The Follies of General John Lacey and the Pennsylvania Militia in 1778

The War Years (1775-1783)

April 8, 2015
by Thomas Verenna Also by this Author


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I’ve written before about the darker side of the militia, but what hasn’t yet been detailed is the general incompetence of the Pennsylvania militia. Look no further than the year 1778. While the militia might generally have been untrustworthy throughout the war, especially in Pennsylvania, 1778 stands out among the rest. This is partly because of unforeseen consequences of the militia law, the high stakes of the war in Pennsylvania at that time, and also in large part because of the new militia commander, John Lacey. During the first half of the year especially, we find a whole mess of downright cloddishness; from cartoon-style explosions on par with Acme, to missed opportunities and fist-wrangling complications that could have nearly resulted in the destruction of Washington’s army.

Let’s back up a month before the beginning of these events takes place. About a week following the Battle of White Marsh, in the blistering cold winter weather of December 1777, encamped near the Spring House Tavern in modern day Lower Gwynedd Township, Pennsylvania, General John Armstrong, Sr., prepared to turn over his command of the militia. Armstrong, who had just been elected as a delegate for Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress, wrote to state’s President Thomas Wharton to apprise him of his situation with the militia only a few days after Washington’s men had gone to Valley Forge:

The General [Washington], with the whole of the Army, has now taken his Winter Position in the County of Chester, so that the forbiding idea of Winter Quarters is now, I hope, fully laid aside. So far things are well, but mark the Scene that naturally Opens on this side of the Schuylkill, extending to the Counties of Philad’a & Bucks. The Enemies objects for resources, &c., &c., are now Open & easy of access on this side, this great extent having at present no other Covering than the few Militia now with me.[1]

He wasn’t lying when he said “few militia.” The terms of enlistment were expiring and, per the Militia Law, the companies in camp at Spring House tavern and elsewhere in the vicinity were making their way back to their home counties. At the close of the 1777 campaign, Armstrong’s roughly 3,000-man militia force had dwindled to just over a tenth of that size.

Following Armstrong’s departure, General Potter was left in charge of the militia. The previous year’s campaign had weathered Potter and soon after taking command he requested a leave of absence, which the Supreme Executive Council granted. To fill the gap, the Council nominated Colonel John Lacey.

Lacey, a Quaker from Bucks County, had enlisted early in the war and was an ardent patriot.[2] To Lacey’s credit, he had been a somewhat competent military man since the beginning of the war. He’d been in numerous engagements in the Pennsylvania Line under General Anthony Wayne—whom Lacey had grown to loathe—but at the close of 1776, disillusioned with the Regular army, he had retired back to his farm in Bucks County.

After the passing of the Militia Law, Lacey accepted his nomination as Sub-Lieutenant of the County of Bucks; he was also nominated as a Lieutenant Colonel of the militia which he also accepted. Under his command, the Bucks County militia saw no action at Brandywine in September 1777, and by the end of October his company was poised to return to their homes. However, as Lacey was about to return with them, “altho, it was not my Toor according to rotation, the Lieut Cornal whose duty it was to go, consented for me to take his place.”[3]

White Marsh was one of those events that likely soured Lacey to the militia. While he was successful early on in skirmishing, his men—as well as those to his flank—retreated. He and General Potter tried “to rally them but in vain—the Enemy advancing we gave them a fire or two when a Genl. rout insued…many of the men threw away their guns, that they might be less cumbered in running.”[4]

At one point during the retreat, Lacey came to a sturdy fence that was simply too high for his horse to jump. He commanded some of the militia to remove the top rail, but they disobeyed and continued their rout, some firing blindly behind them as they went and nearly hitting Lacey. After his horse rammed the fence several times, it broke and he was able to withdraw.[5]

Nevertheless, even with his experience leading a small detachment of militia, Lacey was not a good replacement for General Potter. For one, his time in the regular army of the Continental Line had given him a certain impression of the ideal soldier. As a strong member of the Whig party who had been serving as a volunteer in the defense of his country since the start of the war, he could not relate to the drafted Pennsylvania militiaman, who often failed to meet Lacey’s idealized soldier construct. While he might have been able to command militia from his own district—many of whom he would have known well from childhood—commanding men with whom he was unfamiliar would be entirely different.

He was also young; at a mere twenty-five years old, as a Brigadier General he outranked men far older than was he (anyone who has been a supervisor at a young age can relate). This might not have been an issue, but his arrogant attitude and pretentiousness towards his men often made them indignant.[6] The poor relationship between Lacey and the militia under him would have lasting consequences that contributed to the failures of the winter and spring of 1778.

