Sunday, August 2, 2020

ARP160 The Paoli Massacre

Last week, we followed the Continental Army as it crossed the Schuylkill river, and sat on what was then the eastern border of Philadelphia, awaiting the British Army’s final push to take the city.  General Howe had defeated Washington at Brandywine.  After the rained out battle of the clouds, he faced virtually no military opposition as his army advanced toward Philadelphia.

British Delay Advance

General Howe, though, seemed in no particular hurry to enter the city.  After the Battle of Brandywine, the bulk of his army remained in camp for five days.  After learning that the Continentals were advancing toward him, Howe finally marched out his army to do battle, only to see the Continentals withdraw under a heavy thunderstorm.

Battle of Paoli (from Wikimedia)
The British advanced northward, but made no attempt to cross the Schuylkill River and enter the city.  On September 18th, Colonel Alexander Hamilton warned Congress that the British could be in Philadelphia, that very night.  Hamilton’s letter and those of other officers set off a panic within the city.  The President of Congress, John Hancock, reportedly passed along the alarm to the rest of Congress, then loaded everything he could into a collection of wagons and carriages, leaving the city at 3:00 AM the next morning.  Most other delegates did the same.

Two days later, the expected arrival of the British army in Philadelphia was still -- just an expectation.  The British Army camped patiently along the west bank of the Schuylkill River. On September 21, John Adams, who had fled to Trenton, NJ, wrote in his diary “It was a false alarm which occasioned our Flight from Philadelphia. Not a Soldier of Howes has crossed the Schuylkill.”  Adams went on to speculate that General Howe would wait for his brother Admiral Howe to bring the fleet up the Delaware River before entering the city.

Instead, the British were moving further upstream along the Schuylkill, in an apparent attempt to flank the Continentals as they had done on the Brandywine.  Washington also moved his army further upstream to contest any crossing and prevent just such a flanking maneuver.

Continental Deployments

To further vex the British, Washington deployed divisions of soldiers on the west bank and behind enemy lines.  One division was a force of about 1500 soldiers under the command of General Anthony Wayne.  General William Maxwell commanded a second force working in cooperation with Pennsylvania Militia General James Potter.  The goal of these units was to keep a low profile in the enemy’s rear, then harass and attack the enemy when the opportunity presented itself.

Gen. William Smallwood
(from Wikimedia)
Washington also ordered General William Smallwood to bring up his Maryland regiments and attack the rear as well.  Smallwood had been in Baltimore when the British landed in Northern Maryland.  In the following weeks, he had mustered more Maryland soldiers and marched them north toward the rear of Howe’s army.

Washington anticipated that these actions would be similar to the hit and run raids of the forage war that they had conducted in New Jersey the previous winter and spring.  Those actions had left the British frustrated and distracted.  Each of these divisions had a large contingent of 1500-2000 soldiers, as well as a few cannons.  Smallwood’s division had marched to Sadsbury Township, which was probably still a day’s march from the main British force.  Maxwell and Potter deployed out near Valley Forge, north of the main British force and ready to pounce on the British left flank if it tried to cross the Schuylkill.  Wayne deployed near Paoli Tavern, just a few miles south of the main British army and was prepared to attack the British right flank.


On September 19th British outposts at Valley Forge came under attack from General Maxwell’s soldiers.  Howe sent General Cornwallis with two grenadier battalions and a light infantry battalion to engage the enemy and reinforce the outpost at Valley Forge.  By the time Cornwallis arrived, there were no enemy soldiers to engage, although he reported that he could see elements of Washington’s Army across the Schuylkill river in the hills dotting the eastern bank.  Those were Maxwell’s and Potter’s divisions who were tasked with harassing the enemy but avoiding large direct engagements.  As during the forage war, they would attack the outposts, but then fade away when larger armies marched out to engage them.

Anthony Wayne (Wikimedia)
To the south, General Wayne saw Cornwallis’ troops on the march toward Valley Forge and thought that the British might have been alerted to his presence.  He moved his soldiers a few miles away into some hills that provided more protection.

