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The Paoli Battle

In the evening of September 20, 1777 Wayne had intelligence of an impending attack by the British. The first intelligence indicated that it would be the following morning. The second report originated from an overheard discussion at Paoli Tavern stating that the British were to attack that night. Wayne and some of his officers, including Col. Daniel Brodhead, were present during these intelligence reports but somehow Wayne’s second in command, Col. Richard Humpton was not present or informed. It was suspected that Humpton harbored angst and jealously towards Wayne, and that he was not considered one of Wayne’s confidants. In addition to being unprepared, Humpton, was suspected of being intoxicated if not incompetent. Wayne ordered two additional pickets in the evening, having placed four during the day. They were placed strategically around the camp at distances of one half to one mile out. Later in the evening Wayne added twelve light horsemen in teams of two and one team of four to perform reconnaissance between designated pickets. The pickets were to observe anyone in the area and provide an advance warning of impending danger. Wayne ordered booths be made in camp to keep the gunpowder dry and later required the men to lay on their weapons, not only to keep them dry, but to provide more rapid deployment of the troops should it become necessary. Accordingly, in keeping with military practice at the time, Wayne had taken appropriate measures to defend his position. Wayne had made a decision to stay put so that Smallwood, who was expected to arrive at any moment, would not miss Wayne’s location.

Howe had decided to march his army early the next morning, but not towards Swedes Ford as Washington expected. Instead he planned a move towards Valley Forge. From this position he was able to threaten several targets. He could attack the American supply base at Reading, the iron works at Warwick, or he could reverse course and march to capture Philadelphia keeping Washington guessing as to where he would cross the Schuylkill. Meanwhile for Wayne in the rear, Howe had plans to launch a surprise night assault to neutralize the intended rear guard action and destroy one of Washington’s best divisions.

Major General Charles Grey, headquartered near Swedes Ford Road at the rear of the British camp, was chosen to lead an elite force of British light troops to attack Wayne. Capt. John André’s described the makeup of the force:

‘Intelligence having been received of the situation of General Wayne and his design of attacking our Rear, a plan was concerted for surprising him, and the execution entrusted to Major General Grey. The troops for this service were the 40th and 55th Regiments, under Colonel Musgrave, and the 2d Battalion of Light Infantry, the 42nd and 44th Regiments under General Grey. General Grey’s Detachment marched at 10 o’clock at night, that under Colonel Musgrave at 11.’

The detachments, according to McGuire, totaled about 2,000 British troops. All of the troops had experience as light troops or “special forces”. Musgrave’s assignment that night was to march with about 500 troops toward the Paoli Tavern to block any rebel movement in that direction. Grey’s force was to provide the main attack. McGuire states:

“Grey’s force, the main column, was escorted by twelve light horsemen from Maj. Francis Gwyn’s Troop of the Queen’s Own Light Dragoons and numbered between 1,200 and 1,500 infantry. For this type of operation, a larger number was unnecessary and might actually jeopardize success. The column was headed by about 500 troops of the 2nd battalion of Light Infantry, commanded by Maj. John Maitland of the Royal Marines. Following the light infantry was the 44th Regiment, led by Maj. Henry Hope and numbering about 350. Bringing up the rear of the column were two battalions of Scottish Highlanders from the 42nd or Royal Highland Regiment. This unit numbered between 500 and 600 men and was under the command of Lt. Col. Stirling.

“The 2nd Light Infantry Battalion was composed of light companies from thirteen different regiments. These soldiers were well trained in light, or “ranger” tactics. Special missions that required swift movement and stealth were the specialty of light troops. Their uniforms and equipment were modified for the campaign: short jackets, long canvas trousers or “overalls,” light accouterments, and “round” hats, broad-brimmed felt hats turned up on the left and ornamented with ostrich plumes. These elite soldiers were often posted at the danger points both in camp and in battle: in front of the line of march, on the flanks, and covering the rear of the army.

“General Grey ordered the troops to unload their muskets or remove their musket flints so that no British troops would fire; tradition indicates that he was given the nickname “No-Flint” Grey for this order. Captain Andr`e wrote that “no firelock was to be loaded & express orders were given to rely solely on the Bayonet” He explained, all too accurately:

‘It was represented to the men that firing discovered us to the Enemy, hid them from us, killed our friends and produced a confusion favorable to the escape of the Rebels and perhaps productive of disgrace to ourselves. On the other hand, by not firing we knew the foe to be wherever fire appeared and a charge [of bayonets] ensured his destruction; that amongst the Enemy those in the rear would direct their fire against whoever fired in front, and they would destroy each other.’”

