During the Campaign to defend Philadelphia from capture by the British Washington’s army, soundly defeated at the Battle of Brandywine, redeployed to protect the city from the troops under British commander William Howe. Washington placed a division under Mad Anthony Wayne near Chester, Pennsylvania, to harass the British line of march and possibly capture the enemies supply wagons,
Wayne encamped at Paoli, near the British lines, with about 1,500 men. His encampment was about a mile from that of a larger encampment of Maryland militia, about 2,000 men. Wayne believed his position to be unknown to the British, who had moved little since the Battle of Brandywine. Loyalist spies soon reported Wayne’s position to Howe, who determined to attack the attachment.
On September 20 a British contingent of about 1,200 men approached Wayne’s camp, armed only with bayonets, with the flints removed from their muskets to ensure that no chance shot would give away surprise. They attacked the sleeping Americans shortly before midnight, and Wayne’s men, facing a surprise bayonet attack, were quickly routed. The British drove the Americans from their camp and during pursuit ran into the larger militia encampment, which they quickly routed as well.
About 3,500 American troops were driven from the field by a force one third their size, armed only with bayonets, unable to fire their muskets. The British suffered a total of 4 men killed and seven wounded while thoroughly defeating an entire division.
American losses were over 200 killed or wounded and another 71 captured by the British. The attack at Paoli became known as the Paoli Massacre, largely because of the British use of the bayonet as the sole weapon, but no massacre took place there. The loss of Wayne’s division contributed to the demoralization of the Americans who would soon abandon Philadelphia to Howe.