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The Paoli Massacre

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The American Revolutionary War in the Middle Atlantic States:
Battle of New York City | Washington's Retreat from New York City | Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River
Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey | British Capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania
The Paoli Massacre | Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania | Battle of the Barrels | The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey | Battle of Stony Point, New York | Battle of Springfield, New Jersey | General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne
Molly Pitcher | General Lord Charles Cornwallis

General George Washington was smarting after his defeat at the Battle of Brandywine. He decided to send the majority of his army to Reading to resupply. However, he left behind a regiment of troops under the command of General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne to attack the British supply lines1.

Wayne and his men camped in Paoli, Pennsylvania, which was rather near to Wayne's boyhood home. When the British got wind of this small force of 1500 rebels, General William Howe immediately decided to take action. Howe ordered General Sir Charles 'No Flint' Grey to attack the Rebels on night on 21 September, 1777.

Grey wanted his attack to be a complete surprise, and he ordered his men to empty their muskets. Then he took the added precaution of removing the flints. His plan was to use bayonets only in the assault on the American encampment.

The force of 5000 British were guided to the camp by Tory spies. They were given the password to get into the midst of the Americans quickly before being discovered. The Redcoats attacked just after midnight. They quickly overwhelmed the American outposts guarding the camp. Then they descended upon the sleeping Colonials, stabbing them as they slept and setting fire to the camp.

When Wayne tried to rally his men and get them to open fire, their muzzle flashes drew the attention of the British who charged with bayonets and quickly broke any organised resistance.

Wayne was eventually able to extricate his men from the slaughter and managed to save his four cannon. He retreated toward present-day West Chester where he met a local militia force and was able to join forces and prepare a defence in case the British pursued.

When it was all over, 53 Americans were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Figures for the dead are often quoted in the hundreds2.

Wayne was subject to a formal review of his actions by a committee of three officers who found that he erred in tactics on that night. Enraged, he demanded and received a full court martial, and he was acquitted.

The so-called 'Paoli Massacre' became a rallying cry of American troops for the rest of the war - even after Wayne committed similar a sneak attack at night with bayonets against Royal forces at Stony Point, New York.

1This type of operation is usually the domain of the cavalry, but for some reason Washington decided to use foot soldiers.2Possibly as propaganda to make the British appear as blood-thirsty villains who attacked sleeping soldiers at night with cold steel and fire.

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