The Battle of Paoli, also called “The Paoli Massacre”, occurred at midnight on September 20-21, 1777. After Washington’s defeat at Brandywine on September 11, his forces retreated toward Philadelphia, regrouped, and then returned to Chester County. On September 16th, they confronted Howe’s British army in nearby Goshen, only to have a huge rainstorm of hurricane proportions prevent another battle. Washington withdrew from this “Battle of the Clouds” to northern Chester County to receive new ammunition and try yet again to stop Howe.
The British remained in Goshen until the weather cleared, and on September 18th marched to Tredyffrin with the intention of eventually crossing the Schuylkill River. Lord Cornwallis’s Division, about 6000 men, marched on the Lancaster Road past the Paoli Tavern and took up positions on the heights of Tredyffrin about two miles east of Paoli, while the rest of the British force, about 8000 strong, marched on Swedesford Road. Later that same day, Washington detached General Anthony Wayne’s Division of 9 regiments numbering about 2200 men, with four cannons and three troops of dragoons, with orders to get behind the British and, if possible, cut off their baggage train as they crossed the river.
Wayne arrived at the Paoli Tavern, only two miles behind the British, early in the morning of September 19, and wrote to Washington:
“Paoli ½ past 7 A.M…On the Enemies Beating the Revillee I ordered the Troops under Arms and began our March for their left flank — But when we Arrived within half a Mile of their Encampment found they had not Stired, but lay too Compact to admit of an Attack with Prudence…if they Attempt to move I shall attack them…There never was, nor never will be a finer opportunity of giving the Enemy a fatal Blow than the Present — , for Gods sake push on as fast as possible.”
At 10:45, Wayne wrote a second letter to Washington from the Paoli:
“The Enemy are very quiet, washing & Cooking — they will Probably Attempt to move towards Evening…I believe he knows nothing of my Situation — as I have taken every precaution to Prevent any intelligence getting to him…I have not heard from you since last night.”
Unbeknownst to Wayne, the courier carrying messages from Washington to him was either captured or deserted, and the British were already aware of his presence behind them.
Shortly after Wayne sent this message, the drums in the British camp beat “to arms”. A British force was being sent quickly over to Valley Forge to help secure the area. Hearing the alarm, Wayne decided to pull his force back from the Paoli Tavern and took up a position about a mile and a half to the west, on top of the South Valley Hill above the Warren Tavern in some fields surrounded on three sides by woods. Here he established camp for the night of September 19, and awaited reinforcements. This spot became the site of the Paoli Battlefield.
The Paoli Camp
The land on which Wayne’s troops camped has been farmland and woodland since the mid-18th century. Ezekiel Bowen, a farmer of Welsh descent, purchased this land in 1764. County records note that he sold it to Richard Mason of Philadelphia in March, 1777, but repurchased it in April, 1778, and lived here until his death in 1804. His whereabouts at the time of the battle are unknown, but chances are he was still living here. His log home (since demolished) stood to the right rear of the camp. Ezekiel took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States in 1778 and is listed as a member of the Willistown Militia in 1780. Later legend erroneously stated that the land was owned by “a Tory named Griffith,” but the Griffith family did not own the land until 1805, after Bowen’s death.
Colonel Thomas Hartley, commander of the 1st Pennsylvania Brigade, gave this description of the camp site on Bowen’s land: “In Part of the Front was a small wood and a Corn Field — on the Right a small wood and some open Fields — there were Roads passing the Flanks…” The term corn field was then used in a broader sense to mean “grain field” rather than maize or “Indian corn.” This area of Chester County was populated largely by Welsh settlers in the early 18th century, and their farms grew a variety of crops: wheat, buckwheat, rye, oats, flax, and maize. Abundant livestock required pastures and fencing, commonly four or five-rail ‘post-and-rail’ fences, or zigzag ‘snake’ fences.
While on campaign, the armies tried to keep their baggage to a minimum, and tents required wagons. The British left most of their tents on their ships, so they built shelters called “wigwams” out of brush, leaves, cornstalks, sod, straw, and fence rails. When Wayne was ordered to move behind Howe’s army, his tents were left with the main army.
American sources refer to the “wigwams” as “booths.” Colonel Daniel Brodhead wrote that at 4 PM on September 20, a few hours before the attack, “We then Received Orders to prepare for a March. Accordingly the Division formed but the weather being Cloudy and threatening Rain we were Ordered to build Booths to secure our Arms & Ammunition & go to Rest.” Washington had repeatedly ordered his troops not to destroy farmers’ fences, so Wayne’s men removed fence rails only where necessary to allow movement in and out of camp. The fences were to play a crucial role in the Battle of Paoli.
Wayne’s force was his “division,” which was actually General Benjamin Lincoln’s Division. Wayne, a brigadier general, was acting as a major general in place of General Lincoln, who was on other service. The division was made up of the 1st and 2nd Pennsylvania Brigades There were approximately 2200 personnel in Wayne’s force: 9 infantry regiments, 1 artillery battalion with four light guns, and 3 troops of dragoons, and an estimated 20-25 wagons. (see division arrangement)
The 1st Pennsylvania Brigade was commanded by Colonel Thomas Hartley of York, Pennsylvania. It was composed of the 1st, 2nd, 7th, and 10th Pennsylvania Regiments, and Hartley’s Additional Continental Regiment. The 2nd Pennsylvania Brigade was led by Colonel Richard Humpton, a native of Yorkshire, England, and a British army veteran. He commanded the 4th, 5th, 8th, and 11th Pennsylvania Regiments. All of these troops were regular Continental troops.