1 May 1778. When the British occupied winter quarters in Philadelphia, Washington set up a cordon of detachments around the city in an attempt to restrict the flow of supplies to the enemy. One of those outposts was at Crooked Billet in the central part of Bucks County, north-northeast of Philadelphia. Brigadier General John Lacey (a former Continental Army captain) had responsibility for the sector in the spring of 1778 with a military force that fluctuated wildly from week to week but that in late April probably amounted to less than a hundred men. Major John Graves Simcoe worked with Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour (General Howe’s aide charged with intelligence activities) to develop a plan to hit the militia while they were vulnerable as a new rotation of men came into camp. On 30 April Simcoe set out on a twenty-five-mile march with the Queen’s Rangers to take Crooked Billet from the rear while a large light infantry force (partly mounted) under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby set up near Horsham Meeting House. They intended to push any survivors of Simcoe’s dawn attack into Abercromby’s ambush. Fortunately for Lacey, the two British elements failed to time the attack properly, and an alert militia sentry gave the warning before the trap was sprung. Lacey withdrew through some woods, and his men broke into small parties, most getting away although losing their baggage. Simcoe claimed that he killed fifty or sixty at the cost of a few wounded; Lacey reported about half as many casualties.

SIR ROBERT ABERCROMBY, (c. 1740- 1827).

British army officer. Robert Abercromby was baptized at his family’s Clackmannanshire estate in Scotland on 13 October 1740. He won a commission by his gallantry at Ticonderoga on 8 July 1758 and rose to captain in 1761. Promoted to major in 1772, he became lieutenant colonel of the Thirty-seventh Foot in 1773. Not sharing his brother Ralph’s doubts about the American war, he served with distinction at Long Island in August 1776 and at Brandywine and Germantown in September and October 1777, respectively. In 1778 he made an expedition to destroy shipping in the Delaware, took part in the action at Crooked Billet in May, and was wounded at Monmouth on 28 June. He sailed south with the Charleston expedition of 1780 and stayed to serve under Cornwallis, whom he impressed. In the early hours of 16 October 1781, he led a sortie from Yorktown that temporarily silenced six enemy guns.

After the war he followed his new patron, Cornwallis, to India, where he rose to major general in 1790 and was knighted in 1792. Despite Cornwallis’s warning that the post was beyond Abercromby’s competence, the latter was appointed commander in chief in 1793. Four years later, plagued by failing eyesight and his authority compromised by an officers’ conspiracy, he was forced to return home. Promoted to lieutenant general later in the year and to full general in 1802, he died in Scotland in November 1827.

John Graves Simcoe, commander of the Queen’s Rangers

JOHN GRAVES SIMCOE, (1752-1806).

British commander of the Queen’s Rangers. Son of a Royal Navy captain who died at Quebec in 1759, John Simcoe was schooled at Exeter Grammar School, Eton College, and Merton College, Oxford, before becoming an ensign in the Thirty-Fifth Foot on 27 April 1770. He served as adjutant from 27 March 1772, and was promoted lieutenant (by purchase) on 12 March 1774. In April 1775 he embarked with his regiment from Cork as part of the first reinforcement for the army at Boston, where he arrived two days after the battle of Bunker Hill. He saw active service around Boston for the remainder of the year. On 27 December 1775 he purchased a captaincy in the Fortieth Foot, and served with his new regiment in the New York campaign in 1776 and the Philadelphia campaign in 1777. He was severely wounded at the Brandywine River on 11 September 1777, and on 15 October was given the provincial rank of major and named commander of the Queen’s Rangers. “He wanted to form a combined light corps which would be especially suited for service in America but would also introduce a more general reform of British military practice. Their training gave little attention to formal drill, but insisted on physical fitness, rapid movement, bayonet fighting, and most particularly, discipline in the field” (S. R. Mealing in DCB). He led this Loyalist legion of light horse and foot troops in the skirmishes at Quintan’s Bridge and Hancock’s Bridge, both in New Jersey, in March 1778, and in the action at Crooked Billet, Pennsylvania, on 1 May, before taking part in the Monmouth campaign and winning promotion to the provincial rank of lieutenant colonel commandant in June. He took part in the foraging expedition that led to the Tappan massacre in New York on 28 September 1778, but was not engaged in the action itself. On 1 June 1779 his rangers took part in the capture of Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point, and they raided Poundridge, New York, on 2 July 1779. He narrowly escaped death when he was ambushed, wounded, and captured with four of his men on 17 October after a successful raid from Amboy to Somerset Court House, New Jersey. He was exchanged on 31 December 1779. “As contemptuous of the military capacity of his adversaries as he was of their republicanism, his leadership made the Queen’s Rangers the most successful of the American loyalist corps” ( John A. Houlding in ODNB).

When the traitor Benedict Arnold was sent to raid Virginia a year later, Sir Henry Clinton included these instructions (14 December): “Having sent Lieutenant Colonels Dundas and Simcoe (officers of great experience and much in my confidence) with you, I am to desire that you will always consult those gentlemen previous to your undertaking any operation of consequence.” Highlights of Simcoe’s operations in Virginia were his rout of the militia defenders of Richmond on 5 January 1781, his surprise and rout of another militia concentration by a night raid to Charles City Court House on 8 January, his part in the attack at Petersburg on 25 April, his raid to scatter Friedrich Steuben’s command at Point of Fork on 5 June, and his battle at Spencer’s Tavern on 26 June. During the Yorktown siege he was posted on the north bank of the York River at Gloucester, and surrendered there with the rest of Cornwallis’s army on 20 October 1781.

Promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel in the British Army on 19 December 1781 and invalided home the same month, he married in 1782 and until 1790 divided his time between London and his family estate in Devon. He then entered parliament. On the division of Canada in 1791 he was appointed the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, under Governor-General Sir Guy Carleton. He and his family arrived at Quebec on 11 November 1791, where they wintered. He arrived at Newark, the temporary capital of Upper Canada (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), on 26 July 1792. While his plans “to create a bastion of social and political conservatism and to prevent the emergence of American-style frontier democracy” (ODNB) were beyond his capacity to accomplish in the short term, “he gave both expression and impetus to the blend of conservatism, loyalty, and emphasis on economic progress that was to dominate the province after the War of 1812. The most persistently energetic governor sent to British North America after the American Revolution, he had not only the most articulate faith in its imperial destiny but also the most sympathetic appreciation of the interest and aspirations of its inhabitants” (DCB). Ill health forced his resignation in the summer of 1796.

On 10 November 1796 he was appointed commander of the recently captured island of San Domingo. He returned to England in July 1797, again in ill health. In 1801 he commanded at Plymouth when Napoleon’s invasion was expected. In July 1806 he was named commander in chief in India but, his health broken, he took sick on the way out, returned home, and died at Exeter on 26 October 1806.

Simcoe’s self-published Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, released in Exeter in 1787) was “the outstanding tactical study of the petite guerre to emerge from the eighteenth-century American wars, an invaluable training and tactical manual for officers soon to be engaged with the light forces of the French revolutionary armies” (ODNB). It is also a valuable historical account, particularly for the host of skirmishes in which he participated.

Close Call at Crooked Billet


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