On January 9, Lacey received the news from the Supreme Executive Council that he had been selected to command the militia; he was understandably reluctant. The township he had left to fight in the Philadelphia Campaign, upon his return, had become violent. Tories “began to threaten hard against my life, and to burn my Fathers House and Mills. They had become bold & daring.”[7] Bucks County was overrun with Tories, and Lacey was aware that his task would be difficult. He wrote of his feelings on the matter, saying that the Tories:

used many threats and menances against the Whigs, threatening great venjence against all who offered to oppose them…but I was mortifyed to find the Whigs, Who had before been active were seeking hiding places, and some of them even Courting the Tories for Safety. An almost open and uninterupted intercourse existed between the disaffected in the lower part of Bucks and Philad’a Counties along the vicinity of the Delaware, and the Enemy in the City of Philad’a.[8]

Nevertheless, General Potter, in a hurry to return home to his own family in the western part of the state, deceptively invited Lacey to the militia camp. Upon Lacey’s arrival, Potter was nowhere to be found. The camp, without proper leadership and no accountability, had become scattered and messy; Lacey could not have been more disgusted by the site of it.

I found the camp in a deplorable condition; Major-General Armstrong and General Potter gone, the number of the troops reduced from about three thousand to six hundred; those lately departed had left their camp-equipage strewed everywhere—muskets, cartouch-boxes, camp-kettles and blankets—some in and some out of the huts the men had left, with here and there a tent, some standing and some fallen down. No one seeming to have the charge or care of them, my first efforts were made to have them collected and sent off to a place of safety. How easy it would have been for a few of the enemy to have driven the scattered militia at the different posts on the roads leading to Philadelphia. Not more than sixty rank and file being at this camp, the destruction of near three thousand stand of arms and accoutrements here might have been easily effected, which the enemy most certainly would have done had they known the unprotected state these arms were in.[9]

With little recourse but to accept the position, he consented to lead the men. Washington sent him two objectives to meet by the spring. First, he was ordered to guard the roads leading to British-occupied Philadelphia; if he found anyone going to trade at the market, he was to apprehend them. The British had offered a hefty sum of coin for any farming tools, produce, and so on, that might be used to help feed the troops while in winter quarters. Washington sought to strip them of this by preventing travel into the city without good cause.

His second command was to protect the patriot inhabitants throughout the countryside. He feared, as did many, that the British would make raids into Bucks County and the surrounding region and capture or kill prominent patriot leaders and devastate the infrastructure of the new government. Washington eventually even went so far as to put in a proviso to make an example of someone in a public forum to discourage this practice.[10]

Meanwhile, the Tories who made it into the city or into the disaffected areas of Bucks County often joined with Loyalist units, like the Pennsylvania Loyalists and the Bucks County Volunteers. Lacey confirmed this to Washington:

I have now under Confinement Twelve persons all taken going into Philad’a at Different times with small parcels of Marketing on their Backs. I have Just reason to Suspect the Greatest part of them, (as they are Young fellows) are going to join the Enemy, in Capt. Thomas Company of Refugees, as they call themselves. I am informed that parties are now out in Bucks County Collecting as many of that Stamp as they can find, which in my Opinion will be no inconsiderable Number.[11]

These units conducted several raids early in the year, not long after Lacey had taken command. One such incident happened around mid-February. A raiding party of thirty Philadelphia Light Dragoons under Captain Richard Hovendon and some forty foot from the Bucks County Volunteers under Thomas raided a mill in Bucks County. They captured thirty-four Continental guards, killing several others, and capturing enough fabric (which was being made into uniforms for the Continental Line) to clothe five hundred soldiers.[12]

Within the first month of taking charge, Washington had begun to suspect that Lacey might not be up for the job. For example, Lacey informed Washington that he had been keeping stationary guards on the road; Washington (who I can just visualize shaking his head) wrote back:

I cannot but think, your present position is at too great a distance from the city, and puts it in the power of the disaffected, very easily to elude your guards, and carry on their injurious commerce, at pleasure. I would recommend to you to remove to some nearer post, and not to depend upon fixed guards, but to keep out continual scouts and patroles, as near the city as possible; to ramble through the woods and bye-ways, as well as the great roads.[13]

Lacey was not entirely at fault. President Thomas Wharton of the Supreme Executive Council continually promised more troops (the agreement called for up to 1,000 militia at all times), but Lacey’s camp continued to shrink. From the beginning of January to the end, terms of enlistments expired and from 600 men, his camp dwindled down to 250. On January 24 he wrote two letters, one to Washington and one to Wharton, complaining that he had not yet heard from any of the classes ordered out. Oh, and there was an explosion; a point which Lacey strategically chose to include at the very end of his long list of concerns.

