Scholla: The Legend of ‘Major’ Lee

The Legend of ‘Major’ Lee

With the assistance of M. Luther Heisey, secretary of the Lancaster County Historical Society, we have found loose ends of a tangled skein of fact and legend inter-woven through our folklore. There have been several fanciful versions of “Major” Lee’s clever ruses to plug the hole through which British prisoners escaped from Lancaster Jail in 1781. The late Walker L. Stephen, chronicler of local lore, published a fantastic tale, centering Lee’s activities around Charming Forge and the Tulpehocken region.

With very vague references to names and places, the Stephen account impressed upon us the suspicion that there might be an element of truth in what presented as a legend. Several years ago, a radio program featured a thriller in which “Major” Lee, posing as a Hessian prisoner, led a daring escape from Lancaster and then divulged the secret means of egress to the military authorities.

When legends bob up with recurring frequency and apparently independent of each other, it behooves the student to take them seriously.  Accordingly we have done some investigating of the facts, now many generations old.

Hessian prisoners were quartered in the jail in Lancaster in 1781. The jail then stood near Chestnut and Duke Streets in present-day Lancaster. At frequent intervals small groups of these prisoners succeeded in effecting their escape, much to the consternation of the military authorities. In December, 1781, Gen. Moses Hazen, commander of “Congress’ Own” regiment of the Pennsylvania line, was sent to Lancaster to investigate the conditions which allowed the prisoners to escape.

One, Captain Andrew Lee, was on recruiting duty in Paxtang, north of the city of Lancaster. In a conference, Hazen and Lee hit upon a scheme to discover the method of escape.

Captain Lee was placed in the jail, dressed as a British soldier. There he fraternized with other prisoners, trying, unsuccessfully, to learn how the escapes were brought about. One night, he found himself included in a group of prisoners who were informed that their turn for escape had come.

Lee and his three companions passed the sentinel without being challenged. Near the jail they were met by an unknown man and an old woman. Lee recognized this woman as a peddler who had been permitted to enter the prison to sell apples and other fruit. The hag took the prisoners to her hut a mile northeast of Lancaster. There the men were fed and sent upon their journey eastward to the Delaware.

On the banks of the Delaware, the party was captured by Continental patrols and then Captain Lee revealed his true identity. Later he informed his superior officer, General Lincoln, Minister of War, of all he had learned. As a result of his information, the hole in Lancaster jail was plugged and the confederates of the British brought to trial.

These trials are reported in the Colonial Records, Volume XIII. The names of some of the guilty were Jacob Grove, Christian Groce, Jacob Snyder, Henry Martin, Christian Weaver and Christian Carpenter. They were convicted of misdemeanors and ordered to pay fines up to 150 pounds.

We have found no mention of the name of the old woman who acted as the agent for the confederates. Dr. Walker Stephen mentions Eliza Wuench in his account, explaining that she was antagonistic to the American cause because her son had been executed as a deserter at the time of the battle of Brandywine. He does not mention anyone of the names listed above, taken from the official records of the provincial council of the colonies.

U.S. National Memorial Arch. Located in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Source: http://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/arch.htm
U.S. National Memorial Arch. Located in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Source: http://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/arch.htm
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