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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
This may have been one of the factors in the rift that now developed between McLane and Lee. Their personalities, in any event, seemed fated eventually to clash. Years later, reading Lee’s account in his memoirs of how he had paced the Hudson’s banks on a cold wintry night waiting for a spy’s report from New York, McLane remarked sarcastically in his journal that Lee never kept the field in such weather; he preferred playing whist.
Eventually Lee, commanding his augmented legion and on his way to fight in South Carolina, got McLane out of his sight by assigning him the menial task of purchasing supplies in Maryland. McLane appealed to Washington, with a result which he recorded in a triumphant note on a letter dated January 20, 1781. “McLane got out of Major Lee’s trap by prevailing on Washington to assign him to Baron Steuben’s command,” McLane wrote.
Steuben was then in Virginia trying to cope with an invasion the British had launched from the sea under Benedict Arnold in the first days of January. McLane’s assignment to Steuben’s command led directly to his most important and most forgotten service.
During winter and early spring, the situation in Virginia built to a crisis. The British reinforced Arnold’s original raiders, and up from the south came Lord Cornwallis, who had lost the Carolinas by decimating his army to win the Pyrrhic victory of Guilford Court House. Steuben and Lafayette, who had been sent to Virginia by Washington, could not hope to do battle with such an army, but at the same time the British faced a potential danger; they were isolated in the middle of the Atlantic seaboard, cut off from all support except by sea. Strategically, this was the situation that was to make Yorktown possible.
In the north, Washington appeared preoccupied with plans for an attack on New York, hoping to end the war at one stroke. His apparent absorption in this project deceived the British and apparently has deceived most historians since. Lossing says that the Comte de Grasse, commanding a powerful French fleet, had notified Washington he intended to campaign in the West Indies but later changed his mind and decided to sail for the Chesapeake.
An intriguing mystery seems obvious here. Why would De Grasse in the West Indies, intending to attack the British there, suddenly change all his plans? And if he were coming to the American coast, wouldn’t logic dictate that he sail for Newport, where a French army and fleet were already stationed? Why would he, out of the blue as it were, decide on the Chesapeake? Obviously, it would seem that he must have been stimulated in some unexplained fashion to arrive at this all-important decision.
The answer to the riddle is to be found in the McLane papers, which reveal that the seed of decision was planted by Allan McLane, acting as special courier from Washington. This is McLane’s abbreviated account of his dramatic mission: “In the interval between the appearance of Cornwallis in Virginia and the month of June, 1781, McLane embarked in the ship Congress ,, of Philadelphia, Capt. Geddis, as Capt. of Marines. … Visited Cape Francois in July, was examined by Count de Grasse in Council of War on board Ville de Paris , gave it as his decided opinion that Count de Grasse could make it easy for Genl. Washington to reduce the British in the South if he proceeded with his fleet and Army to the Chesapeake.”
This secret mission which became lost in history does not rest on McLane’s unsupported word. In 1820, when he was contemplating writing his memoirs, McLane obtained a corroborating affidavit from Richard O’Brien, a lieutenant on the Congress . In this, O’Brien says he personally commanded the ship’s boat that rowed McLane to the council of war, and he adds:
“I was on the quarter deck of the Ville de Paris and after considerable time had elapsed one of the French officers—the Captain of a 74, one of the Council of War—informed me that, in Consequence of the dispatches delivered to the Council of War by Col. Allan McLane, his clear and explicit statements and rational views of the probable Consequences, it was then determined to abandon the Expedition against the West India Islands and to sail with all Expedition for the Coast of the United States.”
Having obtained De Grasse’s pledge to sail for the Chesapeake, McLane returned to the Congress for the voyage home, and before he landed, such was the destiny of the man, he became embroiled in one of the fiercest sea battles of the Revolution. McLane underplays the event in one laconic sentence in his journal in which he notes that the Congress fell in with the British sloop of war Savage off Charleston Bar—and took her.