An axident hapened in Camp this day by a number of Cartriges taken by fire by axident, blew up and burnt five men very badly, but I believe not Dangerous, they were sorting the Damaged Cartridges when they took fire, the Number Lost is Computed to be about Six or Seven thousand, the Cartridges was in a tent, which blew up, and Set fire to some Others, which Stood Near, and were all Consumed, with a number of Blankets and Cartriage Boxes in them, the numbers not Exactly known.[14]

Yeah, that happened. One can almost imagine Washington facepalming as he read this.

Things did not improve for Lacey. By the beginning of February, he had only fifty or sixty men and a few light horse with him to guard the entire south-eastern region of Pennsylvania. With so few personnel, he vocalized his fear of sending out detachments, having to give out what precious few arms were available to them (as he had sent the majority to Allentown for storage and repair); leaving his camp relatively unguarded and open to an attack worried him.[15]

In correspondence with Washington during the second week of February, Lacey stated that he was “well acquainted with the Horrid Intercorce kep up between the Country and City.” The strength of his force, however, prevented action. It was “so weak as Rendered it impossible for me to put a Stop to it….on account of my Numbers which is Redused to between Sixty and a hundred, I have informed the Presidend of the State of my Situation, but have not Yet Rec’d any Relief, or answer.”[16]

The reader might be asking, “Why so few men?” Part of the problem was that the state could not pay its debts; the militia, therefore, suffered. Many of those who had gone out in the previous campaign of 1777 had yet to be paid.

Lacey wasn’t alone. The County Lieutenants were also complaining to Wharton about the problems they were having getting the militia to turn out. Richard McCalester, the Lieutenant of York County, wrote to Wharton on January 22 that:

The Militia of this County seems determined not to march, or at least the Greatest Part of them, there being [great] Complaints made by those Classes that have Marched respecting their pay, which they say they have not Rec’d, and [many] of them poor & not able to bear it—at least it [affords] to those Called an Excuse that they will not be paid after Marching in the Extremity of [weather]. Could this be [settled]?… Indeed, it is almost [impossible] to [get] a [constable] to do his Duty in Respect of the Militia, or any other Person, to undertake the [collecting of] the Money—they will rather [go] to Prison, and [great] Part of the Excuse is the Militia not being Paid, & [suppose] they never will, &c. I am [exercising] Every Power in me to Send them forth but am Doubtful of [their] Numbers at this time.[17]

Inclement weather was also a serious problem. Several companies from the western counties were in route to Lacey’s camp when they were bogged down by a terrible storm.

Worse yet for the men, when the treasury promised an extra gill of rum or whiskey a day, in lieu of pay, to every militiaman who turned out, they promptly ran out of it! Lacey even made note of this to Washington; “The Fatigues our Scouting Parties have, are heavy, and our Whisky Exosted, and none to Give them, my Numbers are Decreasing.”[18] Washington reported that the rum was gone from his stores as well.

Lacey’s hands were metaphorically tied, but he also did not inspire respect from the surrounding community or work to improve his situation. Washington attempted to help Lacey first by writing to Wharton to get the militia moving.[19] Next, Washington granted permission for the militia to confiscate all goods carried by persons going into Philadelphia and keep them as personal plunder:

In order to this, to excite the zeal of the Militia under your command and make them more active in their duty, I would have you to let every thing actually taken from persons going into and coming out of the city, redound to the benefit of the parties, who take them. At the same time, it will be necessary to use great precaution to prevent an abuse of this privilege, since it may otherwise be made a pretext for plundering the innocent inhabitants. one method to prevent this will be, to let no forfeitures take place, but under the eye, and with the concurrence of some commissioned officer.[20]

As one might have guessed, despite Washington’s warning about the abuse of this ordinance, the militia appears to have not taken heed (or Lacey had failed to adequately stop the abuse). The militia became little more than bandits and highwaymen. The Loyalist papers in Philadelphia reported “instances of barbarous cruelty, which were lately suffered by a couple of harmless men, who fell into the hands of a numerous party of militia, under the command of Mr. Lacy, a brigadier of Pennsylvania.”[21] Lacey would later remark that he could not understand why these individuals persisted in their defiance of the militia after everything had been taken from them.[22]

