Battle of Paoliby Thomas J. McGuire
This first full-length treatment of the Revolutionary War battle recounts British general Charles Grey's brutal attack on Anthony Wayne's division of 1,500 Continentals in September 1777. The detailed account follows the action from the arrival of Wayne's division south of the Schuylkill River, near Paoli Tavern, to defend Philadelphia against Howe's encroaching troops to Grey's discovery of Wayne's position, the bloody battle that ensued, and the subsequent court-martial of Wayne, who had been accused of negligence.
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Friday Morning, September 26, 1777
It was a cool, crisp morning after a night of rain, and the crimson glow of an early-autumn sunrise gradually gave way to hues of scarlet and gold against a brilliant blue sky. A light breeze from the north gently carried fresh country air into the city of Philadelphia, along with the rumble of drums approaching from the north, across the green meadows and pale amber fields along Germantown Road. Above the rhythmic throbbing of the distant drums could be heard the shrill chirp of fifes playing a vaguely familiar tune. As the sounds reached the Northern Liberties, the citizens could make out the ancient melody: "God save great George our king."
Brick red coats reflected in the shimmering windows of buildings along Second Street as nearly 200 horsemen from the 16th or Queen's Own Light Dragoons trotted south across the muddy lane called Vine Street and officially entered the city proper. After a month of hard campaigning, these mounted warriors presented to civilian eyes a curious mixture of weather-beaten but picturesque pageantry: well-mended, fading crimson coats faced with washed-out dark blue lapels and cuffs laced white; sword belts pipe-clayed a dazzling white; shining black leather tack and saddlery with brasses burnished to a glow; black leather helmets surmounted by rows of chains, a fur crest, and a cloth turban painted to resemble leopard skin. No one observing this procession could miss the ominous, awe-inspiring weapons drawn and carried at the shoulderdragoonbroadswords, nearly 3 feet of steel gleaming in the morning sun, capable of intimidating even the most hardened veteran.
The windows of Second Street now reflected coats of many colors as the column behind the horsemen entered the city. Above the large Palladian window of Christ Church, the cameo sculpture of King George II gazed down upon several rows of fifers and drummers in shades of yellow, black, green, red, and white. Each coat was heavily decorated with lace and was faced with red, following the British Army regulation of reversed coat colors for musicians. Excepted from this rule were the musicians of royal regiments, such as the 42nd or Royal Highland Regiment, who wore red coats with dark blue facings and special royal livery lace of blue and yellow. All the fifers and drummers wore tall, black bearskin caps bearing ornamental front plates of silver and black metal. The red-rimmed wooden drums, their fronts brilliantly painted in regimental colors with the king's cypher "GR" surmounted by a crown, swayed rhythmically as the drummers beat the cadence, their arms raising the sticks to eye level with mechanical precision. The red-faced fifers puffed and strained, lips pursed.
Another group of horsemen came into view, quite different in appearance from the dragoons. At the head of the infantry, brilliant scarlet coats faced with dark blue velvet and a profusion of glittering gold lace proclaimed the arrival of the Right Honourable Lieutenant General Charles Earl Cornwallis, together with Brigadier General Sir William Erskine, and a host of aides and staff officers. Lord Cornwallis embodied those qualities that nobility and generalship required: an ancient and aristocratic family, a soldierly reputation, and a dignified bearing that commanded awe and respect. His presence announced that law and order had returned to Philadelphia"to the great relief of the inhabitants who have too long suffered the yoke of arbitrary Power; and who testified their approbation of the arrival of the troops by the loudest acclamations of joy," wrote seventeen-year-old Loyalist Robert Morton.
Less conspicuous by their appearance, but certainly not by reputation, were a number of familiar Philadelphia faces accompanying Lord Cornwallis. These included the Allen brothers, William, John, and Andrew, sons of the prominent Philadelphia merchant and politician Judge William Allen, who himself had gone to England. Andrew Allen was a former delegate to the Second Continental Congress. William, Jr., served in the Continental Army before independence was declared. As lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Pennsylvania Battalion, he fought in Canada alongside Col. Anthony Wayne of the 4th Battalion at the disastrous Battle of the Three Rivers in early 1776. This was Wayne's first battle; he wrote to Benjamin Franklin, "I believe it will be Universally allowed that Col. Allen & myself have saved the Army in Canada." Defense of American rights was one issue, but a war for independence was treasonous in William Allen's view. He resigned from the army July 24, 1776, and later raised a regiment of Pennsylvania Loyalists.
