Paoli Massacre: Part 4 of 7
The story continues
Grey had pulled off a nearly perfect march in the dead of night. He had evaded or killed the outer sentries and save for the last-second warning of two vedettes — which came too late — no one had warned Wayne that Grey was on the way. Now the British General had his army poised on the eastern edge of the encampment ready to sink their bayonets into sleeping American flesh.
Two American sentries on horseback came upon the British and were able to fire their guns, escape, and ride back to warn the camp. They sped back to the sleepy soldiers shrieking, "Up, men, the British are on you." It was too late. With the British light infantry leading the way, the pickets guarding the camp's eastern perimeter were taken by surprise. Most paid with their lives.
At about 1 a.m., the British rushed wraithlike from the murky woods.
The piquet [guards on the perimeter of the camp] was surprised and most of them killed in endeavoring to retreat. On approaching the right of the Camp we perceived the line of fires, and the Light Infantry being ordered to form to the front, rushed along the line putting to the bayonet all they came up with, and, overtaking the main herd of the fugitives, stabbed great numbers and pressed on their rear till it was thought prudent to order them to desist.
The British had blown by the pickets guarding the camp's perimeter and bayonet-rushed the sleepy encampment. Once past the pickets, the sleepy or unprepared Americans had little time to gather their wits or weapons.
Yet another infantry officer later recalled the massacre this way in a letter to a friend:
We took a circuit in dead silence; about one in the morning fell in with a rebel vidette, who challenged three times and fired. He was pursued, but escaped. Soon after two foot sentries challenged and fired; these escaped also. We then marched on briskly. A picket fired upon us at the distance of fifteen yards, miraculously without effect. The unfortunate guard was instantly dispatched by the riflemen's swords. We marched on through a thick wood, and received a smart fire from another unfortunate picket — as the first, instantly massacred. We then saw their wigwams or huts, partly by the almost extinguished light of their fires and partly by the glimmer of a few stars, and the frightened wretches endeavoring to form. We then charged.
Indeed, Wayne had attempted of form the "frightened wretches" into lines. The route the British took to get to the camp lay at a right angle to the Americans. Had Grey taken Wayne by total surprise, the British would have been able to easily rip into an undefensible position. But Wayne had barely enough time to try to form a line parallel with the enemy. He ordered his troops to "wheel by subplatoons," that is, move to their right to face the enemy head on. In this way he hoped to buy himself enough time to extricate both his soldiers and the four pieces of cannon he had with him. Wayne hoped to retreat west to where General Smallwood's Maryland troops were posted.
But the troops were not able to form properly, for the British were already upon them. The 1st Pennsylvanians pumped a volley toward the British, but their gun flashes only served to illuminate the soldiers. These flashes made them visible as lightning bugs on a soft summer's night.