Another fouled attempt to accomplish something useful occurred after General Greene wrote to Washington on February 20 about a large quantity of hay left unguarded at Point-no-Point, in the Richmond District in the Northern Liberties of Philadelphia County.[23] Washington, with some urgency, wrote to Lacey to effect the destruction of this hay before it fell into the hands of the enemy:

I am informed, there still remains a considerable Quantity of Hay at point no point, notwithstanding the large Supplies the Enemy have obtained from thence. This, it is more than probable, they will attempt to get away before it be long…. As it is of infinite importance to distress them in this Article, and prevent them obtaining further Supplies, I must request that you will devise some method immediately for destroying All the Hay at the place I have mentioned. The business should be conducted, with great address and secrecy, and suddenly, by an Active party under active and Enterprising Officers.[24]

Washington also added the cautionary recommendation to utilize “Guides in whom you have the strictest confidence… in procuring them if they are necessary you must use much caution & management.” Despite twice attempting to make a move on the hay, Lacey failed:

I have been visiting the enemy’s lines, and have made two attempts to destroy the forage on the Point; but both proved unsuccessful. The last time I should have effected my design, had not my pilot deceived me. The quantity of hay on the Point is but small; the greater part having been removed.[25]

In other words, he had confided in a guide who was deceptive, which was the exact opposite of what Washington had instructed him to do. Washington at this point must have vented to Wharton about Lacey’s foibles, for the Supreme Executive Council asked Washington to be patient and essentially coddle Lacey as much as he could:

I am sorry to find [the enemy], have been but too successful. Gen. Lacey, I am informed, is active, but I think cannot have as much experience as his command requires; he will therefore stand in need of your Excellency’s directions from time to time; this, I am confident he will receive: so that I hope shortly to hear favorable accounts from that quarter.

Unfortunately for Washington, the failure to stop the enemy forage of the hay was not the only sad news he would hear about the militia that week.

At the end of February, General Wayne had sent word to Washington that a caravan of one hundred and thirty cattle and wagons would be heading through Bucks County on their way to Valley Forge. Washington, at this point probably a little leery, instructed Wayne to send word to Lacey and give him orders to supply Wayne with whatever was needed to protect the cattle.

This was no idle command. Since the beginning of February, Washington’s army was suffering greatly. The failures of the Commissary Department resulted in what Washington dubbed “this fatal crisis” which would result in the “total want and a dissolution of the Army.” Desertions for want of food and other necessaries (like clothes) were at an all-time high. The army was reduced to quarter-rations and the fear of mutiny was constant.[26] The arrival of cattle fit for slaughter would have gone a long way towards altering the feelings of the soldiers, staying desertion and giving the men needed protein to carry on their duties.

You probably have already guessed where this is going. On February 27, Lacey, again at the very bottom of his letter following a series of complaints, gave Washington the bad news that on Monday, February 23 (I wonder if Lacey knew he was going to be in trouble as he waited four days to write to Washington about it),

A party of the Enemys Light Horse came into the Country last Monday night and took a Number of Cattle going to Head Quarters and drove them into Philada next Morning. Inteligence came to me about 10 oClock in the morning. I immediately Marched all the Men that had Arms and Ammunition which was Delivered them but the day before to Major Rights, the Enemy had passed One Hour before me.

And if that wasn’t bad enough…

A part of Capt. Newmans Company of Chester County Militia whose times were Expired, where On their way home fell in with the party and having no Arms Several of them were made Prisoners.[27]

Washington had already been informed of the loss of the cattle, however, and undoubtedly banged his head repeatedly against whatever hard object was in the vicinity.[28] Frustration and anger bleeds through his reply:

I yesterday rec’d yours of the 27th Feby. I had heard of the loss of the Cattle before it came to hand, and I am sorry to say that the loss is imputed to your having refused to let the drovers have a guard when they applied for one. I shall be glad to know whether it is so, and if true, what could be your reason for refusing.[29]

Washington added, apparently acting on the mantra of “if you want something done right, do it yourself,” that Lacey should “constantly…make me weekly Returns of your Numbers and where your parties are posted that I may know how to direct the Rout of any parties sent from this Army.” Lacey’s explanation sounded similar to those he’d given before; not enough men or arms:

It is true I refused the Drover a Guard for the Cattle and the reasons were on Account of the Smallness of my Numbers. four Hundred troops Newly Arived from Cumberland and York Countys but only One Hundred of them at that time had reced any Arms, and near half of them was without Flints. About fifty of Chester County Militia made up my whole force, and the times of those fifty Expired the evening the Application was made and next Morning their Arms were Delivered up. I advised the Drover to take a Course further Back in the Country, where I concluded they might Pass without Danger. In this Condition I was not Abel to furnish the Guards and Patroles Sufficient for the safety of my Camp Nevertheless had I Suspected the Least of Danger from so great a Distan[ce] from the Enemy I should have sent what Men I had Equipt with them. When the former Classes was Discharged the Arms were Sent to Allentown and Col. Antises, to be Repaired, those Men Newly Arived Came without Arms, and it was for some time before we could by any Means get them Back, for the want of Waggons.

As spring began to dawn on Pennsylvania, Lacey found it more and more difficult to keep tabs on his soldiers. At one point in early March, a team of drivers from Northampton County deserted him and, in the course of the act, they lost several wagons and horses attempting to cross the Schuylkill River.[30] A month later, while traveling back to the camp, another team of wagons along with a company of militia was ambushed by British 17th Light Dragoons under the command of Captain Oliver DeLancey, killing several, capturing arms (which the militia had placed in the wagons to lighten their burden), and taking several prisoners.[31]

Not incidentally, on May 1, Lacey—having moved his camp to Crooked Billet—was outmaneuvered by some British Regulars and a corps of Loyalist troops, and was ambushed at dawn. It was probably one of the largest engagements the militia faced in Pennsylvania that year, with about 400 men on each side. It was a massacre; the Loyalist troops mutilated several of the militiamen’s bodies after Lacey’s withdraw, as well as lighting a few of them on fire.[32] Much to Washington’s ease, General Potter returned at the end of May and relieved Lacey; Lacey would later place the blame on others or upon his situation, stating that much of the fault during his campaign was the lack of council or his poor circumstances.[33]

Lacey wasn’t entirely wrong as he did not have the full support of the state at the time. However the state was also in chaos; the capitol was taken, the countryside was raided and foraged, they had very little revenue coming in, the outermost frontiers of Westmoreland and Cumberland Counties were in flames from Indian attacks, and other counties were in a state of rebellion against the militia law. Lacey was on his own, but a more experienced commander would have found a way to make do with what little resources he was given.

In the course of five months, Lacey was unable to accomplish any of the goals that were given to him at the start of the year; the militia, throughout most of the season, was completely ineffective against the British and Loyalist troops who outsmarted and frustrated them at every turn. The British would leave Philadelphia on June 18; by this time a new front would open up in Northampton County following the massacre at Wyoming and the Pennsylvania militia would find themselves in a completely different form of warfare. Nevertheless, the blunders of the militia in 1778 in Bucks County proved the institution a failure. From poor turn-outs, to disaffected citizens, to raids and massacres, the Pennsylvania militia was wholly useless during the occupation of Philadelphia and their inaction directly compounded the problems of Washington’s army encamped at Valley Forge.


[1] Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg: The State Printer, 1907), Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 100-102.

[2] He would write of this: “I united with her [Great Britain’s] oponents and joined the Standard of the Revolutionists, throwing off my passive and non-resisting principles, of which I had hitherto been in the practice of believing (from the prejudice of Education) to be right, but…I without hesitation inroled myself under the banner of my Country…; Patriotism beat high in my breast.” John Lacey, “Memoirs of Brigadier-General John Lacey, of Pennsylvania,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1901), 10. Given this, it is easy to see how Lacey could have been so put-off by the disaffected attitude of the militiamen who, unlike him, had to be drafted rather than volunteering.

[3] John Lacey, “Memoirs of Brigadier-General John Lacey, of Pennsylvania (continued),” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1902), 107

[4] Lacey, “Memoirs,” 108.

[5] He wrote that “Two Dragoons persued me, finding them gaining upon me on coming up with the hindmost troops, I ordered them to turn about and fire, several Muskets were discharged, as the men ran—by firing off their shoulders without stoping or turning about—conceiving of myself in more danger by this mode of firing from my own men than the Enemy called upon them to seace firing or they would shoot me.” Lacey, “Memoirs,” 26/1, 109. For more, see the discussion in Thomas J. McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol. 2: Germantown and the Roads to Valley Forge (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), 260-262.