Grey’s troops headed out as planned at 10:00 p.m. followed by Musgraves at 11:00 p.m. Grey captured all inhabitants temporarily, so that they could not inform Wayne of their approach. An unnamed blacksmith pointed out picket #4 to Grey and was coerced into cooperation as a guide. McGuire states:

“…the Blacksmith pointed Grey’s force eastward on the Lancaster Road toward the Warren Pass in the South Valley Hill, beyond which lay the upper Long Ford Road.”

Had the Blacksmith lead Grey’s troops up the Road to Chester they would have hit Wayne’s troops from the west and formed a pincer movement between Grey and Musgrave. Fortunately that did not happen or the entire Division likely would have been cut off from their subsequent retreat route. Instead they came in from northeast. Gunfire from picket 4 and observation by one of the vadettes alerted Wayne to the approach of the British. The attack began around midnight of September 20, 1777. Wayne’s aid rallied the troops riding horse back behind the two brigades with Wayne not far behind giving orders and words of encouragement. McGuire states:

“As the regiments formed a front on the parade, the open area in the front of the camp, ‘they faced the great Road [the Lancaster Road]. Humpton’s 2nd Brigade formed on the left, and Hartley’s 1st Brigade formed on the right: 2nd Brigade – Butler’s 4th, Brodhead’s 8th, Mentges’s 11th, and Johnston’s 5th; 1st Brigade – Hubley’s 10th, William’s 2nd, Connor commanding Hartley’s Additional Continentals, Grier’s 7th and Chamber’s 1st. To the right of the 1st Brigade was Randall’s Independent Artillery Company with four light cannons.

“Light rain began to fall just as the troops formed. To protect the ammunition, Wayne in Person Ordered the Whole [force] to take off their Coats and put their Cartridge Box’s under to save the Cartridges from Damage. Once this was accomplished, Wayne next issued orders for a maneuver to evacuate the camp Wayne gave the order to ‘wheel to the right by sub-platoons,’ a maneuver that would take the infantry from their line facing the front and wheel them into a column of subplatoons, or half companies, facing the right of the camp. The next command, “to the left, face,” would have them again facing the front of the camp, only this time in narrow two-man files. From this formation, the regiments could march off either to the right or to the left in a long, thin “column of files.” This maneuver sounds complicated, but it was a quick way for troops to move in an orderly fashion through fenced areas, on narrow roads, or on paths through thick woods.”

Wayne ordered Randall’s artillery on the right flank to evacuate left. They instantly obeyed and headed left out of the rear of the camp. In addition, 25 commissary and quartermaster wagons followed the artillery. These wagons pulled by teams of four horses each and driven by civilian teamsters slowly lumbered left towards the exit. Wayne ordered a retreat for the main body of troops and then ordered the 1st Pennsylvania Light Infantry to advance to Longford Road on the right and form a battle line. The British advance guard had neutralized the pickets and over a short time period, approached the battle lines of the 1st Pennsylvania. Behind the advanced guard General Gray ordered his light infantry to “dash” into battle. They quickly and quietly entered into the woods guided by the light from the pickets and the campfires. Lieutenant St. George recalled ‘We rushed in thro a thick wood and received a smart fire from another unfortunate Picquet – as the first {it was} instantly massacured.’ Wilson’s 1st Light Infantry of 200 men with Wayne in command was overcome.

It is interesting to note Wayne’s comments the next day to General Washington: “By this time the enemy and we were not more than Ten Yards Distance – a well directed fire mutually took Place, followed by a charge of Bayonets – numbers fell on each side.” The British had not fired a shot and what Wayne described was what Captain Andr`e had predicted, that the enemy would fire on each other. Contrary to Wayne’s note, Colonel Thomas Hartley wrote the following day “Many were killed on both sides – some times by Enemys and some times by Friends.’ Needless to say, there was great alarm among the Pennsylvania troops. Those that ran in confusion, not staying part of their company, stood the greatest risk of injury and death.

Meanwhile the retreat of the main body of troops was headed off in the correct direction but was stalled. Wayne rode to Col. Humpton and gave him a second order to move out the troops. The pickets had bought precious time with their lives and time was running out. Wayne again observed that the retreat was still stalled, gave Humpton a 3rd order and rode off, with the light horse following, west into the dark to see what was holding up the troops.