The most prominent Loyalist in the group was Joseph Galloway, a wealthy Philadelphian whose career in law and politics was extraordinary. Born of Quaker parents in Maryland, Joseph married Grace Growden at Christ Church in 1753. He served as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly for fourteen years before the war; his closest personal friend and political ally was Benjamin Franklin. At the First Continental Congress in 1774, Galloway worked to avert conflict with Britain by proposing a moderate "Plan of Union," but the radicals, led by Sam Adams, managed to have the plan stricken from the record. Not long afterward, Franklin returned to Philadelphia from England, having become an ardent rebel. He failed to persuade Galloway to support independence, and their close friendship soon faded. Galloway refused to attend the Second Continental Congress and retired to his Bucks County estate, Trevose, rather than remain in the city, especially as anonymous threats against him and his family mounted. In late November 1776, as Washington's disintegrating army retreated across New Jersey and Congress prepared to abandon Philadelphia, Joseph Galloway fled for his life and put himself under the protection of Sir William Howe's army. A Philadelphia newspaper vilified him with a satirical verse:
Galloway has fled and joined the venal Howe
To prove his baseness, see him cringe and bow.
A traitor to his country and its laws.
A friend to tyrants and their cursed cause.
Unhappy wretch! Thy interest must be sold,
For continental, not for polished gold;
To sink the money, thou thyself cried down,
And stabbed thy country, to support the Crown.
Go to and fro, like Lucifer on earth,
And curse the being that first gave thee birth ...
Now, almost a year later, having served as the chief guide and spymaster for General Howe during the past month of campaigning through southeastern Pennsylvania, Joseph Galloway returned to the Seat of Congress with a triumphant Royal Army. Describing Lord Cornwallis's entry into the city, Galloway wrote, "No Roman General ever received from the citizens of Rome greater acclamations than the noble General did on this occasion from the loyal citizens of Philadelphia."
At High Street, or Market Street, following the generals, rank upon rank of British grenadiers filled Second Street as far as the eye could see. Tall soldiers, these grenadiers were made to appear taller by their black bearskin caps. Although the uniforms and faces were weathered by the campaign, they were magnificent in their soldierly bearing. The gleaming black and silver plates on their caps bore the king's crest and a scroll with the motto Nec Aspera Terrent"hardship does not deter us"borne out by their performance in the previous weeks. Company by company they passed, each distinguished by the color of their coat facings and the design on their buttons. The pale buff facings of the 40th Regiment's Company, commanded by Capt. John Graves Simcoe, were seen among the units in the 1st Grenadier Battalion. Close behind the 40th came the 55th's grenadiers with dark green facings. One ten-year-old Philadelphia boy, identified simply as J. C., never forgot the scene:
Their tranquil look and dignified appearance have left an impression on my mind, that the British grenadiers were inimitable ... I went up to the front rank of the grenadiers when they had entered Second street, when several of them addressed me thus,"How do you do, young onehow are you, my boy"in a brotherly tone, that seems still to vibrate on my ear; then reached out their hands, and severally caught mine, and shook it, not with the exulting shake of conquerers, as I thought, but with a sympathizing one for the vanquished.
Loyalist Sarah Logan Fisher noticed that the soldiers "looked very Clean & healthy & a remarkable solidity was on their countenances, no wanton levity, or indecent mirth but a gravity well becoming the occasion, seemed on all their faces." And so they went, row after row, muskets at the shoulder, gleaming bayonets by the hundreds, south on Second Street past the Old Court House at Market Street.
