The Dilworthtown Oak

The first book assigned by my new book club in Hong Kong, meeting half a world away from the action it described, detailed the life and career of the Marquis de Lafayette: he who, at the age of 19, had left France to join the Continental Army of George Washington.

But I didn’t need the book club’s assignment to teach me about General Lafayette: I had grown up in the shadow of the great man’s influence. Just a few roads away from my childhood home, a fieldstone covered with white stucco, stood the venerable Dilworthtown Oak. My parents had told me this extraordinary tree had already been full-grown at the time of the Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777, when American troops had been routed by British forces under General Howe.

The Marquis de Lafayette, wounded, had sat in the shade of the Dilworthtown Oak to recover, tended to by a local Quaker woman whose name was not recorded.

The redcoats went on to set the city of Philadelphia ablaze. The Continental Army fled to nearby Valley Forge, where they spent a horrific winter of suffering and deprivation—a dark time, when they could not yet see the future, and did not yet know that they would ultimately prevail.

I learned somewhere that the General’s reputation during the American Revolution had been so great that one of the first acts of the US Postal Service after the war was to call a moratorium on towns naming themselves Lafayette. Thus do we find, today, the map of the Eastern United States dotted with place names like Fayetteville, Lafayetteburg, and Fayettetown.

By the time I arrived on the scene as a little girl, almost two centuries later, what I found most interesting about the Dilworthtown Oak was the fact that although it still stood, it was rotted out inside, hollow. Its sides were strong, and every fall it rained down acorns, meaning that a lawn keeper had to ruthlessly root out oak seedlings from the surrounding area each spring. At some point in the previous twenty years, the local historical society had put up a bronze plaque, confirming what we locals already knew of the mighty Dilworthtown Oak’s glorious history. They installed a screen on the hollowed-out front to prevent irreverent and blasphemous teenagers from throwing trash into the dark oaken cavity on Mischief Night.

For years, my older brother told me stories about creepy things that lived behind that screen and would come out at night, mostly to prey upon little girls who messed with their older brother’s baseball cards or comic books.

Whenever someone from the city came out to visit us at our little stone house in the country, we would take a walk to the top of the hill to see the Quaker Meetinghouse, built in the 1600s, and the one-room Octagonal Schoolhouse, unused for decades. Behind the meetinghouse, in the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery, lies a mass grave of the men and boys who died in the Battle of the Brandywine two hundred years earlier. While the mass grave itself was marked, the names of the individual soldiers—British and Yankee, lying together—were not. As our visitors pondered this sobering fact, we would tell them proudly that not far from here, you could see the Dilworthtown Oak, where Lafayette had sat, wounded—an implausibly young general, a teenager, really, no doubt wondering if he would live to see his native France again. Later, at home, my brother would show the city visitors his collection of musket balls. Even then, a few would turn up every spring when the fields on the other side of the creek from our house were plowed.

For the bicentennial of the Battle of the Brandywine in 1977, a re-enactment was held. Local history buffs converged on the upper hayfield, sweating in the late summer sun, to wear tri-cornered hats and play with fake muskets. A month earlier, my father had mown a path through the hay, using the sickle-bar on his tractor, so that I could visit the little boy about my age who lived on the other side of the field, without getting ticks and burrs on my way. We all laughed when the “Revolutionary Army,” a little unclear on what had actually happened during the battle, marched boldly up the pathway my father had sheared, towards Coley’s house, as the man playing the part of some officer—a local guy who had a horse—tried ineffectively to turn them back toward the actual field of battle.

My mother told me that confusion and muddle like this were probably a more accurate representation of the battle than what we read about in the local hagiographies. (She probably didn’t use the word hagiography, since I was only four at the time, but her point was clear.)

My brother, who loved dressing up in costumes, begged to be allowed to join the “troops.” Drummer boys, he insisted, could certainly have been as young as seven, and anyway, General Lafayette was only 19 himself—and our parents finally relented. My brother was NOT to wear the dusty, half-rotted tricorner hat from the attic that some ancestor of ours had left around, no matter how appropriate it might have been. But he could dress up in a little soldier’s outfit and follow the “army” up to Coley’s house if he wished. While he was scampering through the hay and ragweed, a documentary filmmaker on the scene for the day asked if my brother would like to be in his movie. This, my mother absolutely forbade. It was a source of dinner table conversation for years afterwards: had my brother been saved from a horrible pervert or denied a glorious film career?

