The mood inside the room was as uncomfortable as the sweltering air outside. Most of the senior leaders of the Continental Army commanded by General George Washington were present at Englishtown’s Village Inn. The general had summoned his officers to discuss the fight with the British expected on the morrow. Washington departed that meeting believing his intentions had been thoroughly understood, when in fact his commanders remained sharply divided. The stage was set for the most controversial battle of the Revolutionary War, and the public disgrace of a military figure whose reputation had loomed large in the annals of America’s struggle for independence.
Momentous events were unfolding. Just twelve days earlier — June 15, 1778 — British forces had begun withdrawing from Philadelphia, occupied since the previous September 26. Signs of their pending departure had been evident for several weeks, so the movement had not been a surprise. The surprise was that most of the British soldiers and a large supply train were marching overland instead of leaving by boat. This presented an opening for the Continental Army, hardened and better disciplined after its difficult winter encampment at Valley Forge. It was an opportunity that Washington was anxious to exploit.
The officer directing the British column, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, had been fidgeting in New York as the unhappy second-in-command to General Lord William Howe, waiting on word of a requested transfer to London, when he learned that Howe had resigned. Clinton was assigned to replace Howe in Philadelphia. For the lieutenant general, who saw no easy way out of the conflict, the news was the harbinger of worse to come. France had entered the war on the American side, and strategic planners in London were abruptly taking a different view of military priorities. No longer was the North America problem paramount; expeditions against French possessions in the Caribbean promised far more lucrative targets.
Hardly had Clinton grasped the reins of control than he learned that many of his troops would be taken from him. It became painfully clear that with resources stretched to the limit, he could no longer hold on to the captured rebel capital, for it had become what King George III called ‘a joke to think of keeping Pennsylvania.’ Clinton was instructed to evacuate Philadelphia by sea and reestablish his headquarters in New York. Such were the changing times that he was also authorized to abandon New York and retreat as far as Nova Scotia if need be. The next operational phase in the American conflict would consist of hit-and-run raids, with an emphasis on the Southern colonies where, it was believed, Loyalist sentiment was strong.
Clinton’s planning was further complicated by two other matters: the arrival of a negotiating team sent from London and the fate of Philadelphia’s loyal citizens. The terms from Parliament the Peace Commission offered in Philadelphia (concessions just short of actual independence) were dead on arrival. The now-useless commissioners became a distraction in Clinton’s efforts.
More significant was the matter of the Pennsylvanians who had publicly demonstrated their loyalty to the Crown during the British occupation. Clinton’s morally courageous decision to evacuate as many of those citizens as wished to leave meant that much of the limited shipping space available to him would be used for nonmilitary purposes. This led to his first act of insubordination when he decided to ignore his instructions and move his army overland to New York, carrying along all the supplies and munitions that could not be sent by ship.
Two American armies represented the greatest threat to Clinton’s march — fourteen thousand men under Washington at Valley Forge, and another four thousand commanded by Horatio Gates covering New York. While the prospect of a junction of these two caused Clinton many sleepless nights, he briefly considered taking the offensive to drive a wedge between the pair and defeat them in detail, but such musing soon gave way to hard realities. The provisions and military baggage, filling a train of fifteen hundred wagons, had to be protected. For some of the distance the primitive American road network allowed him to march in two columns, sometimes three, but in others only a single passageway carried the traffic. To negotiate these dangerous stretches, Clinton had no option but to adopt the risky expedient of dividing his nineteen-thousand-man army — half leading the procession, half trailing it.
The military situation for George Washington in the spring of 1778 was far better than he ever imagined it would be in the darkest winter days at Valley Forge. It started with the most amazing fact of all — that despite all the terrible suffering, the sickness, starvation, privation, desertions and intrigues, the army had endured. More than just surviving, thanks to the opportune arrival that winter of the determined drillmaster Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, the Continental Army was the best trained it had ever been. Finally, the fact that France was now in the war meant that significant assistance would be coming.
In many ways it was equally amazing that Washington had made it through the winter of 1777. He had been beset by congressional carping over his failures to defend Philadelphia, dogged by the continued circulation of forged correspondence purporting to represent his unflattering views on the war, and his leadership of the army had been subtly challenged, with several successors waiting in the wings. Washington also knew that his habitually indiscreet second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, had described him as suffering from a ‘fatal indecision of mind.’
Washington understood better than most the symbolic value of certain military actions. The British movement from Philadelphia represented a chance to score the kind of low-risk success that could reap important morale benefits with both the Congress and the army, as well as improve Washington’s influence. There was danger too in such a move, for a serious reversal might damage Continental prestige well out of proportion to its strategic value. In the next days Washington would wrestle with the problem of finding the right balance between potential jeopardy and possible advantage. The evidence suggests that he vacillated between several options and that this uncertainty contributed to a dangerous rift among his commanders.
