The end of our episode saw General George Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, As he collected his troops and began to reform his plans he was intent on accomplishing two tasks.
- He wanted to protect Philadelphia, the current Colonial Capital from British forces under the command of Howe
- He needed to replenish the rapidly dwindling supplies and munitions which were stored in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Washington withdrew from the area around Brandywine across the Schuylkill River, marched through Philadelphia, and headed northwest. Since the Schuylkill was fordable only far upstream starting at Matson’s Ford (present-day Conshohocken), Washington could protect both the capital and the vital supply areas to the west from behind the river barrier.
Yet he reconsidered, and took a slight gamble. He decided to recross the river to face the British, who had moved little since Brandywine, owing to a shortage of wagons to carry both their wounded and their baggage. If you’ll recall from 2 episodes ago, these British troops had arrived by boat, so the supplies they had with them were very lean.
General Howe was alerted that Washington had recrossed the Schuylkill on the afternoon of September 15, 4 days after the battle of Brandywine and by midnight, his troops were on the march toward the major road junction where the White Horse Tavern stood. The going was difficult due to inclement weather in the area, which had been rainy and windy, and the troops and wagons turned the roads into muddy quagmires. The next morning, Washington’s 10,000 man army was moving west through the Great Valley, bound by the North and South Valley Hills on either side. He learned from his cavalry, led by General Pulaski, that the British were advancing on him from the south just a few miles away.
Although moving to the North Valley Hills would have given Washington more time to deploy and possibly fortify, In an aggressive maneuver, Washington ordered the army south directly toward the enemy to take up a defensive position on the South Valley Hills. His battle position was three miles long and was strong.
Washington sent an advance force under General Anthony Wayne to slow the British progress. At about 2:00 pm, his men encountered the advance jäger units of the Hessian column. The two forces began skirmishing, and the Americans very nearly captured Colonel Carl von Donop when he became separated from his main column with a small company of jägers. The main British column, led by General Charles Cornwallis, met with Wayne’s Pennsylvania militia on another road at around 3:00, who gave way in a panicked retreat, resulting in 10 killed or wounded from Wayne’s militia.
Meanwhile Washington, who was trying to organize the line of battle, had a change of heart about the position, and ended up withdrawing the army north of the tavern. This withdrawal was just getting underway when it began pouring rain. Hessian jäger captain Johann Ewald describ ed it as
“an extraordinary thunderstorm, […] combined with the heaviest downpour in this world.”
The British army halted its advance, although our good friend and adversary General Wilhelm von Knyphausen ordered the jägers to engage the enemy. Ewald and his men rushed forward, swords drawn since their muskets were inoperable due to wet powder, and capture 34 men. Ewald reported losing 5 killed, 7 wounded, and 3 captured in this action.
The storm, which historian Thomas McGuire describes as “a classic nor’easter”, raged well into the next day. The British were forced to construct a makeshift camp (having left their tents behind that day), and Washington managed to form a battle line, but a great deal of his ammunition was spoiled by the rain and poorly constructed cartridge boxes.
Washington once again withdrew beyond the Schuylkill on September 19 to cover both the capital and his supply area, but he left behind General Wayne’s Pennsylvania division of 1,500 men and four guns with orders to harass the British rear. Howe’s army found it nearly impossible to follow Washington over the rutted, muddy roads. The decision was made to wait out the storm, then move toward their objective. This little incident with a few deployments and skirmishes is referred to as the Battle of the Clouds, but you may also hear it mentioned as the Battle of Warren, Battle of Whitehorse Tavern, or the Battle of Goshen, and it truly wasn’t even a battle. Most historians tend to refer to it as the Battle that got rained out.
Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania Division was left camped at Chester, Pennsylvania. When the British columns passed by, Wayne followed, under orders from Washington to harass the British and attempt to capture all or part of their baggage train.
Wayne assumed that hi s presence was undetected and camped close to the British lines in Paoli, Pennsylvania. His division consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th Pennsylvania Regiments, Hartley’s Regiment, an attached artillery company and a small force of dragoons. All told, it was about 1,500 strong. Camped about 1 mile away was William Smallwood’s Maryland militia, about 2,100 relatively inexperienced troops.
The British heard rumors that Wayne was in the area, and General Howe sent out spies who reported his location near the Paoli Tavern on September 19. Since his position was just 4 miles from the British camp at Tredyffrin, Pennsylvania, Howe immediately planned an attack on Wayne’s relatively exposed camp.
At 10 p.m. on September 20, British commander Major General Charles Grey marched from the British camp, and launched a surprise attack on Wayne’s camp, near the General Paoli Tavern, from which the battle takes its name, located near present-day Malvern. Grey’s troops consisted of the 2nd Light Infantry, a composite battalion formed from the light companies of 13 regiments, plus the 42nd and 44th Foot. Altogether, his brigade comprised some 1,200 men.