As the British came forward to get within bayoneting distance, the 1st backed out of the woods into the camp in disorder. As the British Light infantry faced right and charged bayonets routing the 1st, they approached the rear of the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment who were facing away from the line of attack. They were illuminated in the light of the campfires making easy targets for the British. The 7th Regiment was ordered to turn right and face the attack and immediately witnessed the disorderly retreat and hot pursuit of the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment. The 7th Regiment ended up taking the brunt of the attack, loosing a considerable number of men. As the hand-to-hand battle raged between the Americans and British first wave of 500 light infantry, 350 of the British 44th Regiment of Foot formed with a dozen of the Queens Own Light Dragoons. It was after midnight and the second wave of the attack was about to start.

By early Sunday morning September 21, 1777 the attack was such a bloody mess that any disciplined veteran might break and run. The British tactic was calculated to take advantage of darkness and surprises causing panic, confusion, and flight. Joseph Hancock was standing, facing left or roughly west, stalled in an exit line near the front of the retreating troops. He heard the carnage and had some idea of the impediment blocking their retreat.

British troops surrounded the 7th Regiment while other British troops pursued the 1st and those that broke rank. Hartley’s Additional Continental Regiment, just ahead of the 7th Regiment, was also attacked. Some continentals loaded and fired by platoons, while hand-to-hand fighting erupted.

McGuire indicates that along the exit route three separate fences and related fields were involved in the main battle. When the location of the camp was determined, Wayne had insisted that the fences be left intact as much as would allow and that the fence wood not be used for fires respecting the local farmers. The opening in the fence made to occupy the camp was apparently the least intrusive that it could be and therefore, with the sudden need to retreat with some swiftness, posed a bottleneck.

Back at the camp there was a thunderous roar, trumpet blast, and loud shouts announcing the arrival on the battlefield of the Queens Own Light Dragoons. A dozen troopers on horseback with three foot long drawn sabers glistening in the firelight, swept through the main camp and swarmed around the rear of the already shaken 1st Regiment causing even more panic. McGuire quotes Lieutenant St. George of the British Light Infantry’s description: ‘ a dreadful scene of Havock – Light Dragoons came on sword in Hand[.] The Shreiks Groans Shouting, imprecations deprecations The Clashing of Swords and bayonets &c &c &c … was more expressive of Horror than all the Thunder of the artillery &c on the Day of action.’ Men were not only cut down they were cut up. By way of example, Drum Major Daniel St. Clair of Hartley’s 1st Brigade suffered numerous serious wounds, the nature of which suggests someone on horseback cut him at close quarters. St. Clair received multiple slashes on his body and head, lost his left eye, and all the fingers on his left hand. He apparently put his left arm up in an attempt to ward off a deadly saber blow to the head or neck. Drum majors were usually young boys, and by military custom, not to be intentionally injured during battle.

The 44th Regiment of Foot entered the engagement with another loud huzzah ringing out, presenting a wall of 300 bayonets to the now frenzied Pennsylvania troops. This attack headed toward the camp recognizing the rear had been sufficiently surrounded by the first wave of the attack. The 44th & Queens Own Dragoons moved to the left of the column and toward the fence where Wayne’s Troops had made their entrance the day before. The 44th approached the position held by Joseph Hancock and his regiment seizing opportunities to strike at the column and provoke individual flight. Although none of the 8th regiment was recorded as killed, at least nine were wounded. Those breaking from the lines fleeing throughout the camp were cut down in their ill-fated effort to reach the woods. Colonel Hartley’s description of this phase of the battle is instructive. McGuire quotes:

‘After we had gone 200 or 300 yds several Attempts were made to rally the Men – but the Enemy pressing so close upon the left of the Retreat, which was chiefly my Brigade & so many Interruptions of Fences that it was impossible to rally Any Men ‘till we had got to some Distance from the Enemy – the Men were extremely intimidated with the Noise of the Enemys Horse[.] at the Fences considerable opposition was made by some of the best Men – but many of them suffered.

The advantage of Grey’s attack not coming in from the west was rapidly disappearing, as the troops moving off to the left were unable to move as ordered. Wayne was to subsequently blame the slow retreat on Humpton, based on his alleged neglect and misapprehension. However, McGuire’s recent analysis indicates that the main body of troops was out paced by the horse-drawn wagons and artillery. The artillery and wagons had the advantage and started for the fence opening. The troops halted to let the artillery and wagons pass. The stalled retreat was further complicated with a cannon that in the rush had lost its wheels, blocking exit. The cannon was eventually pulled out of the way allowing the retreat to continue.

