Following the Battle of Brandywine Creek, Gen. George Washington’s army fell back towards Philadelphia. Lt. Gen. William Howe remained on the Brandywine battlefield for some 5 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.
Washington crossed to the east bank of the river leaving 2 forces to harass the rear of the British army, Smallwood’s Maryland Militia and Maj. Gen. 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 Gen. 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.
On September 20, during the night, Gen. Howe dispatched Maj. Gen. Grey to deal with Wayne’s division. Grey left with his force at 10:00 P.M.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.
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The British forced the blacksmith, whose smithy lay by the Adm. ?? Warren, to act as guide. The first wave of British troops, comprising the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry, 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 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. Grey 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.
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.
The Battle of 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 Howe to take Philadelphia within a few days with little further resistance from the main American army under George Washington.
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.
An official inquiry found that Wayne was not guilty of misconduct but had made a tactical error. Wayne was enraged and demanded a full court-martial. On November 1, a board of 13 officers declared that Wayne had acted with honor.
The incident gained some notoriety with rumors that the British had stabbed or burned Americans who tried to surrender, making martyrs out of the casualties and the battle was dubbed, "the Paoli Massacre". Military historian Mark M. Boatner III has this to say on the matter: “American propagandists succeeded in whipping up anti-British sentiment with false accusations that Grey’s men had refused quarter and massacred defenseless patriots who tried to surrender…The “no quarter” charge is refuted by the fact that the British took 71 prisoners. The “mangled dead” is explained by the fact that the bayonet is a messy weapon”. Nevertheless, some of Wayne's troops swore revenge. To show their defiance, the Light Companies of the 46th and 49th Foot, who were both part of the 2nd Light Infantry, dyed their hat feathers red so the Americans would be able to identify them. The Royal Berkshire Regiment, which carries on the traditions of the 49th Foot, still wears a red backing behind their cap badges to commemorate this.
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.
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
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