The British detected the American movements and received intelligence from local Tories that these men were under the command of General Wayne.  General Wayne was born and raised in Chester County and was well known to the locals.  The British deployed a brigade of light infantry, along with Ferguson’s riflemen to launch a surprise raid.  However, Wayne’s pickets alerted the main force to the British approach.  The Continentals retreated before the British could engage them.  The British did not pursue them into the hills.

The following day, the British intercepted a letter from Washington to Wayne, confirming that Wayne was in command of a force in their rear.  Wayne was staying a few miles from the British camp, close enough to keep tabs on them, but able to slip away again if the British attacked in force.  Wayne’s hope was that General Smallwood’s Marylanders would link up with his force and that the combined force of about 3500 could attack the British rear when they tried to cross the river and advance on Philadelphia.

General Charles Grey

The British army opted to dispatch Wayne’s small and isolated force before it could become a bigger problem for them.  Howe tasked Major General Charles Grey to lead the attack.

Gen. Charles Gray
(from Ocean's Bridge)
General Grey deserves a brief introduction here.  Grey was born in 1729 to the 1st Baronet of Harwick.  Because Charles was the fourth son, he was not in line to inherit lands or title so dad thought he should have a career in the military.  At age fourteen, his family purchased an ensign’s commission for him.  Young Charles traveled to Scotland in time to be a part of the British massacre of the Scots at Culloden as one of his earliest military experiences.

During the Seven Years War, Grey served as an aide to the Duke of Brunswick.  He was wounded at the Battle of Minden and again in another battle a few months later.  He continued in active service though, participating in several more European battles as well as the invasion of Cuba.  By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The end of the war saw the end of active service for Colonel Grey, who had to go on half pay.  Fortunately, family money and connections kept him living the life of a proper English gentleman.  In 1772, he received a promotion to full colonel and served as aide-de-camp to King George III.  When the King sent General Howe to capture New York in 1776, Grey went along and within a year had risen to major general, most recently serving as a brigade commander at the Battle of Brandywine.

For the present mission, General Grey had to dispatch the American forces in the British rear.  Otherwise, General Howe could not cross the Schuylkill without fear of attack from both sides.

Paoli Massacre

In order to surprise the Americans, who seemed to run away whenever they saw the British advancing on their position, Grey ordered his forces camped at Tredyffrin to march out for a night time raid.  After dark on September 20th, 1200 men from the Second Light Infantry Brigade, along with two regiments of regulars and Ferguson’s rifles marched out of camp in search of the enemy.  Grey, however, was not interested in rifle fire, or musket fire. He ordered all of his soldiers to keep their guns unloaded and remove the flints to prevent firing.  He wanted complete silence and use of the bayonet against the enemy.

Paoli Map (from British Battles)
Grey’s brigade moved out into the night, knowing that Wayne’s force was in the area but not knowing their exact position.  As they got closer, Grey’s officers were able to compel a local to give up Wayne’s location nearby.

Some time shortly after midnight, the British ran into Continental camp pickets and dispatched them with bayonets.  The pickets, however, alerted the camp which began to form into lines.  Before they could get organized, the British light infantry charged the camps and bayoneted everyone they could find.  Some Americans mounted a brief defense.  Officers attempted to form their men into lines, but the British light infantry was on top of them before most could react.  Without sufficient time to organize a defense, the surviving Americans fled into the woods.  The British set the camp on fire, again bayoneting any soldier who tried to escape from a burning tent.

The same darkness that gave the British cover in their advance also gave the Americans cover in their retreat.  General Wayne was able to escape and bring with him the artillery and some of his wagons.  Several others, however, fell into enemy hands.

British Attack at Paoli (from British Battles)
American reports from the attack said that British soldiers mercilessly bayoneted the wounded and those trying to surrender.  In truth though, the British did capture about 70 or 80 prisoners, about half of whom were seriously wounded.  Estimates of Americans killed range from around 53 to 120, although that higher estimate almost certainly includes wounded who died after the fact. The British reported only five killed and seven wounded among the attackers.

