Blunder of Barren Hill?

Though I wouldn’t consider myself a full-blown history buff, I do appreciate a good back story, especially involving food and drink. As such, with the opening of Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery this week in the space formerly known as General Lafayette Inn, I couldn’t help but get sucked into some of the history surrounding the area, the inn, and Lafayette himself.

There’s a lot of conflicting information online about the Battle of Barren Hill, as well as the General’s role in said battle. I don’t know if it’s sparked by propaganda from businesses in the area trying to capitalize on the revolutionary spirit, or just good old-fashioned American denial, but I figured I’d try to make some sense of it all. For your benefit, of course.

The first story that emerges, especially from non-historical sources, is that Lafayette and his band of miscreants fought a valiant battle on Barren Hill, fighting off a far larger British battalion and forcing them to retreat back towards Philadelphia and New York. After some digging, however, it turns out that’s not exactly what went down.

It all started with Washington sending his newly promoted General out on a reconnaissance mission to keep an eye on British troops as they retreated from Philadelphia. Lafayette – whose full name is Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette, by the way – took with him about 2200 men (an estimated 20-30% of Washington’s command) as well as a small band of Oneida Indians. Why Washington would send such a large percentage of his contingent out on this mission is unclear; as such, many military historians have criticized the tactic in hindsight.

Though supposedly ordered by GW to keep moving so as not to be discovered, for some reason Lafayette decided to set up camp at Barren Hill, sending out a few small groups as lookouts. The British, who outnumbered Lafayette’s company 4-1, became aware of the young Frenchman’s mistake and surrounded the camp overnight. The following morning, several bloody skirmishes between the advancing British troops and Lafayette’s scouts broke out, providing some advance notice to the general of the impending attack.

At this point, Lafayette’s command was surrounded on 3 sides, with the Schuylkill River at their back, and gruesome doom or capture was imminent. Fate, however, had another wrinkle. A hidden road that ran along the river back to Matson’s Ford (and thus the safety of Valley Forge) had not been discovered by the British. Whether Lafayette knew about this road beforehand and planned for it as an escape route all along, or whether it was discovered at the exact time of need is unclear (and would probably help us decide whether his tactics were brilliant or mad), but this road allowed for a safe return to Valley Forge and forced a British retreat.

Though certainly the soldiers who fought in the outer skirmishes played a key role in saving the company as a whole, this so-called battle seems to be more of a series of tactical mistakes, followed by a lucky break, than Lafayette making a brave stand at Barren Hill. One must even wonder how the war might have changed had Washington lost up to a third of his company.

As for the tavern itself – which was called the Three Tuns back then – my research didn’t turn up any evidence that it played a part in the actual battle, but its proximity to the encampment means it is probably safe to assume Lafayette and his men at least sidled up to the bar for a few brewskis at some point. And, whether you choose to see Lafayette’s stand as heroism or pure folly, that seems like a good enough reason as any to take a ride over to Barren Hill Tavern for some of the same.

Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery
646 Germantown Pike
Lafayette Hill, PA 19444
(215) 483-5535
Facebook.com/BarrenHillBeer

The historical information contained here was cobbled together through a variety of online sources. Though I make no guarantees of the accuracy of said information, it IS on the internet, therefore it must be true.

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