This Day in History: The Revolutionary War Battle of Barren Hill
On this day in 1778, the Battle of Barren Hill occurs. Mere days earlier, a group of Oneida Indians had offered their assistance to George Washington’s army. Surely they couldn’t have known how quickly they would be called upon to help?
Their presence would soon help American forces turn back the British.
Washington’s army was then encamped at Valley Forge, where they had spent a long, hard winter. In mid-May, they received a welcome addition to the camp: One of the Marquis de Lafayette’s fellow Frenchmen arrived with a group of nearly 50 Oneidas. The Oneidas were welcomed with open arms: Henry Knox ordered a salute with thirteen large guns, and Washington himself personally received the Indian warriors.
The Oneidas offered to help the Continental Army, and their assistance was gladly accepted.
Washington assigned the Oneida to work with Lafayette, who was about to move with a force of 2,200 men toward the British, then in Philadelphia. Lafayette’s mission was to gather intelligence and to watch for signs of a British retreat toward New York. The Oneidas were to serve as scouts for Lafayette’s advance; they would have the help of 50 American riflemen.
On the night of May 19, Lafayette set up camp on Barren Hill, just 12 miles away from Philadelphia. Unfortunately, a deserter took the opportunity to inform the British of Lafayette’s position. The next day, British cavalry and foot soldiers were dispatched toward Barren Hill. They hoped to surprise Lafayette.
The Oneida and the riflemen were scouting the area when they heard the approach of the British soldiers—there were as many as 9,000 of them! Undeterred, the small group of Oneida and riflemen began firing at the British from the trees. At first, the British did not realize how small the attack force was, but once they realized they were up against roughly 100 men, they launched a cavalry charge.
Okay, well, they started to charge. Then, as historian Thomas Fleming recounts, “[t]he Oneidas responded with their own special brand of defiance. As one voice, they released a tremendous war whoop. Neither the British horses nor the men in the saddles had ever heard anything like it.” The soldiers were thrown into panic and confusion, leaving the American scouts time to get back to Lafayette with a warning.
Lafayette was already preparing to retreat. He’d heard the sounds of gunfire, and he knew that the British must be nearby. Lafayette was quick and he knew the area better than the British. He managed to get away, with the Oneida and riflemen acting as his rear guard. It was a close call, though. At one point, the British got close enough to shoot an officer off his horse. Two Oneida dragged him to safety.
In the meantime, Washington was marching out from Valley Forge. He’d heard the fighting and was coming to reinforce Lafayette. When the British learned that the Continental Army was headed their way, they turned back toward Philadelphia. They’d hoped for a low-cost blow to undermine the Americans. That chance was gone, thanks to the Oneida.
Letter from George Washington to Major General Lafayette (May 18, 1778)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
Thomas Fleming, Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge (2005)
Thomas Fleming, Warriors for the Republic (Journal of the American Revolution; April 16, 2013)