How Valley Forge Became a Revolutionary War Hideout

Gen. Washington’s camp served Lachlan MacIntosh well.



Gen. Lachlan McIntosh

The Valley Forge encampment in 1777-78 was many things: a scene of suffering by ill-clad troops, a place of rebirth for the Continental Army and, for Gen. Lachlan McIntosh of Georgia, a welcome hideout.

McIntosh had become a marked man in his home state. His loyalties were not in question: He had raised a regiment for the Revolutionary cause, organized the defense of Savannah and helped to repel a British invasion. 

But, in 1777, he killed political rival Button Gwinnett—a Founding Father, no less—in a duel. With Gwinnett’s friends in the Georgia Assembly out for McIntosh’s hide, George Washington summoned him north for an arguably safer job with the main Continental Army.

“Although it had not happened as his enemies planned, [Georgia] was finally free of McIntosh’s influence,” wrote historian Harvey Jackson. “But [their] relief could not have been greater than his own.”

Born in Scotland, McIntosh and his family immigrated to Georgia in 1736, when he was 8. His father, John McIntosh Mor, had joined a group of 100 Scots to settle the town of New Inverness, later renamed Darien. McIntosh’s early years in Colonial Georgia were tough, but they laid the groundwork for his future rise.

The year after the family’s arrival, McIntosh’s younger brother was eaten by an alligator. In 1740, his father was captured by the Spanish in a clash along the Georgia-Florida border and held in St. Augustine, Fla., for two years, during which his health deteriorated. He died just a few years after his return. Before his death, however, McIntosh Mor had become an ally of James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony, in his (unsuccessful) effort to keep slavery out of Georgia. In Darien, which became a center of antislavery sentiment, McIntosh Mor had initiated a petition to counter those who insisted they couldn’t grow crops profitably without forced labor.

After his father’s death, McIntosh spent two years in an orphanage, while an older brother, William, joined Oglethorpe in an expedition to repel a Spanish invasion. After leaving the institution, McIntosh joined his brother at Fort Frederica. They briefly discussed returning to Scotland to join the forces of Charles Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) in the final Jacobite rising of 1745. Oglethorpe, who had become their mentor, convinced them to remain in Georgia. Smart move: Stuart was defeated at Culloden, and of his soldiers, up to 2,000 were killed, hundreds executed and more than a thousand sent to British colonies as slaves.

Instead, McIntosh moved to Charleston, S.C., where he took a job as a clerk for Henry Laurens, a merchant, rice planter and partner in Austin & Laurens, the largest slave-trading house in North America. During this period, he lived with the Laurens family. McIntosh came to the job with little education, but apparently used the opportunity to acquire some. After several years, he returned to Darien, where he continued his studies, especially of mathematics, and became a surveyor. He also married, acquired land and slaves, and began growing rice in partnership with Laurens.

In the 1750s, during the French and Indian War, Laurens served as a lieutenant colonel in campaigns against the Creek Indians. As a Laurens acolyte, McIntosh was there, acquiring knowledge of military tactics and fortifications. At the end of the war in 1763, he was commander of Fort Prince George in South Carolina.

By the 1770s, McIntosh was a leader in the independence movement. In 1775, he helped organize Darien-area delegates to a provincial congress and was commissioned colonel in the Georgia militia. Meanwhile, McIntosh’s patron, Laurens, was elected to the Continental Congress.

All of this set up McIntosh for conflict with Button Gwinnett.

 

Born in England, Button Gwinnett was a relatively recent immigrant at the beginning of the Revolution. A minister’s son, he had been a merchant before sailing to Charleston in 1762. Three years later, the family moved to Georgia, where Gwinnett abandoned his business career and started a plantation. In 1769, he was elected to the provincial assembly.

Financial difficulty pushed Gwinnett to the left. Forced to declare bankruptcy in 1773, he came out of the process still owing 1,000 pounds and seems to have developed an attitude about fat cats. Gwinnett organized a “popular party” of rural Georgians whose goal was to extend voting rights to those with less property and challenge the established planters—people like McIntosh.

In 1776, Gwinnett’s party took over the Georgia Assembly, and he was appointed commander of the Georgia Battalion of Continentals. Gwinnett had no military experience, so that appointment elicited protests and even resignations among the officer corps. More to the point, such appointments required the approval of the Continental Congress, where Laurens was advocating on behalf of McIntosh.

