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Allan Mclane Unknown Hero Of The Revolution
Dashing fighter, daring scout, this romantic trooper played a large part in Washington’s triumph at Yorktown
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
Captain Allan McLane rode out before dawn of June 16, 1778, to keep a dangerous rendezvous. With his cavalry he had been probing the British perimeter around Philadelphia, trying to learn for General Washington at Valley Forge whether the enemy was about to evacuate the city. The previous day a young girl had slipped through the British lines and had told McLane that her father would bring him “important intelligence” between daybreak and sunrise on the sixteenth. They were to meet at the “Horse House” near the Rising Sun Tavern in the countryside north of Germantown.
McLane, whose daring sorties and hairbreadth escapes had made him one of the most romantic figures in the Continental Army, rode to the appointment fully aware that it might be a carefully baited British trap. And so he took precautions. He ordered his entire troop to follow at a distance and to conceal themselves behind the tavern. He placed two vedettes on the lane leading past the tavern between the Old York and Frankfort roads, with orders to fire their pistols at the first sign of the enemy. Then he rode on alone.
A furtive-acting man was waiting just inside the yard gate. McLane had hardly begun talking to him when a patrol of thirteen British light horse rode up quietly from the south, circled a small hill that concealed their movements, and then came forward at full gallop.
McLane’s informant promptly fled, but the Captain, leaping to horse, charged directly at the gate toward which the British were riding. The leading British trooper had dismounted and was opening the gate when McLane’s horse reared above him and McLane, leaning down, fired his pistol into the man’s startled face.
“At the instant the Capt. fired his pistol,” McLane later wrote, speaking of himself in the third person as was his wont, “the [American] horsemen appeared in the Enemy’s rear, fired and advanced upon them. They became alarmed and ran in Grate Confusion down the roade and through the fields toward the British picket near the Globe Mill. They reported (a lie, British-like) they had been ambuscaded by a body of horse and infantry and cut their way through them without a loss but one dragoon wounded slightly.”
McLane did not say how he could possibly know what story the British dragoons told their superiors. But it was typical of the man that there was no slightest doubt in his mind they had told “a lie, British-like.”
Ever a good hater, McLane was an emotional patriot. This fervor was both his weakness and his strength. It made him a stormy petrel whom superiors could not always placate, but the same quality, in the field, resulted in such dash and daring that Washington once remarked to a friend: “I would not do without him in the light corps—no, not for a thousand pounds.”
McLane was born in Philadelphia on August 8, 1746. His parents were persons of some affluence, for McLane visited Europe when he was 21, and his father, when he died in 1775, left McLane more than $15,000 worth of property in Philadelphia.
When he was 23, McLane married Rebecca Wells, the daughter of the sheriff of Kent County, Delaware. He settled in Delaware, got into one of the first skirmishes of the war against Lord Dunmore in Virginia and then joined a Delaware regiment of volunteers. In the disaster on Long Island, he first proved his quality, reversing the trend of the day in his immediate sector by cutting off a British lieutenant and eighteen privates and slashing his way out with his prisoners.
He fought at White Plains and Trenton and Princeton. On the latter field lie was so conspicuous he attracted Washington’s attention and promptly was promoted to captain in a commission dated January. 13, 1777. Assigned at first to Colonel John Patton’s regiment of loot, he was soon detached and sent to Delaware to raise a company. He returned with 91 men enlisted at his own expense, “every shilling of the bounty money being drawn from his own pocket.”
With a command of his own, McLane was ready to gallop into history. He was in the forefront of the fighting at Brandy-wine: he drove in the first British pickets in Washington’s abortive counterattack at Germantown. Then, with the capital. Philadelphia, in the hands of the enemy, he became, in the harsh winter of Valley Forge, the eves and ears and virtually the sole commissariat of Washington’s starving army.
He was ordered on November 7, 1777, to take “the post most advantageous for watching the enemy, sending out the necessary parties and patriots for that end You are to prevent as far as possible all intercourse between Philadelphia and the country, suffering none to go to the city without papers given by the authority of the commander-in-chief.”
Never were orders more expeditiously executed. Within a month, by a romantic episode in espionage, McLane foiled British plans to surprise Washington, encamped in a threatening position at Whitemarsh, north of Philadelphia.
On Second Street in Philadelphia, directly opposite the headquarters of Sir William Howe, the British commander, there lived a Quaker couple. William and Lydia Darrah. Howe’s adjutant general had his quarters there: on December 2, 1777, he advised Lydia to send all her family to bed early.