[6] Louis J. Zanine, “Brigadier General John Lacey and the Pennsylvania Militia in 1778,” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 48, No. 2 (April 1981), 135.

[7] John Lacey, “Memoirs of Brigadier-General John Lacey, of Pennsylvania (continued),” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 26, No. 2 (1902), 267; more plainly, he wrote “The change of Polliticks, and principles, when I left the [county] with my company, all was peace and harmony among the People in the neighborhood on my return they appeared all hostile to each other, Whig & Tory in a state little better than open Enemies, they were Worse, especially the Tories, for they were secretly doing the Wigs all the harm they could possibly do—Traducing, vilifying and in all ways and means committing hidden acts to weaken the americans cause…. I almost begun to doubt whither I had not mistaken my Native Country, for that of an Enemies—The Hostility of the Tories was so great to Indipendance.” Lacey, ‘Memoirs’ 26/1, 103.

[8] Lacey, “Memoirs,” 26/2, 267.

[9] Lacey, “Memoirs,” 26/2, 268.

[10] Washington wrote this to Lacey on January 23: “I am well informed that many Persons, under pretence of furnishing the Inhabitants of German Town and near the Enemy’s Lines afford immense supplies to the Philadelphia Markets—a conduct highly prejudicial to us and contrary to every order. It is therefore become proper to make an example of some guilty one, that the rest may be sensible of a like Fate should they persist. This I am determined to put into execution, & request you when a suitable object falls into your hands, that you will send him here, with the witnesses, or let me know his name when you shall have a power to try, & if found guilty, to execute. this you’ll be pleas’d to make known to the people that they may again have warning.” Washington to Lacey, January 23, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[11] Lacey to Washington, February 27, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015: Lacey then suggested imprisoning everyone found on the road: “The best way that I can Conceive to put a Stop to that practice and to Apprehend the Villians, is to Confine every person found going with Marketing, to the City and Send them to [Easton] or Some Other Distant Jail there to Remain During the War, or untill Exchanged for those Inhabitants the Enemy have Stolen out of their Houses—a few Examples of this kind would in a Great Measure Stop the Intercourse between the Country and City. Whiping Only Aggravates.”

[12] Lacey to Washington, February 19, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[13] Washington to Lacey, February 8, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[14] Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 202-203.

[15] On March 4, Lacey wrote a letter—slightly laced with anguish—to General Potter. “Dear General:-You very well know the situation you left me in, and the declining state of militia, which at last was reduced so low that I could not, on the greatest emergency, parade more than forty men. In this forlorn condition I thought proper to send all the arms and stores belonging to the brigade to Allentown. The time of these forty was to expire in a few days; and no tidings of a fresh supply near, I expected to be left alone.” William Watts Hart Davis, Sketch of the Life and Character of John Lacey (n.p.: Bucks County, 1868), 68.

[16] Lacey to Washington, February 11, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015: By February 19, Lacey had started to receive militia from the western counties, but most of them came unarmed; he related to Washington: “at present I have out of Better than Six Hundred Men, but one Hundred and fourty that is armed.” Lacey to Washington, February 19, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[17] Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 196. The square bracketed words correct spelling that that is too atrocious in the original letter to be decipherable by an average reader. Lieutenant of Berks, Jacob Morgan, also wrote into to the council that “The Militia in General Complain for want of payment, and some refuse to deliver up their Arms, Accoutrements and Blankets until they receive their monthly Wages.” The Secretary of the Council replied directly that “The arms of the Militia must immediately be returned. Their pay will be provided for as soon as possible.” Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 288-289.

[18] Lacey to Washington, January 21, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[19] “I have the honor of yours of the 17th inst: The Militia from the Westward, who had been detained by the badness of the weather, have arrived at Genl Laceys Camp, and those from Northampton have, I hope, come in by this time.1 Their presence had become exceedingly necessary, as the insolence of the disaffected in Philadelphia and Bucks Counties had arisen to a very alarming Height. They have seized and carried off a number of respectable inhabitants in those Counties, and such Officers of the Army as fell in their way, among others, Major Murray of the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment, who was at Newtown with his family. What adds to the misfortune is, that they carried off near 2000 Yds of Cloth which had been collected in the County and was making up for the Regiment.” From George Washington to Thomas Wharton, Jr., 23 February 1778; accessed online 5 March 2015:

[20] Washington to Lacey, February 8, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[21] Pennsylvania Evening Post, February 26, 1778, cited in a letter; Lacey to Washington, February 27, 1778, n.1; accessed March 5, 2015: Granted, this could very well be propaganda; it is, however, quite likely that many who were going into the city to make some money really did feel as though the militia had been harassing and abusing them. Especially given the fact that so many people had had goods impressed from them by the same militia in the months leading up to the Philadelphia campaign; things like blankets, oats and hay, fence posts (for fire wood), their arms, farming equipment, cattle and other livestock for food, and so on, were taken by militia as well as Continental troops. See John Lesher’s letter to the Council in January; Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 170-171.

