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Allen McLane: Delaware Revolutionary War Hero: Biography

This guide provides information about Delawarean Allen McLane, Revolutionary War hero. Browse the resources below or check the shelves at your Delaware Public Library in the following area: 975.1.


Biography of Allen McLane by the Society of the Cincinnati, 2011

Colonel John Patton's Partisan Company of Foot, Continental Line; Commissioned Captain, 13 January 1777; Colonel David Hall's Delaware Regiment, Continental Line, 16 December 1778 to 12 July 1779; Transferred to Major Henry Lee's Partisan Corps, Continental Line, after 12 July 1779; Brevetted Major, January 1781; Aide-de-Camp to Major-General, Frederick William Augustus von Steuben, Continental Army; Served as General George Washington's personal envoy to Lieutenant-General des Armees Navales (Admiral), the Comte de Grasse; Present at the surrender of Major-General, the Earl Cornwallis; Yorktown, Virginia, 19 October 1781. Resigned, 9 November 1782.

 While Robert Kirkwood is justly celebrated as one of the most stalwart heroes of Delaware during the Revolution, Allen McLane was certainly the State's most flamboyant. His exploits rival those of folk heroes such as the "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion, but as McLane himself was only too aware, once he and his company of rangers were attached to "Light Horse Harry" Lee's command in 1779 he became merely a part of that famous name, and Allen McLane, "whose pride was a Seperate commission...was not mentioned but as Lee would report."42 Nevertheless, McLane compiled an extraordinary record of individual service. He fought in more than fifty battles and skirmishes, and in 1781 carried Washington's messages to the French fleet and was instrumental in persuading Admiral de Grasse to forgo his planned invasion of Jamaica and instead sail for the Chesapeake, thus setting the stage for the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Born in Philadelphia on 8 August 1746, McLane settled at Duck Creek Crossroads (Smyrna) in the early 1770s. In September 1775 he was made Lieutenant and Adjutant of Caesar Rodney's Battalion of Delaware Militia and soon went off to Virginia, where the prospects of action were greater. In December 1775 and January 1776 he was involved in the battles between the patriots and Governor Dunmore's troops at Norfolk. In August 1776, armed with letters of recommendation from Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean, McLane traveled to New York and joined Washington's Army as a volunteer aide. He was at the Battles of Long Island and White Plains, the retreat through New Jersey, and the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. At Princeton his actions were observed by Washington, who promoted him to the rank of Captain on 13 January 1777. McLane then returned to Delaware and personally raised and equipped a company of sixty-eight men. Although nominally attached to Patten's Additional Regiment of the Continental Line, McLane's Company was mounted and served as independent light cavalry scouts under direct orders of General Washington.

 In November 1777 McLane's Rangers were assigned to reconnoiter the strength and intentions of the British Army in Philadelphia and to patrol for signs of enemy troop movements. Early in December McLane was contacted by Mrs. Lydia Darrah of Philadelphia, at whose house the British generals had planned a surprise attack on Washington's camps at Whitemarsh. McLane sent the news on to Washington and then returned to observe the enemy's expected line of march. Late in the day he attacked the enemy van on his own authority and forced the British to change their direction of march. Two days later the British were still probing the American position when a sharp clash between outlying American troops and the British advance resulted in an injury to the American General Joseph Reed. As British infantry ran forward to bayonet the fallen officer, Allen McLane and his Rangers suddenly attacked, scattered the British, and saved the General. Having been foiled twice by McLane and with any chance of surprise spoiled, the British Army retired to Philadelphia as Washington moved his men to their winter quarters at Valley Forge. In May 1778 McLane's vigilance saved General Lafayette's exposed command from a similar British foray out of their stronghold in the occupied city.

 During the winter and spring of 1778, McLane routinely penetrated the British lines at Philadelphia, so much so that several higher ranking officers besought him to procure various items for them such as cups and saucers and inkstands. He soon became known to the British, who meant to capture him. On June 8, as he trotted down the road with two of his Rangers, he "encountered an Ambuscade of British Infantry, covered by a Troop of British Dragoons...." His companions fled, but McLane was surrounded and ordered to dismount. Considering his options, and "preferring Death to being a prisoner," he suddenly spurred his horse, broke though the encircling soldiers, and rode off amid a hail of musket balls.43

 Unfortunately, he rode directly into another body of enemy cavalry that blocked his way. Feigning a meek surrender, he slowly approached and then again surprised his would-be captors by spurring his horse and bursting through. He outran most of the company, but two dragoons followed him over the crest of a hill where they found him apparently ready to give up. When they approached, however, McLane shot one and after a short scuffle brained the other with the butt of his pistol. McLane received a bad saber cut across the back of his hand but escaped.44

 In June 1778 the British evacuated Philadelphia and Washington appointed Benedict Arnold as the town's military governor. McLane, as a practiced intelligence gatherer familiar with the city soon became convinced that Arnold was involved in profiteering and more friendly to the British than the American cause. When he reported his findings to Washington the Commander-in-Chief "almost threw McLane out of his quarters."45 Washington still had complete faith in Arnold. As McLane complained in his journals "...if Genl Washington had ever given full credit to McLane's ideas of Arnold, the traitor would not have placed the Genl in the situation he did in 1780."46 Coincidentally or not, McLane's career as an independent scout was over within two weeks of his report.

