Paoli Massacre During the American Revolution

Brigadier General Anthony Wayne
Brigadier General Anthony Wayne. Trumbull and Forest/Wikimedia Commons

The Paoli Massacre occurred on September 20-21, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

In the late summer of 1777, General Sir William Howe embarked his army at New York City and sailed south with the goal of capturing the American capital of Philadelphia. Moving up the Chesapeake Bay, he landed at Head of Elk, MD and began marching north towards Pennsylvania. Acting to protect the city, General George Washington attempted to make a defensive stand along the Brandywine River in early September. Meeting Howe at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, Washington was flanked by the British and forced to retreat east to Chester. While Howe paused at Brandywine, Washington crossed the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia and marched northwest with the goal of using the river as a defensive barrier. Reconsidering, he elected to re-cross to the south bank and began moving against Howe. Responding, the British commander prepared for battle and engaged the Americans on September 16. Clashing near Malvern, the fight proved brief as a massive thunderstorm descended on the area forcing both armies to break off the battle.

Wayne Detached

In the wake of the "Battle of the Clouds", Washington first retreated west to Yellow Springs and then to Reading Furnace in order to obtain dry powder and supplies. As the British were badly hampered by the rutted and muddy roads as well as the high water of the Schuylkill, Washington decided to detach forces led by Brigadier Generals William Maxwell and Anthony Wayne on September 18 to harass the enemy's flanks and rear. It was also hoped to that Wayne, with 1,500 men that included four light guns and three troops of dragoons, could strike at Howe's baggage train. To assist him in these efforts, Washington directed Brigadier General William Smallwood, who was moving north from Oxford with 2,000 militia, to rendezvous with Wayne.

As Washington resupplied and began marching to re-cross the Schuylkill, Howe moved to Tredyffrin with the goal of reaching Swede's Ford. Advancing on Howe's rear, Wayne encamped two miles southwest of the Paoli Tavern on September 19. Writing to Washington, he believed that his movements were unknown to the enemy and stated, "I believe [Howe] knows Nothing of my situation." This was incorrect as Howe had been apprised of Wayne's actions through spies and intercepted messages. Recording in his diary, British staff officer Captain John Andre commented, "Intelligence having been received of the situation of General Wayne and his design for attacking our Rear, a plan was concerted for surprising him, and the execution entrusted to Major General [Charles] Grey."

The British Move

Seeing an opportunity to crush part of Washington's army, Howe directed Grey to assemble a force of around 1,800 men consisting of the 42nd and 44th Regiments of Foot as well as the 2nd Light Infantry to strike at Wayne's camp. Departing on the evening of September 20, Grey's column moved down the Swede's Ford Road before reaching the Admiral Warren Tavern approximately one mile from the American position. In an effort to maintain secrecy, Andre reported that the column "took every inhabitant with them as they passed along." At the tavern, Grey coerced a local blacksmith into serving as a guide for the final approach.

Wayne Surprised

Advancing around 1:00 AM on September 21, Grey ordered his men to remove the flints from their muskets to ensure that an accidental shot would not alert the Americans. Instead, he instructed his troops to rely on the bayonet, earning him the nickname "No Flint".. Pushing past the tavern, the British approached around a set of woods to the north and quickly overwhelmed Wayne's pickets who fired several shots. Alerted, the Americans were up and moving in a matter of moments, but were unable to resist the force of the British attack. Assaulting with around 1,200 men in three waves, Grey first sent forward the 2nd Light Infantry followed by the 44th and 42nd Foots.

Pouring into Wayne's camp, the British troops were able to easily spot their adversaries as they were silhouetted by their campfires. Though the Americans opened fire, their resistance was weakened as many lacked bayonets and could not fight back until they reloaded. Working to rescue the situation, Wayne was hampered by the chaos caused by the suddenness of Grey's assault. With British bayonets slashing through his ranks, he directed the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment to cover the retreat of the artillery and supplies. As the British began to overwhelm his men, Wayne directed Colonel Richard Humpton's 2nd Brigade to shift left to cover the retreat. Misunderstanding, Humpton instead shifted his men right and had to be corrected. With many of his men fleeing to the west through gaps in a fence, Wayne directed Lieutenant Colonel William Butler's 4th Pennsylvania Regiment to assume a position in nearby woods to provide covering fire.

Wayne Routed

Pressing forward, the British drove the disorganized Americans back. Andre stated, "the Light Infantry being ordered to form to the front, rushed along the line putting to the bayonet all they came up with, and, overtaking the main herd of the fugitives, stabbed great numbers and pressed on their rear until it was thought prudent to order them to desist." Forced from the field, Wayne's command retreated west towards White Horse Tavern with the British in pursuit. To compound the defeat, they encountered Smallwood's approaching militia who were also put to flight by the British. Breaking off the pursuit, Grey consolidated his men and returned to Howe's camp later in the day.

Paoli Massacre Aftermath

In the fighting at Paoli, Wayne sustained 53 killed, 113 wounded, and 71 captured while Grey lost a mere 4 killed and 7 wounded. Quickly dubbed the "Paoli Massacre" by the Americans due to the intense, one-sided nature of the fight, there is no proof that British forces acted inappropriately during the engagement. In the wake of the Paoli Massacre, Wayne criticized Humpton's performance which led to his subordinate preferred charges of negligence against his superior. A subsequent court of inquiry found that Wayne was not guilty of any misconduct but stated that he had made errors. Angered by this finding Wayne demanded and received a full court-martial. Held later that fall, it exonerated him of any blame for the defeat. Remaining with Washington's army, Wayne later distinguished himself at the Battle of Stony Point and was present at the Siege of Yorktown.

Though Grey had succeeded in smashing Wayne, the time taken for the operation allowed Washington's army to move north of the Schuylkill and assume a position to contest a crossing of the river at Swede's Ford. Frustrated, Howe elected to move north along the river towards the upper fords. This forced Washington to follow along the north bank. Secretly counter-marching on the night of September 23, Howe reached Flatland's Ford, near Valley Forge, and crossed the river. In a position between Washington and Philadelphia, he advanced on the city which fell on September 26. Eager to rescue the situation, Washington attacked part of Howe's army at the Battle of Germantown on October 4 but was narrowly defeated. Subsequent operations failed to dislodge Howe and Washington entered winter quarters at Valley Forge in December.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Paoli Massacre During the American Revolution." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). Paoli Massacre During the American Revolution. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Paoli Massacre During the American Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 29, 2023).