Butler’s 4th Pennsylvania Regiment had a dark and deep strip of woods on their right with no light from campfires, and a fenced-lined road in front blocked by stalled wagons and artillery. Joseph, behind the 4th along with the rest of the retreating troops, was momentarily trapped. He was among the shouting officers, swearing artillerymen, and skittish horses as aides barked orders in desperate attempts to move the cannon and disassemble more fences. As he stood waiting to retreat or get new orders, Joseph heard the blood-chilling roar of the cold steel bayonet charge into the rear of the column when all hell broke loose in a third wave of attack. During the attack, the British took no prisoners (showed no quarter).

Wayne ordered the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, the first unit in the retreating column of troops, to deploy right into the woods and form a line of battle. This put Joseph and his Regiment at the front of the retreating troops which were now exposed to British attack by being pinned at a bottleneck at the fence row. The movement of the 4th, however, allowed the 8th Regiment and the rest of the 2nd Brigade to move forward about 100 yards. The 4th then provided cover for the rest of the troops by firing volleys at the British troops from the woods. The British were now exposed and silhouetted in the light of the campfires and burning booths. They continued, under orders, to not load or fire their weapons. McGuire states as the King’s men closed in on the 4th, Major Marien Lamar of the 4th Pennsylvania shouted: ‘Halt boys, and give these assassins one fire!’ Lamar was bayoneted on horseback and fell mortally wounded.

The 4th fell back through the woods and into an open field near the crossroads where Wayne yet again rallied troops to cover retreat. Major Calab North of the 10th Pennsylvania helped Wayne form the rear guard. After doing so Wayne ordered North to ride down Sugartown Road to see if the enemy was crossing and coming up from behind. He did so and reported back that the road was clear. Wayne then ordered him to ride the opposite way and find General Smallwood to tell him of the attack. As he rode past the retreating troops he observed some troops moving out and retreating in good order and others who were so affected by the brutality of the attack, that they fired at or fled from anything that moved. The wounded made their way out as best they could, some being carried by their comrades and others on their own. The British Light Infantry continued to move about in the dark causing more chaos.

Smallwood was cognizant of the need for the militia to get into position and join up with Wayne. They had an arduous march over rutted roads made worse by the recent torrential rain. They were behind their schedule to link up with Wayne and intelligence indicated that if they were to act soon they needed to move into the theater of operation. Therefore, he was marching his men the night of the Paoli attack. He was coming down Lancaster Road west of Wayne by the White Horse Tavern where they turned on Goshen Meeting. They then turned east on King Road toward Wayne’s camp, which lay 3 miles ahead. When they were within a mile of the camp, the firing began. Smallwood retreated to some higher ground he had previously observed.

Soon many of the retreating Pennsylvania Continentals were approaching the militia. The British troops still out and on the hunt, moved far enough away from their commanders and, against orders, began firing at the retreating Continentals and by chance some of the militia. Not being battle hardened and refusing to take commands to hold their formations, many broke and caused a great confusion. That night 1000 of the 2100 militia that Smallwood brought to bear against the British rear vanished into the night.

The atrocities that took place that night caused the battle to become known as the Paoli Massacre. There are no records indicating that General Grey or his officers ordered British soldiers to deny quarter or commit atrocities. There is substantial evidence that barbaric acts occurred well beyond what was acceptable military practice. The brutal nature of the battle signified that Howe and Grey not only wanted to remove the possibility of an American attack against the British Army from the rear but also sought to devastatingly and convincingly destroy the elite of Washington’s troops. If the Pennsylvania line were left unfit for duty it was believed the resolve of the remaining American Army as well as the American people would be seriously damaged. James Murray, a British historian stated the following in 1783 in An Impartial History of the War in America. McGuire quotes:

‘General Grey conducted this enterprise with equal ability and success though perhaps not with that humanity which is so conspicuous in his character…. A severe and horrible execution ensued…. The British troops as well as the officer that commanded them gained but little honor by this midnight slaughter. – It shewed rather desperate cruelty than real valour.’

Colonel Adam Hubely of the 10th later testified that he heard the British troops calling out “no quarter” as his regiment rallied in the second field. He also wrote, per McGuire: ‘The greatest cruelty was shew on the side of the Enemy [.] I with my own eyes, see them, cut and hack some of our poor Men to peices after they had fallen in their hands and scarcely shew that least Mercy to any, they got very few prisoners from us.’ The British did in fact take prisoners, seventy-one in all with about forty seriously wounded. There was no doubt in the minds of the Continentals that there was no quarter being granted after witnessing these attacks. Those that survived this battle and were not injured, including Joseph, would see another day soon after, in which they put the fear of revenge for these atrocities into the hearts of the British.