This sharp difference of opinion emerged in a series of war councils Washington convened during the campaign. The first occurred at Valley Forge on June 17, just before word arrived that the British were moving. Anticipating the news, Washington sounded out his officers about the best course to pursue. Everyone agreed that sitting still was not an option, though a majority felt it would be equally wrong to hazard a general engagement. There was a minority who believed that the army should press the British closely and punish them as much as possible. Prominent in this group was Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne, already known for his aggressive tactics. The discussion became more than theoretical when solid intelligence reached Valley Forge that the British were marching east into New Jersey.
Washington immediately dispatched a token force under Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold to occupy Philadelphia, while the bulk of the army moved on a northeastern track, crossing the Delaware River at Coryell’s Ferry beginning on June 20. The Continentals, unimpeded by a large baggage train, were often able to march in three parallel columns, but march where? It was still unclear to the Americans whether Clinton would push north to New Brunswick and Amboy before crossing over to Staten Island, or angle to the northeast to reach Raritan Bay, near Sandy Hook, and complete the journey by naval transports. Either way, Washington would soon have to commit himself to a course of action. The same question posed on June 17 was still on the table when Washington and his officers gathered near Hopewell, New Jersey, at 9 a.m., June 24, for a second council of war. Overhead, an eclipse of the sun was taking place. Whether that augured good or bad remained to be seen.
It all boiled down to how much the officers were willing to gamble. Several felt that the circumstances warranted a strong effort. Major General Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, said it ‘would be disgraceful and humiliating to allow the enemy to cross the Jerseys in tranquility.’ ‘People expect something from us,’ argued Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. ‘I think we can make a partial attack without suffering them to bring us to a general action.’ Anthony Wayne’s response when asked was a succinct ‘Fight, Sir!’
Foremost among the conservative counsel was Charles Lee, a man easy to dislike. Physically unprepossessing, even comical, Lee’s military credentials were solid, with service under both the British and Russian flags. Cast among the amateur soldiers of the American army, Lee exuded a superior air and condescending tone toward everyone, including Washington. For all this, he was a thinking man whose breadth of knowledge about warfare impressed John Adams, and whose commitment to the ideal of democracy was steadfast. His career through December 13, 1777, had been serviceable rather than spectacular. On that day, while in independent command of a portion of Washington’s army, Lee was captured by the British and held until exchanged in May.
Nothing in Lee’s character had changed during the interval, and there were some odd stories about his behavior in captivity that caused some to suspect his loyalty. It is ironic that among those gathered with Washington on June 24, Lee probably had the best grasp of the hazards of trying to do too much. Lee later wrote that the thought of embarking on an all-out attack on the British was ‘highly absurd,’ and that ‘the advantages to be gained by victory were not to be put in competition with the evils that might result from defeat.’
Washington decided to continue to harry the British column. His young aide, Alexander Hamilton, tartly observed that the results of this meeting ‘would have done honor to the most honorable body of midwives and to them only.’
Washington promptly began sending mixed signals. The long British column was already being plagued by New Jersey militia who were obstructing the roads and staging nuisance attacks. Washington now significantly upgraded those forces by sending forward a detail of six hundred select riflemen commanded by Colonel Daniel Morgan, followed later in the day by a second detachment of 1,440 picked men under Brig. Gen. Charles Scott. By these actions Washington seemed to endorse the harassment strategy. Within twenty-four hours he would dispatch a third force of a thousand men (like the others, drawn from the best soldiers in various units) under Wayne and would place all under the command of Lafayette — a posting that Charles Lee initially declined.
These sizable augmentations clouded the issue. If Washington’s purpose was to annoy the British, he was entrusting some valuable military assets to a relatively minor operation. If he intended bigger things, then there weren’t enough troops for the job. Lee, meanwhile, was having second thoughts about commanding the select troops and invoked his seniority to be placed in charge. Washington agreed, and to prevent any embarrassment to Lafayette, further enlarged the advance party with six hundred additional soldiers to justify Lee’s assumption of command. (Lafayette remained attached to the operation as a supernumerary.) This now-potent strike force of about five thousand men began concentrating at Englishtown on June 27.
It had become clear that the British march was aimed at Middletown, and beyond that to Sandy Hook. Clinton’s movement, while slow, had been steady, and on June 26 he had positioned his troops and wagons around Monmouth Courthouse on roads leading toward Middletown. Washington realized it was now or never, for as he later reported to Congress, ‘If the enemy were once arrived at the heights of Middletown, ten or twelve miles from where they were, it would be impossible to attempt anything against them with prospect of success.’
