By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published September 18, 2002
September 1777 hadn’t been a good month for the Continental Army in the American Revolution.
It had been slapped down at the Battle of Brandywine, and then lost an opportunity for redemption at the Battle of the Clouds, a skirmish along the Great Valley ridgeline in East Whiteland.
The worst part of that socalled battle was the loss of 400,000 rounds of ammunition to a drenching downpour. That forced Gen. George Washington to seek more ammunition and head northwest.
On September 18, 1777, as Washington left, he told Brigadier Gen. Anthony Wayne to use his knowledge of the area to disrupt the British.
Washington wanted Wayne, a wealthy Paoli landowner who commanded 2,200 men (mostly Pennsylvanians), to get behind British Gen. Howe’s army of 15,000 and strike his supply wagons as they crossed the Schuylkill River.
Wayne arrived at the Paoli Tavern early on Sept. 19, two miles to the rear of the British camp. He discovered that the British weren’t yet moving, which would reduce their ability to defend themselves, so he withdrew to a secluded spot above the Warren Taverns to wait for the British to begin marching.
He thought he would be undetected there, but the British had intercepted messages and knew his plans in detail. Wayne remained camped there for two nights while awaiting reinforcements.
Wayne, though close to the British lines, was on his home turf and felt that he would prevail. Alocal farmer came to him the evening of 20th and told him the British were planning to attack. Wayne, folklore to the contrary, didn’t ignore him, and increased his pickets, the horsemen and guards that surrounded the American camp.
Unfortunately, another of his neighbors, a blacksmith, led the British to Wayne’s encampment. It’s not clear whether he was a Loyalist – as was most of the population in this area – or whether he was coerced.
Regardless, that night British forces marched through the woods and just after midnight fell upon the American camp. Their muskets and pistols were unloaded, according to custom, and the Brits fell on the Americans with only bayonets and sabers.
The Americans fought back, and most were able to escape while under attack, for the most part because they reacted with discipline rather than panic. It was a fierce hand-to-hand fight, and the Americans who were killed were bayoneted or stabbed to death as ghostly silhouettes against the roaring campfires.
In many cases American bodies had scores of wounds in them. For the Americans, “Remember Paoli!” became a rallying cry for vengeance against the British that they carried to the decisive battle of Yorktown four years later.
In a mass grave near the battlefield 52 bodies have lain since the fight. One more was found nearby two weeks later. Perhaps dozens more died of their wounds, and many were wounded badly enough that they were no longer fit for service.
But in a battle that involved more than 7,000 men, the number of wounded – some 200-300 – wasn’t unusual. The horror of the battle was the viciousness of the British – far beyond, according to most historians, what was tactically necessary.
Blame eventually fell on Gen. Wayne, whose personality grated on many. “Wayne was a martinet of a commander, one of the most disciplined of the Army. He was like a pit bull, but was a braggart and vain, but he was also able to deliver,” said Malvern historian Tom McGuire, who wrote a book on the battle, The Battle of Paoli, in 2000.
A history teacher at Malvern Prep, McGuire has become well known for his expertise and accuracy concerning the British campaign in the Delaware Valley. It’s interesting to note that McGuire names his book as he does, rather than choosing the more inflammatory “Paoli Massacre.”
“That’s been my whole drive with the project and the book: to tell folks as best as we can the reality of what happened here that awful night,” he said.
To McGuire, in spite of the propaganda value during the war, Paoli was a battle. “When you hear the term ‘massacre’ you think of the complete destruction of a force. But that wasn’t the case at Paoli,” he said.
Still, it was a vicious, brutal fight.
“It has become the image that the British sneaked up and killed them in their sleep, which wasn’t true,” McGuire said. “It was midnight and the Americans were up, but not in battle formation.”
Nor was the attack anything out of the ordinary, other than it was a night action. In fact, the engagement was exactly what Washington had envisioned – with a better result.
“Basically, the British got him before he got them,” McGuire said.
But it was cruelly conducted by the British troops. According to McGuire, there were plenty of eyewitnesses to the carnage.
“An American officer was captured but luckily was able to pretend to be a British officer,” he said. “While being detained, he saw frenzied attacks himself.”
But the most damning reports came from the British themselves. “I have always found it interesting that two of the British officers who were here both said that it was absolutely a dreadful scene,” he said.
