The best portraits are perhaps those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature; and we are not certain that the best histories are not those in which a little of the exaggeration of fictitious narrative is judiciously employed. Something is lost in accuracy; but much is gained in effect. The fainter lines are neglected; but the great characteristic features are imprinted on the mind forever. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay.
On May 22, 1803, artist Charles Willson Peale, captain of the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment throughout the British occupation of Philadelphia, wrote to Allen McLane:
Your interesting journal received and it shall be in safe keeping until your return to Philadelphia. My brother has made a beginning, and his design tells your adventure with the Horsemen admirably. I wish his finishing may be equally as good. However, I suspect he has placed the scene rather nearer the city than it really was—yet it is not very material, so that history will be better understood.
Circa 1828, Alexander Garden, who had served in Lee’s Legion with McLane, wrote, “I know of no individual of his rank in the army, who engaged in such a variety of perilous adventures, or who, so invariably brought them to a happy issue, as Allen McLane.” Garden’s work has been universally quoted by everyone who has written about Allen McLane.
Folklorist Wayland Hand (1907-1986) once pointed out:
Legendary heroes are usually men who were supposedly gooder, braver, stronger, kinder, more courageous and more God-fearing than normal; and, who stood for outstanding national and cultural values. But in real life were they really? Legend stories can be short or long. And they usually do not begin with some sort of passing of responsibility for the tale such as “Well, people often claim…” or “I have heard…” Instead, they often begin with a fact.
Philadelphia-born McLane (August 8, 1746 – May 22, 1829) lived in Delaware, was married with children and a month shy of thirty years old when Independence was declared. Caesar Rodney’s 1775 military records show that McLane fought at Long Island, White Plains, Trenton and Princeton. He was active during the British occupation of Philadelphia. McLane served at Paulus Hook, Stony Point, and the Chesapeake. In 1781, he was breveted to Major. By 1794 he was Colonel McLane, serving as member, then Speaker, of the Delaware legislature, Governor’s privy counselor, judge of Court of Common Pleas, U.S. Marshall, and Collector for the Port of Wilmington. A delegate in 1787 to the Delaware Constitution Ratification Convention, he was an abolitionist, and a supporter of the Methodist Church and Federalist Party. In 1829 he was buried in Wilmington, Delaware’s Asbury Cemetery at 2nd and Walnut Streets.
“Dashing” is a funny, old-fashioned word often used to describe Allen McLane. Was he dashing in the sense of the 1964 song’s refrain, “Now he’s here, now he’s there, Allan McLane was everywhere?” Was he dashing in a swash-buckling movie star sort of way? We will never know. It’s just the way the story goes. Catch-phrases are an important mnemonic device in oral tradition.
Popularity of some stories about the American Revolution can be plotted on a sine curve. As the new nation sought stability, a period of silence followed, broken in 1789 by the writings of David Ramsay. Alexander Garden was the next to talk. William Thomas Sherman, aka Gun Jones, recently wrote,
Garden’s anecdotes, although largely second or third hand in origin, were often taken from original participants themselves whom he knew personally; not least of which, for our purposes, his old comrades and fellow officers in Lee’s Legion. Garden’s accounts often contain much rare, candid, and unusual information not found elsewhere and are much more original and reliable than perhaps initially and on their face we might otherwise take them to be.
The sine wave headed downward after 1828, taking Allen McLane along. From 1850-1887, mentions of McLane rose sharply upward and then plummeted. A bleep was heard during World War One, then more silence. Suddenly the line headed upward. His name appeared in a 1932 Washington Bicentennial booklet, then in Christopher Ward’s 1941 book, Delaware Continentals; then a short downward slide until Fred J. Cook’s frequently-quoted but unfootnoted 1956 American Heritage Magazine article; Henry Steele Commager’s books and articles circa 1958; and the 1964 New York World’s Fair all mentioned Allen McLane. During the Bicentennial, McLane stories circulated in oral tradition in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
By the late 1970s, McLane and other “dead white men” were banished by serious-minded scholars pushing “the radicalism of the Revolution.” Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, people grumbled that America didn’t have any heroes. In 2005, McLane quietly reappeared in the books of Tom Fleming, David Hackett Fisher, and Edward Lengel. McLane’s adventures at Barren Hill were incorporated into Glatthaar’s 2006 book, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution. Spy stories are now trending and it is predictable that Allen McLane will remain on an upward curve until roughly 2020.