During the attack on Wayne’s division, General Smallwood’s 2000 Marylanders were camped only about a mile away.  They heard the battle as it erupted.  Had they marched to the aid of Wayne’s brigade, they would have outnumbered the British considerably.  However, these were mostly inexperienced newly-recruited soldiers.  Instead of organizing a counter-attack, most of them fled into the woods themselves, never engaging with the enemy.  Half of Smallwood’s force deserted that night and returned home to Maryland.


The British considered the raid a great victory.  General Grey got the nickname Charles “no flints” Grey for his command to remove the flints from their guns before the battle.  He would continue on in the war with his reputation enhanced, and we will hear more about his later exploits in future episodes.

Wayne Carried from field
(from British Battles)
Most of the surviving Continentals were able to cross the river and join up with the rest of Washington’s main force.  General Wayne took much of the blame for the loss.  Several accusers, including some of his own officers, accused Wayne of failing to deploy sufficient camp guards to warn of the attack.  There was no time to hear these accusations for the next few weeks.

In October, the army assembled a court martial to question whether Wayne was guilty of neglect of duty.  Wayne’s defense laid out that he was well aware of the possibility of an attack based on a civilian tip.  He had increased the pickets and taken other precautions.  Wayne, in turn, accused one of his subordinates and accusers, Colonel Richard Humpton, of failing to react quickly enough to the attack and mount a proper defense.  In the end the court martial acquitted Wayne and did not seek to pin blame for the success of the attack on anyone.

British Enter Philadelphia

Having dispatched the enemy in their rear, the British prepared to advance once again. Howe moved various divisions further up the Schuylkill river toward Reading.  From that movement, he could either attack the depot at Reading, or cross the river further upstream and then descend on Washington’s flank, just as he had done at Brandywine.  Washington was determined not to let that happen.  He kept his own army moving upstream to confront the British wherever they attempted to cross

As Washington moved his army upstream to block Howe’s next movement, Howe simply turned his army around, went back downstream, and crossed the river at the fords Washington had just abandoned.  Only a few local militia defended the fords.  They turned and ran at the first sight of the British advance.  With the Continentals out of position, there was nothing to prevent the British from entering Philadelphia.
Philadelphia, 1777 Schuylkill on left, Delaware on right
(from Journal of Am Rev)

Howe crossed his army on the night of September 22 and the morning of September 23.  He marched his army to a camp in Norristown, a little less than twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia.  He was now between the Continental Army and the city.

Howe spent the next day in camp, neither attacking Washington’s Continentals nor marching into the city.  His army plundered and burned the homes of known rebels.  Many locals fled with whatever they could carry, but others greeted the army as liberators.  A great number of area loyalists had remained silent for years for fear of incurring the wrath of patriots. These families saw the British as saviors, returning law and order to the region.

The next day, the British marched to Germantown, which today is part of the city of Philadelphia, but at that time was a few miles outside the city limits.  As you might guess from the name, most of the population of this area were German speaking colonists.  Even so, the German speaking Hessian soldiers found the local population rather hostile to them.  Most of the inhabitants were members of a pacific sect that had emigrated from the Palatine region of what is today Germany.  They had hoped to escape the continual warfare of many of their neighbors, including Hesse.  Many saw this as a return of the military oppression that they had tried to leave behind in Europe.  Because they were pacifists, most of them did not take up arms, but they did greet the invaders with a cold hostility.

General Howe paused to see if the Continentals would attempt some sort of desperate counterattack to defend the city.  When that did not happen, Howe left the bulk of his army in Germantown, about 10,000 soldiers, and deployed General Cornwallis to march into Philadelphia with about 3500 men.  On the morning of September 26, Philadelphians saw the redcoats march through their streets, taking control of the city.

British Enter Philadelphia (from Pintrest)
Cornwallis led a triumphant march down Second street, then turning west to march through town, past Independence Hall where the rebels had declared independence just a year earlier.  By his side was General William Erskine, along with several leading loyalists from the city, Joseph Galloway and two of the Allen brothers (from the family for whom Allentown is named).  Governor John Penn probably would have liked to have joined them, but he was being held prisoner by the patriots in New Jersey.

