Battle in Chesco pitted notable foes Capt. Henry Lee of the Continental Army and British Maj. Banastre Tarleton faced off in 1778. Local History

Posted: March 31, 2002

During the American Revolution, a battle in this region brought into conflict Capt. Henry Lee of the Continental Army and Maj. Banastre Tarleton of the Royal Dragoons. Both cavalry leaders went on to become notable figures in the war.

The winter of 1777-78 found the American Army, commanded by Gen. George Washington, encamped at Valley Forge. The British, under Sir William Howe, occupied Philadelphia. Separating these two armies was a large open area where both sides gathered intelligence and foraged for food and supplies.

Washington, trying to control the British presence in the area, established a series of communication outposts on high ground within sight of each other. Their assignment was to keep watch on British troop movements and attack the enemy's supplies, according to an unsigned article in the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly (Vol. 17).

The outposts were so successful that Howe ordered them eliminated.

The first outpost on the British attack list was on high ground near the present-day Newtown and Sugartown Roads in Easttown Township, Chester County. (Today the site is called Signal Hill.) The commander of the 13-troop detachment was Capt. Henry Lee.

Lee, a Virginian, was born in 1756 into a distinguished colonial family and was a graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). When the fighting broke out in 1775, Lee received a commission as captain of cavalry. At the Battle of Germantown he commanded Washington's bodyguard unit. Throughout the war, Lee was well regarded by Washington.

Just after dawn on Jan. 18, 1778, a company of 200 British dragoons approached Lee's detachment, which was housed in a two-story stone farmhouse and stone barn atop the signal hill. Tarleton, leader of the British cavalry, was looking to surprise the Americans.

Tarleton, the son of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, was born in 1754. He was educated at Oxford University, and in 1775 he bought a commission in the King's Dragoon Guards and volunteered for service in America. He saw action in the Charleston expedition in 1776, and later was noted as one of the leaders who captured the American general Charles Lee at Basking Ridge, N.J.

At the signal hill, Tarleton was hoping to capture Lee's unit without a fight. But the alarm was raised as the British troops closed in on the farmhouse, and the Americans barricaded the door and manned the windows.

With the house surrounded, Tarleton, according to the article in the history club quarterly, demanded they surrender or he would order the house burned down. Tradition has it that Lee replied, "Who but a fool ever threatened to burn a stone house?" With that, the shooting began.

The British horse soldiers charged the house, and a volley from the American defenders killed five dragoons, according to John Buchanan's book The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997). Tarleton's horse was shot several times, and Tarleton himself was hit with buckshot.

"Thus Banastre Tarleton and . . . Harry Lee introduced themselves to each other," Buchanan wrote.

Mistakenly thinking that American reinforcements were on their way from a nearby outpost, the British retreated to Philadelphia.

After the fight at the signal hill, Lee distinguished himself as commander of a mixed group of cavalry and infantry, after which he was known as "Light-Horse Harry" Lee.

In the final campaign of the war, fought in Virginia and the Carolinas, Lee and Tarleton faced each other on the battlefield again. Lee came out of that campaign with honors. Tarleton developed a reputation for allowing his troops to bayonet surrendering American soldiers. Those atrocities were depicted in the Mel Gibson film The Patriot.

Tarleton returned to England, but not to honors. He was given a number of backwater command posts in the army, was a member of Parliament but made many enemies, and generally led a dissolute life, according to Buchanan. When he died in 1833, "the London papers took little notice," Buchanan wrote.

In the postwar years, Lee was active in politics on the state and national levels. While serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, he eulogized Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Lee died in 1818. His son was another famous Virginian, Robert E. Lee.

Contact Joseph Kennedy

at 610-313-8212 or kennedj@phillynews.com.

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