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The Learning Curve of War
on February 21, 2005
The Battle or Paoli (September 21, 1777) or the "Paoli Massacre" is one of three tactical engagements in the 1777 Philadelphia campaign in which General George Washington's army was out-maneuvered and outfought by General William Howe's army. Yet while the other two actions - Brandywine and Germantown - are fairly well known, Paoli has slipped into obscurity. Thomas J. McGuire, a history teacher in Pennsylvania, sheds much light on the Battle of Paoli in this book, which relies heavily upon primary source documentation (including previously unused sources). Yet while McGuire's approach is erudite, he lacks the narrative skill of a writer like David Hackett Fischer and much of the book meanders along until the moment of battle arrives. McGuire also lacks the military skill to analyze the Battle of Paoli and examine its tactical meaning and operational implications. Nevertheless, McGuire's book is useful for its examination of this battle and its effect upon the defeated commander, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne.
McGuire organizes his volume into 26 chapters, most of which cover a period of 24 hours or less. Unfortunately, McGuire seems unconcerned for the necessity of chronological order in historical narrative and his first chapter covers September 26, 1777, then the second chapter jumps backward to August 24, then the third jumps ahead to September 14. While McGuire then steadies on course toward the Battle of Paoli on 21 September, his narrative is further obscured by the lack of decent maps. Washington detached one of his best divisions of continental troops under Anthony Wayne to harass the rear of Howe's army (McGuire spends little effort questioning this order, but splitting one's force in the face of a skilled enemy seems highly questionable), and there was considerable maneuvering in the period 14-21 September 1777 by both armies. Frankly, I had a great deal of trouble following McGuire's "they marched from this tavern to that tavern" kind of narrative, particularly with the one inadequate map he provides (which depicts no tactical movements). Aside from an inadequate tactical narrative, this first third of the book is quite weak for several reasons. First, McGuire spends little effort discussing his central characters - Anthony Wayne and British Major General Charles Grey; instead, they appear almost as ciphers. Second, McGuire seems completely unconcerned with anything going on beyond eastern Pennsylvania and ignores the strategic implications of a protracted campaign around Philadelphia. While Howe was inflicting three defeats upon Washington around Philadelphia, his army was not available to support Burgoyne's army in upstate New York, which at that moment was getting into serious trouble. Howe was so focused on his tactical battles that he lost sight of the "big picture" and Burgoyne's subsequent defeat and surrender at Saratoga owes something to these battles around Philadelphia.
Once McGuire gets to the Battle of Paoli itself, the quality of his narrative improves considerably and it is clear that this was the author's main emphasis. In short, the British discovered Wayne's division lurking in their rear and dispatched a picked brigade under Charles Grey to crush it. Quite unusual for the period, Grey's force conducted a fast night march and night attack upon the American camp and dispersed Wayne's force with considerable losses. The actual tactical action at Paoli was humiliating for the reputation of American arms and Wayne, with some of the best continental regiments offered up as bayonet practice for the British. While the question of whether or not Wayne was caught by surprise - and it appears that he was - is open to debate, the clumsy handling of American troops is not. Wayne's troops were bottled into their camp, which lacked any real defenses, in a trap of their own devising. McGuire does not bother to ask why Wayne thought it prudent to bivouac his entire division in such a small, congested area. American commanders still made many mistakes at this point in the war and unfortunately, Paoli was part of that learning curve.
The last several chapters cover events after the Battle of Paoli, including the American defeat at Germantown, the investigation into the battle and Wayne's court martial (of which few records have survived). McGuire displays the orientation of a local historian in these final chapters, spending great effort discussing the care of the Paoli Battlefield and various local inns after the war. While this may be charming for local readers, it means much less to someone outside Pennsylvania. Larger issues, such as Wayne's reputation, get much less attention. Indeed, one suspects that the reason Paoli became obscure was the possible blot that it represented on Wayne's early career and that, as he went on to later successes, this early defeat and court martial was conveniently ignored. Certainly McGuire should have asked the question, did this defeat at Paoli make Wayne a better commander in the future?