Near Middle Ford of the Schuylkill River, Five Miles Southwest of Philadelphia
December 22, 1777
A cold and blustery wind blew out of the northeast, carrying with it the promise of yet more snow. Undaunted by the wintry blast, Zebulon Miller faced the rising storm from the doorway of his spacious barn. The pitiful mooing inside was an abrupt reminder of the abandoned predawn milking. As the ominous darkness gave way to a pale dawn light, a startling revelation was now confronting him: The war was once again coming to his farm, his land, and this time it had caught him by surprise.
His wife, Elsa, ran from the house and clung nervously to his side. A sudden gust of wind caught her cap, revealing auburn tresses that whipped wildly about her face.
“We can still try to hide them,” she pleaded breathlessly.
He shook his head. “Too late,” was all he could say bitterly. His voice trembled with the seething rage that was beginning to erupt within him.
Over the past four months, Zebulon had unfortunately come to know the paraphernalia and uniforms of this war: the threadbare rags of the so-called Continental Line, the ridiculous foppery of the militias that would turn out boldly enough but then turn and run at the mere rumor of an approaching enemy. What he saw now was a striking contrast, for the men advancing in open lines across his neighbor’s fields were professional soldiers of the king.
They were British light infantry, their hat feathers dyed red in mocking defiance of pledges made by the Pennsylvania Line to show them no quarter in battle after the bitter memories of what was now called the Paoli Massacre. The red feathers were a taunt, a statement that boasted, “Here we are, we defeated you at Paoli, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop us.”
Deployed into open skirmish lines, the light infantry advanced toward Miller’s farm. A mounted troop of dragoons in the center of the formation held the road leading up from Middle Ferry Road and the village of Darby. The synchronized movements of the formations resembled the choreography of a dance; they were leapfrogging forward at the run, flanking a hundred yards to either side of the road. Half were moving, half remained still, with weapons raised to provide covering fire for those who in turn would then leap forward another couple of hundred yards. Taking advantage of every bit of cover, they crouched behind trees and ducked into ditches. After hurdling the split rail fence that divided Zebulon’s fields from his neighbor, Snyder, half the men dropped down on one knee with their muskets at the ready, the other half sprinted toward his home.
There might have been a time when British infantry would foolishly march up a road, and straight into an ambush, as some militia boasted, but he doubted it. Perhaps at Concord and Lexington, in 1775, when the British thought they were just sweeping up rabble, there might have been a certain complacency. But now, after nearly two years of grueling war, they were well trained and exceptionally efficient. The events of the last four months, from Brandywine to Germantown, were proof that no militia could ever stand against them. Zebulon Miller knew he was watching the best- trained infantry in the world. He stepped out from the entry of his barn. Resolved to make the best of it, he tried to force a welcoming smile. He could at least claim to look like a Loyalist, now that his troublesome son had run off to join the rebels.
A light infantryman ran swiftly toward Zebulon and Elsa. The soldier fought to catch his breath as he raised his musket to his shoulder and steadied his aim at the farmer. His eyes darted to size up Zebulon, then looked past him to the barn, and focused again on the farmer and his wife.
“Show your hands there!”
Zebulon did as ordered. In the last four months, he had faced a loaded musket more than once. He recalled a frightening incident when he caught some foolish militiamen trying to loot his chicken coop. His blunderbuss won the standoff, and the men ran like hell at the sight of the gaping muzzle of his weapon.
With his hands held high, he took a daring step forward.
“I am loyal to the king,” he announced.
The soldier didn’t move or reply, glaring at him coldly, his musket still poised. Several comrades forced their way into the farmer’s home; the sounds of breaking glass were mixed with jeers and raucous laughter as they took great delight in ransacking the home for plunder.
“No need for that!” Elsa cried, stepping out from behind Zebulon to defend the sanctuary of their home.
“Damn you, woman, don’t move!” the soldier snapped.
Zebulon lowered a hand to pull her in by his side.
Zebulon studied the countenance of the soldier before him. The pale light of dawn that broke through the turbulent skies revealed a young, ruddy, weatherbeaten face; the lack of expression in his eyes disclosed a stoic detachment.
“I have some cider in the barn. My good wife would be glad to heat it for you and your comrades. Would you care for some?” he offered.
The barrel of cider left out in the open would be lost anyhow; he hoped they would not find the other barrels concealed in a pit dug under the floorboards of the barn.
The soldier didn’t waver. A comrade came out of the house, held up his musket on the porch, and waved back to the support line covering their advance. The second line got up from their ready position and dashed forward in turn. As the other two in the house came out, one stuffed a slab of bacon, which would have been Zebulon’s breakfast over the next few days, into his haversack. Elsa began to object, but Zebulon squeezed her shoulder to warn her not to move.