I learned the word “Bicentennial” that year. Bi – like the two wheels on the bicycle I had not yet learned to ride; and cent – like the 100 cents in a dollar, and a century, which was 100 years. For the first time, in contemplation of this new word, I saw the vastness of centuries opening before and behind me. One hundred years later, I learned, would be the tri-centennial. The hayfield, the creek, the sunny hill, and the mass grave, shaded by maple and yew trees, might still be there. But out of my whole family, I myself would be the most likely to survive that long. I might arrive at the tri-centennial re-enactment, a 104-year-old woman with white hair, and tell them what I had seen, and be interviewed on the radio.

As for the Dilworthtown Oak, I never doubted it would still be around. For years, whenever I drew a picture of a tree, it was always an oak, with its characteristic hand-shaped leaves, surrounded by acorns, and a mysterious, dark hole, covered up with a screen. Sometimes I drew Lafayette languishing beneath the tree.

Thus, it was an enormous shock to hear from my mother, in a letter she wrote to me when I was at college, that the Dilworthtown Oak had fallen. Not to old age, nor to the pernicious rot that was eating its insides for so many years, but to a cataclysmic bolt of lightning during a violent summer storm. The great natural monument had cracked in two, and although part of it might have been able to hang on for a few months longer, the local historical society had pronounced the Dilworthtown Oak dead on the scene.

Once again, just as I had when I was a tiny child, I saw the immeasurable stretch of years before and behind me. But this time, the sense of permanence and continuity was gone. If the Dilworthtown Oak could fall, what else might happen? Would the plaque be removed? Or changed, to say, “Here once stood …”? Would the screen be tossed into the old scrap metal heap by the creek? Would my parents one day move away from the Brandywine Battlefield? What would Lafayette have thought?

Out of curiosity, in 2019, when I was about to order the book, Lafayette – A Hero of Two Worlds, for my new book club, I looked up the Dilworthtown Oak on Google. I wasn’t expecting much; a local curiosity is nothing in the grand expanse of global history. Still, I thought, there might be a few references to Lafayette.

After filtering through page after page of listings for “charming homes” on quarter-acre lots in Dilworthtown Oak Estates, I finally found two references to the actual Dilworthtown Oak.

The first one said the oak was famous for the legend of three rapists from the British army of General Howe, who had been hanged from its branches in the period of chaos and looting that followed the Battle of the Brandywine, and that the tree had fallen in a windstorm. The page asserted authoritatively that the oak was known to one and all as the Haunted Hangman’s Tree, and that ghosts had been spotted there as late as the 1980s. The information was taken from a self-published book by someone called Phyllis Recca, wholly unknown to me. Confused, I looked at the other reference.

There, the great Dilworthtown Oak was relegated to a single phrase: “a Penn oak” (in other words, an oak that had been alive when William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1600s) “that had failed to make it to the 21st century.” The main article, a review of famous trees in the area, spent most of its effort glorifying the so-called Lafayette Sycamore, a tree that “towers 100 feet on the west side of Route 1, about 50 yards north of the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield State Park.” The article enthused, “According to legend, the Marquis de Lafayette rested during the Battle of the Brandywine under this very sycamore,” but “Historians dispute this, pointing out that there is no way of confirming if Lafayette was anywhere near this tree during the battle.”

By this time, my own son was nearly the age Lafayette had been when the great man either was or wasn’t wounded, and either did or didn’t sit under a tree, which, for all I knew by this point, might as well have been a sassafras or a poplar. I knew that my son’s memories of stories I told him when he was very young were not strictly accurate. Were my own memories just as muddled? All the same, I felt as if a final door had been shut on my childhood. My parents had moved to the Allegheny Mountains for their retirement, my brother had made his career in New York City, and I had spent more of my life in a skyscraper in Hong Kong than in a stone house next to a hayfield.

The other stories of famous oaks and sycamores were just legends themselves, I rationalized at last. Why should the story I thought I heard not bear just as much credence as those? Each year, in any case, the story of how my brother was almost a movie star gained more and more details, and the provenance of the tricorner hat became more and more established, at least in my father’s mind.

No, the Dilworthtown Oak was better remembered as a place where a kind but nameless Quaker woman, despite the roar of the surrounding battle, tended to a desperate teenager burdened with enormous responsibility but frightened out of his wits, freeing him to fulfill his destiny as the hero of a great revolution and the namesake of 100 podunk towns.

I took up my phone and typed happily in the WhatsApp group, which was self-mockingly named, “Serious Book Club HK.”

“Lafayette?” I typed. “Cool! You know, I grew up right around a place where he fought. When he was wounded, he sat under this oak tree to recover, and it was still around when I was a child.”

My version of the story would live on, not as dry history, but as a personal treasure. Like a musket ball or a dusty old hat to show to friends and family—both on the old battlefield itself, and halfway around the world.

Genevieve Hilton was born and raised in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on the site of the Brandywine Battlefield. She has lived in Hong Kong since 2000, and writes science fiction novels and stories as well as political and business stories.