Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER IV.

WASHINGTON retired during the night to Chester;[note 9] whence he decamped the next morning. Taking the route to Philadelphia, and crossing the Schuylkill, he moved up that river, until he reached Swedesford, where he recrossed it, and gained the Lancaster road. On the 15th he advanced to meet the enemy, who, after three days’ repose on the field of battle, quitted the Brandywine, pointing his march to the upper fords of the Schuylkill. A violent storm, accompanied by a deluge of rain, stopped the renewal of battle on the following day, near the Warren tavern on the road from Philadelphia to Lancaster; for which the two armies were arrayed, and in which the van troops were engaged. Separated by the tempest, the American general exerted himself to replenish his ammunition, destroyed by the fall of water, from the insecurity of our[note 10] cartouch boxes and artillery tumbrels; while the British general pursued his route across the Schuylkill, directing his course to the American metropolis. Contiguous to the enemy’s route, lay some mills stored with flour, for the use of the American army. Their destruction was deemed necessary by the commander in chief; and his aid-de-camp, lieutenant colonel Hamilton,[note 11] attended by captain Lee,[note 12] with a small party of his troop of horse, were despatched in front of the enemy, with the order of execution. The mill, or mills, stood on the bank of the Schuylkill. Approaching, you descend a long hill leading to a bridge over the mill-race. On the summit of this hill two videts were posted; and soon after the party reached the mills, lieutenant colonel Hamilton took possession of a flat-bottomed boat for the purpose of transporting himself and his comrades across the river, should the sudden approach of the enemy render such retreat necessary. In a little time this precaution manifested his sagacity: the fire of the videts announced the enemy’s appearance. The dragoons were ordered instantly to embark. Of the small party, four with the lieutenant colonel jumped into the boat, the van of the enemy’s horse in full view, pressing down the hill in pursuit of the two videts. Captain Lee, with the remaining two, took the decision to regain the bridge, rather than detain the boat.

Hamilton was committed to the flood, struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains; while Lee put his safety on the speed and soundness of his horse.

The attention of the enemy being engaged by Lee’s push for the bridge, delayed the attack upon the boat for a few minutes, and thus afforded to Hamilton a better chance of escape. The two videts preceded Lee as he reached the bridge; and himself with the four dragoons safely passed it, although the enemy’s front section emptied their carbines and pistols[note 13] at the distance of ten or twelve paces. Lee’s apprehension for the safety of Hamilton continued to increase, as he heard volleys of carbines discharged upon the boat, which were returned by guns singly and occasionally. He trembled for the probable issue; and as soon as the pursuit ended, which did not long continue, he despatched a dragoon to the commander in chief, describing with feelings of anxiety what had passed, and his sad presage. His letter was scarcely perused by Washington, before Hamilton himself appeared; and, ignorant of the contents of the paper in the general’s hand, renewed his attention to the ill-boding separation, with the probability that his friend Lee had been cut off; inasmuch as instantly after he turned for the bridge, the British horse reached the mill, and commenced their operations upon the boat.

Washington with joy relieved his fears, by giving to his aid-de-camp the captain’s letter.

Thus did fortune smile upon these two young soldiers, already united in friendship, which ceased only with life. Lieutenant colonel Hamilton escaped unhurt; but two of his four dragoons, with one of the boatmen, were wounded.

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