[22] “I wish most sincerely the state would adopt some plan of this sort; and designate some place where the villains might be sent, for their confinement, or punishment. Many have been whipped, their horses, marketing, and every thing taken from them; yet they will not desist—and I am well convinced that nothing will stop them but confinement.” Found in Samuel Hazard, ed., The Register of Pennsylvania, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: William F. Geddes, 1829), 307.

[23] “I am told there is considerable Hay upon the Delaware at a place cal’d point no point which may be burnt—the Enemy have got a great part of it away, but there is still remaining a large quantity—It would be well worth while to attempt to destroy—for every body that comes from the City agrees they are short of forage.” To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, February 20, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[24] Washington to Lacey, February 21, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[25] Hazard, The Register of Pennsylvania, 307.

[26] George Washington to William Buchanan, 7 February 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[27] Lacey to Washington, February 27, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015: See specifically the words of Howe’s aide Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen: “Since General Howe has received word that 130 oxen have come across from Jersey and were being driven to Valley Forge to Washington’s army under a weak cover, a detachment of English and the newly created dragoons were to go there late last evening. They managed to sneak completely around them and to drive away these 130 head of cattle.” At General Howe’s Side, 1776–1778: The Diary of General William Howe’s Aide de Camp, Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen (Monmouth Beach: Philip Freneau Press, 1974), 48.

[28] He wrote to Wayne on February 28: “We lost a fine drove of 130 Head that were coming from New England a few days ago. Some of the disaffected in Bucks County gave information of them, and a party of light Horse pushed up twenty Miles and carried them off.” From George Washington to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, February 28, 1778; accessed online March 5, 2015:

[29] Washington to Lacey, March 2, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[30] Washington to Lacey, March 7, 1778, n.8; accessed March 5, 2015:; “about Ten Days ago between Twenty & thirty came from Northampton, made one Trip for Provisions to Elk and then deserted loosing several Horses & Drivers in crossing the Schuylkil.” See also James Young’s discussion of the incident in the Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 337.

[31] Lacey informed Washington that, following his move to Crooked Billet, “the Same Night Some of the Waggoners belonging to a part of the Northampton peopple whose times did not expire till Last Evening following the Common Custom of Disobediance, among the Militia Neglected Moving till Next Morning. when they were met By a party of the Enemy’s Horse, just after they Started, Who took one Waggon & Eight Horses, also five or Six prisoners, and Wounded Several More, those fellows the Day before when the Brigade left the Camp. being either too Lazy or Cowardly to March with them. Chose to Stay with the Baggage, and being not fond of fattigue had for their own ease Carfully depossited their armes in the Baggage Waggons, and in this Situation they were met by the Enemy.” Lacey to Washington, April 27, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015: See specifically n.4 for more information.

[32] For Lacey’s deposition of the battle, see Washington to Thomas Wharton, Jr., March 7, 1778; accessed March 5, 2015:

[33]“Gen. Potter was to leave them, Genl. Armstrong was already gone–I was to command alone, no one to advice or consult with. Had I been supported as the Executive Council promised with men and provision, the rigor of my Command would have been greatly alliviated, and of more use to my Country, I had no one to consult with on whose council I could rely on, my Father being from home, he had gone to the State of Maryland to visit his old friend Joseph Ellicott. Colo’l Kirkbride was in the Legislature at Lancaster, his advice would have had great weight in my decision.” Lacey, “Memoirs,” 26/2, 267.


  • I strongly disagree with your vilification of Lacey. He was an effective leader, given the conditions of the time.

  • Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Lacey for the entirety of the failures. After doing some research on him, especially his term in 1778, it seems like he was intentionally made a fall-guy by either Potter, or Wharton, or both, for the terrible situation the state was in, and its inability to properly equip, arm, and turn out Militia where and when they were most needed. It’s to Washington’s credit that he didn’t have the poor guy fired off the bat, and sent a Sergeant from his Life Guard to take command or something – if Lacey was as incompetent as is depicted, surely that would have been a better solution? That or have Wharton fire him and replace him with literally any other person (like one of the officers from the western side of the state that was supposedly coming to help him).

