Virtual Marching Tour of the American Revolutionary War

The Philadelphia Campaign: 1777

American colonies represented as pieces of a snake with the caption "join or die"

Paoli Massacre: Part 1 of 7

Paoli Massacre

A Dreadful Scene of Havock
Xavier della Gatta 1782

Midnight. Paoli. Hidden deep in a forest, Anthony Wayne, a 32-year-old division leader, plans a surprise attack on the rear column of the British army. Around him, shadowy campfires dimly illuminate a meadow encampment of 1,500 soldiers under his command. Some troops are warming themselves in the chill first minutes of September 21; others are asleep in crude huts or "wigwams." Wayne, who is virtually camped in his own backyard, oversees the careful wrapping of precious ammunition and reviews plans for his assault which is scheduled to commence in a few hours.

Brigadier General Wayne had grown up in the area around Paoli and knew it well. The encampment was located less than four miles from his birthplace and present home. As a youngster he had played war in the hills and hunted in the forests. Now he was a promising officer with intimate knowledge of the local terrain and roads. As such, Washington had given him a special mission: a surprise sortie into the nearby British rear column or a lightning raid aimed at the Redcoats' baggage trains.

Washington's Orders to Wayne

Washington left Wayne with these orders on the 17th: "As I have receiv'd information that the enemy have turned down the road from the White Horse which leads to Swedes Ford on Schuylkill I have desired you that you will halt your troops wherever this meets you. I must call your utmost exertion in fitting yourselves in the best manner you can for following harassing... [the enemy's rear], General Maxwell will have a similar order and will assist you with the corps under his command." Washington then sent another message which never reached Wayne, saying that Maxwell's orders were canceled and a request by Washington for Wayne to apprise him of his position and plans. In the interim Wayne wrote back to Washington a message asking for clarification of his orders. Washington wrote back again somewhat testily, "having wrote you twice already, to move forward upon the enemy I have but little to add. General Maxwell and Potter are ordered to do the same. I could wish you and those general to act in conjunction, to make your advance more formidable, but would not have too much time delayed on this account. The British were successfully swiping most of the messages between Wayne and Washington. Because of this they would know Wayne's position and intentions in advance.

But disturbing reports had been trickling in throughout the night that the British themselves were planning a surprise attack.

The hunter was about to become the prey.

Morning of the Massacre

At dawn on the morning of the 20th, Wayne wrote the following harried message to Washington: "There never was, nor never will be, a finer opportunity of giving the enemy a fatal blow than the present — for God's sake push on as fast as possible." Anxious to attack, Wayne did not wait for Washington to return from his ammunition-gathering mission. Instead, he marched his troops toward the British camp in Tredyffrin. He had hoped to find the enemy on the move, making it easier to attack their column from the rear. But hope soon turned to disappointment. Wayne observed, "When we arrived within a half mile of their encampment [we] found they had not stirred but lay too compact to admit attack with prudence."

Wayne withdrew to a secluded camp two miles southwest of Paoli to await reinforcements, particularly Maxwell's command. Unbeknownst to Wayne, Washington had ordered Maxwell to the opposite side of the Schuylkill. Worse yet, Washington, after gathering new ammunition, made for Parker's Ford on the opposite side of the river. Perhaps worst of all, British patrols had intercepted several of Washington's dispatches which tipped Howe off to Wayne's whereabouts and plans. Though this game of cat-and-mouse was being played out virtually in Wayne's backyard, the British and their network of spies were getting far the better of it.

Howe Plans a Massacre

Once General Howe ascertained Wayne's position, he concocted a plan. First, rumors were floated that an attack of Philadelphia was imminent. Here British Captain John Andre takes up the story:

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 its execution was entrusted to Major General Grey.