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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
Having sent Roberts on to Valley Forge, McLane led his ,troopers into the city. They galloped with drawn swords along Second Street, and captured two groups of British laggards, all without the loss of a man. Then McLane scribbled a hasty note to Washington. Washington appended to a letter he was writing to the president of Congress this hurried postscript: “A letter from Captain McLane, dated in Philadelphia, this minute came to hand confirming the evacuation.”
Command in the recaptured American capital had been entrusted to Benedict Arnold, the wounded hero of Saratoga. The precise nature of McLane’s relations with Arnold is not clear, but one thing is certain: McLane became one of the very first to suspect Arnold’s loyalty.
The venality of Arnold’s nature became apparent in shameless profiteering from the sale of goods left behind by British occupation forces. This aroused the ire of many Philadelphians—and especially of Mclane. In a letter to Washington, he complained of Arnold’s activities and hinted at darker suspicions. Washington’s reply was prompt and crushing. He refused to entertain doubts about the loyalty of one of his greatest generals, and his stinging rebuke silenced McLane.
McLane gave vent to his secret feelings in scribbled notations. One of these notes indicates that Arnold recognized how dangerous McLane might be to him and would have taken steps to crush the meddlesome cavalryman it Washington himself hadn’t intervened. McLane wrote: “After Arnold married Miss Shippen [on April 8, 1779] he opened a correspondence with the Enemy in New York and M’Lane was suspected for having the Clue—Genl Washington protected him or he would have been abused for having done his duty.”
While Arnold was left free to plot, events moved swiftly for McLane. He was attached to the command of Major Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee. and early summer of 1779 found him scouting Stony Point, a rocky promontory in the Hudson that the British had seized and were fortifying heavily. On June 28. Washington wrote General Anthony (Mad Anthony) Wayne suggesting that he try to get a “trustworthy and intelligent” man into the British works to spy out their strength. Allan McLane was picked for the mission.
He decided to go in openly under a flag of truce, but disguised as quite another type of man than he actually was. In the neighboring countryside, he located a Mrs. Smith who wished to visit her sons in the British garrison. Dressing himself in rough backwoods attire —frayed hunting shirt and leggings, his powder horn and rifle accoutrements plainly visible—McLane escorted Mrs. Smith into the British lines and then lounged about waiting for her, impersonating a bumpkin commanding militia.
A young British officer decided he would have some fun with this hick soldier. The story, complete with dialogue, was obtained by Alexander Garden, a fellow officer in Lee’s legion, from McLane himself.
“Well, Captain,” the British officer asked, “what do you think of our fortress? Is it strong enough to keep Mister Washington out?”
“I know nothing of these matters,” McLane protested. “I am but a woodsman and can only use my rifle, but I guess the General—General, mind you, not Mister—would be likely to think a bit before he would run his head against such works as these. … Trust me, we are not such dolts as to attempt impossibilities.”
Leaving the British officer puffed up with superiority, McLane quitted the fort and reported that it wasn’t half as formidable as it looked. His keen eyes had noted that entrenchments connecting the batteries hadn’t been completed, and he had worked out an approach route by which an attacking force might come quite close without being observed. McLane’s report brought Washington to the scene for a personal reconnaissance, protected by the cavalry of McLane and Lee. The attack was set for the night of July 15-16, 1779, and McLane and his raiders lay close in the underbrush, snuggled almost up to the unsuspecting British sentries, as Mad Anthony Wayne’s troops stormed the fort with the bayonet. In 25 minutes they had carried the Gibraltar of the Hudson.
Stony Point was still the talk of the hour when McLane and Lee teamed up in an almost identical venture against Paulus Hook, or Powles Hook as it was sometimes called, a fortified neck of land in what is now Jersey City. McLane’s troop, forever on the move, ranged the entire west bank of the Hudson from Stony Point to Paulus Hook, and finally, from a deserter, McLane obtained precise information about the plan of the fort and the strength of the garrison. Lee badgered Washington and finally obtained permission to storm it.
The attack was made early on the morning of August 19, 1779. Part of Lee’s force became lost and never did show up, but the rest went in with the bayonet, carried the fort in a few minutes, and made off with 158 prisoners. Lee himself commanded on the left, where McLane’s dismounted troopers, led by their captain, were the first to crash the defenses.
Paulus Hook made a national hero of Lee, just as Stony Point had of Mad Anthony Wayne. The Continental Congress showered decorations and rewards on Light-Horse Harry, but in one of those whimsies that defy the rationalization of even a politician, it refused to pass a resolution praising McLane and the other officers who had been so prominent in the assault.