Historic Valley Forge

Who Served Here?

John Armstrong

IMPORTANT NOTE: Armstrong served with Washington before and after Valley Forge, but was not present at the winter encampment. He is included for the use of people interested in his contributions to the United States.

Major General John Armstrong Sr
from Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Vol. I
Benson J. Lossing, 1850

John Armstrong was born October 13, 1717 in Brookborough Parish, Fermanaugh County, Ireland. He was among the many settlers of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, and came to be one of the most capable surveyors along the frontier.

Armstrong began his military service during the French and Indian Wars. Armstrong was appointed by Pennsylvania to head an expedition against Kittaning, a Delaware (Lenape) and Shawnee stronghold on the Allegheny River. Before Colonel Armstrong left Carlisle, he wrote to the Governor of Pennsylvania:

May it please your Honor, To-Morrow, God-willing, the men march from McDowell's for Fort Shirley, and this afternoon some part of my own company, with the provisions have set out for Sherman's Valley there to halt until the residue come up. This I expected to have been at Fort Shirley, but am much disappointed in getting in of the strays, for collecting whereof we shall not wait longer than this day. The two attacks on Fort Granville has left us so bare of ammunition that I shall be obliged to apply to the stores here for some quantity for the expedition. The captains Hamilton and Mercer having broke open the part. I sent to McDowell's for Fort Shirley, and given their receipt as for the expedition, tho I know it is for the particular defense of the two posts, nor will it be in my power to prevail with double the number of men and double the quantity of ammunition to keep a fort that would have done it, before the taking of Fort Granville.

Colonel Armstrong gathered his army of three hundred at Fort Shirley on the Juniata in August, 1756, and by rapid marching came within six miles of Kittaning on September 7. The next morning, Armstorng and his troops mounted a massive surprise attack, destroying the village and slaughtering many of the inhabitants. After the destruction of Kittaning, many of the settlers moved back to their homes. Armstrong was wounded in the battle, but the "hero of Kittaning" fully recovered, and received a commendation from Philadelphia on January 5, 1757:

To Col. John Armstrong: Sir: The corporation of the city of Philadelphia greatly approve your conduct and public spirit in the late expedition against the town of Kittanning, and are highly pleased with the signal proofs of courage and personal bravery given by you and the officers under your command in demolishing that place. I am, therefore, ordered to return you and them the thanks of the Board for the eminent service you have thereby done your country. I am also ordered by the corporation to present you, out of their small public stock, with a piece of plate and silver medal, and each of your officers with a medal and a small sum of money, to be disposed of in a manner most agreeable to them; which the Board desire you will accept as a testimony of the regard they have for your merit. Signed by order, January 5, 1757. ATWOOD SHUTE, Mayor.

After the expedition the chiefs of 13 native tribes signed the Treaty of Easton, in which the natives agreed not to fight on the side of the French in the ongoing war, in return for the British returning land to them.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham
Richard Brompton, 1772

Later in 1757, Colonel Armstrong was placed in command of a force of 2,600 by Pennsylvania to follow through with plans by William Pitt, the leader of the House of Commons in the British Parliament, to wrest control of western Pennsylvania from the French. The French were in control of Fort Duquesne located in the western part of the state. British Officer, General John Forbes, was given complete command of the expedition against Fort Duquesne. Serving beneath him, a young Colonel George Washington was in command of the colonial troops from Virginia and Maryland. The Pennsylvania troops met at Raystown (Bedford), Pennsylvania to plan their attack, during which Armstrong and Washington became good friends.

The expeditionary forces numbered about six thousand, of which sixteen hundred were British regulars. The British constructed a road between Raystown and their target, Fort Duquesne. The British troops stopped at an outpost named Loyalhanna, about fifty miles from the Fort. In November of 1758, Forbes marched against the stronghold, but the French set fire to it and marched away before the English could attack. The capture of the fort virtually ended the struggle in Pennsylvania. Forbes changed the name from Duquesne to Fort Pitt, and Armstrong raised the flag. Forbes died a year later in Philadelphia after retiring from service.

Colonel Armstrong continued service with the military until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and in subsequent struggles later. He also served as a Judge of Court of Common Pleas for many years.

Charles Lee

Charles Lee
engraving by G.N. Raspe, 1778

On March 1, 1776, the Journals of Congress note the record that Congress elected John Armstrong Brigadier-General. A resolution was passed: "That General Armstrong was directed to repair to South Carolina, there respectively to take command of the forces until they receive further orders from Congress or a superior officer." General Armstrong arrived in Charleson in April, 1776, and took command — he at once continued in pushing forward the defense of the city against attack from the enemy. By June Major-General Charles Lee arrived, who with his higher rank, became chief commander. Armstrong was appointed charge over the troops at Haddrell's Point, an important position in safeguarding Charleston. The Americans held off a subsequent British attack.