Are the stories of Allen McLane’s heroics fact or fiction, or somewhere in between? Let’s look at the popular tales of his activities in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
November 28, 1777
To George Washington from Captain Allen McLane,
Rising Sun. 12 oClock
Evry Intelligence from the City agree that the enemy is in motion and intend a Grand stroke last night they gave out that a body Cross Schulkill and to Cover the deception they kept, their Waggons and Artillery moveing through the City all night this moment I Reced a few lines from my old friend I have good Reason to believe that he keeps a Good look out, and Gives the best intelligence
I Remain on my Guard Excellency
After midnight December 5, 1777, near Three Mile Run on Skippack Pike, Cornwallis’s vanguard of British light infantry battalions skirmished with Allen McLane’s cavalry patrol. On the left, an attack directed by General Howe dislodged Potter’s Pennsylvania militia, accompanied by General Cadwalader and General Joseph Reed. Cook tells us that Reed:
Had his horse shot from under him at the first fire and was pinned to the ground. British infantry rushed forward to bayonet him where he lay, when out of the night came the thunder of hoofs, and Allan McLane swirled upon the scene with his hard-riding troopers, sabering British right and left.
The attackers fled and McLane rescued the two American officers. The cavalry had saved the day. This scene is often repeated, but rarely footnoted. Christopher Ward credited an 1847 account written by Reed’s grandson, Attorney William Bradford Reed. Fred J. Cook, who wrote the above paragraph, did not cite his sources. Newer writers cite Cook and Ward.
In his official report, General Howe claimed that Whitemarsh had been “strong Ground” for the Americans and that he found their position “too well secured both by Labor and Nature to make an attack advisable.”
Historians have been quibbling since 1914 over who first alerted George Washington of the British advance towards Whitemarsh. Montgomery County residents credit Lydia Darrah for delivering information she had overheard. McLane aficionados insist it was him. The backstory is found in City History of Philadelphia with Henry Darrach’s contention that Alexander Garden recopied the work of Robert Walsh, substituting McLane’s name for that of Lt. Colonel Craig. John Reed, in his 1965 book, Campaign to Valley Forge, stated, “There are some unexplained discrepancies in the narrative …it would appear, however, that the main facts are essentially true, since Elias Boudinot corroborated several of them.” Reed decided, “American Captain Allen McLane of the light horse, reported the maneuver, as did Lydia Darragh.”
George Washington’s December 1777 letter to the president of the Continental Congress said:
Sir I have the honor to inform you, that in the course of last Week from a variety of intelligence I had reason to expect that General Howe was preparing to give us a general Action.
Now the Americans went to Valley Forge. The British were twenty miles southeast, on the other side of the Schuylkil River. McLane and his men supplied provisions and information to the patriot troops. McLane noted that in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, they rounded up “1500 fat hogs, 500 head of cattle. 200 head of Horses—for the army at Valley Forge” From Valley Forge, John Laurens wrote “As Captain McLane frequently employs spies to bring him intelligence, it would be improper for him to subject persons whose safety depends on secrecy to the examination of any but the officer in whom they have a confidence, and who has engaged them to act.”
Spring finally came, and British officers orchestrated a going-away party for General Howe. Tickets and trinkets from the May 18, 1781 Mischianza, can still be viewed at the Library Company of Philadelphia. The effusive eyewitness account of the costumes, the decorations, and the sumptuousness of it all can never be outdone by mere story tellers and should be read in full. One description ends, “Such, my friend, is the description, though a very faint one, of the most splendid entertainment, I believe, ever given by an army to their general.”
Elizabeth Drinker grumbled:
This day may be remembered by many from ye scene of Folly and Vanity, promoted by ye officers of the army — under the pretence of allowing respect to Gen. Howe, now about leaving them . . Ye parade of Coaches and other Carriages, with many Horsemen, thro’ the Streets, towards ye Northern Liberties; where great numbers of ye Officers and some women, embarked in three Galleys and a number of boats, and passed down ye River, before ye city, with Colors displayed, and a large Band of Music, and ye ships in ye Harbor decorated with Colors, which were saluted by ye Cannon of some of them. It is said they landed in Southwark, and proceeded from ye waterside to Joseph Wharton’s late dwelling, which had been decorated and fitted up for this occasion in an expensive way, for this Company, to Feast, Dance and Revel in. On ye River Sky-Rockets and other Fire-Works were exhibited after night…How insensible do these people appear, while our Land is so greatly desolated, and death and sore destruction has overtaken, and now impends over so many!
