Battle of Paoli – Massacre or Genius? – Won with the Bayonet and Sword

On September 20, 1777 a very unusual battle was fought between the British and American troops in the American Revolutionary War.

This is an example of the importance of the use of the bayonet in American Revolutionary War battles.  During our living history presentations, we often discuss the lack of accuracy of the smooth bore flintlock muskets of the day.   It is known that once the battle lines got close together, the bayonet and sword became the weapon of choice for both the Americans and British.  This battle amplified that fact.

Old Glory flutters above the names of those who fell at  the Battle of Paoli.

The British attacked while the Americans slept. What was unusual was the British were under orders to not fire a shot. They relied on their bayonets and swords to unleash a personal hell on the Americans.

One section of the Paoli Memorial built in 1877. In the background are the woods from which British charged.

Was this a massacre, or was it a brilliant military strategy?   The battle occurred in the dark surprising the sleeping Americans. The British knew that any one firing was an American, permitting the British to focus on their enemy.  To me, this is genius!

This British map from 1777 shows the course of the actions near the White Horse Tavern, known to Americans as the Battle of Paoli.

A brief battle history follows:

General Grey’s orders were clear, concise, and cruel, and they were to be followed blindly. For a general to command his troops to not use their ammunition during a battle sounds ludicrous, but it turned out to be an extremely effective tactic. Not only were the majority of the American troops sleeping, but because musket shots weren’t giving away the British’s position, the Americans could not see to defend themselves. One wave of British troops after the other swept through the American encampment, stabbing and slicing the troops to shreds. The Americans had little to no organization at the time, and could not be sure that those whom they fired at were truly the enemy.

This memorial to the fallen of Paoli was built in 1817. It is the second oldest battle monument in the country (after Lexington, Massachusetts’ memorial).

General Charles Grey’s plans worked exceptionally well. The British were like ghosts in the night, and the Americans were like sitting ducks. The Redcoats not only had the element of surprise, but whenever the Americans fired their muskets, they gave away their exact position. American soldiers suffered waves of sharp swords and pounding bayonets, blow after blow.

Barbarity or Genius?

For a further account of the events, strategies and outcomes of this battle, please click on the link below for further details:

General “Mad” Anthony Wayne was found innocent at his court martial in the aftermath of the Paoli Massacre.

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