As the column reached Chestnut Street, it turned right and headed west, passing Christopher Marshall's apothecary shop, which had supplied the Pennsylvania Battalions with much-needed medical kits. It continued past Third Street and Carpenter's Hall, where the First Congress met in 1774, and on beyond Fourth. Up the street, fifteen-year-old Debby Norris watched the parade from her house near Fourth & Chestnut. "We were upstairs, and saw them pass to the State house; they looked well, clean, and well-fed.... It was a solemn and impressive daybut I saw no exultation in the enemy." Ahead on the left past Fifth Street soared the bell tower of the Pennsylvania State House, the very symbol of the rebellion. Here in the summer of 1776, the Declaration of Independence was debated, adopted, and signed. Now, on Friday, September 26, 1777, a month and a day after landing near Head of Elk, Maryland, His Majesty's forces were in possession of their prize: the seat of Revolution.
On the previous Friday, the street scene had been quite different. Congress, along with thousands of citizens, had abruptly fled the city in the middle of the night after receiving news that the British Army was about to cross the Schuylkill River. Concerning that episode, Robert Morton wrote in disgust, "Thus we have seen the men from whom we have received, and from whom we still expect protection, leave us to fall into the hands of (by their accounts) a barbarous, cruel, and unrelenting enemy."
Six Royal Artillery 12-pounders, together with four Royal howitzers and some light cannon, rumbled past the State House on Chestnut Street. Escorting the guns were Royal Artillerymen, resplendent in dark blue coats faced with red, the buttonholes laced yellow, the crossbelts and leather accoutrements a dazzling white. Sunlight glinted from the polished bronze cannon barrels, their embossed Royal cyphers and crowns proclaiming to the world the might of the British Empire. Stout, gray-painted oak carriages reinforced with black ironwork creaked under the weight of the gun barrels as they lumbered along, pulled by sturdy draft horses.
The two battalions of British grenadiers, a red column of over 1,000 troops, and the guns of the Royal Artillery were followed by a dark blue column with a more ominous air. Shining brass drums, each with a rampant lion embossed on the front and rimmed with red and white diagonal stripes, announced the arrival of two Hessian grenadier battalions. Nearly 800 strong, these German soldiers of the Von Linsing and Von Lengerke Battalions wore blue coats with facings of various colors and tall polished brass or tin "mitre-caps" with embossed decorations and colored pompoms. Unlike the clean-shaven British, the Hessian grenadiers all wore blackened mustaches waxed into sharp points, which added to their fierce appearance. Their blank, expressionless faces were quite a contrast to those of the British grenadiers. As ten-year-old J. C. later recalled:
Their looks to me were terrifictheir brass capstheir mustachestheir countenances, by nature morose, and their music, that sounded better English than they themselves could speakplunderplunderplundergave a desponding, heart-breaking effect, as I thought, to all; to me it was dreadful beyond expression.
Following behind the Hessians came officers' aides, Royal Engineers, and Quartermasters, while "Baggage Wagons, Hessian Women & Horses Cows Goats & Asses brought up the rear, they encamped on the Commons." All told, about 3,000 personnel took possession of Philadelphia; "thus was this large City surrendered to the English without the least opposition whatsoever." The main part of the army, commanded by Sir William Howe, K.B. (the general and commander in chief), and numbering over 10,000, remained in camp at Germantown, 5 miles to the north. There they would stay until a line of fortifications could be built across the northern approaches to the city. Another 2,000 British and Hessian troops occupied Wilmington, Delaware, along with many of the sick and wounded from the campaign.
With all the various uniforms passing through town this day, there was one curious element: To add a festive air to the occasion, the dragoons, the British and Hessian grenadiers, the fifers and drummers, and the artillery-men all had "tied greenery and bands to their hats and on the horses pulling the cannon." The sprigs of green were a remarkable echo of another parade that had passed by the State House about a month before, a parade whose participants had hoped to prevent this parade, carrying with its bits of greenery the hopes of victory in the fields of Chester County.
Meet the Author
Thomas McGuire teaches American history at Malvern Preparatory School near Paoli, Pennsylvania, and is the author of Battle of Paoli and Stop The Revolution.
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