George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General Lafayette, 18 May 1778

To Major General Lafayette

[Valley Forge, 18 May 1778]


The detachment under your command with which you will immediately march towards the enemy’s lines is designed to answer the following purposes—to be a security to this camp and a cover to the country between the Delaware and Schuylkil—to interrupt the communication with Philadelphia—obstruct the incursions of the enemies parties, and obtain intelligence of their motions and designs. This last is a matter of very interesting moment, and ought to claim your particular attention. You will endeavour to procure trusty and intelligent spies, who will advise you faithfully of whatever may be passing in the city; and you will without delay communicate to me every piece of material information you obtain.

A variety of concurring accounts make it probable the enemy are preparing to evacuate Philadelphia. This is a point, which it is of the utmost importance to ascertain; and if possible the place of their future destination. Should you be able to gain certain intelligence of the time of intended embarkation; so that you may be able to take advantage of it, and fall upon the rear of the enemy in the act of withdrawing, it will be a very desireable event. But this will be a matter of no small difficulty, and will require the greatest caution and prudence in the execution. Any deception or precipitation may be attended with the most disastrous consequences.

You will remember that your detachment is a very valuable one, and that any accident happening to it would be a severe blow to this army. You will therefore use every possible precaution for its security, and to guard against a surprise. No attempt should be made nor any thing risked without the greatest prospect of success, and with every reasonable advantage on your side. I shall not point out any precise position to you; but shall leave it to your discretion to take such posts occasionally as shall appear to you best adapted to the purposes of your detachment. In general I would observe that a stationary post is unadviseable, as it gives the enemy an opportunity of knowing your situation and concerting successfully against you. In case of any offensive ⟨move⟩ment against this army, you will keep yourself in s⟨uch⟩ a state as to have an easy communication with it and at the same ⟨time⟩ harra⟨ss the⟩ enemy’s advance.

Our parties of horse and ⟨foot⟩ bet⟨ween⟩ the rivers are to be under your command and to form par⟨t⟩ of your detachment.

As great complaints have been made of the disorderly conduct of the parties wh⟨ich⟩ have been sent towards the enemy’s lines, it is expecte⟨d⟩ that you will be very attentive in preventing abuses of the like nature and will inquire how far complaints alrea⟨dy⟩ made are founded injustice. Given under my hand at Head Quarters this 18th day of May 17⟨78⟩.

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

Lafayette left camp on this date with a force of about 2,200 men, crossing the Schuylkill River at Swede’s Ford and marching south to Barren Hill, just northwest of Germantown and about twelve miles from Valley Forge. His command included Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor’s brigade and five artillery pieces posted on Barren Hill with the river on their right and some stone houses on their left; 600 Pennsylvania militia under Brig. Gen. James Potter in and around Whitemarsh on Lafayette’s left; and a group of Oneida Indians and fifty men of Capt. Allen McLane’s independent company, who scouted the roads south toward Philadelphia. Lafayette’s best line of retreat lay over Matson’s Ford on the Schuylkill about two miles to his rear or over Swede’s Ford a few miles farther north.

GW’s aide Alexander Hamilton wrote Col. Daniel Morgan on 17 May from Valley Forge with orders to provide further assistance to Lafayette: “His Excellency is sending a considerable detachment towards the enemy’s lines, which will march tomorrow morning. He desires you to select 50 men of your corps, under good officers, and send them to join that detachment. It will be at White marsh tomorrow afternoon where your party will be expected. A party of Indians will join the party to be sent from your corps, at White marsh and act with them” (NN: Myers Collection). On 18 May, GW’s aide Richard Kidder Meade wrote Morgan another letter from Valley Forge: “I am commanded by his Excellency to desire that you will now keep the most vigilant watch over the motions of the Enemy, with both Foot & Horse, It is particularly requisite at this time as a considerable detachment marched this day towards the lines on the other side the River which may perhaps induce the Enemy, to make a move out on this side…. you will please to consult with Colo. Jackson at the Gulf that your parties may not fall in with each other” (NN: Myers Collection). As later letters from GW’s aides make clear, Lafayette returned to camp before Morgan was able to join him.