Seconds later, the support line burst forward, barely glancing at the couple as they raced through the farmyard, past the barn, and out into the orchard to the west.
Two infantrymen dashed into the barn and came out seconds later with jubilant expressions.
“Plenty in there,” one exclaimed, and they raced to join the rest of their detachment, already moving through the orchard.
Zebulon’s heart sank with those words.
He owned twenty acres of woodlot to the north. In the center there was a deep hollow cut formed by a creek that meandered down to the Schuylkill. With considerable effort, he had dug into the bank and covered its approach with deadfall. With each appearance of armed men, he had been able to conceal his prize team of draft horses, his breeding bull, two of the milk cows, and the last of his sows, old Beatrice. Elsa had declared that Beatrice would never be slaughtered; the old grotesque thing had become like a pet to her.
Up until this moment, he had managed to keep enough hidden to see them through the winter and into the planting and breeding time of spring.
But this time, war came without warning.
He turned anxiously to look back into his barn. Before this damn war started he was planning to add on to the barn, built by his grandfather, who had cleared the land fifty years ago. Two years ago he owned thirty head of dairy cows, creating a thriving business of selling the milk in the city. Each year rich litters of pigs were slaughtered in the autumn, smoked or salted down, barreled and sold to the ships that docked in the busiest port of North America. His orchard yielded hundreds of bushels of apples to be pressed into cider and sold in the city as well.
He had prospered until the coming of this damn war. After Brandywine, he lost the herd of dairy cows, along with most of the harvest. It was a war in which he saw no part for himself. The cries about taxation and liberty? What taxes had he ever paid, other than what the local commissioners extorted for his rich farmland? As a young man, the call of adventure enticed him to serve with the militia, along with a promise of simple garrison duty without any prospect of fighting. He had never ventured farther than the east bank of the Susquehanna for the tedious duty of garrisoning a fort, and then returned home satisfied that he had done his service to his king.
The young soldier who confronted him slowly lowered his musket.
“Why are you still here?” Elsa snapped angrily. “Your thieves of men have left, and they’ve stolen our breakfast!”
“Orders,” he responded sharply.
“The officers will inform you.”
“Support line! Forward at the double!”
The young soldier looked toward Middle Ferry Road. A sergeant, with his short musket raised, was pointing westward.
“Stay here and don’t move,” the soldier commanded. As if pulled along by some vast machine, of which he was but one cog, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and sped off, running past the barn and into the orchard.
Zebulon and Elsa stood aghast as the soldier retreated.
“Can we still hide something?” she whispered.
“Too late,” he replied despondently. Down on Middle Ferry Road, a company of heavy infantry was advancing at the double; a sergeant urged them forward with obscene cries. Behind them was a company of mounted troops, uniforms blue and green. Zebulon gazed at them coldly. These were the mounted Hessian riflemen, the dreaded Jaegers.
A long, sinuous column of dozens of wagons followed. Mounted troops covered their flanks. Several of them turned off the road into his neighbor Snyder’s farmyard.
The lead wagon in the column reached the pathway to his farm and turned in, followed by two more.
“Three wagons in here,” announced the leading officer, as he dismounted and stretched, tossing the bridle of his horse to a waiting private. He studiously ignored Zebulon and Elsa for the moment; his gaze swept the farm with the air of a buyer contemplating an offer of purchase, or an overseer inspecting his property.
He finally turned back to Zebulon.
“Lieutenant Peterson of the Commissary Department of His Majesty’s Army,” he announced languidly, as if already bored with the proceedings.
Behind him, the wagon drivers dismounted; several soldiers in the back of each wagon jumped down to join them.
Zebulon knew that it was not customary to shake hands with king’s officers, but he offered the friendly gesture anyhow. Peterson limply accepted his grasp, but only for a second, and then stepped back.
“The Commissary Department is requisitioning supplies for the army,” he announced.
Zebulon tried to keep his smile.
“Lieutenant, let’s get out of the cold. We were about to have breakfast, that is, until your men stole it. Perhaps Elsa can still find something to prepare.”
He tried to force a friendly wink: perhaps something to drink as well.
“No time for that now.”
He turned his back on Zebulon, a gesture that the farmer saw and was meant to see as an insult.
“Corporal Henson, move lively there, move lively!”
A soldier who was headed toward the house stiffened to attention, saluted, and turned back to the others, barking orders.
“Sir. We are loyal to the king here.”
“Of course, that’s what you all say.”
“Sir, we are loyal,” Elsa interjected.
Peterson barely nodded, looking past her.
“Jones, what’s in that barn?”
A soldier appeared at the open doorway and stood stiffly to attention.
“Sir. A rich haul, sir. Two fat cows, two horses, big’uns they are. Plenty of hay and feed too, sir.”
“Move lively there.”
“Sir, what are your intentions?” Zebulon asked, trying to force some authority into his voice.
