Lafayette & the Battle of Barren Hill: Memorial

Lafayette & the Battle of Barren Hill: Memorial

A Revolutionary battle that may have turned the tide
September 06, 2011 | Original article by Bonnie L. Cook, Inquirer Staff Writer

Gen. George Washington called it a “timely and handsome” piece of military trickery. More than 230 years later, some still call it “the most spectacular escape” in American history. The little-known Battle of Barren Hill – on which this country’s fortunes may have turned – will be recalled Tuesday during rededication of a stone monument on the battlefield in Whitemarsh Township.

It was on Barren Hill in May 1778 that a band of colonial soldiers and Oneida warriors led by 20-year-old Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, evaded a trap set by the British army. Had things gone differently, some believe, there would have been no United States.

“America would have become a commonweath of the British Empire like Canada and India,” said local history teacher Rudy Roy Cusumano. “The American flag, Independence Hall…and the Liberty Bell would not be part of our culture.” After a spy revealed their position, 2,200 Continental scouts and 47 Oneida warriors found themselves hemmed in at Ridge Pike and Church Road by the 16,000 redcoats they had been sent to reconnoiter.

Lafayette, who had volunteered his services to Washington, was facing British generals twice his age, but had ties with the Oneida tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy in central New York. Remaining calm, Lafayette ordered a decoy attack on the redcoats in the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church graveyard. As the colonists bristled, the British hesitated. That gave Lafayette and his men the pause they needed to vanish one by one down a hidden path along Barren Hill Road and to cross the Schuylkill at Matson’s Ford.

By the time the three prongs of the British offensive came together in the graveyard, their quarry was safe in the hills above West Conshohocken. The ruse deflated the British, who within a month abandoned Philadelphia to the colonists. “It was one of the most spectacular escapes in the annals of military history,” wrote retired high school teacher Rudy Roy Cusumano of North Wales. Had the ruse failed, disaster would have overtaken the war for independence, said the history researcher. “The British would have gone on to Valley Forge and captured Washington.”

The retreat cost the lives of six Oneidas, including a tribal sachem, Thomas Sinavis. A plaque honors their sacrifice. The warriors were left behind to cover the retreat with woodland warfare tactics, Ron Patterson, the Oneidas’ living historian, said in an interview from Oneida, N.Y. “When the soldiers left them behind the lines, their war cries in the woods [were confusing] – you can’t count their number. They allowed the marquis to slip away,” Patterson said.

Barren Hill was renamed Lafayette Hill in 1900 to honor the French general.

On Tuesday, Whitemarsh Township officials, leaders of local historical societies, and others will speak. It wasn’t clear who among the Oneida Nation was invited, said Mark F. Emery, director of media relations, but no one was able to attend. The stone monument is shaped like a tent to suggest the encampment. It was erected in 1897 by the Historical Society of Montgomery County on the property of Henry Hellings, on Ridge Pike at Barren Hill, and dedicated on May 21, 1898.

There was a celebration of the monument in 1928, Cusumano said, in which 200 schoolchildren participated. When the Hellings property was developed in 2000, the monument was moved to the society’s property on DeKalb Street in Norristown. There it stayed until Aug. 15, when Cusumano and his wife, Diane, paid $500 to have the stone cleaned and mounted on a concrete pad in front of St. Peter’s Church by monument restorers Michael Dougherty and DeChristopher Bros. of Philadelphia.

After the war, Lafayette went back to France. He returned to Barren Hill on June 20, 1825, for a visit, and was mobbed by an adoring crowd. He died in Paris in 1834. Cusumano believes the Battle of Barren Hill was critical to the success of the colonists. “If [the British] plan worked that day, Washington and all the signers of the Declaration of Independence would have been arrested, court-martialed, and hanged,” he said.

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