On the afternoon of June 27, after advancing the main Continental Army to within four miles of Englishtown, Washington met there with his generals. If he had hoped to clear the air, he failed. Those who had previously favored an aggressive action involving the entire army if necessary believed that Washington backed them. Wayne, for one, ‘understood that we were to attack the enemy on their march, at all events.’ Those who had cautioned against staking everything also heard what they wanted to hear. Lee was equally adamant that Washington expressed no ‘intention or wish to court a general engagement.’ The only thing agreed to by all was that the advance force would seek contact with the British on June 28.
In adjourning the council, Washington strongly suggested to Lee that he hold a strategy session with his subordinates. Not long after Washington departed for the main army, a pair of couriers reached Lee with some of the commander in chief’s afterthoughts. Worried that the British might launch a spoiling attack, Washington wanted Lee to alert the militia then watching the enemy. A second message instructed Lee to send forward a strong (six-hundred- to eight-hundred-man) observation force to fix the British rear guard in place come morning.
Lee convened the requested meeting, but little if anything was accomplished. As Anthony Wayne recollected, Lee ‘had nothing further to say on the subject’ since ‘the position of the enemy might render any previous plan invalid.’ Lee later commented that ‘if the country is un-reconnoitered, and the force, disposition, and situation of the enemy doubtful, I must profess that I cannot persuade myself that a precise plan can be attended with any good consequences, but that it must distract, lead astray, and in effect be ruinous.’ That night, Lee made little effort to rectify those intelligence gaps. He did instruct Brig. Gen. Philemon Dickinson, whose eight hundred New Jersey militia were shadowing the enemy, to alert him when the British column began moving. Lee also attempted to coordinate with the expert riflemen under Colonel Morgan operating against the British right flank. However, a clerical error and the note’s imprecise wording resulted in Morgan’s experienced fighters missing the start of the next day’s action.
For Sir Henry Clinton, pondering the same situation just a few miles to the east, the withdrawal to this point had been successful, though not without its vexations. His command endured energy-draining heat broken only briefly by violent rain showers that turned the dirt roads into mud and slowed the cumbersome wagons to a crawl, while the enemy militia remained busy ‘filling up the wells and breaking down and destroying the bridges and causeways before us.’
Clinton had expected a run-in with Washington’s regulars at a choke point near Mount Holly, but when no serious opposition appeared, the English commander became convinced that his
opposite ‘had no thoughts of risking a general action.’ Clinton continued to worry most about protecting his exposed wagon train, yet even in this defensive stance, he watched for a chance to strike.
Clinton’s sources of local intelligence were good enough for him to form an accurate appraisal of Washington’s movements. Indeed, his only significant miscalculation was his unwavering belief that he would face the combined armies of Washington and Gates. Clinton halted his long columns around the small village of Monmouth Courthouse on the afternoon of June 26, where he anticipated a serious attack the next day.
When nothing developed on June 27, Clinton carefully reconnoitered the area. He observed the relatively open plains northwest and south of the village. The area west of Monmouth Courthouse was more undulating and creased by several ravines. He saw that the lone road that wriggled between the ravines west of the village came to a boggy morass spanned by a small bridge. Should the enemy attack him at Monmouth Courthouse, his best course would be to press the Americans against the swampy barrier. However pleasant the prospect, Clinton
concluded that the always careful and cautious Washington would never jeopardize his army in such terrain. At 4 a.m. on June 28 (an hour later than he had
intended), Clinton started his forward division and the long wagon train toward Middletown and prospective safety.
In piecing together the strike force, Washington mixed and matched commands and officers to a degree that would totally confuse many of the battle’s historians. He wanted the point of his sword to be as sharp as possible, and so many of the various commands he was committing to the upcoming action were special composites drawn from the most able troops of different brigades and regiments. This blending of units posed a serious challenge to effective control. Hours later, when he was in the midst of a desperate effort to choreograph this admixture, Charles Lee would comment on the’shocking situation’ as he ‘hardly knew a single man or Officer’ under his command.
Lee’s orders called for his cobbled-together division to move toward the enemy encamped around Monmouth Courthouse at 3 a.m. A six-hundred-man detachment under Colonel William Grayson was to lead the procession (and double as the observation force Washington had requested); because of confusion over finding local guides, however, its first elements did not actually depart Englishtown until almost 6 a.m. In the interim, Lee was receiving reports from General Dickinson. At 5 a.m. Lee learned that the British had begun moving out some thirty minutes earlier. Then, around 8 a.m., even as the tail of his strike force was clearing Englishtown, Lee heard from Dickinson that the British were still around Monmouth Courthouse in strength. Both reports were correct, though Lee thought them conflicting since the first referred to the departure of Clinton’s leading division and the second to his trailing one.
