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BATTLE OF PAOLI, Thomas J. McGuire, Stackpole Books, 288 pages, $24.95.

In late September 1777, a dispirited, rag-tag Continental Army fresh from defeat at the Battle of Brandywine tried in vain to protect America’s capital from seasoned British and Hessian troops. Though General William Howe again outmaneuvered George Washington and seized Philadelphia, author Thomas J. McGuire suggests the British paid an unexpected price for their symbolic victory.

In this detailed military history of a particularly bloody skirmish in the campaign, McGuire reveals the complex interplay between strategy and tactics on the early Revolutionary War battlefield. To gain time to defend key river crossings near Philadelphia, Washington ordered Major General Anthony Wayne to harass the rear of Howe’s army. But the British discovered the plan and launched a surprise midnight strike against Wayne’s “green” American militiamen stationed near the Paoli Tavern. With swords and bayonets, elite British troops butchered about 50 or 60 Americans and forced the rest to retreat.

The raid had mixed results and unintended consequences. Though what came to be known as the “Paoli Massacre” foiled Washington’s plans, Wayne’s militiamen found a renewed unity in their outrage over it. At the same time, second-guessing Wayne’s handling of the affair exposed fault lines in the American high command.

McGuire vividly portrays the divided loyalties, human frailties, and courage of men in the Continental Army during a crucial early stage of its development. Drawing on neglected and newly discovered documents, he brings to life the chaotic political, social, and environmental conditions that shaped an important engagement. Along the way McGuire reminds readers that the war’s outcome was never predetermined and that perceptions, myths, and stories have all colored our remembrance of its turning points.

PETER KIZILOS is a freelance writer and student of American history from Minneapolis, Minnesota.