About General Lafayette, The Man and His Times. From Valley Forge to Barren Hill and Back:
General Lafayette: Washington's "Superbowl Quarterback."
by Rudy Cusumano
How did this 20-year old "boy" general outfox five of Britain's ablest generals, leading 16,000 of the world's finest troops, and pulled off one of the most spectacular escapes in the annals of military history?
One of the British military establishment's best-kept "secrets" had lasted for more than two hundred years. Yet according to the latest research, it can now be revealed that Generals Howe and Clinton had planned and deployed an awesome number of the world's best trained, best fed, best paid, quickest paid, best housed, and best equipped troops to surround and trap the youngest general in the entire War for Independence. He commanded only a 2200-man reconnaissance force.
It all began with General Washington's favorite and most loyal foreign officer, General the Marquis Gilbert Motier de Lafayette.
Having recovered from his leg wound at the Battle of Brandywine where he fought with dash and great courage, Lafayette was ready for another assignment. This time General Washington sent him on a secret mission. The Commander-in-Chief wanted the Marquis to reconnoiter the British forces that occupied Philadelphia and to determine whether they intended to attack him at Valley Forge or move on to New York.
The youthful Frenchman led a detachment of 2200 Continental soldiers from Valley Forge on May 18, 1778. They crossed the Schuylkill River at Norristown and continued eastward on Ridge Pike toward Philadelphia. The reconnaissance force camped at Barren Hill, ten miles between Valley Forge and British Headquarters.
As the young major general prepared to send a woman spy into the enemy camp, a Loyalist spy had already learned all the details of Lafayette's mission and gave the information to the senior British commander, General Sir William Howe. He and four other generals-all five were among the ablest and most experienced tacticians of both sides of the War for Independence-planned a brilliant strategy to trap and capture the Marquis. This would end once and for all his ambitions to help Washington and his Continental Army defeat them in the war.
On May 19, the British and Hessians began their maneuver to capture Lafayette. Eight thousand of their elite troops marched twenty miles in a wide flanking movement and cut off Lafayette's rear escape route; four thousand marched along Germantown Pike and cut off his left flank; and four thousand moved along Ridge Pike past Roxborough and cut off his right flank and frontal position.
On May 20, a surprised Lafayette saw that he and his entire detachment were completely surrounded by the five generals and their awesome forces poised for a final strike. A cry of panic went up among some of his men, but with the instinct of a born tactician and the coolness of an unruffled, superbowl quarterback, the young lion gathered several hundred picked troops at the churchyard of Saint Peter's Lutheran Church, reversed his front and marched them against the British army to his rear. British General James Grant halted his advance and gathered his officers for an assessment of this bold counterattack. This was the hesitation Lafayette badly needed.
He quickly retrieved his men away from this feint and followed behind the soldiers from the main encampment area led by his two generals, Enoch Poor and James Varnum. They navigated down a hidden path towards Conshohocken and across the Schuylkill River at Matson's Ford to the safety of the high ground into present day West Conshohocken.
General Grant resumed his maneuver and believed he and General Grey had Lafayette trapped at the churchyard. By the time he moved in for the snare Lafayette was gone! He had outfoxed the generals and their formidable army. Howe's forces-once keyed up and confidently poised for a quick, devastating blow-were reduced to a weary and disappointed array of soldiers.
Realizing that the "boy" as they called him had pulled off one of the most spectacular escapes in the annals of military history, they marched back to Philadelphia disappointed without their quarry.
Lafayette had help, however. General Von Steuben had masterfully trained the troops at Valley Forge, and this was the first test of his training skills. Generals Varnum and Poor were experienced veterans. Washington was impressed with Lafayette's performance and would give the Marquis more opportunities to exhibit his leadership abilities.
The British military was so embarrassed by their failure at Barren Hill that General Sir Henry Clinton, the next Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, completely eliminated this three-day, failed maneuver from his memoirs, The American Rebellion: 1775-1782.
Lafayette accomplished his mission. The enemy would not attack Valley Forge. In fact the British marched out of Philadelphia on June 18 and Washington's army marched in on June 19. Barren Hill was later renamed Lafayette Hill.
Valley Forge was the encampmment where Lafayette's admiration for General Washington grew dramatically. Here he observed the conduct of a man who had faced defeat so often yet persevered in carrying out his mission as Commander-in Chief of a rag tag army during a horrendous winter. Lafayette saw how Washington's fighting force was dwindling because of starvation, desertions, disease, death from freezing, and a recalcitrant Congress guilty of gross mismanagement. He also witnessed General Von Steuben's masterful skills to help Washington discipline and rebuild his entire army. From these experiences, Lafayette would learn how to cope with adversity from one of the greatest military leaders of all time who would become one of America's greatest Presidents. Furthermore, he would go on to use his apprenticeship to help the Americans secure their final victory over the British. The moment Lafayette returned safely with his men from the Barren Hill mission, Washington knew he had a rebuilt army worthy of many challenges.