There is a widely repeated fable about the Mischianza that features McLane’s dragoons throwing kettle bombs, igniting Philadelphia’s defenses, creating a distraction that allows prisoners of war to escape from Walnut Street jail. The city is in an uproar, but the Tories believe the commotion is part of their celebration and continue feasting and dancing until four in the morning. When told by a good story teller, details of the blazing barricade elicit cheers and nods of satisfaction. The destruction intuitively makes sense and feels right, but primary documents are elusive. Washington’s letter to Lafayette that day states:
…to be a security to this camp (Valley Forge) and a cover to the country between the Delaware and Schuylkil—our parties of horse and [foot] between the rivers are to be under your command and to form part of your detachment. As great complaints have been made of the disorderly conduct of the parties which have been sent towards the enemy’s lines, it is expected that you will be very attentive in preventing abuses of like nature and will inquire how far complaints already made are founded in justice. 
Lafayette, in turn, wrote to Allen McLane from Valley Forge at nine o’clock, stating,
I have just now received your letter and wish you could come down immediately that I might speack with you of several things. Inquire if you please if the people believes there will be a market tomorrow… I desire you could throw somebody else into the town, and above all do’nt loose time to join me; I’ll be upon the left in the front house. 
No sign of kettle bombs in those letters. McLane’s earliest historian, Alexander Garden, did not mention the disruption, writing instead about a British soldier who sneered at the Mischianza. In 1789, Revolutionary War historian David Ramsay wrote:
After the termination of the campaign of 1777, the British army retired to winter quarters in Philadelphia, and the American army to Valley Forge…The winter and spring passed away without any more remarkable events in either army than a few successful excursions of parties from Philadelphia to the neighboring country, for the purpose of bringing in supplies or destroying property.
The kettle bomb story appears, unfootnoted, in Benson Lossing’s 1850 accounts and in Thompson Westcott and Scharf’s 1884 histories. In 1941, Christopher Ward cited the works of Lossing and of John Fanning Watson (1887). Watson was again cited in John W. Jackson’s 1979 With the British in Philadelphia. The Mischianza was real and beautiful and carefully recorded in contemporary documents. The kettle bombs live on in that liminal space where folklore morphs into history. The legend ends with Allen McLane swimming his horse across the Schuylkill River, escaping up the Wissahickon with Red Coats chasing him to Barren Hill.
Popular 1950s story teller, Fred J. Cook, segues this tale right into an actual event that occurred two days after the Mischianza, telling us that at dawn on 20 May:
Aides brought Howe word that the Marquis de Lafayette, with 2,200 Continentals, was sitting out in an exposed position at Barren Hill, only eleven miles from Philadelphia, with a force too small for battle, too large for scouting. Howe vowed he would have “the boy,” as he called Lafayette, as a prisoner within 48 hours. Howe moved out with more than 7,000 troops, virtually his entire army. His force left Philadelphia at 10:30 on the night of May 19, but McLane, with his cavalry raiders and Oneida Indian allies, was on patrol.The sounds of the hooves of a couple of hundred horses provided ample notice for the Oneidas. The warriors prepared an ambush, concealing themselves among the trees lining both sides of the road. As the British riders approached, out of the woods came a flurry of gunfire and arrows, followed by ferocious war cries from the warriors.
Joseph Plumb Martin’s Narrative supports this:
Just at the dawn of day, the officers’ waiters came, almost breathless…we were told that the British were advancing upon us in our rear…It was about three miles to the river; the weather was exceedingly warm…the enemy had nearly surrounded us by the time our retreat commenced, but the road we were on was very favorable for us, being for the most part of it through small woods and copses…I saw the right wing of the enemy through a lawn about half a mile distant, but they were too late; besides, they made a blunder here, —they saw our rear guard with the two fieldpieces in its front, and thinking it the front of the detachment, they closed in to secure their prey; but when they had sprung their net they found that they had not a single bird under it…The British, fearing that they should be outnumbered in their turn, directly set their faces for Philadelphia and set off in as much or more haste than we had left Barren Hill…The Indians, with all their alertness…kept coming in all the afternoon, in parties of four or five, whooping and hallooing like wild beasts. After they had got collected they vanished.
Joseph Plumb Martin does not mention Allen McLane but confirms the local tales of Lafayette’s brilliant escape, the Oneida Indians, and the failed British pincer movement. John W. Jackson contests American reports but ends saying, “Washington advised Congress that American losses were nine killed. British losses were insignificant. According to Hale, a number died of heat exhaustion on the march back to the city.”
The role Allen McLane played in alerting Lafayette was real.
Camp Valley Forge, May 21st, 1778
Dear Captain—I am happy you have with your brave little party conducted with so much honour to yourself. The Marquis effected, owing to your vigilancy a glorious retreat as well as a difficult one.
Signed Alex Scammel, Adj. Gen.
