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Source: January 1979 Volume 17 Number 1, Pages 3–6

"Who But a Fool Ever Threatened to Burn a Stone House?"

When the British were Repulsed in a Skirmish in Easttown Township

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It was on the morning of January 18, 1778 that a small detachment of less than a dozen American soldiers, under Captain Henry Lee, with­stood and turned back the assault of some 200 British dragoons, commanded by the notorious Colonel Banastre Tarleton, on a wooded hill (now known as Signal Hill) in Easttown Township. The skirmish was described by the local historian Julius F. Sasche as "one of the most heroic and hotly contested actions of the Revolution" and, in view of the disparity in numbers, "without parallel in the history of the struggle for independence" — but perhaps this reflects more than a little local pride.

The American detachment was one of several outposts set up by General Washington while the Continental Army was encamped for the winter at Valley Forge. Its purpose was not only to provide intelligence for Washington and his staff, but also more immediately to harrass British foraging parties in their efforts to obtain food and supplies for the British Army occupying Philadelphia.

With the Newtown Road one of the principal supply routes used by these parties, the outpost was located on high ground overlooking the road, on the northeast corner near its intersection with Sugartown Road. A tall chestnut tree served as a sentry tree in a chain of signal trees for communication with Valley Forge, and there was a stone house that was used as a headquarters for the detachment, and a barn that could be used as a warehouse for the storage of supplies captured from the British wagons for use by the Continental Army.

The detachment consisted of thirteen men from Colonel Theodore Bland's Virginia regiment. Command of the outpost was assigned to Captain Lee, "a young, but brave and trusted officer" who had been in command of Washington' s bodyguard at the Battle of Germantown.

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So successful were these outposts, particularly those south of the Schuylkill River, in disrupting the British supply service that the British commander, General Sir William Howe, determined to take action to relieve the situation.

Through Tory spies, the location and size of Lee's detachment were known to the British. To surprise and capture the isolated outpost, General Howe sent out 200 mounted troops, or dragoons, under Colonel Tarleton. The British troops left Philadelphia on January 17th, spending the night at a farmhouse not far from Lee's headquarters.

Advancing to attack the next morning, "a clear, crisp, cold January morning", the British surprised the outpost's quartermaster and three men, out on a foraging expedition themselves, and captured them before they could give any alarm. It was not until the British were on the hillside in back of the house that the rest of the detachment was aware of their presence. The Americans had time only to barricade themselves in the house.

With the headquarters quickly surrounded, Tarleton demanded the unconditional surrender of Lee and his entire party, adding that otherwise he would set fire to the house and its occupants. Lee conferred with his men, stating his intention to fight it out and promising to recommend for promotion those who did likewise. All agreed to make a stand.

Lee's reply to the British, according to Sasche, was "Who but a fool ever threatened to burn a stone house?" In the meantime, the patriot owner of the property, who had been working in the barn, was able to get away unnoticed to try to get additional troops from a larger detachment of the army quartered in the valley only about two miles to the north.

The plan for the defense by the Americans was described by Captain Lee in his report to General Washington. "We immediately manned the doors and windows;" he reported, "the contest was very warm; the British Dragoons trusting to their vast superiority in number attempted to force their way into the house. So well directed was the opposition that we [also] drove them away from the stables and saved every horse; we have got the arms of their wounded; the enterprise was certainly daring, though the issue of it very ignominious. I had not a soldier for every window."

At one point in the encounter Colonel Tarleton was within point blank range of the carbine of Private O'Neil, only to be saved by a misfire and "flash in the pan".

According to tradition, the end of the attack came when Lieutenant Lindsay, wounded in the hand at the beginning of the assault and unable to take part in the fighting, stood at an open window on the second floor, calling and beckoning to relief troops still some distance away, as though they were close at hand, encouraging them to hurry.

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HENRY LEE [Light-Horse Harry Lee] Painting by Charles Willson Peale. Courtesy Independence National Historical Park

The ruse was successful. The British, assuming that American reserves were nearby, became distracted and disengaged themselves. Galloping out of danger, they headed back to Philadelphia, leaving a wake of destruction in their path.

The British losses were officially reported as four killed and four wounded, including one officer, though in a letter to Captain Lee's father a month later, General George Weedon wrote that five of the attacking party were killed, with several wounded. Other estimates have placed the British dead as high as twelve, all of them buried in an old Welsh graveyard that was located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Newtown and Sugartown Roads.

Three days after the skirmish, General Washington wrote a personal letter to Lee, saying, in part, "Although I have given you my thanks in the general orders of this day for the late instance of your gallant behavior, I cannot resist the inclination I feel to repeat them again in this manner. I needed no fresh proofs of your merit to bear you in remembrance... Offer my thanks to the whole of your gallant party, and assure them that no one felt more pleasure more sensibly or rejoiced more sincerely for your and their escape, than yours affectionately, etc. George Washington."

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In April the Commander-in-Chief recommended promotions for Lee and the officers under his command, who had "uniformly distinguished themselves by a conduct of exemplary zeal, prudence and bravery". The recommendations were confirmed on April 7, 1778, Lee being promoted to the rank of Major commandant, Lieutenant Lindsay to the rank of Captain, and Cornet Peyton to the rank of Captain Lieutenant. Promotions were also eventually obtained for the other members of the de­tachment, including Sergeant Winston and Privates Ferdinand, O'Neil, and Gardner. All except Captain Lindsay, whose wounds forced him to resign his commission from the army, but continued to serve with Lee and his "Partisan Corps" throughout the war.

Operating as an independent corps, Lee and his men were used for in­telligence, scouting, and foraging missions. Lee's daring and bravery earned for him the nickname "Light Horse Harry", by which he was com­monly known for the remainer of the conflict. In July 1779, with 300 men, he captured the enemy's "fort and works at Paulus Hook" in New Jersey, for which he was awarded a gold medal especially struck for the occasion.

In the later stages of the war, he was assigned to the Southern Campaign under General Nathanael Greene.

Ironically, during the Southern Campaign, on several occasions he again faced Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Dragoons. In the series of skirmishes that ensued, he again established his superiority — as he had done in the skirmish when the British were repulsed in Easttown Township in January 1778.


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