Battle of Barren Hill 5/20/1778: Rebel Hill, Oneida Indians, Gens. Washington and Lafayette

On this day in 1778, some 2000 soldiers, including some 50 Oneida Indians, engaged in the Battle of Barren Hill, on and around the grounds of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette Hill, Plymouth Whitemarsh, PA.  This battle is one of the climactic final chapters in my novel, Becoming Valley Forge, and a climactic event of and the only true battle fought during the Valley Forge encampment.

General George Washington commanded  Gen. Marquis de Lafayette to lead this group of 2000 soldiers and head towards Philadelphia to see whether the British were planning to evacuate Philadelphia or even attack the Continental Army at Valley Forge now that winter had ended and both armies would be leaving their winter quarters–the Continental Army’s being Valley Forge and the British’s being Philadelphia and what was then its suburb, Germantown.  Once the troops reached Barren Hill, about 500 soldiers, including some 50 Oneida Indians, were sent out as advance guard scouts, and actually engaged with the British.  Historians have noted that nine soldiers, including six Oneida Indians, were killed.  The bulk of the soldiers were able to retreat back across Matson’s Ford to modern day Rebel Hill.  However, while Lafayette and his troops were at Barren Hill, General Washington, concerned about what was or could be happening, had the rest of the Continental Army at Valley Forge of about 7-8000 soldiers,  on alert to join the battle, if needed.  Washington himself rode to Rebel Hill to see what was happening with his army and the man who he considered to be like a son–Gen. Lafayette.

One historian notes, “The older general [Washington] then rode south from Valley Forge to a point west of Matson’s Ford accompanied by most of his staff.  Units of the Continental [a]rmy began forming up on the slope above the ford.  There Washington watched apprehensively from the rocky heights as he saw the red coats advancing on the pride of his army, including his personal Life-Guard.  The British were about to kill or capture the men he had trained through the harsh and killing winter months.  Surrounded by his generals, he waved his hat and shouted encouragement amidst the cannon fire and smoke of his artillery that were covering the retreat (Lossing 1860, 261).”  See The Oneida Nation’s Contributions at Valley Forge by Greg Chester (2009).

The Oneida Indians played a pivotal role at the Battle of Barron Hill.  Some 50 Oneida Indians had just arrived at Valley Forge just a week earlier, on May 13, to assist the Continental Army.  As explained in an article on the Oneida Indian Nation website,

“Washington asked Lafayette to recruit Native allies in anticipation of a spring movement of the armies.  The Oneidas had long-standing ties of friendship with the French, and Lafayette’s presence seemed to make the possibility of French aid on the American side more likely. They adopted Lafayette and gave him the name of a warrior who had died 12 years earlier, Kayewla, during a meeting at Johnstown, N.Y. in early March 1778. As was the custom on such occasions, Lafayette accompanied his request for Oneida warriors with wampum belts, which testified to the truth and importance of his message, and some money for the Oneida people to buy the foreign goods they had come to depend upon.  In his own accounts of this meeting, Lafayette indicated his belief that the Oneidas had accepted his gifts as a bribe. But the Oneida tradition in dealing with the Europeans called for token exchanges of gifts to acknowledge past actions of friendship and anticipate future cooperation. These exchanges also were important because the Oneidas did not receive regular pay for their military service.  On May 13, 1778, 47 Oneidas arrived at Valley Forge, accompanied by Lafayette’s men. Washington, expecting the British troops to evacuate Philadelphia, put Lafayette in command of 2,200 men to find out what the British were planning. He ordered Lafayette to avoid unnecessary risks and stay on the move. The Oneidas were assigned to a special detachment of scouts to advance Lafayette’s troops, and the entire column left Valley Forge on May 19.  For reasons that aren’t clear, Lafayette stopped that night at Barren Hill, about 12 miles from Philadelphia, and set up camp. He then sent out the Oneida and American scouts to reconnoiter.”

Here’s how the battle is described at

“On this day in 1778, British forces from Philadelphia attempt to trap 2,200 Continentals defending Valley Forge led by Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, through skillful maneuvering, avoids the entrapment and the destruction of his forces. The encounter takes place at Barren Hill, now known as Lafayette Hill, just northwest of Philadelphia.  Washington had dispatched Lafayette and his men two days before to spy on the British in Philadelphia. The British learned of Lafayette’s mission and intended to surprise, surround and capture the encampment with a force of 7,000 to 8,000 men. Lafayette, in turn, learned of the British plan late on May 19.  Lafayette assigned 500 men and approximately 50 Oneida Indians armed with cannon to face the British onslaught and stand their ground by the local church, while the rest of Lafayette’s forces fled west over the Schuylkill River to safety. Before the Oneida warriors followed the Continental Army across the Schuylkill, they are believed to have bravely given chase to the British as they marched back to Philadelphia.  Lafayette, a Frenchman, had personally recruited the Oneida to join the Patriot cause by using the Indians’ preference for the French over the English; the Oneida arrived at Valley Forge on May 13. Lafayette promised the Oneida that they would serve under French instead of colonial Patriot commanders and that they would be given assistance in building a fort at their Mohawk Valley, New York, settlement.  These fresh Indian recruits were paired with Lafayette’s best Patriot fighters, fresh from training under European officers at Valley Forge. The Indians’ actions during the successful retreat at Barren Hill prevented disaster and allowed the Continental Army to emerge from Valley Forge as a disciplined military in June.”

I happened to be driving past St. Peter’s Church yesterday and stopped to take the pictures that are in this post of the commemorative monuments of the battle and those brave soldiers and Oneida Indians who were killed that day.  Click on each picture for the captions, including what is written on the commemorative stones.  A fitting remembrance as we approach Memorial Day next week.

For more information, also see:  John’s Military History, which includes some great pictures of Barren Hill today and traces both army’s movements.


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