number and always suffered from poor supply, desertions, and short enlistments in addition, apparently, to poor morale. Lacey nevertheless hoped to cause trouble for the British, writing GW on 27 April from Crooked Billet, where he had just stationed his troops, “I hope in a few days to be able to annoy the Enemy should they continue their late practice in coming through the Country.” Although British accounts put Lacey’s strength at about 500, it was probably about half that number. In a report of 28 April to Maj. Gen. John Armstrong, Lacey reported only 53 men present and fit for duty on 27 April (Register of Pennsylvania, 30 May 1829, p. 142 ), while in this letter of 2 May to GW, Lacey wrote that he had been joined by “Better than one Hundred and fifty men” on 30 April. Other accounts put Lacey’s strength on 1 May at no more than 400 men (Davis, “Life and Services of Brigadier-General John Lacey,” description begins William W. H. Davis. “Life and Services of Brigadier-General John Lacey.” Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion 44 (May 1854): 525–36. description ends 525).
Repeated small-scale raids had demonstrated to the British the weakness of Lacey’s force, and his movement to Crooked Billet made him vulnerable to surprise attack. Accordingly, on the night of 30 April two columns of British troops left Philadelphia and approached Crooked Billet under cover of darkness. One column contained Queen’s Rangers under Maj. John Simcoe, and the other was a mixed force of light infantry and cavalry under Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby. Simcoe, who later claimed to have planned the attack, wrote that he “proposed, that he should march with the Rangers, and, by a circuit, get to the road in the rear of the Billett; and that a detachment should march and ambuscade themselves in a wood … on the road which led by the Horsham meeting-house to Washington’s camp; this party was to remain in ambuscade till they heard the firing of the Queen’s Rangers. It was supposed, that if the surprise should not be complete, the ambuscade should render the success perfectly so, by supporting the Rangers if they were checked, and by intercepting the enemy if they attempted to retreat, which, probably, would be towards their army” (Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 57). The British force, according to Howe’s aide Capt. Friedrich von Muenchhausen, of “800 men, among them 100 dragoons, were sent out in the evening at six o’clock, on two roundabout roads” (Muenchhausen, At General Howe’s Side description begins Friedrich von Muenchhausen. At General Howe’s Side, 1776–1778: The Diary of General William Howe’s Aide de Camp, Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen. Translated by Ernst Kipping. Annotated by Samuel Smith. Monmouth Beach, N.J., 1974. description ends , 51).
Simcoe’s plan did not work as he had hoped, however, for Lacey’s men spotted the Queen’s Rangers and began to retreat before Abercromby’s infantry were in position. Muenchhausen wrote: “One of the detachments was spotted by the enemy before the second one arrived, whereupon [Lacey’s militia] made a hasty retreat, which the detachment that had not arrived could have prevented. The first detachment, with the dragoons [detached by Abercromby to join Simcoe], eager for some action, attacked the enemy, who, however, fled in such haste that our infantry could not catch up with them. But the 100 dragoons assaulted so furiously that they captured 53 and left 30 killed on the field, notwithstanding the fact that the enemy was in the woods. We had only a few wounded. The encampment of huts of the enemy was set on fire and 10 wagons, which were loaded with baggage, etc., were brought in by our men, who arrived at four o’clock in the afternoon” (ibid.). Lacey wrote Armstrong on 7 May that “My loss is about twenty-six killed, and eight or ten severely wounded” (Register of Pennsylvania, 30 May 1829, p. 142 ); he wrote Thomas Wharton, Jr., on 4 May that “fifty eight is missing, the greatest part of which I believe has run home, the rest are taken Prisoners” (Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 6:471). British accounts admit several wounded but none killed.
For personal accounts of the battle, see especially Simcoe, Operations of the Queen’s Rangers description begins John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution . . .. 1844. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 56–60; Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 168–69; Gruber, Peebles’ American War description begins Ira D. Gruber, ed. John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776–1782. Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1998. description ends , 177–78; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries 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 , 171–72; 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 , 488; and 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 , 58; see also the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) of 5 May and Davis, “Life and Services of Brigadier-General John Lacey,” description begins William W. H. Davis. “Life and Services of Brigadier-General John Lacey.” Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion 44 (May 1854): 525–36. description ends 525–32.
1. After the action described in this letter, Lacey retreated north up the Old York Road about three miles to Cross Roads (now Hartsville, Bucks County, Pa.), crossed a bridge on the southwest branch of the Neshaminy Creek about half a mile farther up the road, and camped on the north bank of the creek. He was then about twenty miles from Philadelphia.
2. Lacey convened a court-martial on 4 May to try this officer, a Lieutenant Neilson, and others. Neilson, possibly David Neilson (1752–1829), first lieutenant of the 4th Battalion of Cumberland County militia, was cashiered after being found guilty of neglect of duty and disobedience of orders.
3. Samuel Erwin owned 209 acres in Moreland Manor, Philadelphia County, Pa., near Crooked Billet.
4. The Byberry Road entered Crooked Billet from the east, ending at the Old York Road.