In the winter of 1777, Washington and his army were encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, where Washington was contemplating the next moves of the British for the campaign of 1777. His thought was that the British would most likely make their move against the capital: Philadelphia. During that summer, Washington kept his troops between Philadelphia and New York, ready for a possible strike against the city. In a letter of July 4, 1777, Washington writes Armstrong:

I am yet perplexed to find out the real intention of the enemy but upon a presumption that their views are up the North River. I have advanced General Sullivan's division as far as Pompton and the main body of the army to this place. In this position I shall lie till I receive more certain information of their design. I have dismissed all the militia of this State, except about one hundred who serve as a guard for the stores at Pompton and Succasony Plains; and it would be very agreeable to me to have as few as possible of those of Pennsylvania kept in service, because their time at this season of harvest, it truly valuable to them

At the same time, the Pennsylvania government realized that Armstrong was the one officer of the state who could lead, direct and control the militia of the State. He was promoted Major-General — a much deserved promotion. Washington made note of the promotion in the same letter above; "I am pleased at the honorable mark of distinction, which the State of Pennsylvania has conferred upon you by appointment to the command of its State troops, and am convinced that by your acceptance of it you will be enabled to render the State and your country very essential service, should she herself be attacked, or her assistance demanded by any of her sister States."

The momentum for a battle was building and eventually everything was in place for a battle at Brandywine. Under the command of Sullivan, Washington had forces placed some distance above Chadds Ford. The main part of the forces under the Commander-in-Chief was centered around Chadds Ford and the left wing was under command of Armstrong, located at Pyle's below Chadds Ford. His militia had the awesome responsibility of guarding the American army's supplies of all kinds. The Americans were poorly equipped, but fought hard all day long. In the evening they withdrew and marched to Chester. Armstrong protected the American stores and under his direction, they were removed from the area.

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Washington's army was at Pottsgrove (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) and soon marched to Pennebecker's mills (Schwenksville, Pennsylvania) where they established camp. There at Headquarters, Washington called a council of war on September 28. Armstrong was a member of the council. The men mainly discussed the feasibility of an attack at Philadelphia...

By October 2, the army was marching along the Skippack road to Worcester township. At the same time, two important enemy documents were captured letting the Americans know that Howe had divided his British forces into two sections in order to capture the two forts at Philadelphia. A large British force was located at Germantown and Washington decided to attack there. Each general had specific orders, including Armstrong.

General Armstrong to pass down the Ridge road at the Sandy Run — thence to White Marsh Church — there take the left hand road which leads to Jenkins' Tavern on the old York road, then keep down the old York road below Armitage's beyond the seven mile stone; half a mile from which a road turns off short to the right fenc'd on both sides, which leads through enemy's encampment at Germantown Market House.
General MacDougall to attack the right wing of the enemy in flank — General Smallwood and Foreman to attack their right wing in flank and Genrl Armstrong to strike their left wing in flank and rear.

— From Weedon's Orderly Book

The foggy day and the impregnable Chew House (Cliveden) helped bring the battle to an end. Washington wrote Congress on the 5th of October, "The morning was extremely foggy which prevented our improving the advantages we gained, so well as should otherwise have been done. Upon the whole, it may be said the day was rather unfortunate than injurious. The enemy are nothing better by the event and our troops who are not in the least dispirited, have gained, what all young troops gain by being in action."

The army eventually ended up in winter quarters at Valley Forge. After Germantown, Armstrong secured permission to withdraw from his command due to precarious health and he returned to Carlisle. Early in the spring Armstrong wrote to Washington concerning the possibility of returning to the army. Washington told him ..."When the weather is such, that you think you can take the field without injury to your health, I shall be glad to see you with the army, as I am, with sincere regard..." However, General Armstrong did not return to the army. Instead, he was elected to Congress in 1778 and served to 1780. He did much to aid Washington and his army from his seat in government. He left Congress for a number of years, but returned in 1787-1788.

Armstrong was a strong supporter of Washington and advocated his election as President of the United States. In the closing years of his life, General Armstrong was consulted frequently about affairs of Pennsylvania. He died in Carlisle, on March 9, 1795.

Abridged from the article by Charles William Heathcote, Ph.D., The Picket Post, Valley Forge Historical Society; November 1959

Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society

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