On this day in 1777, the British launch an attack that would be known as the Paoli Massacre. Some considered the action to be cold-blooded murder, not war.
These events occurred as George Washington was trying to protect Philadelphia from the British. The American army had narrowly avoided disaster at the Battle of the Clouds, but it had bounced back and was now working to slowly encircle British General William Howe’s men. Historian Thomas J. McGuire reports the comments of one American: “We shall be able to be totally round them. . . . Howe has brought himself into a fine Predicament.”
In the midst of this situation, Washington sent roughly 2,000 men under Anthony Wayne to attack the British rear guard.
Wayne decided to camp first near Paoli Tavern, then near Warren Tavern, as he waited for reinforcements. He thought that Howe had no idea where he was.
Or at least that’s what he thought at first. Possibly, he received last minute information warning him of the potential for an attack on the 21st.
Either way, the attack perhaps came earlier than anticipated. British intelligence was better than the Americans realized. Howe knew where Wayne was, and he ordered British General Charles Grey to lead an attack on Wayne’s forces on the night of September 20.
Grey had a plan: He ordered his men to go in with only bayonets, not muskets. After all, at nighttime, if they fired a musket, the flash would give away their location to Americans. By contrast, the Americans would not realize the British plan. They would immediately start firing at their enemy, thus giving away the location of the Americans with every shot.
When the attack finally came, it was gruesome. One American later said the night was full “with all the Noise and Yells of Hell.” A British soldier described the “dreadful scene of Havock…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.”
Making matters worse, the American reinforcements arrived in the middle of the chaos. Their arrival did not help. It further confused Wayne’s men. They did not know whether they were firing at friend or foe. They tried to escape the scene altogether, but had difficulty because of a fence around the field.
All things considered, perhaps it is just amazing that more men weren’t killed. In the end, 53 Americans were killed, 150 were wounded, and about 70 were captured.
The massacre severely undermined Washington’s plans. Before too long, Howe would enter and take the American capital of Philadelphia. Washington would head to a long winter at Valley Forge.
Naturally, those are stories for another day.