The conquering army received a rather muted response.  The majority of Philadelphia's residents had fled the city.  A few weeks earlier the town had a population of 40,000.  As Cornwallis entered the city, an estimated 10,000 -15,0000 remained.  Congress had ended its session and moved to Lancaster eight days earlier.  Patriots had taken the State House bell, what we today call the Liberty Bell, out of the city to be hidden in Allentown.  Thousands of patriot refugees, many the families of men fighting, had fled the city with only what they could carry.

Those who remained did not know what to expect.  Even loyalists had their concerns. Those with finer homes might find them confiscated for use as officer’s residences.  Many remembered a year earlier when the British occupied New York and half the city was burned in order to deny it to the enemy.  Despite capturing Philadelphia, the British still had not opened up the Delaware River.  The British were without access to food and supplies.  There was the possibility that the patriots might besiege the city and attempt to starve out the occupants.  No one was quite sure what the next step would be.

The British believed that the capture of Philadelphia was the decisive victory they had long sought.  Traditionally, the capture of an enemy capital marked its surrender and ended the war.  It had been just over a month since the British had landed at Head of Elk, Maryland.  The British Army had overcome every obstacle in its path with relative ease.  General Howe had taken his time, avoiding any sorts of ambushes or traps that could surprise his army.  His faith in the professionalism of his officers and soldiers against an ill-trained rebel army seemed well-founded.

For the patriots, of course, the loss of Philadelphia was a setback, but not a fatal one.  As Thomas Paine had written a couple of weeks earlier, they were fighting for a cause, not for a couple of acres of ground.  Although Philadelphia had been the seat of Congress, it was not the home of some single leader who could offer surrender.  Congress could simply move to another town and continue its business, as it had a year earlier when it moved to Baltimore.

When Benjamin Franklin received the news in Paris a few weeks later that Philadelphia had fallen, he rhetorically asked: “Has Howe captured Philadelphia, or has Philadelphia captured Howe?”  One could easily dismiss this as Franklin’s attempt to spin some very bad news.  But his point was that Howe’s capture of the city had not ended anything.  Howe would be stuck in this inland area forced to defend it against attack and unable to move his armies elsewhere.

This had immediate consequences.  Remember, London had hoped that Howe would capture Philadelphia early in the summer, recruit local Tories to garrison the city, and move the bulk of his army north to assist with General Burgoyne’s march through the Hudson Valley.  By the time Howe finally took Philadelphia, it was practically October.  He was still not in any position to redeploy soldiers northward to New York. Shortly after taking Philadelphia, he received word that General Burgoyne had suffered a setback in New York and that his army could be in real trouble.

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Next Episode 161 Battle of Freeman's Farm 

Previous  Episode 159 Battle of the Clouds

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Further Reading


John Adams Diary: “1777 Septr. 21. Sunday.,”

Charles “no-flint” Grey:

The 1st Earl Grey

Paoli Massacre:

Fyers, Evan W. H. “GENERAL SIR WILLIAM HOWE'S OPERATIONS IN PENNSYLVANIA, 1777. The Battle on the Brandywine Creek—11 September—and the Action at Germantown—4 October.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 8, no. 34, 1929, pp. 228–241.

Futhey, J. Smith “The Massacre of Paoli.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 3, 1877, pp. 285–319.

Pleasants, Henry. “The Battle of Paoli.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 72, no. 1, 1948, pp. 44–53.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Lisle, Clifton Diamond Rock A Tale of the Paoli Massacre, Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920 (this is a fictional novel based on the events of the Paoli Massacre) (Google Books).

Pennypacker, Samuel W. Anthony Wayne, J.B. Lippincott company, 1908.

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965 (borrow only)

Futhey, J. Smith “The Massacre of PaoliThe Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 3, 1877, pp. 285–319,

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brownlow, Donald G. A Documentary History of the Paoli Massacre, Kessinger Publishing, 2010.

McGuire, Thomas J. Battle of Paoli, Stackpole Books, 2000 (book recommendation of the week).

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign Vol. 1, Stackpole Books, 2006.

Nelson, Paul D. Anthony Wayne: Soldier of the Early Republic, Indiana Univ. Press, 1985

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Pioneer Press, 1980 (orig. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965).

Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

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