By spring of 1778, the British had occupied the cities of New York and Philadelphia. Even after the capture of forts Mifflin and Mercer, which had previously prevented the resupply of British-occupied Philadelphia by sea, the British relied heavily upon the overland route between New York City and Philadelphia for the movement of men, supplies and communication. British troops also regularly foraged for supplies in the countryside around the city.
Since December, Washington and the Continental Army were in winter quarters at Valley Forge, northwest of Philadelphia. Twenty-three year old Lacey (who had been promoted to Brigadier General and commander of the Pennsylvania militia in January), was tasked by Washington with patrolling the region north of Philadelphia, between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Washington ordered Lacey and the militia to prevent farmers from taking their goods into Philadelphia to sell to the British (who paid high prices, in gold), and to protect patriots in the region from harassment by British and Loyalist troops.
In Philadelphia, British commander William Howe ordered John Graves Simcoe, commander of the Queen's Rangers (a loyalist infantry unit), to "secure the country and facilitate the inhabitants bringing in their produce to market." During the winter of 1778, British and Loyalist troops repeatedly led raids into Bucks County, despite the presence of Lacey and the militia.
In April, Simcoe secured permission from Howe to launch an attack on Lacey and his militia. When spies in Bucks County informed Simcoe that Lacey was camped at Crooked Billet, he made plans to attack. On the afternoon of April 30, he and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby led their contingent of troops out of Philadelphia and towards Crooked Billet.
On January 1, a John Lacey was appointed brigadier-general and given command of a large body of militia with the aim of interrupting British supply lines, especially those reaching Philadelphia. Crooked Billet was the Headquarters of Lacey, and became the target of the British commander in Philadelphia, Gen. William Howe. Lacey had been charged with patrolling the area north of Philadelphia, between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, with responsibility for warning Valley Forge of attacks, checking British foraging raids, and preventing local trade with the British. Most of the enlistments of the few troops he had were due to expire shortly. Promised, and desperately needed, reinforcements were slow arriving or simply not coming.
The British dispatched a joint force of British troops and Hessians on 30 April and they surprised the American forces whose commander was still in bed. The British had surprised the Americans and attempted to cut them off with a "pincer" type movement. Bands of Loyalists and British horsemen grew increasingly bold, and their raids into Lacey's sector were becoming more frequent.
On May 1, during the morning, Lacey found his camp near the Crooked Billet Tavern virtually surrounded by the British. Though outnumbered, Lacey rallied his troops during the initial attack and was able to withdraw to a nearby wooded area and make a stand. After repulsing a cavalry charge, he decided to continue moving, and had his troops withdraw further. Skirmishing continued for some 2 miles before his troops turned to the left, broke free and made a move back towards the Billet. At this point, the British broke off, withdrawing towards Philadelphia. The Americans were soon routed and forced to retreat into Warwick and they lost all their supplies and equipments at their bivouc site.
What Lacey's troops found on their return to the field was a scene of carnage. Bodies of their fallen comrades bayoneted and cutlassed beyond need, and others who had been covered in straw and set afire. Judging from their posture, it appeared that some of these victims were still alive when set on fire. Later, depositions were taken from persons who witnessed British troopers brag of bayoneting militiamen after accepting their surrender and of throwing wounded militiamen into fires of buckwheat straw.
From the: Royal Pennsylvania Gazette, (Philadelphia),
May 5, 1778.
The clash occurred on May 1, during the British occupation of Philadelphia. The militia, commanded by Gen. John Lacey and assigned to cut off British supplies, was encamped here. Surprised by British troops, they were defeated and driven off with heavy losses. On Thursday night last, a small party of the British infantry, dragoons, and Queen's rangers, with a few of Capt. HOVEDEN's Pennsylvania, and Capt. JAMES's Chester dragoons, left the city about eleven o'clock, and proceeded up the Old York road.
About a mile beyond the Billet they fell in with Lacey's brigade of militia, consisting of about 500 men, and immediately attacked them: Lacey, at first, made some appearance of opposition, but, in a few seconds, was thrown into confusion, obliged to retreat with precipitation, and were pursued about 4 miles. They left between 80-100 dead on the field; and on Friday, between 50-60 prisoners, besides waggoners, with 10 of their waggons loaded with baggage, flour, salt, whiskey, &c. were brought in by the troops on their return: What number of rebels were wounded, we have not been able to learn. Besides the above waggons, 3 were burnt after taking out the horses; also all the huts and what baggage could not be brought off. The royal party did not lose a single man on this occasion, and have only 7 men wounded, and 2 horses killed.