The lieutenant glowered at him with cold eyes.
“How many live here?”
“You heard me, how many live here?” he retorted.
“Just the two of us,” Elsa replied anxiously.
“No children, hired hands, or slaves?”
“No children,” Elsa whispered. “We had two girls; they died of the smallpox six years ago. No, no children …”
Her voice trailed off. She made no mention of her son, trying to artfully dodge the question.
“No sons with the damn rebels?”
“She is a godly woman and answered truthfully, sir,” Zebulon shot back. “We have no children.”
“Don’t take that tone with me. I am doing my duty as a soldier of the king.” A hint of menace now filled his voice.
“As I told you, we are loyal to the Crown.”
“If that is so, why do you still have that livestock? This area is crawling with rebel raiders. Why the livestock? Did you pay them off ?”
“I hid them, sir. I had thirty head at midsummer; this is all that is left.”
“And would you have hidden them if you had known we were coming?”
He didn’t reply. Did the man take him for an utter fool?
The lieutenant pointed toward the east; a plume of smoke was rising with the wind. It looked to be the Mueller farm, down near the river.
“He got off lightly; he’ll live, by orders of General Howe. I would have shot the bastard for striking one of my men. But his house is being razed.”
“Slaves or hired hands?”
“They ran off.”
“Joined the rebels?”
“I didn’t ask them about their personal business when they left.”
A loud bellowing interrupted them. Zebulon looked back to find a soldier trying to lead the bull out of the barn. As if sensing his fate, the bull was fighting back. More soldiers joined in, prodding its butt end with their bayonets to force him along.
“He’s all that’s left of our breeding stock,” Zebulon protested. “The bull, the two cows, and our horses, we will need them for spring plowing.”
“They are being requisitioned for the army. I’ll give you a receipt, and you’ll be paid in hard cash.”
“We can’t eat money,” Elsa replied sharply.
“Still better than what you can do with that damn Continental money the rebels would have given you instead. There’s only one use for that paper,” he said with a salacious grin.
“You are no gentleman, sir,” Zebulon fumed. “How dare you speak to my wife in such a manner?”
A heavy rumbling shook the ground as horse-drawn wagons approached. After a break in the line, several officers, resplendent in scarlet and white, led a company of mounted troops across his field and toward his house.
“Is that General Howe?”
The lieutenant looked over his shoulder and then back at him.
“None of your damn business.”
He reached into his cloak, pulled out a note pad, and jotted down a tally.
Elsa watched in horror as the soldiers seized their livestock. The soldiers’ vociferous laughter and cheering filled the air as if to make it a celebratory event. The draft horses, Caesar and Pompey, the cows, and the bull were tied to the wagons. Some carried the chickens; a few twitched spasmodically but were already dead. A soldier filled his hat with fresh eggs, dropping several on the hard ground; others lugged baskets of dried apples and turnips. A pig squealed in terror as their breeding sow, Beatrice, was dragged out of the barn. The lieutenant scanned the men as they loaded the goods. He quickly finished his notes, signed his name, and tore the sheet of foolscap from the pad and extended it to Zebulon.
“Report to Philadelphia, swear your oath of allegiance to the Crown, and you’ll be paid fairly.”
Zebulon took the receipt with unconcealed rage. The lieutenant had noted but one horse and a cow; there was no mention of the bull.
A shrill cry of agony interrupted the farmer; he looked on with repulsion as a soldier stabbed a bayonet into Beatrice. She thrashed about wildly, trying to pull herself free of the blade; another soldier cheered and joined in, stabbing the animal again and again until she collapsed, convulsing weakly, in a welter of her own blood.
“No!” Elsa cried. “She was only a pet.A pet!”
She moved as if to strike the offending soldiers and Zebulon grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back.
Out on the road a knot of scrupulously dressed officers rode past, barely sparing a glance at the confrontation in the farmyard. He could instantly tell by their finery that they were men of rank, far superior to the lout who handed him a document of blatant lies about what was being taken and now smiled as his men finished off Beatrice.
“Damn you, sir!” Zebulon cried. “This is an outrage, I wish to protest!”
He stepped away from the lieutenant and moved toward the open gate of his farm.
“Sir, you there! You!” he shouted, pointing toward the officers.
“Shut up and don’t you move a damn inch,” the lieutenant hissed.
“You can go to hell,” Zebulon snarled, breaking free from his wife’s grasp and shoving his way past the lieutenant and starting for the road. Surely these gentlemen would stop this outrageous abuse.
The blow from behind knocked him to the ground. The world was suddenly red-rimmed, distant, as if about to fade away forever.
Groaning audibly, he rolled on to his side and looked up at the lieutenant, who was clutching the barrel of the pistol, the handle smeared with blood from the blow.