Dickinson’s first report was sent in duplicate to Washington, then traveling with the main body some three miles west of Englishtown. Once the army was marching, Washington dispatched an aide to Lee to let him know that support would be close at hand. What seems clear at this point is that Washington wanted there to be an attack on the British, though his instructions did allow Lee to refrain if ‘there should be very powerful reasons to the contrary.’ Statements such as these served only to reinforce Lee’s understanding that, as the commander of the advance force, he was sanctioned with what he later termed ‘a very great degree of discretionary power.’
Washington’s aide found Lee puzzling over Dickinson’s follow-up report. According to that aide, Lee ‘exclaimed against the contradictory intelligence’ he had received. Several of Lee’s unit commanders sought him out to discuss the matter and, not surprisingly, there was no clear sense of the enemy’s design. About three miles east of Englishtown, Lee reached the Tennent Meetinghouse, where the road jogged southward along a ridge before continuing eastward.
Descending from the high ground, Lee crossed the lone bridge spanning the swampy passage of Spottswood Middle Brook, also referred to as the West Morass. He met the militia commander, General Dickinson, and William Grayson on the other side. The militia leader, whose men had already had a sharp scrap with a small British detachment that morning, issued a warning. ‘General Lee,’ he declared, ‘…if you march your party beyond the ravine now in your rear, which has only one passage over it, you are in a perilous situation.’ Lee declined the advice, though he did take the precaution of grouping his three leading regiments (perhaps one thousand men) plus Lt. Col. Eleazar Oswald’s four cannons under the command of Anthony Wayne, and at the same time placed Lafayette in charge of what had been Wayne’s detachment. Lee also decided ‘to march on and ascertain with my own eyes the number, order and disposition of the enemy, and conduct myself accordingly.’
The American procession continued eastward, passing the Parsonage farm and next the Rhea farm, then tenanted by a merchant named William Wikoff Jr. It marched in fits and starts as each new piece of information was evaluated. Lee scouted ahead toward the courthouse and observed British cavalry and infantry shielding the Middletown Road at a point just north of the village. The tardy nature of the Continental advance that morning had an unexpected benefit. When the early morning hours passed without the appearance of any significant American force save the pesky militia, Sir Henry Clinton’s anxiety about his wagons (now some four hours away) convinced him to depart with most of his trailing division, leaving only a small detachment (possibly thirteen hundred cavalry and infantry altogether). It was this rear screening force that Lee targeted.
Lee rejoined his column and instructed Wayne to push ahead with his three regiments to engage the enemy, apparently intending that the Pennsylvanian follow the route into the village. But as Wayne’s units approached Monmouth Courthouse, he learned from a local guide of a little-used road that would take him around the right flank of the British line. Without advising Lee, Wayne proceeded to carry out his flanking maneuver.
Lee and Wayne were on the same page, but at cross-purposes. It was Lee’s intention to fix the enemy line in place using a force pressing through the village, while he took the remainder of his division around the British right. After watching Wayne’s detachment move off (presumably) into the village, Lee led the rest of his command northward. However, when he came to the open plain overlooking Monmouth Courthouse, he saw that Wayne had gone where Lee had
intended to go, and that there was no Continental presence in the village.
At that moment gunfire crackled from Wayne’s position. His movement had not been unnoticed, and a small detail of riders from the 16th Light Dragoons pushed out from the rear guard to counter the threat. The British cavalry, fooled into thinking their opposition was only a small party of mounted militia, were lured under the guns of an unwavering line of Pennsylvania Continental infantrymen who scattered them with a volley.
Lee tried to modify his plan. Wayne was instructed to press the enemy hard enough to keep the British in place, but not so hard as to cause their retreat. The aggressive Wayne responded by shifting his position even farther north, taking station on either side of a gully pointing toward the enemy. (By so doing, he took with him the infantry that had been protecting Oswald’s guns, which had set up northwest of the village.) At the same time, Lee was ordering forward other segments of his provisional division to provide the pinning pressure against the British left flank. He directed Lafayette to come forward with his three regiments (which had begun this day’s work under Wayne’s command). This force of about eight hundred men cut across the open ground northwest of Monmouth Courthouse to a point about a half-mile from the British line. These maneuvers left two units still waiting for orders — the 1,440 men under Brig. Gen. Charles Scott, and the thousand-strong New Jersey Brigade led by Brig. Gen. William Maxwell.
In retrospect, this would be the apogee of Lee’s leadership this day. As Lafayette guided his command into line just on the village outskirts, Lee told him: ‘My dear Marquis, I think these people are ours.’ In response to one of his subcommanders who had ridden forward for instructions, Lee exclaimed that ‘by God he would take them all.’ To an aide sent ahead by Washington, Lee explained that ‘he was going to order some troops to march below the enemy and cut off their retreat.’ The British cannons were causing Wayne enough problems that he asked for reinforcements, a request that Lee refused, telling the officer who brought it that the enemy action represented ‘a customary maneuver with retreating troops.’
