Paoli, Pennsylvania

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Paoli, Pennsylvania

PAOLI, PENNSYLVANIA. 21 September 1777. When Washington withdrew across Parker's Ford on 19 September, he left Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's Pennsylvania Division (perhaps fifteen hundred men and four guns) on the west side of the Schuylkill to observe Howe and to strike his rear should he attempt to force a passage across the river. But Wayne was strictly ordered to avoid being caught by the British main body. On the 20th, Wayne camped along a wooded ridge 1.75 miles southwest of the General Paoli Tavern and about 4.5 miles from Howe's position in the South Valley Hills.

Howe decided to strike at this force while it was isolated and sent Major General Charles "No Flint" Grey with almost two thousand men to make a night attack. Grey marched at 10 p.m. on the 20th with the Second Battalion of Light Infantry, supported by the Forty-second ("Black Watch") and the Forty-fourth Foot. He was followed an hour later by the Fortieth and Fifty-fifth Foot under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Musgrave. Since accidental discharges of muskets were the most common way to betray night attacks, Grey directed that the British regulars were to remove the flints from their weapons and rely entirely on the bayonet, thereby earning his nickname. Musgrave's column did not directly figure in the resulting battle, as his task was to cut the Lancaster Road and prevent Wayne from retreating.

Grey's main body, with a dozen dragoons attached, probably amounted to from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred men. The light infantry led, with the Forty-fourth following and the Highlanders at the end of the column. Expertly guided by several local Loyalists, Grey made a fast and skilful approach. Mounted videttes and American sentries detected the movement and fired sporadically, while the British guides became confused just as they reached the outskirts of Wayne's bivouac. As they made contact, the light company of the Fifty-second Foot led the British advance. The attack hit about one in the morning, striking the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment, which bore the brunt of the blow. Its resistance, with support, bought time for the rest of the division to disengage and for all of the artillery to get to safety. British pursuit continued for several miles.

NUMBERS AND LOSSES

Estimates of Wayne's losses ran as high as 500 (Howe's claim), but modern investigations have identified 163 individuals by name and conclude that the probable total count was at least 53 killed and another 200 wounded or captured. The British lost no more than 20 killed and 40 wounded, although Howe reported less. Civilian accounts of the "mangled dead" gave rise to the perception of a "Paoli Massacre."

SIGNIFICANCE

This engagement had very little impact on the Philadelphia campaign, although American propagandists succeeded in whipping up anti-British sentiment with exaggerated accusations that Grey's men had refused quarter and massacred defenseless patriots who tried to surrender. Wayne was acquitted by a court-martial "with the highest honors" of charges that he had failed to heed "timely notice" of the attack.

SEE ALSO Philadelphia Campaign.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gilbert, Stephen. "An Analysis of the Xavier della Gatta Paintings of the Battles of Paoli and Germantown." Military Collector and Historian 45 (Fall 1994): 98-108, and 47 (Winter 1995): 146-162.

McGuire, Thomas. The Battle of Paoli. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2000.

                       revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.