Camp Valley Forge, May 23, 1778
Dear Captain—I am pleased to hear you are still doing something to distinguish yourself in the eyes of your country. I have the pleasure to inform you that your conduct with the Marquis has been very pleasing to his Excellency and the whole army.
I am your obedient servant,
Charles Scott, Brig Gen. Officer of the day.
Three weeks later, American troopers were shot at near Old York Road and Shoemaker’s Mills. The men retreated, but British dragoons were dispatched to capture Allen McLane. McLane later wrote a third-person version of his adventure and hired artist James Peale to do an illustration.
He stopped, his horse apparently broken down. One of the dragoons came up on his left, dropped his sword to the strap, the other on the right throwing his sword hand across the Captain’s right shoulder to his sword strap. The Captain seized the tassel of the dragoon’s sword on his right, at the same moment fired into the brest of the dragoon on his left, and before the dragoon on the right could get clear of his gripe [sic — grip] of the tassel of his sword, the Captain got two strokes with the cock and barrel of the pistol that brought the dragoon on his right to the pummel of the saddle and could have taken off both horses but he grew weak from the loss of blood, his bridle hand being cut by the hilt of the dragoon’s soward on his right. The troops came up after the Captain got off. 
In some versions, McLane, his hand bleeding profusely, submerged himself in a nearby millpond until the British disappeared. A letter from Lafayette written soon after the event confirms what he knew of the situation.
To Allen McLane
Valley Forge camp 12th June, 1778
I give you joy, sir, for your escape of the other day, and the cleverness with which you have dispatch’d the two English dragoons. I have felt a great pleasure that your wound is a slight one.”
McLane is thought to have been among the first to enter Philadelphia as the British begin to leave. Elizabeth Drinker wrote, “Col. Gordon and some others had not been gone a quarter of an hour before ye American Light-Horse entered the city — not many of them, but they were in and out all day.”
To George Washington from Captain Allen McLane
Garmintown [Pa.] Sunday 14th June, 1778
The Enemy Continue their preperasions for Evacuatin the Citey yesterday Lord Cornwallis Crossed in the Jerseys the park of Artellery Broke up and a Number of peicis of Cannon Crossed over likwise Amonition Wagons horses and three Regt British troops This morning they Continu Crossing Wagons & Horses I had a look at the Rivr at Elevin oClock Discoverd a Number of large fires Near the Ship yard find Since they have Set fire to the Ship on the Stocks a Large a Ship Droped down to Day Whitch I take to bee their hospital Ship I inclose you a State of their armey last Wensday haned to Me by a Gentleman of Carrictor—
Graitest Respect your Humble Servent. Allen McLane Capt.
Allen McLane and his men now approached Philadelphia “by way of Bush Hill…between the 9th and 10th redoubts.” At Second Street they came upon “the last patrol” and, having exchanged shots with them, cut off and captured a captain, a provost marshal, a guide and 30 privates, with no loss on their own part. McLane scribbled a note to Washington who, in turn, sent the president of Congress this postscript: “A letter from Captain McLane, dated in Philadelphia, this minute came to hand confirming the evacuation.”
McLane fits the textbook definition of a social bandit, representing “anarchy and violence to the privileged classes, but defiance and strength for the lower classes.” His actions at Paulus Hook, Stoney Point, and the Chesapeake, are similarly documented and told with flair. His Philadelphia Campaign adventures end with Levasseur’s account of Lafayette’s 1824-1825 triumphal return:
Our Philadelphia companions…left us only after having remitted us into the hands of the committee from Delaware, at the head of which General Lafayette received with great pleasure old Colonel McLane… who today, in spite of his 80 years, came to present himself to the General on horseback, wearing the hat and plume of the Revolution.