Lee’s entire plan was based on the faulty premise that the small British rear guard was beyond supporting distance of the bulk of Clinton’s trailing division. In fact, an important piece of that command, the 2nd Grenadiers, was just out of sight and halted awaiting instructions, which weren’t long in coming. ‘I caused the whole rear guard [division] to face about and return back,’ Clinton later wrote. Here was the chance he had sought to hit the Americans so hard that they would forget about his vulnerable wagon train.
Lee had just seen Lafayette’s detachment into place on the northern
outskirts of the village (and was probably intending to send Scott and Maxwell to reinforce Wayne for the killing blow) when the 2nd Grenadiers poured out of their concealed position and the entire British line began moving purposefully toward Monmouth Courthouse, as Clinton had astutely judged Lee’s right flank to be his weak point.
This advance was the catalyst that triggered all the units of Lee’s provisional division to react, though little of it was as the Continental officer intended. What happened next was similar to a transportation disaster caused by the accumulation of small incidents, none of which was fatal on its own. Brigadier General Scott rode out from his detachment to survey the field. To his left he could no longer see Wayne’s troops, who had taken cover under the British artillery fire. Ahead Scott could see the increasingly thickening British formations marching toward Monmouth Courthouse, with the troops under Lafayette giving ground before them. Lacking any orders and worried that the enemy advance would trap his brigade, Scott decided to shift west to a more defensible position. At the same time Maxwell began to circle his New Jersey brigade back to reinforce Lee in the center. These were sound, even bold moves, but both were undertaken without any reference to Lee’s designs.
Near the courthouse, Lee observed Oswald’s battery (two cannons engaged) pulling back and learned from its commander that the gunners were without infantry support. Lee sent an aide to Scott’s detachment to tell him to hold his position. Lee’s aide passed through where Scott’s men had been, and finding no one there continued north to where Wayne’s troops were posted. Despite the aide’s instructions for these units to hold their ground, the sight of the British passing across their front in great strength and the absence of any help to their right prompted these units to begin falling back.
Lee’s aide met a second who had been sent on the same mission, and the two brought their chief the bad news. Lee’s surprise that his left flank had dissolved was, according to one of them, ‘very great.’ His entrapment plan was in shambles. What many contemporary observers would later find incomprehensible was that the entire unraveling occurred without significant combat. The absence of the cohesion that might have steadied an established division, combined with differing perceptions of aims and objectives, caused Lee’s provisional division to break down into its constituent parts.
The withdrawal was in full swing by about 11:30 a.m. Maxwell never did settle on a new defensive line, because once his men reached that center point the British had already flanked them, so they continued their westward march. Scott held his second position until the passage of the British columns forced him to peel off to the northwest. Lee’s one real effort to organize a fresh line of resistance proved futile. ‘A new position was ordered,’ noted an officer on the scene, ‘but not generally communicated, for part of the troops were forming on the right of the ground, while others were marching away, and all the artillery driving off.’
Wayne made matters worse when he encountered a courier sent by Colonel Morgan seeking instructions for the six hundred men who were just three miles to the southeast, well positioned to threaten the British rear. Wayne told the messenger that a general retreat was in progress and that Morgan should ‘govern himself accordingly.’ Consequently, Morgan held back; whether an effort from that quarter would have delayed the British advance long enough for Lee to reestablish an effective line of resistance will never be known.
By Lee’s own estimate, the enemy force advancing on him now numbered perhaps six thousand (it would eventually swell to nearly ten thousand), soldiers he considered ‘the flower of the British army.’ After his first attempt to rally his command had proved ineffectual, Lee drifted with the flow of retreating units, seeking somewhere to re-form them. A French engineer on his staff suggested making a stand on property being farmed by a man named Ker. Once Lee reached the position he realized that it was compromised by slightly higher ground just to the east. A local militia officer, Captain Peter Wikoff, recommended Comb’s Hill, which Lee rejected because the swampy lowlands at its base would have to be bridged to handle his artillery. Wikoff also identified a defensible rise close to the Tennent Meetinghouse, known as Perrine Ridge. Recollecting it from his morning ride, Lee sent Wikoff to rally any troops reaching there.