“One officer, Lt. Martin Hunter, was a career army officer who went to India in the 1780s and was a lieutenant general when he retired about 1820, said, when writing of Paoli after all those years, that it was ‘the most dreadful scene I ever beheld.'”
One American, found in an aid station several days after the battle, had 46 wounds – and he survived. But this brutality wasn’t limited to the Paoli battlefield.
McGuire tells of an instance in New Jersey when Hessian cavalry hacked an officer to death and beheaded the body. “Washington sent the body to Cornwallis, the British commander, with a note asking him to restrain his soldiers,” McGuire said.
But even among the standards of the day, this wasn’t a pretty sight. First of all, it was a surprise attack at night, scary enough at the best of times.
“Night actions are very unusual in the Revolution because of communication,” said McGuire. “You can do it once in awhile but not often because an attack such as this depends on surprise.”
Secondly, the Paoli attack was noteworthy because the British didn’t fire their weapons. “In night attacks, they have the troops take the ammunition out of their weapons,” McGuire said.
In addition to avoiding the loss of surprise by an inadvertent shot, there’s a tactical advantage. “The enemy will fire on each other, which happened in this case. That meant that the British knew where the Americans were, but they didn’t know where the British were,” McGuire said.
There were other myths in the battle as well. One was that the Americans were caught and murdered in their sleep. “The pickets – or guards – did their job before dying. They were there to give warning, and they were able to do that by firing on the British,” said McGuire.
The Colonials weren’t a mob, and responded well to the attack. “Many of the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion troops had been in the service for two years already, which meant they had more experience than most units,” he said.
“One of the difficulties was that some of the American troops had to funnel through fences because a cannon breaking down at a critical junction slowed movement on Sugartown Road, which left the Americans both vulnerable because they couldn’t maneuver and, worse yet, silhouetted against the fire.”
Wayne did a good job of extricating his forces. If he hadn’t, he would have been found guilty at his court martial.
“He wasn’t a popular man, either you loved him or hated him, and most of his colleagues fell into the latter category,” McGuire said. So it’s probably true that if there were any way for them to harm Wayne, they’d have done it.
“Wayne didn’t have any military training, and not much experience, but he was an avid reader on military subjects, and, in fact, was pretty good at it,” McGuire said.
Wayne believed a soldier needed to be armed with a musket and bayonet and in uniform. According to McGuire, Wayne contended that when soldiers are not properly uniformed, they begin to despise themselves.
One of the results of the battle was what the rest of the Continental Army learned from it. “Paoli absolutely emphasized that the troops needed to learn,” McGuire said. “Pickering writes that they are doing drills of how to move among fences without losing their formation.”
Wayne’s emphasis on drilling made a difference. At Valley Forge, he got his men proper uniforms and weapons.
The concept of disciplined troops fighting on a unified battleground began to make more sense to men who mere weeks before had been farmers and hunters using their natural ability as marksmen to gain what effectiveness the Americans garnered.
But they needed to become a professional army, and at Valley Forge Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben was able to teach them how to be an army.
“I would have to guess that many of these accumulated experiences from Paoli helped to create an attitude of willingness to learn,” McGuire said.
In the weeks that followed, these men sat around campfires in Valley Forge and re-fought the battles. Those who weren’t there couldn’t help but benefit from hearing men tell of being saved from brutal death through the discipline of their leaders and themselves. That was what kept Paoli from becoming a rout and possibly a true massacre.
That was the positive benefit. The negative was equally as important.
“Paoli unhinged Washington’s plan for defending Philadelphia,” McGuire said. “This was his third attempt to stop the British from crossing the river and taking Philadelphia.”
Washington knew what their plan was. They would capture Philadelphia and then in the spring drive northward to meet up with forces coming down the Hudson Valley from Canada.
Had Washington succeeded in stopping the British, then the Continental Army would have bivouacked for the winter in and around Philadelphia. But the Continental Congress had given him an almost impossible task – to guard both Philadelphia and Reading against a superior force.
But with the Battle of Brandywine, the loss of ammunition in Great Valley and Paoli, the British were able to take Philadelphia. Several battles and forays against on the other side of the river at Whitemarsh and Germantown demonstrated to the Americans that they would have to withdraw to a safer position for the winter. Hence their move to Valley Forge.
But there was one final result of the Paoli fight. It became a battle cry and its propaganda value was great, and legends and stories abounded and inflated. Pennsylvanians would cry “Paoli” as they went into battle, much as “Remember the Alamo” would be screamed by Texans 60 years later.