Eventually, a compromise was reached: Gwinnett was made a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence, and returned to Georgia to become speaker of the assembly. McIntosh was made a brigadier general and given command of the newly enlarged Georgia Brigade of Continentals.

“At that point, Gwinnett turned vindictive,” wrote historian Wayne Lynch. “He began an investigation into the state of frontier defense by instituting proceedings against Brig. Gen. McIntosh’s brother, Lt. Col. William McIntosh.”

Gwinnett charged that William was negligent for not defending some plantations during an aborted invasion of East Florida. William was cleared, but withdrew from public life.

Next, Gwinnett went after McIntosh’s brother, George, whom he accused of violating laws against trade with British East Florida. Bypassing the state’s executive council, Gwinnett had George jailed on his own authority. Clearing him of those charges took some time.

Then, Gwinnett tried to oust McIntosh, who, as commander of federal troops, was clearly beyond Gwinnett’s command. Gwinnett demanded McIntosh’s participation in an invasion of British Florida and, when that was refused, brought charges against him. Amid all of this, McIntosh called Gwinnett “a scoundrel and lying rascal,” which Gwinnett considered fighting words. He challenged McIntosh to a duel “before sunrise” the next morning, May 16, 1777.

“The general,” wrote observer George Wells, “humorously sent in answer to Mr. Gwinnett that the hour was rather earlier than his usual, but would assuredly meet him at the place and time appointed with a pair of pistols only.”

Each man was wounded in the thigh, but Gwinnett’s wound turned gangrenous, and he died three days later.

McIntosh now had a different problem. Gwinnett’s friends immediately had him charged with murder. He was acquitted. But this was the South, where violence was an accepted means of settling disputes—hence, the duel—and where homicide rates remain above the national average today. McIntosh was surrounded by men who might challenge him to more duels—or just shoot him.

Plus, they were after his job. McIntosh still reported to the Continental Congress, but his enemies in Georgia were circulating petitions that he be removed. Nearly 600 signatures were gathered in just four counties. McIntosh’s enemies had also won control of the state’s delegation to the Continental Congress, where they could press their case.

“The [popular party’s] victory was at hand, but it was won at a terrible cost,” wrote Jackson. “Army discipline was shattered, morale was gone, and, for a large segment of the population, all faith in Georgia’s Continental forces and their commander had disappeared.”

Fortunately, McIntosh still had friends. In August 1777, Laurens began lobbying for his transfer to the main army, then in Philadelphia. Congress turned out to be willing, and one of Washington’s brigades lacked a commander. And so, it was done.

By the time McIntosh arrived in December, the British were in Philadelphia. Washington had been defeated at Brandywine in September and Germantown in October, and he had just settled down in Valley Forge for the winter.

Washington assigned McIntosh to command the North Carolina brigade, the sickest and worst-clothed unit in the army. Troop rolls showed that, of the 2,700 men who manned the brigade when at full strength, only 928 were in camp. Of those, nearly half were sick or “unfit for duty for want of clothing.” Manpower was so short that McIntosh had to use the “walking sick” to build shelters.

But there wasn’t much to do except endure. In North Carolina, the governor tried to gather supplies for his state’s troops, but he had no money for the purpose and no means of moving supplies north if he had. More than 200 North Carolinians died at Valley Forge.

McIntosh did succeed in bringing in a herd of cattle—a small victory. His next task: inspecting army field hospitals. “His conduct impressed Gen. Washington,” according to Jackson.

In May 1778, McIntosh was given command of the Continental Army’s western department, headquartered at Fort Pitt. He restored order on the frontier and built two new forts—Fort Laurens, named for his good friend in Congress, and Fort McIntosh, for himself. McIntosh also formulated a plan to attack the British at Fort Detroit. The plan fizzled, though no one seems to have held it against him.

In 1779, McIntosh was ordered south for the failed siege of Savannah. He settled his troops in Charleston to defend that city, but he was among 3,000 Americans captured when his commander surrendered to the British.

Released in 1782, McIntosh returned to his plantation, which had been ruined by the British. He never did recover financially, but at least he was no longer in need of a hideout.

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