Throughout all this, Lee was content to let the retreat continue, since it answered his purpose by keeping his units away from the British. On at least one occasion he was seen to urge a column ‘to retreat with more haste,’ and on another he complained that the ‘enemy have too much cavalry for us.’ Compounding his problems, his staff was nearly immobile. Both his aides were virtually afoot, with their horses badly wounded, and the animals carrying his acting adjutant general and French adviser were almost useless from heat and fatigue. However, he never lost his composure. Afterward when he was actively defending his reputation, Lee termed this phase a ‘masterly maneuver,’ though when pressed by a Washington aide for a situation report he ‘answered that he really did not know what to say.’
Thanks to his own careful reconnaissance on June 27, Sir Henry Clinton knew that the Americans were being herded toward the West Morass. He hoped that they would have to make a stand and that Washington would send reinforcements to succor them. ‘Had Washington been blockhead enough to sustain Lee, I should have catched him between two defiles; and it is easy to see what must have happened,’ Clinton later declared.
This was perhaps the most confused period of the battle for the Americans. Staff officers and field commanders crisscrossed the fields, a few with information, others seeking instructions. Some believed they were moving toward a new defensive line, while others understood they were in full retreat. Indeed, one of the steadier officers on the field never forgot the chilling shouts from the rear of his column: ‘Colonel Jackson, march on! March on!’
Everyone was tramping westward without any common purpose. Lee as well as small groups or individual units tried to rally at certain points to fend off close pursuit by the 16th Light Dragoons, but always the sight of other commands retreating and the dust clouds heralding the approach of the British main body aborted such attempts. To an English officer it seemed as if the rebels were ‘never daring to wait the shock of our bayonets.’ It was approaching noon when George Washington appeared on the scene.
High on the list of Charles Lee’s failings this day was his neglecting to keep Washington informed of changing events and, more important, his plans to deal with them. As a consequence, all that Washington knew came from random sources or from members of his staff who scouted the front. Initial reports had been that the Continentals were closing with the British rear guard and would soon engage them. Things seemed encouraging until Washington’s artillery chief, Brig. Gen. Henry Knox, returned from a reconnaissance with disturbing news of confusion on the American side.
When Washington reached the Tennent Meetinghouse area, a civilian appeared, claiming that Lee’s troops were retreating, citing a nearby fifer as his source. Washington, ‘not believing the thing to be true,’ had the fifer detained. However, confirmation was close at hand as more stragglers appeared, followed by an entire regiment, worn out and uncertain who had ordered the retreat. Washington rode on and encountered a local guide (likely either Captain Wikoff or Lt. Col. David Rhea) who pointed to the heights of Perrine Ridge. Washington at once recognized the value of the position and personally directed several units there. According to one of those retreating soldiers, ?Gen. Washington on that occasion asked the troops if they could fight and that they answered him with three cheers.? Another foot soldier who saw him thought that Washington’seemed at the instant to be in a great passion; his looks if not his words seemed to indicate as much.?
The encounter that now took place between Washington and Lee on the Monmouth battlefield is the stuff of American legend, the subject of paintings and countless panegyrics. Testimony of the individuals who were present suggests that the confrontation was brief but intense, since the situation did not allow time for any courtesies. Washington found Lee on a hill just to the east of the lane leading to the Rhea farmhouse. According to later testimony by Lt. Col. John Brooks and Captain John Mercer (both members of Lee’s staff), Washington approached Lee and asked, ?What is all this?? Either because of the noise about them or his own confusion, Lee was not initially responsive. (A civilian volunteer on Washington’s staff recorded Lee’s first reply as a hesitant, ?Sir, sir.?) Washington repeated his question, asking what all that confusion was for, and why the retreat? Brooks recalled that ?General Lee blamed contradictory intelligence and his orders not being obeyed. When Washington said that he believed they were facing only ?a strong covering party of the enemy,? Lee retorted that the British were in greater numbers than Washington imagined and that he ?did not think it was proper to risk somuch.? Washington, showing ?considerable warmth,? said ?he was very sorry that General Lee undertook the command unless he meant to fight the enemy.?
Washington broke off the exchange when he spotted some retreating units and hurried over to them. Lee appears to have remained in stunned silence for a few minutes. The passage of other troops shook him out of his lethargy, and he began to issue orders, only to be stopped by one of his aides, who reminded him that Washington was now on the field and issuing commands. Lee sought out Washington, who asked Lee if he was prepared to hold the ground to buy time for the main body to form behind them along Perrine Ridge. Lee later said he replied that ?I undoubtedly would, and that he should see that I myself should be one of the last to leave the field.? The pair parted, each to his own task.
