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The Battle of Paoli also known as the Paoli Massacre

War: American Revolutionary War

Date: 20-21st September 1777

Place: Paoli, Pennsylvania, USA

Combatants: Americans and the British

Battle of Paoli - British Light Infantry and Light Dragoons attacking the Pennysylvania camp 20th September 1777
British Light Infantry and Light Dragoons attacking the Pennsylvania camp 20th September 1777 - painted in London by Xavier della Gatta in 1782

Generals: Major General Anthony Wayne commanded the Americans. Major General Charles Grey commanded the British troops.

Size of the armies: Around 1,500 men in Wayne’s Pennsylvania Continental Division and some 1,000 of Smallwood’s Maryland Militia. Grey’s British brigade comprised some 1,200 men (the 40th and 50th) with an additional 500-600 in support 2 miles away and who did not engage in the battle.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, round hats or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were light infantry or battalion company men. The two regiments of light dragoons serving in America, the 16th and 17th, wore red coats and leather crested helmets.

The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing.

Both sides were armed with muskets and guns. Until late in the war the American troops suffered a shortage of bayonets which put them at a disadvantage in close quarter fighting.

Winner: This was a decisive British success.

British Regiments:
16th Light Dragoons, later 16th/5th the Queen’s Royal Lancers and now the Queen’s Royal Lancers
2nd Battalion Light Infantry (made up of the light companies from 13 regiments)
40th Foot, later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment
42nd Foot, the Black Watch (the Royal Highland Regiment)
44th Foot, later the Essex Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment
55th Foot, later the Border Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment

American Regiments:
Wayne’s Pennsylvania Division:
1st Pennsylvania Regiment
2nd Pennsylvania Regiment
4th Pennsylvania Regiment
5th Pennsylvania Regiment
7th Pennsylvania Regiment
8th Pennsylvania Regiment
10th Pennsylvania Regiment
11th Pennsylvania Regiment
Hartley’s Additional Continental Regiment
Company of Artillery
Dragoons from various regiments
Smallwood’s Maryland Militia:

Following the Battle of Brandywine Creek, General Washington’s army fell back towards Philadelphia. Lieutenant General Howe remained on the Brandywine battlefield for some five days. He is blamed for this dilatoriness and his failure to pursue Washington vigorously after he had driven him from his defensive position on the Brandywine Creek. It is said in his defence that he had to make arrangements for the wounded and bring up supplies with limited transport. Howe always moved with care and deliberation. Finally the British advanced through Chester County towards the Schuylkill River, behind which lay Philadelphia, the largest city in the American colonies.

Battle of Paoli, 20th September 1777
Battle of Paoli

We highly recommend Thomas
J. McGuire’s book “Battle of Paoli”,
a fascinating description of the battle,
the circumstances that brought it
about and the troops and personalities involved.

Washington crossed to the east bank of the river leaving two forces to harass the rear of the British army, Smallwood’s Maryland Militia and Major General Anthony Wayne’s Division of Pennsylvania Continentals.

Howe’s army encamped at Tredyffrin an area short of Swede’s Ford. Wayne’s division moved close up to the rear of the British and encamped at the road junction by the General Warren Tavern, part way between the White Horse Tavern and the General Paoli, a tavern, named after a Corsican bandit. His orders were to wait until the British moved forward to the Schuylkill and attack their baggage train.

There was a strong loyalist presence in Pennsylvania and the British had good intelligence during the campaign. In addition 18th Century warfare was in many respects a casual business and it seems likely that soldiers from both sides frequented the taverns, particularly the Paoli which lay part way between the camps. Howe was fully aware of Wayne’s presence and had precise knowledge of his strength.

British Light Infantry
British Light Infantry

On the night of 20th September 1777 General Howe dispatched Major General Grey to deal with Wayne’s division. Grey left with his force at 10pm and marched down the Moores Hall Road to the Admiral Warren cross-roads. As the leading British light infantry approached the junction shots were fired by an American picquet. It is said that these shots alerted the Pennsylvanian camp which lay behind woods to the South of the junction.

The British forced the blacksmith whose smithy lay by the Admiral Warren to act as guide. The first wave of British troops, comprising the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry, a unit formed from the light companies of 13 battalions, rushed through the woods and attacked the American camp. The Light Infantry were followed by the 44th Foot and, in a third wave, by the 42nd Highlanders. A small group of 16th Light Dragoons accompanied the Light Infantry.

At General Grey’s direction the flints had been removed from his men’s muskets to ensure that no shots gave prior warning to the Americans. The attack was to be at the point of the bayonet. The general thereby acquired the nickname of “No flints” Grey.

In the face of the British charge the Pennsylvania troops were dispersed and driven out of the camp to the West, many through a gap in a fence along the edge of the encampment. Groups of British soldiers mixed with the Americans and confused fighting continued as far as the White Horse Tavern.

Brigader "Mad Anthony" Wayne of Pennsylvania
Brigader "Mad Anthony" Wayne of Pennsylvania

General Smallwood’s force approached from the West as the attack was coming to an end and came under attack as it passed the White Horse Tavern. The inexperienced and badly organised Maryland Militia dissolved in confusion.

Casualties: The American casualties seem to have been around 200 killed, wounded and prisoners of whom around 55 were killed. It is said that many Americans deserted in the confusion. The British are said to have had fewer than 20 casualties.

Follow-up: Paoli was a severe humiliation for the Pennsylvania Continental troops but probably little more. The fight is referred to as the Paoli Massacre. It is difficult to see how that label can be justified in the light of the small number of American fatalities. Claims are made that the British took no prisoners. This allegation appears frequently in the Revolutionary War and is made against both sides.

The accusation was made against Wayne that he allowed his camp to be surprised. At Wayne’s demand he was subject to a court martial which exonerated him of this allegation. Whether Wayne was taken unawares or not the attack was well executed and highly successful, enabling General Howe to take Philadelphia within a few days with little further resistance from the main American army under George Washington.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
Following the battle the Americans vowed to take vengeance on the British Light Infantry. The light companies of the 49th and 46th Foot are said to have dyed their hat feathers red as a gesture of defiance and so that the Americans could identify them. The Royal Berkshire Regiment, of which the 49th became the 1st Battalion, continued the tradition of wearing a piece of red cloth behind their cap badges.