As a result of this engagement, the American forces lost ten wagons full of much-needed supplies, and Lacey had almost 20% of his force killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Reasons for surprise
In his report to Thomas Wharton, president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, Lacey claimed his troops were surprised because "my scouts had neglected the proceeding Night to Patrole [sic] the Roads as they were ordered, but lay in Camp till near day, tho [sic] their orders were to leave it by 2 o'Clock in the morning" and that once British forces were discovered, the lieutenant leading the patrol "never gave us the alarm, he makes his excuse that he was so near them before he espyed [sic] them, that he thought himself in danger of being cut to peices [sic] by their Horse should he fire." Lieutenant Nielson, the officer in charge of the pickets, was court-martialed and cashiered from the militia for disobeying orders.
Reports of atrocities committed by British and Loyalist forces
Almost immediately, reports surfaced that British and Loyalist troops had committed atrocities, including the murder of prisoners-of-war and setting fire to the American wounded. On May 7, Washington ordered Brigadier General William Maxwell to conduct an inquiry into these allegations so that a report could be made to British commander General William Howe. Andrew Long, a justice of the peace in Bucks County, took the depositions of Colonel Watts and four residents who witnessed the battle: Samuel Henry, William Stayner, Thomas Craven and Samuel Erwin. Watts reported "we found the bodies of the dead usid [sic] in a most inhuman & barbarous manner" and that "the most cruel Barbarity that had ever been exercised by any civilised Nation; nay, Savage barbarity in its utmost exertion of cruelty could but equal it."
Lacey's report to Major General John Armstrong further documented the atrocities: "Some of the unfortunate, who fell into the merciless hands of the British, were more cruelly and inhumanely butchered. Some were set on fire with buckwheat straw, and others had their clothes burned on their backs. Some of the surviving sufferers say they saw the enemy set fire to wounded while yet alive, who struggled to put it out but were too weak and expired under the torture. I saw those lying in the buckwheat straw—they made a most melancholy appearance. Others I saw, who, after being wounded with a ball, had received near a dozen wounds with cutlasses and bayonets. I can find as many witnesses to the proof of the cruelties as there were people on the spot, and that was no small number who came as spectators."
Change in command for the Pennsylvania militia
On May 11, 1778, Washington relieved Lacey of command upon the return of General Potter from a leave of absence.
Washington wrote :Brigadier General Potter’s return from the Westward affords me the opportunity of relieving you in the command of the Pennsylvania Militia, which must have been fatiguing , considering the smallness of your numbers, and the constant motion which you have consequently obliged to be in. As General Potter is in great measure a stranger to the Country and to the people among whom he is to act, I shall be obliged to you, if you will remain with him a few days , to give him a general idea of the Roads, and to make him acquainted with those whom he can depend as guides, for intelligence, and for other necessary purposes, I am, etc. (Washington to Lacey, Writings of Washington, Volume XI, p. 374) Lacey's relief from command was not related to his conduct at the Battle of Crooked Billet. In fact, Lacey’s appointment to brigadier general on January 9, 1778, from President Wharton states: “ Brigadier General Potter has obtained leave to visit his family, and you are to take command in his absence." (Pennsylvania Archives 1st Series, Volume VI, p.168.) On May 16, 1778 the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council wrote to Lacey stating “ ... the Council has just received intelligence from the westward that makes it necessary to give immediate attention to the defence of that quarter, against the Indians–several people have been killed on the Bald Eagle–I have, therefore, not detained the messenger as there is no material order to be given. Your conduct is highly approved: and your men have justly acquired great reputation by their bravery... One class of Philadelphia county militia is ordered to join you. No rest for the weary soldier.
British and loyalist forces
120 dragoons from the 17th Light Dragoons (under Major Crewe)
37th Regiment of Foot
Philadelphia Light Dragoons, also referred to as Hovenden's Royal Militia (under Captain Kerr)
James' Troop of Provincial Dragoons (under Captain Jacob James)
Pennsylvania Militia, Bucks County Regiment (under Captain William Pugh)
Pennsylvania Militia, Cumberland County Regiments (under Colonels Frederick Watts and Abraham Smith)