In between these exchanges, Washington met Lafayette, who had with him two detachments (Colonel William Stewart’s and Lt. Col. Nathaniel Ramsey’s). Aware that the rear of the strike force was being ?closely pressed by the enemy,? he asked the officers to delay the British advance, and they agreed to try. Just after Washington left, Wayne rode up, took charge, and directed the pair to an ambush position in a nearby wood. Lee meanwhile was organizing a defensive line along the northeast-southwest running hedgerow dividing the Rhea and Parsonage farms. Bolstered by two cannons hastily positioned on a nearby knoll, Lee was able to assemble pieces of two commands (Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston’s battalion and portions of Brig. Gen. James Mitchell Varnum’s brigade) to confront the British.
Some of the sharpest fighting of the day now ensued. Hoping to prevent any efforts by the enemy to establish a line of resistance, Clinton sent off a small force on a wide swing around to the northwest, while he pushed directly west with the bulk of his command. It was this heavy column that Wayne’s men ambushed around 12:45 p.m. Staggered by the first American volley, the nearest British troops (the Foot Guards under Colonel Henry Trelawney) pivoted to confront the threat and charged. The result was what Wayne later termed a ?Severe Conflict.? The Americans scattered; most escaped, but the 16th Light Dragoons jumped some in the open. Both of Lafayette’s brigadiers were down, Stewart wounded slightly, Ramsey more seriously hurt and also captured. Wayne’s action bought about a quarter-hour’s time.
The British formations continued westward and next encountered the line that Lee had pasted together behind the Parsonage farm hedgerow. The action opened with British cavalry charging along the road, personally led by General Clinton. The mounted force of the 16th Light Dragoons was met by steady American musketry. This fire, Clinton wrote, ?galled the cavalry so much as to oblige us to retreat with precipitation upon our infantry.? The British commander rushed over to the first columns he encountered, shouting: ?Charge, Grenadiers. Never heed forming!? For a few terrible minutes it was face-to-face combat as the two sides exchanged close volleys. It was, recalled one British veteran, ?the heaviest fire I have yet felt.? Once the British discovered that the American right flank was in the air, they collapsed Lee’s position. The Continental cannons (which arrived in time to fire only two or three rounds) rattled over the narrow bridge across Spottswood Middle Brook, followed in a more orderly fashion by the remaining infantry at about 1:15 p.m.
British efforts to follow the retreating Americans across the bridge were stopped by artillery fire from Washington’s main army, now spread along Perrine Ridge. In trying to force the passage, Lt. Col. Henry Monckton, commanding the 2nd Grenadiers, became the highest-ranking officer on the field to be killed in the battle. True to his word, Charles Lee was the last American officer to fall back across the span. Upon reporting to Washington, he was told to reorganize his temporary division, most of which was streaming toward Englishtown. Not long after Lee departed to accomplish this task, Washington decided to remove all his responsibilities and sent Baron von Steuben to replace him. Lee would not, however, be formally relieved from command until the decision had been made to hold a court-martial regarding his actions.
Clinton had hoped to draw the main force of the American army into the fight at a disadvantage, but Washington made his stand with the West Morass to his front and not his rear. It was a strong position. Adding to Clinton’s problems, the day had been terribly hot, his men were ?overpowered with fatigue,? and Clinton himself ?was near going raving mad with heat.? He had by now assembled his artillery (some ten guns) along the western side of the hedgerow. These were soon engaged with cannons massed by the Americans along Perrine Ridge. The cannonade filled time with martial activity (doing little actual damage) while the gasping foot soldiers rested and their officers looked for openings. It was during this part of the battle that Mary Hayes, the wife of a Pennsylvania cannoneer, briefly replaced her husband on one of the gun crews, giving credence to the story of ?Molly Pitcher.?
The small force that Clinton had sent off on a wide flanking swing found its way to the American left and rear blocked by militia stiffened with some Continentals. The fighting here sputtered listlessly until the British broke contact about 3 p.m. Even as Clinton’s weak effort to flank the American left was faltering, a small force of American infantry and artillery came to a halt on Comb’s Hill. Guided there by Colonel Rhea, the gunners found themselves on an elevated piece of ground well protected along its base by a marsh and squarely on the left flank of the main British line. When this battery opened fire, it so effectively enfiladed the position that Clinton deemed it no longer tenable and began to withdraw his troops.
The retrograde movement necessarily left some of Clinton’s regiments momentarily isolated. Once Washington observed that the British were pulling back, he threw troops forward to challenge the exposed units. This led to some brief but fierce firefights. One pitted the famous 42nd Foot (the Black Watch) against two American battalions, while another three regiments led by Wayne clashed near the hedgerow with the 1st Grenadiers. Said an officer involved in the first action, ?[W]hen they found we ware Determin?d to Push upon them they Retreated to their main body which was giving way.? On his part of the field, Wayne had the British veterans in trouble for a few moments, but his small force (about four hundred men) had already spent itself when the timely arrival of the 33rd Foot sent the Americans scrambling for cover.