    The ineffectiveness of the individual soldiers he DID have under his command is another important consideration. These were State Militia. Not Continentals. Their training may have been nearly non-existent at this point in the war, and the militia made up of literally any man-jack capable of shouldering a musket and walking a country mile without falling out. Their lack of individual discipline after permission to seize goods as plunder indicates quite well the nature of the men themselves. Their performance at Crooked Billet is proof enough of their lack of competence and courage. Moreover, what of the actual loyalty of the men that DID stay with him? Did they care about anything but themselves? We can’t assume – given the situation at the time, and the general constitution of human nature – that each Militiaman was a paragon of virtue and true defender of Liberty. We probably can’t even guarantee that the majority of the ones Lacey could count as “ready for action” weren’t, themselves, thinking about running away at the first hint of shooting, and were really only worried about Native Americans.

    Lacey’s true skill and capabilities can only be gleamed from what sources we have left of what happened there, and a goodly portion of that is Lacey’s own memoirs – I can’t imagine anyone littering their memoirs with talk of personal failure. At the same time, Lacey himself wasn’t really a professional officer, so his own skill at leading men and capabilities in strategy isn’t certain. Not everyone can be a self-taught genius like Henry Knox, but not every failed officer is another Henry d’Ardent. His failures to use roving patrols may actually have been a good decision at the time – provided he knew the true nature of the men under his command, or simply assumed they were all incompetent boobs – given that a coordinated patrol schedule requires discipline and good order, combined with motivation and a willingness to engage.

    Yet another consideration – it may also very well be that his young age led more directly to some of the discipline issues with the troops – they couldn’t bring themselves to respect him and thus ignored his orders, took advantage of his inexperience and manipulated him (a “Captain Parmenter” sort of situation) to shirk duty or slack off, or otherwise took advantage of the situation at hand to stay out of as much danger as possible, while still being able to, themselves, claim they stood for Liberty in the face of the enemy (personal honor *was* a thing back then).

    Overall, while Washington may have been facepalming, Lacey was either cracking his own teeth in frustration at the pittances he was afforded (bad men, bad gear, bad provisions, bad locals), or had resigned himself to abject failure within days of being forced to take command, and merely sought to mitigate the harm to the cause of Liberty as best as possible.

    Thus, it’s my personal conclusion that Lacey shouldn’t be foisted with as much blame for the state of things in 1778 as he seems to be in current understandings of Revolutionary history. With such incomplete evidence, it would be unfair – in my opinion – to not give John Lacey the benefit of the doubt, and suggest blame be more equally spread.

  • I concur with Messrs Brand & Calbert. Methinks thou does protest too much regarding Lacey, whose circumstance seems quite impossible, though such a narrative simultaneously relieves multiple parties of their own responsibilities: Congress, PA state gov’t, PA county govts, potter and PA militia leaders, Washington himself and continentals. Since Lacey was the only individual fool enough to have the guts to stay in the field at this time and place and attempt to effectuate the designs of others when no one else would, he makes too easy a mark. Such a simplistic analysis renews the same disservice to Lacey in history that was done to him in 1778 – abandonment and scapegoating. We can do better to remember his answering the call of service at a time no one else did, especially in light of the personal cost to him in the patriot cause.

  • Articles I’ve found that provide good counter views of Gen. Lacey are:

    Charles Harper Smith. General Lacey’s Campaign in 1778. The Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania. Volume II No.4 (1941) pp 261-296 and his Battle of the Billet Reviewed in the Old York Road Historical Society Bulletin, Volume 5 (1945) pp 25-43.

    Also see, Denis J. Cooke. Saving Lacey. The Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania. Volume XXXV No.1(2008) pp 46-66.

  • I agree with you all. And, being a Lacey myself, and directly related to the General, I can see, and thought of, all the possibility that align with your thoughts. It seems the General was young and was probably taken advantage of by men that only had a desire to survive and, had no desire to fight. Maybe understandable but, not honorable.
    The young General came upon a situation and felt compelled to correct discrepancies as any proud, disciplined, patriot would do given the same situation. With few and dwindling resources due to many factors and without the proper respect a commanding officer should expect due to the lack of reinforcement that a proper staff would have afforded the young General, his attempt although honorable, seemed destined to fail. And hopefully if was a lesson to all and, may be a lesson for the future as well.

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