The search continues for primary documents and corroborating materials, but it is a pleasure to report that tales of Allen McLane in Montgomery County are “actual, factual history,” with just enough imaginative detail to keep them interesting.[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Colonel Allen McLane Fighting Two British Officers” (2002) by Ben Ferry, after the work of James Peale. Source: Collections of The Society of the Cincinnati]
 Charles Willson Peale to Allen McLane, May 22, 1803, C.W. Peale letter book, 1803, American Philosophical Society, in Lillian Miller, ed., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983-1988), 2:526-27.  Alexander Garden, Anecdotes of the American Revolution Illustrative of the Talents and Virtues of the Heroes and Patriots, Who Acted the Most Conspicuous Parts Therein (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1828).  Wayland Hand. American Folk Legend: A Symposium (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971).  Tom Welch to Kim Burdick. E-mail September 28, 2014.”He was denied promotion to major three times. The turndown letters are in GW papers. He was breveted to major in 1781, it appears, to give him a higher standing when taking GW’s dispatches to de Grasse. His papers show that some letters were still coming to him in 1781, addressing him as captain. Washington’s Oct 29, 1781 letter to Allen referred to him as major. Neither Mike Lloyd nor I have found any record of Congress ever approving of the rank of major. The colonel designation (and I cannot immediately locate the source) was when he was asked to head up the Delaware militia in 1794.”  William Thomas Sherman, “A Sketch Of Allan Mclane (1828) by Alexander Garden, of Lee’s Legion: William Thomas Sherman, Wts@gunjones.com, Http://www.gunjones.com: Internet Archive. Accessed September 07, 2014. https://archive.org/details/AllanMcLane  Forrest McDonald, “A New Age Now Begins: History as Bunk,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 52#4 (Autumn 1976). http://www.vqronline.org/new-age-now-begins-history-bunk, Posted December 12, 2003, is a wonderful rant.  Fred J. Cook. “Unknown Hero of the Revolution,” American Heritage 7#6 (October 1956) cited in http://www.jcs-group.com/military/war1775fought/Mclane.html. See also (http://www.ushistory.org/March/phila/whitemarsh_8.htm).  Cook, “Unknown Hero of the Revolution.”  William Bradford Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847) as cited by Christopher Ward.  Cook, “Unknown Hero of the Revolution.”  Rising Sun Tavern seems to have been located at the present day intersection of Germantown Avenue and Old York Road (near today’s Temple Hospital).  Henry Darrach. “Lydia Darragh: One of the Heroines of the Revolution,” in City History Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Frankford, 1915), 13:379.  Henry Darrach. “Lydia Darragh.”  John Reed, Campaign to Valley Forge: July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965), 371.  George Washington. The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources: Volume 10. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.  Cook, “Unknown Hero of the Revolution.”  John Nagy, Spies in the Continental Capital (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2001), 94-95.  See http://www.librarycompany.org/artifacts/meschianza.htm  John Andre in Henry Steele Commager. The Spirit of Seventy Six (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 657-660.  Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and Henry D. Biddle, Extracts from the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759-1807, A.D. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1889), 103.  This story appears in 1850 in Benson J. Lossing, Field Book of the American Revolution (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850) and in John Thomas Scharf, History of Philadelphia 1609–1884 (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1884).  George Washington to Lafayette, 18 May 1778, in Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Volume ll (New York: Cornell University Press, 1979).  Lafayette to Allen McLane, 18 May 1778, in Idzerda, Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution.  “…that sage matron …turning to an old Scotch officer of artillery , who was quartered in her house, said ‘would you be surprised, Captain, if General Washington was to disturb the festivities of the day’….’Madame,’ replied the veteran, (who held the idle pageant in profound contempt and had refused to witness its celebration,) ‘…The excesses of the present hour, are to him equivalent to a victory, and by us will be felt as a sore affliction to the end of the contest.’” Garden, Anecdotes, 180.  David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1789), 2:81.  John W. Jackson, With the British Army in Philadelphia, 1777-1778 (San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1979), 226-230.  There is some speculation that an unrelated January 1778 “battle of the kegs” somehow became incorporated into this legend. For a contemporary description of exploding kegs see Elizabeth Drinker.  Cook, “Unknown Hero of the Revolution.”  Joseph Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies (New York: Hill & Wang, 2006), 210-215, citing Tousard to CC 23 May 1778; Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, trans., Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1942), Vol. 3, entry for May 23, 1778.  Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier (Hallowell, ME, 1830, reprinted New York: Signet Classic, 2001), 105.  Jackson, With the British Army in Philadelphia, 226-230.  Alexander Scammel to Allen McLane. From Valley Forge. May 21, 1778, in Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 251-252.  Charles Scott, Brig Gen and officer of the day to Allen McLane, from Valley Forge, May 23, 1778, in Ward, The War of the Revolution, 252.  Edith McLane Edson, “A James Peale Puzzle: Captain Allen McLane’s Encounter with British Dragoons,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 125#4 (October 2001), 376. Illustration- Encounter between Capt. Allan McLane and a British dragoon at Frankfort, near Philadelphia circa 1803 by James Peale.  Edson, “A James Peale Puzzle: Captain Allen McLane’s Encounter with British Dragoons,” 376.  Garden, Anecdotes, 83. Garden says McLane “sought shelter in a swamp.”  Auguste Levasseur, and Alan R. Hoffman, Lafayette in America, in 1824 and 1825: Journal of a Voyage to the United States (Manchester, NH: Lafayette Press, 2006).