To ensure that the Americans were not alerted, Grey had the flints removed from his troop’s muskets, earning him the nickname “No Flint” Grey.
The British, led by a local blacksmith forced to act as guide, approached the camp from a wood and were able to achieve complete surprise. They stormed the camp in three waves—the 2nd Light Infantry in the lead followed by the 44th and the 42nd. Completely unprepared, Wayne’s troops fled from the camp and were pursued. Near the White Horse Tavern the British encountered Smallwood’s force and routed it as well.
With casualties of only 4 killed and 7 wounded, the British had routed an entire American division. Historian Thomas J. McGuire says that 53 Americans were buried on the battlefield but “whether these were all of the American dead or only those found on the campsite-battlefield is uncertain”. Local tradition says that 8 more Americans killed in the battl e were buried at the nearby Anglican church of St. Peter-in-the-Great Valley. 71 prisoners were taken by the British, 40 of whom were so badly wounded that they had to be left behind in nearby houses. A total of 272 men were killed, wounded or missing from Wayne’s division after the battle.
An official inquiry found that Wayne was not guilty of misconduct but that he had made a tactical error. Wayne was enraged and demanded a full court-martial. On November 1, a board of 13 officers declared that Wayne had acted with honor.
The incident gained notoriety partly because of accounts by eyewitnesses who stated that the British had stabbed or mutilated Americans who tried to surrender. Among them were the following:
“I with my own Eyes, see them, cut & hack some of our poor Men to pieces after they had fallen in their hands and scarcely shew the least Mercy to any…” – Lt. Col. Adam Hubley, 10th PA Regiment
“…more than a dozen soldiers had with fixed bayonets formed a cordon round him, and that everyone of them in sport had indulged their brutal ferocity by stabbing him in different parts of his body and limbs … a physician … examining him there was found … 46 distinct bayonet wounds…” – William Hutchinson, Pennsylvania Militiaman
“The Enemy last Night at twelve o’clock attacked … Our Men just raised from Sleep, moved disorderly — Confusion followed … The Carnage was very great … this is a bloody Month.” – Col. Thomas Hartley, 1st PA Regiment
“The Annals of the Age Cannot Produce such another Scene of Butchery…” – Maj. Samuel Hay, 7th PA Regiment
Though these claims have been denied by some, such conduct was not at all incompatible with the British treatment of prisoners and wounded in the Revolution, or in other wars and actions, both in America and other colonies, including Scotland, Ireland, and India.
There were no Geneva Conventions in place at that time, although most Western powers subscribed to an informal but generally recognized “Laws of War” which were intended to rein in some of the worst abuses of both prisoners and the civil population in time of war.
Moreover, George III had declared the colonies in rebellion, and thus traitors to the Crown, a charge which denied prisoners PoW status and carried a maximum penalty of death by “hanging, drawing and quartering” a most barbarous form of execution, which dated from the reign of Henry III (1216–1272) and remained in use until the early 19th century and on the books until 1870.
Earlier examples of British mistreatment of alleged “rebels” include the massacre of many of the wounded Scottish Jacobites on the field of Culloden (1746). A number of the prisoners were then later treated brutally and starved before being hanged, drawn and quartered.
In the American Revolution, though the British (as a result of various government strategies intended to minimize resistance) did take prisoners, and did not regularly massacre the wounded and prisoners, there were a number of incidents, such as the action on 1 February 1777 at Drake’s Farm (during the campaign known collectively as the “Forage Wars”). After the action, Lieutenant William Kelly and six other wounded Americans of Scott’s 5th Virginia were abandoned during the American withdrawal. The British fell upon the seven helpless men with bayonets and musket butts and slaughtered them all. When the Americans recovered the mangled bodies they were infuriated.
Writing on the other side of the question, military historian Mark M. Boatner III wrote:
“American propagandists succeeded in whipping up anti-British sentiment with false accusations that Grey’s men had refused quarter and massacred defenseless patriots who tried to surrender … The ‘no quarter’ charge is refuted by the fact that the British took 71 prisoners. The “mangled dead” is explained by the fact that the bayonet is a messy weapon”.
Perhaps it is fair to state that there is some truth in both statements. The eyewitnesses saw a ferocious attack by troops that included the feared Scottish Highlanders, and there may have been excesses, given the times and circumstances of the action.
In any case, Wayne’s troops swore revenge, and the Americans certainly gave as good as they got at Germantown and Stony Point where the cry of “Remember Paoli!” was a signal to give no quarter to the British.
When we talk next week, we’re going to check back in with Burgoyne and Howe as he occupies Philadelphia and we’ll kick off our first episode on the Battle of Saratoga.
Also published on Medium.