Now that I’m living in the greater Philadelphia region, and fueled almost entirely by the first 70-ish episodes of The American Military History Podcast, I’m much more aware of the Revolutionary Era sites within easy driving distance of me. Which is how last weekend happened: on my way back from a Notre Dame Alumni event, I decided to swing by the Paoli battlefield site, as I had heard there were events happening there, and I didn’t want to miss out.
For those of you who don’t know, the Battle of Paoli happened in 1777 in Paoli, PA, which today is about 45 minutes from Philadelphia Proper. Also known as the Paoli Massacre, this event immediately followed the Battle of Brandywine, the largest land battle of the Revolution and a British victory.
So maybe it will be useful to back up a little bit further:
The Battle of Brandywine, fought on September 11, 1777, occurred because the British, stationed in New York, decided to attack Philadelphia (PHL). They sailed from New York to Maryland, and Gen’l Washington had to defend the capital of his nascent country. The site he chose was close to the Brandywine Creek, just north of the Pennsylvania/Delaware border. It was the largest land battle of the Revolutionary War, with both sides fielding a total of nearly 30,000 men, and a disaster for Washington.
There were five fords across the river, Washington defended three of them, so naturally, the British found their way to the two unguarded fords, helped by locals. It was a disaster for the Americans, who retreated north to the one fordable spot on the Schuylkill (“Skoo-kill”) River.
Washington left “Mad” Anthony Wayne as a rearguard to cover the retreat and generally harass the British. In the execution of his duties, Wayne camped quite close to the British on September 20, only about a mile away at General Paoli Tavern. He mistakenly thought the British did not know of his presence and pitched camp. At about 10pm that night, the British attacked from two sides and the Americans fled in utter confusion.
The result of this “massacre” was ~253 Americans killed and the British were able to take Philadelphia. The American government had to flee west to Lancaster then further on to York. Congress was really unhappy with Washington for allowing the capital to be lost. That winter, Washington chose to encamp at Valley Forge, which was close enough to both the city and the Schuykill to keep an eye on the British, while far enough away that they wouldn’t be surprised if the the British decided to attack. Which is a story for another day. (I’ve been there!)
So the Battle of Paoli seems both moderately small and moderately impactful. When I arrived at the site of the event, I learned that it was also the 240th anniversary of the event. Excellent. I like anniversaries of numerical significance.
The site itself was small. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’ve most likely been spoiled by the acres upon acres of land at both the Manassas and Gettysburg battlefields. There were several booths set up with a living history timeline, which also confused me but I rolled with it. For example, I’m not sure how the guy with a small tarp of things next to the “Vietnam” sign had anything to do with the Battle of Paoli, but whatever.
I took a quick stroll through the vendors. There was a gentleman who painted portraits for a living and we had a great talk artist-to-artist. Likewise, the young man from the Brandywine Valley Battlefield was a great conversation, history nerd-to-history nerd. There were booths from the usual suspects – the D.A.R, the S.A.R, the National Guard, etc – but I did stop to ask the woman behind the Homeland Security tent why she was there. Her answer was twofold: for one, she was a friend of one of the organizers and shows up to serve as a representative of a modern uniformed service; for two, her job can be comparable to the colonists, that is, defending our borders from threats like invasive species. Uh, ok. Again, not sure what I was expecting, but whatever.
I did stop at a table with an attractive array of accessories – backpacks, handbags, jewelry. It was Sword & Plough, a (female) veteran owned company who employs veterans to use surplus gear to make the products. The young woman behind the table described how the necklace I was looking at was made from a brass shell casing. Pretty cool. I support employing veterans. (Like Dog Tag Bakery, in Georgetown, DC.)
I did not stop and talk to most of the living historians, although it would have been interesting. There was a large War of 1812 contingent, and at least one Indian. There was a WW2 tent, and a couple of Civil War tents. For it being a Revolutionary War Era site, there were few colonial encampments. I was told they were all going to show up in the evening for the battle tactical, and I just rolled my eyes. Of course they would all appear for the shoot-’em-up portion of the event.
I did get pulled into discussion with a naval historian guy and I allegedly learned a lot about the battleships made right next door in the Delaware, between PA and New Jersey. Like the USS Indianapolis was made there, and her sister ship whose name I forgot but is probably equally famous. It was probably quite interesting and I should have paid more attention. As we talked, I mentioned that on a trip to visit my father’s family graveyards in North Carolina (half that trip was spent in graveyards), we had gone to see the museum with the Monitor and Merrimack. The naval guy got really excited, told me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. After some persuasion, I complied and opened my eyes to find myself holding an actual piece of the Monitor. Right after that was a piece of the Merrimack. Had I been a veteran, he would have let me hold both at the same time.
Overall, the event was enjoyable even if it didn’t have much to do with the actual Battle of Paoli itself. I didn’t think that holding parts of the ironclads would be a highlight, but looking back at the pictures definitely induces some sort of nerd high and feelings of nostalgia of that time we visited every cemetery in eastern North Carolina as a family. I could have made more of an effort to talk to more of the living historians there, but I have a hunch I’ll cross paths with them again. And while I’m still mildly confused how a “military timeline” fits in with the whole “Battle of Paoli” thing, I’ve enjoyed reading and visiting battles of the Revolutionary War. And in case you were wanting to see some powder get blown, someone made a video of it and posted it on youtube. Enjoy!