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Posted on Sun, Sep. 15, 2002
Redcoats' ruthless assault
Night bayonet attack sent Americans reeling.

Inquirer Staff Writer
Map and graphics provided by the Philadelphia Inquirer

Fourth in a series of articles recounting Philadelphia's days in the Revolutionary War.

The redcoated soldiers stalk through the rainy night as silent as predators.

And predators they are, bristling with sharp claws - bayonets, the principal weapon of the European infantryman.

Their quarry is a contingent of about 1,500 American troops under the command of Gen. Anthony Wayne, camped on a farm a few miles away from the Paoli Tavern.

The date is Sept. 21, 1777. It is shortly before 1 a.m.

In a few minutes the Redcoats will attack the American camp and the formal dance that is 18th-century warfare - a minuet of fifes and drums, battles fought by soldiers arrayed in stiff lines, and letters between opposing generals who sign themselves "your obedient servant" - will turn primal.

When the sun comes up, it will find about 150 Americans dead, wounded or captured. The rest of Wayne's troops are routed. The British suffer only a handful of casualties. The soldiers of the Continental Army will call this night's British rampage through their camp a massacre - the Paoli Massacre.


In the 10 days since British and American troops pummeled one another along the Brandywine Creek on Sept. 11, the two armies have feinted and jabbed across Chester County and nearly fought another major battle.

The British, who outflanked the Americans and drove the Continental Army from the field at Brandywine, paused five days before resuming their march on Philadelphia. Gen. George Washington, the American commander in chief, has been trying since then to keep his force between Gen. Sir William Howe and the city.

Philadelphia is Howe's objective. The British commander believes that if he seizes Philadelphia, loyalists in Pennsylvania will rally to the cause of King George III, and the rebellion will begin to wither away. (Sometimes, it seems as if Howe may be right. John Adams, preparing with other members of Congress to flee Philadelphia, has been referring bitterly to the city as "that Mass of Cowardice and Toryism.")

But there are other ways to take Philadelphia than by marching straight at it and into the face of Washington's determined army of defenders.

Howe moves north through Chester County on a line that will allow him either to march on the city or go after Washington's supply bases at Valley Forge and Reading. Since Washington does not want to lose either the city or his supplies, he must fight Howe again.

On Sept. 15, Washington writes to John Hancock, the president of Congress, that he is moving the Continental Army "to get between the Enemy and the Swedes Ford [Bridgeport]," where the British might cross the Schuylkill.

The following day, the two armies run into each other on the south ridge of the Great Valley, between the White Horse Tavern and Boot Road (near what is now Immaculata College), but what shapes up in the beginning as a major battle gets rained out.

Capt. Johann Ewald, a Hessian mercenary serving with Howe's army, writes in his journal that "about five o'clock in the afternoon, an extraordinary thunderstorm occurred, combined with the heaviest downpour in this world. The army halted.

"The terrible rain caused the roads to become so bottomless that not one wagon, much less a gun, could get through, and continued until toward afternoon on the 17th, which gave the enemy time to cross the Schuylkill River with bag and baggage."

With his ammunition soaked and useless, Washington moves his bedraggled army across the muddy roads of the Great Valley to Yellow Springs, then to Reading Furnace. The retreat is exhausting. "The rain fell in torrents for eighteen hours," writes Lt. James McMichael of the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment. "This march for excessive fatigue, surpassed all I have ever experienced."

But not all of Washington's forces have gone to Yellow Springs. Wayne and two brigades remain close to the British army. On Sept. 18, Washington tells Wayne of reports that "the Enemy have turn'd down that Road from the White Horse which leads to Swedesford on Schuylkill." Washington directs Wayne to harass the British rear. The commander in chief says he will follow as quickly as possible with the main body of the army. "The cutting of the Enemys Baggage would be a great matter," Washington tells Wayne, but he cautions Wayne to "take care of Ambuscades."

Wayne thinks the British, who have camped at Tredyffrin, do not know he is behind them as he encamps two miles southwest of Paoli, not far from his home, Waynesborough. "I believe [Howe] knows Nothing of my situation," he writes on Sept. 19.

Wayne is wrong.

"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," British Maj. John André writes in his diary.

Grey attacks with two regiments. He leads one personally, and Col. Thomas Musgrave leads the other. Grey's detachment leaves at 10 p.m., Musgrave's at 11 p.m.

Secrecy is essential.

The soldiers are ordered to unload their weapons or to take out the flints so their muskets cannot fire accidentally and alert the Americans. They won't need to fire their weapons anyway. This is going to be a bayonet attack.

In order to keep anyone from warning the Americans, the British "took every inhabitant with them as they passed along," André writes.

After marching about three miles along the Swede's Ford Road, the British arrive at the Admiral Warren Tavern, only a mile from Wayne's camp. With information "forced" from a local blacksmith, the British fall on the American pickets.

The British charge into the camp, where they find the Americans backlit by their own campfires, making them easy targets. Any American who stands and fights is instantly cut down by swords and bayonets. André describes the scene: "... 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."

Howe is anxious to move his entire army across the Schuylkill, so once the bloody night's work is done, Grey's troops rejoin the main British army.

A subordinate later accuses Wayne of failing to act on information that could have prevented the attack. Wayne demands a court-martial to clear his name and is exonerated.

American soldiers consider the clash at Paoli a display of savagery, dubbing the British light infantry "Bloodhounds." A "Scene of Butchery," one American officer calls it. William Hutchinson, a teenage Chester County militiaman whose unit was not at Paoli, recalls years later encountering a survivor two days after the attack who had been tortured by British soldiers. The Redcoats "formed a cordon around him and... every one of them in sport had indulged their brutal ferocity by stabbing him in different parts of his body and limbs... ."

When they meet the British again, the Americans will remember Paoli.

Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

Continue to Part V