The man stiffened, looked past Zebulon, and came to attention.
“No excessive force with the civilians, if you please.”
At this command, the lieutenant stood rigid and saluted.
Elsa scurried to Zebulon’s side; as she flung herself on the ground, she took him into her arms, and tried to stanch the flow of blood from his scalp, which had been split open by the blow.
“Madam,” the lieutenant hissed, “control that husband of yours or, by Jove, I will come back here later and blow his goddamned rebel brains out.”
She gazed up at him, unable to reply.
“Damn, they are coming on fast!”
Colonel Daniel Morgan slipped his large frame down behind the tree. He returned the telescope he had been using to its owner, Major John Clark. Clark, commander of his detachment of spies and scouts, had been assigned by General Washington to shadow the British in Philadelphia.
Clark focused the telescope back on the road and continued counting. He absently reached for his notepad as he watched, and made hatch marks as he counted the wagons, companies of infantry, and the mounted Jaegers and dragoons.
There was a tense moment as the first wave of light infantry rode past, but they did not penetrate into the woods where Morgan, Clark, and their men were concealed. Foolish mistake, but then again, the men were at least two hundred and fifty yards from the road, nearly three times the range of a musket shot.
Morgan smiled. The enemy had no idea that his riflemen were lurking.
Keeping diligent watch, he stretched his long legs out on the cold ground. He reached for his long rifle beside him; it was his most prized earthly possession, and the same rifle he had carried since the last war, the one against the French and Indians. Crafted by Adam Haymaker to his specific demands, it had cost him twenty-five pounds sterling. And that was over twenty years ago, when such a sum could buy a man one hundred acres of prime land in the Shenandoah Valley.
The barrel was almost four feet in length; its black walnut stock measured precisely to fit just under his chin. If he had dared to cut a notch in it for every man he had dropped with this rifle—French, Indian, British, and Hessian—such a sacrilege would have destroyed the beauty and symmetry of the weapon’s lines. Besides, such a vanity was considered exceedingly foolish by anyone from the frontier. If he was ever captured alive by the less than friendly Indians of that region, such a tally would insure even greater lengths of creativity with their tortures.
“Damn it. That can’t be him.” Clark spat.
“Where?” Morgan cried. He sat up and squinted against the cold easterly wind.
“On the road there, just before that farm down below.”
Morgan watched for several seconds. It would be a long reach at three hundred yards to the road with this wind, but damn it all!
He slipped the rifle up, cupping his hand around the lock, flicking the flash pan open to check the powder.
“Dan. You aren’t?” Major Clark asked.
“I’m going to try a shot at the son of a bitch.”
“Dan, we’re here to scout, not start a fight.”
Morgan said nothing as he blew the powder out of the pan, drew up his horn, and opened it to pour in some fresh priming.
He knew Clark was right. The man was General Washington’s master of spies for this region, tasked with infiltrating agents into Philadelphia to ascertain what the lobsterbacks were up to. Clark was here to spy, not to start a fight. Morgan and his men were ordered to provide cover and support, and then raid on their own, but not to upset or interfere with Clark’s efforts. It was at least a brigade down there, and he had only fifty men with him at this spot. But still, if that was Howe …
Clark was obviously a bit unnerved this morning because he had failed to gain warning of this move and was trying to reassert himself by determining an accurate count of strength and the line of march. He had already muttered that Washington needed to be told of it at once, that perhaps this was a chance to cut off part of their army out in the open, perhaps another Christmas coup like last year at Trenton, to restore the collapsing spirit of the revolution.
They had watched as the lead scouts crossed at the first light of dawn from the cold morning mists rising off the river.
Company after company emerged out of the fog. Most were light infantry; several units were the dangerous mounted Hessian riflemen, and then the column of wagons. They counted over two hundred on the far side of the river, lined up and waiting to cross.
The intent was twofold and obvious. The first, to sweep along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, strip the countryside of all supplies to feed the ten thousand British troops garrisoning Philadelphia, and, in so doing, deny those supplies to the patriot cause.
Dan could easily see the second intent as well. It was a taunt, a challenge. At this very moment, only twenty miles to the north, General Washington and his army were struggling to establish a winter campsite at Valley Forge. Howe was offering a dare. If he himself was moving this column, the challenge was an even greater affront. The commanding British general, leaving the comfort of his headquarters and the beds of his mistresses for a few days in open challenge and defiance, would be a chance too good to miss.
The target momentarily disappeared from view behind the house. His rifle primed, Dan Morgan waited.
Morgan sighed as he contemplated the spectacle nearly three hundred yards away. It was a far cry from what he had witnessed several months ago, up north in the forests of New York and the field at Saratoga. Back then, it was his men in the open sweeping the countryside with victory.
Excerpted from Valley Forge by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen
Copyright © 2010 by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.