Meanwhile, GW’s aide John Laurens wrote Stephen Moylan from Valley Forge on 17 May with orders to join Lafayette with a cavalry detachment: “His Excellency desires that a select party of fifty dragoons, men that may be depended on, with able horses, well accoutred, and conducted by active partisan officers, may be ordered to march forthwith to our old camp at Whitemarsh—where they will meet and join a detachment of infantry, from the commanding Officer of which they will receive their orders…. As it would be a desirable circumstance that the enemy should have no previous notice of the approach of these parties, you will communicate only to the commanding officer of yr party, where he is to march, and require Secrecy on his part” (DLC:GW). Moylan’s force also did not reach Whitemarsh before Lafayette was forced to retreat back to camp.

Despite the precautions taken by Lafayette to guard the approaches to Barren Hill, his force was isolated and vulnerable. On 20 May, Tench Tilghman wrote Morgan, warning him of a possible British advance on Lafayette: “The Enemy are out in considerable force on the other side of Schuylkill, their intentions are not known. His Excellency therefore desires that you would send out patrols towards the Bridge to see whether there is any movement that way, and march the main Body of your detatchment towards Camp” (NN: Myers Collection).

By the time Tilghman’s letter reached Morgan, Lafayette had already been apprised of the situation. On 19 May, the day after a grand fête honoring Gen. William Howe on his departure from America, a spy reached Philadelphia with news of Lafayette’s dispositions (Boyle, From Redcoat to Rebel description begins Joseph Lee Boyle, ed. From Redcoat to Rebel: The Thomas Sullivan Journal. Bowie, Md., 1997. description ends , 217). Hoping to destroy the isolated American force and reputedly making plans to dine with Lafayette, Howe and Gen. Henry Clinton sent a three-pronged force from Philadelphia toward Barren Hill on the evening of 19 May. About 5,000 men under Maj. Gen. James Grant marched to block the roads to Matson’s and Swede’s Fords north of the American force, while about 2,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Charles Grey moved through Germantown to Lafayette’s left flank. At the same time, Howe and Clinton with another large force marched up the Ridge Road to prevent any escape toward Philadelphia.

Howe and Grey appear to have reached their positions on time. Being promptly warned by scouts, however, Lafayette evaded Grant with a combination of swift marching, good discipline, and bluff, and marched over Matson’s Ford. His tired but intact force reached camp on 22 May. Most British accounts blamed Grant for not reaching his position on time and failing to prevent Lafayette’s withdrawal. Lt. Col. Francis Downman wrote that the British plan “would have been effected, but, d——your buts, but the officer [Grant] who had the honour to command this detachment of the finest part of our army, after making a further detour than was necessary, made also a halt. Now, sir, you can see why I d——d the buts. General Grant made his halt very critically for it happened to be at the very time he ought to have advanced with all his speed. How fortunate is our most gracious sovereign to be blessed with such truly intrepid soldiers, and such consummate generals. D——the buts, I wish he were drowned in a butt of Yankee cider” (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 , 59; see also Lafayette’s account in Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 2:6–7; for other descriptions of this action, see especially Godfrey, Commander-in-Chief’s Guard description begins Carlos E. Godfrey. The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard: Revolutionary War. Washington, D.C., 1904. description ends , 8; Boyle, From Redcoat to Rebel description begins Joseph Lee Boyle, ed. From Redcoat to Rebel: The Thomas Sullivan Journal. Bowie, Md., 1997. description ends , 217–18; 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 , 129–30; and 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 , 52, 54).

Tilghman wrote Morgan again on 20 May after Lafayette made good his escape: “It appears that the Enemy came out with an intention to surprise the Marquis, but he has crossed the River and will be between this and the Gulf this Evening. His Excellency desires you will march your party and join his, and then concert a plan to cross the Schuylkill this Evening with a party of active Volunteers from two hundred to five hundred as they may turn out, of which you are to take the command. The Enemy marched all the last Night and must be much fatigued and therefore will probably halt. If they do, you may perhaps plague them and pick up some straglers. If any of the Indians will go over they may do some service” (NN: Myers Collection). No record of American attacks on British stragglers has been found.

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