May 20

This Day in History

American Revolution

May 20, 1778:

Battle of Barren Hill, Pennsylvania

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.

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