History's People: 235 Years Ago Gen. Anthony Wayne Defeated at the Battle of Paoli

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Author: 
Rob Lukens, Ph.D
Publication: 
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
September 20, 2012

If you lived in Chester County 235 years ago, you might have witnessed key moments of the American Revolution. Huge swaths of the county saw troop movements, encampments, and even battles through September 1777 and beyond. And exactly 235 years ago today, the Battle of Paoli rattled the Continental Army as one of the American Revolution's darkest points.  At the center of it all was General "Mad" Anthony Wayne.

Anthony Wayne was born in Easttown Township in 1745. He was raised at "Waynesborough," the family estate, and schooled in Philadelphia at what would later be the University of Pennsylvania. He then became an accomplished surveyor. Wayne married Mary "Polly" Penrose in 1766 and later held political office, building a reputation as an influential civic man. He was commissioned colonel in the Continental Army in early 1776 and later commissioned brigadier general in February 1777.

The events of late summer and early fall 1777 thrust Chester County into the heart of the American Revolution. As chronicled in historian Thomas J. McGuire's seminal book "Battle of Paoli," in September, 1777, British General William Howe's army marched up from Elk Neck, Maryland into Chester County. His goal - to take the capital city of Philadelphia. Howe and Washington clashed at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, resulting in a defeat for American forces. Wayne played a key role in the affair, blocking British crossing at "Chads's Ford," which minimized the defeat's impact.

Howe continued northward while Washington's troops marched through Philadelphia back to Chester County to meet Howe again on September 16th. That clash had the makings of an epic battle, but was rained out by a nor'easter that deluged both forces, giving it the moniker "the Battle of the Clouds."

By September 19, the American forces were spread across the county. General Smallwood's Maryland militia forces were advancing through southern and western Chester County to rendezvous with Wayne near the Paoli Tavern. Washington's troops had moved up through Yellow Springs to protect the furnaces of northern Chester County. Wayne's men, among the most highly trained in the army, split off from Washington's at Yellow Springs and made their way back to the Great Valley. They camped near the Admiral Warren Tavern (now the General Warren Inne) in modern day Malvern, planning to surprise Howe's army from the rear.

What Wayne didn't know was that a key message from Washington had been intercepted by British forces. In that letter, Washington explained to Wayne that he planned to cross the Schuylkill in northern Chester County and did not plan to meet up with Wayne's forces.  Not only did the letter's interception keep Wayne in the dark about Washington's plans, it also disclosed Wayne's location to the British.  

This was only one of two factors that proved ominous for Wayne's troops. The other was a critical mistake on Wayne's part. On the evening before the attack, he missed myriad warnings of British intentions to attack. As chronicled in McGuire's "Battle of Paoli," Colonel Thomas Hartley wrote that he understood "Howe to have us attacked to Morrow Morning" and despite their efforts, Wayne's troop movements "surprized our Enemy's not a little."

Other warnings and threatening signs went unheeded, as Wayne stood convinced that the British were set to move outside of the region soon and General Smallwood would arrive with American reinforcements.  As McGuire notes, "somewhere along the line there was a terrible communication gap between" Wayne and his officers.

The results were dire. Late on September 20 and early September 21, in three terrifying waves, nearly 1,200 of the British Army's most elite troops swept over Wayne's camp near what is now Malvern.  The redcoats removed the flints from their muskets, as their stealth was more important than firepower. They slaughtered American troops mercilessly. While Wayne's men desperately tried to organize, British soldiers bayoneted them, burned their huts, and hunted down those in flight.

According to Bruce Knapp, President of the Paoli Battlefield Preservation Fund, some American soldiers were "given no quarter," which means no mercy was shown. Some British soldiers committed unfathomable atrocities in the heat of battle against defenseless American soldiers. The brutal attack became known as the "Paoli Massacre."

For Wayne, the attack became personal in a variety of ways. As Historic Waynesborough Director of Education Bennett Hill relays, “after the battle at Paoli, a squad of British light infantry came to his home at Waynesborough looking for Wayne, who was not there." In a twist of stark irony, "though other British had just bludgeoned 53 revolutionaries, these men did not disturb anything at Waynesborough and were very polite to Polly, Anthony’s wife.”

Of Wayne's 2,200 men, 53 were killed, 113 wounded, and 71 were taken prisoner. There were less than a dozen British casualties.  According to McGuire, "it was a small battle to brush aside a harassment force and it succeeded brilliantly from the British perspective. Its real importance lay in motivating the Pennsylvania troops at Germantown to seek revenge – ‘Remember Paoli!’ became a battle cry." Ultimately, although minor, the battle eliminated the threat of attack by Wayne and Howe was able to take Philadelphia six days later.

Wayne's legacy has always been marred by his shortcomings at Paoli.  To clear his name, Wayne was court-martialed at his own request for negligence in reacting to the British threat, despite the numerous warnings. He was found not guilty and exonerated of all charges.

Wayne's experiences at Paoli changed him.  Linda Hawley, House Chair of Historic Waynesborough, states, "when called on again by George Washington to turn back the British in July, 1779 at Stony Point on the Hudson River, he mimicked the British tactics at Paoli."  Anthony Wayne and his men charged the enemy with a surprise nighttime bayonet attack, crying “Remember Paoli!” Wayne became a national hero and was awarded a gold medal from Congress for his actions. In contrast to the British at Paoli, Wayne granted the British soldiers mercy at Stony Point.

As for whether Wayne was mad or not, he was, according to McGuire, "aggressive, combative, and given to vanity and hyperbole." "His somewhat overbearing zeal and hardline approach," McGuire continues, "made him ‘mad’ in the sense that he always voted to fight."

The battle at Paoli almost immediately became part of American collective memory. In 1817, as Knapp explains, local residents and battle survivors established a monument to the victims. It still stands today as the second oldest war memorial in the U.S.

Opportunities are abundant to explore the story of Wayne and the Battle of Paoli. Historic Waynesborough, Wayne's homestead in Easttown Township, is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from 1 - 3 p.m., March 31st - mid-December (http://www.philalandmarks.org/wayne_location.aspx). Paoli Battlefield Park in Malvern is open sunrise to sundown year-round and hosts a Revolutionary Lecture Series at the General Warren Inne (www.ushistory.org/paoli). Enthusiasts can dine and even stay at the General Warren Inne, a building which played a role in the Battle of Paoli as a loyalist stronghold (www.generalwarren.com).

Finally, every Chester Countian should read McGuire's work "Battle of Paoli," which gives a comprehensive and enriching account of the entire affair.

Caption (below): Chester County native General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society.