In July McLane's company was reassigned on a permanent basis to Patten's Continental Regiment and in December, because it had been raised mostly in Delaware, Congress attached it to Hall's Delaware Continentals. Six months later McLane and his company were again reassigned, to Major Henry Lee's Legion, perhaps causing Peter Jaquett's caustic appraisal of McLane as "an active but a Very restless officer contineuly changing from one Corpes to another."47


While serving under Lee, Captain McLane was chosen to reconnoiter the British fortifications at Stony Point. Disguising himself as a civilian woodsman, McLane gained entrance to the fort, talked to several of the officers and soldiers about its strengths and weaknesses, and took mental notes of what he saw. He even managed to learn the password by enlisting a black man named Pompey to pose as a slave friendly to the British who would run errands for them if he had the password to get through the pickets at night. The fort was captured by General Anthony Wayne on 16 July 1779, partly because of information supplied by McLane, including the password learned by Pompey.

McLane also played a key role in the attack on Paulus Hook in August, but although Lee received a gold medal from Congress and the men a cash award, the majors and captains of the command were not even accorded a vote of thanks. When McLane was sent on recruiting duty to Delaware in February 1780 he considered this yet another insult issued by the jealous Lee: "He plucked the laurels from my brow," McLane wrote, "at Stony Point at Paulus Hook at Sandy Hook at Portsmouth in Virginia.... Gracious heaven that I had fallen in battle."48

 Finally in 1781 McLane "got out of Lee's trap by prevailing on Washington to attach him to General von Steuben's command."49 In June Washington himself called upon McLane for one of the most important missions of the War—to deliver the plans of the combined French and American armies to Admiral de Grasse and ensure that he would give the required naval support. McLane found de Grasse preparing for an invasion of Jamaica, but in personal interviews with the Admiral and his council of war "gave it as his considered opinion that Count de Grasse could make it easy for Genl Washington to reduce the British Army in the South if he proceeded with his fleet and Army to the Chesapeake."50 He was right. De Grasse sailed for the Chesapeake, Washington reduced the British army, and Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, on 19 October 1781.

 After Yorktown McLane returned home, as he expressed it, "to a family surrounded by penury and want."51 He had spent virtually all his money, including his inheritance, to raise and equip his company of rangers and to maintain himself in the field. He had not been paid in two years. In November 1782 he resigned from the service with the rank of Major.

 For several years after the War McLane lived with his wife and family at Duck Creek Cross Roads. He had married Rebecca Wells, daughter of the High Sheriff of Kent County, in January 1770, shortly after he first moved to Delaware. Eleven of the McLanes' fourteen children died in infancy. Louis, the elder of the two surviving boys, served in both Houses of Congress and was United States Minister to England at the time of his father's death; later he served as Secretary of the Treasury and as Secretary of State.

In 1787 McLane was a delegate to Delaware's Ratification Convention for the new Constitution of the United States. He served two terms in the Delaware Assembly and was Speaker in 1791. From 1790 to 1797 he was United States Marshal for Delaware, and in 1797 President Washington appointed him Collector for the Port of Wilmington, a position he held until his death in 1829.

 McLane was a staunch Federalist, the party of Washington and Adams, and in 1800 it was charged that the tie between Republicans Jefferson and Aaron Burr for the Presidency was broken based on Jefferson's promise to a Delaware representative that McLane would be retained in his post. The charges were never proved, but McLane kept his job. Nevertheless, McLane's politics put him in opposition to most of the influential men in Republican New Castle County, and to most of the Delaware Cincinnati, who continually elected vociferous Republican leaders such as Tilton, Patten, Jaquett, McKennan, and Hall. In 1802, when at least partly for political reasons the Delaware Society dissolved itself, McLane was the only Cincinnatus to transfer his membership to another state.

 In 1812, however, patriotism overcame partisanship and the old soldiers McLane, Tilton, Jaquett, Roche, and Monro formed a Veterans Corps to defend Wilmington. But because Wilmington was never seriously threatened (although alarmed in 1813 by British depredations on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) McLane finally sought action in Washington, D.C., and attached himself as a volunteer aide to General Winder, the American commander. In 1814 he was present at the disastrous battle of Bladensburg in which that unfortunate general, with an army mostly of undisciplined and untrained militia, was soundly defeated by the British, who then marched into the city itself and burned all its public buildings. McLane wrote with disgust all was confusion...and so completely without discipline as to exhibit a far greater resemblance to an armed mob than an organized army. I most religiously believe that if I had been at the head of 300 men such as I led in the attack at Paulus Hook or such as I had under my command in the War for Independence, I should have defeated Genl Ross...and America been spared the disgrace of beholding the British triumphantly possessing the Capital.52

 After the return of peace at the end of 1814 McLane resumed his normal duties as Collector for the Port. Although the Republican politicians and businessmen of Wilmington continued to resent him he retained his position for fifteen years. In 1825 he became Treasurer-General of the Society of the Cincinnati, having been a member of the Pennsylvania Society since the dissolution of the Delaware Society in 1802. He died on Friday, 22 May 1829, at the age of 82. Ships in port at Wilmington flew their flags at half staff in his honor until he was buried that Sunday at the Asbury Methodist Church on Walnut Street, Wilmington.


Christopher Ward, The Delaware Continentals

Charles Green

John Munro 

This biography is on the Society of the Cincinnati website.