Both sides were thoroughly exhausted. Clinton withdrew to Monmouth Courthouse and halted. Washington, who had tried but was unable to organize his weary troops for further counterattacks, did send a brigade forward to keep an eye on things, but when dawn came the British were gone. After only a brief rest, Clinton pushed his columns along and by sunrise had reunited with the wagon train and his other division. By July 1 his supplies had been cleared from Sandy Hook for New York, followed by his infantry on July 5. Washington did not bother to pursue, and after resting on the battleground for a few days, he began a series of slow marches that, by the end of July, would find him near White Plains, outside New York.
Monmouth proved to be the last major battle in the Northern colonies, as well as one of the largest and longest sustained conflicts of the war. Given the many variables involved, even the most careful tabulation of casualties on both sides results only in general estimates. Clinton officially reported 358 casualties, a figure accepted by few later historians. The best calculations put his losses at slightly over 1,100, not counting more than six hundred desertions. Washington likewise lowballed his count and reported 362 killed, wounded or missing. A more likely figure is five to six hundred.
The Americans quickly claimed the victory and used it to good propaganda effect. If a victory, it was so only within a narrow definition of the term. Washington had not upset the British withdrawal, nor did he ever penetrate the protective layers around the supply train. The ground Washington held at the end of the day had no strategic importance and only conferred upon its possessor an obligation to bury the dead. Yet the American army had fought well, and von Steuben’s training had paid handsome dividends in prompt movements, efficient formation changes, and even adhesion in retreat.
For the British side, Monmouth was a successful rear-guard action. The trains had been protected, the retrograde movement had continued to its conclusion without further interruption. The fact that Clinton had hoped for much more when he accepted battle (this would prove to be the only combat fought under his personal supervision) and he had not seriously damaged the American army was more a personal disappointment than a strategic reverse. Perhaps the greatest impact of this battle was the irreplaceable nature of the losses Clinton did suffer. Under the pressure from London to transfer troops elsewhere, he could ill afford to write off his battle casualties. The human cost of Monmouth guaranteed that future British military actions in the North would be limited to minor operations.
The great personal loser in this affair was Charles Lee. For such a proud, vain, egotistical individual, his very public humiliation required satisfaction. A court-martial was convened, and Lee was charged with disobeying positive orders to attack on June 28, misbehavior in retreating before the enemy, and acting in a disrespectful manner toward the commander in chief. The court assembled on July 4, heard testimony while on the march, and delivered a guilty verdict on all counts on August 12. For a while it seemed that Washington’s enemies in Congress might reverse the findings, but the court’s decision was sustained. Lee fought a duel over the matter and came close to fighting several other duels. Although suspended for only one year, Lee never held another command.
Politics and passions had dictated the charges against Lee while failing to address his overall weaknesses as a field commander. The particular makeup of Lee’s strike force’select units or composites of ?picked men? that had never operated together?put a premium on effective communication and required energetic leadership. Lee was not up to these standards. He made no effort to share his thinking with his subordinates, perhaps believing that their duty was merely to obey orders. The price paid was a sour dissonance between him and his subcommanders, with Wayne and Scott following their own more aggressive agenda in ways that would prove fatal to Lee’s designs. Faced with the collapse of his flanking scheme, Lee let control of the battle slip from his fingers and lacked the personality to salvage it.
Most critical, Lee misread his commander’s intent. Washington expected there to be a fight?not a full-scale engagement, but he wanted his best troops to draw British blood, as he demonstrated in the battle’s last phase when he contented himself with very limited counterstrokes. Lee’s failure to seriously challenge the enemy at any point in the engagement became, in Washington’s eyes, proof that his services were no longer required. An officer close to Washington later gave voice to this complaint when he wrote: ?All this disgraceful retreating, passed without the firing of a musket, over ground which might have been disputed inch by inch.? Washington later admitted that he had always acted with nothing more than ?common civility? toward the officer whose ?temper and plans were too versatile and violent to attract my admiration.?
Washington’s hesitations and evolving strategy prior to the battle indicate that he still had things to learn about leading an army and effectively communicating with subordinates. His predilection for composite units made up of picked men, while understandable, also created problems he did not foresee. Once on the field in sight of the enemy, his personal leadership came to the fore. Washington’s forceful will and determination infused the retreating American soldiers with fighting spirit. His stature rose accordingly. ?Every Lip dwells on his Praise,? declared a member of Congress. Alexander Hamilton was on the mark when he declared, ?America owes a great deal to General Washington for this day’s work.?
While the British did not lose a battle that hot June day in New Jersey, George Washington saw an American army come of age at Monmouth Courthouse.
This article was written by Noah Andre Trudeau and originally published in the Autumn 2006 edition of MHQ.
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