With the British evacuation of Philadelphia that I discussed last week, the Continental Army had to decide how to respond.
On June 17, 1778, the same night that General Clinton brought the last of his army in Philadelphia across the river into New Jersey, George Washington held a council of war at Valley Forge to debate next steps.Anthony Wayne and Pennsylvania General John Cadwalader argued most forcefully for a full-on attack. General Lafayette also seemed inclined to support this. General Nathanael Greene wanted to harass the retreating enemy and engage in a full battle if the British were willing to turn and fight.
The Continentals had about 11,000 soldiers fit for duty, along with the possibility of several thousand more New Jersey militia. The British column had an estimated 10,000 soldiers. Because they were in retreat, they would not necessarily have favorable defensive ground or good positions if the Americans could engage them.
General Charles Lee, however, argued strenuously against attack. He did not believe the Americans would stand in general field encounters with British regulars. That aside, the French were on their way. Risking a general action at this point could result in a devastating failure or capture of the Continental Army right before the support arrived that could be used to overwhelm the enemy. Lee argued that the British were in retreat. That was a good thing. Let them retreat and we'll take the victory for that.
A majority of the officers agreed with Lee, including General Von Steuben and General Duportail. The Americans could, of course, harass the retreating column. In doing so, they should not put the main Continental Army at risk. Despite the objections and concerns, General Washington opted to pursue the enemy with the intent of engaging in a general action.
The day the British began the march was Friday June 19. As anyone from New Jersey can tell you, leaving on a Friday to try to get to the Jersey shore is a nightmare. Travel is always slow and frustrating. That was certainly the experience of the British and Hessian troops.
Although they did not have to put up with any traffic circles, they did face a host of obstacles. Before they had even left Philadelphia, the Continentals deployed hundreds of soldiers under General William Maxwell to delay and harass the enemy. Recall that General Maxwell, who was from New Jersey, had coordinated much of the Forage War a year and a half earlier. He had used local militia to harass the British foraging parties and keep the enemy bottled up in defensive entrenchments. He would use many of these same tactics against the British column marching toward New York.
Also working with General Maxwell was General Philemon Dickinson of the New Jersey militia. Dickinson is another one of the war’s unsung heroes. He was the brother of John Dickinson - the Pennsylvania delegate who is probably best remembered for his opposition to the Declaration of Independence.
Shortly after the battle of Lexington in 1775, Dickinson received a commission as colonel of the Hunterdon County Militia. Several months later, in October he received a promotion to brigadier general of the New Jersey militia. Dickinson was one of the few militia leaders who joined Washington for the battle of Trenton the following year. During the battle, Dickinson had to order the artillery to shell his own home, which the Hessians had occupied. Dickinson and his militia then moved north with the Continentals to harass the enemy in northern New Jersey. His militia captured a regiment of 400 British soldiers during that campaign.
Just before Washington’s crossing, when things were looking really bleak for the patriots, John Dickinson resigned his position in the Pennsylvania militia and wrote a letter to his brother Philemon. The letter recommended that Philemon also resign his commission and that he not hold onto any Continental dollars. This defeatist letter smeared the reputations of both brothers.
At least one account I read says that Philemon resigned his commission in the New Jersey militia in February, although I cannot confirm that fact. It may be that his militia simply returned home for the winter. That was, after all, what militia did when active fighting came to an end. In any case, a few months later, New Jersey named Dickinson a major general and commander-in-chief of the New Jersey militia. He remained active in New Jersey that year, assisting General John Sullivan with the attack on Staten Island in November 1777, and also confronting a British raid on Trenton in May 1778.
British Move Through New Jersey
With the British army once again in New Jersey, Dickinson was also once again in the thick of things. Working with Maxwell’s Continentals, the armies felled trees across roads, destroyed bridges, redirected creeks and rivers to flood certain areas, and generally do whatever they could to slow down the British column. They also provided intelligence to General Washington on the position and movements of the enemy.
The delaying efforts worked well. Assisting them was a brutal heat wave, along with torrential rains. British and Hessian soldiers marched in their heavy wool uniforms, each soldier carrying sixty to one hundred pounds of items on his back. The army had several hundred wagons of supplies as well. The result was extremely slow movement.
The next day, the British marched only seven miles to Black Horse (today called Columbus), then moving on to Crosswicks in a night march, arriving at dawn the following morning. There, Maxwell’s Continentals and Dickinson’s militia had torn up the bridges that crossed the creek. The patriots took up defensive positions on the far side of the creek. There were maybe 1000 patriots against the 10,000 man British Army. so there was no chance that this defense could last long. However, it forced Clinton to deploy into lines of battle, set up field artillery, and attempt to move regiments around the defensive lines to flank the enemy. The two lines exchanged some fire before the Americans withdrew before the superior force. With that, the Americans had achieved their intended purpose of causing the British to waste a day getting across the creek. From there, the British marched to Allentown, New Jersey, a few miles southeast of Trenton. It had taken the British six days to move about 32 miles, averaging just over five miles per day.
Meanwhile, the Continental Army left Valley Forge on June 19th, the same day that the British began their march from Haddonfield. Washington had left behind only the 3000 or so sick or disabled soldiers who could not march, under the command of Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt. Most of the invalid corps under Van Cortlandt soon moved to Philadelphia, leaving only 500 at Valley Forge who were too sick to travel.
Washington gave General Lee the honor of commanding the most forward army and the discretion to choose good defensive ground after crossing the Delaware. Behind Lee was another army under the command of General Anthony Wayne, who had orders to move slowly enough that he kept some distance between himself and General Lee.
The Continental Army reached Coryell’s Ferry on the Delaware River, a few miles north of Trenton. The army also made use of Howell’s Ferry several miles further upriver It took a couple of days to get the army and equipment across, then continuing on to Hopewell, New Jersey - about twenty miles north of the British army at Allentown. That is where General Lee chose to regroup the army. By the 23rd, the Continentals had arrived at Hopewell and were ready to move. They rested there until the 24th while the commanders decided on next steps. In Hopewell, the soldiers cleaned their weapons and prepared several days of rations so that they could eat while on the march.
Plans of Attack
Both Washington and Clinton had good intelligence on the position of their enemy and had to reassess their plans in light of that.
Washington was clearly itching for a fight. He had ordered the army to leave behind most of its baggage at the ferries so that it could travel light. He also ordered entrenching tools be distributed to the soldiers so that they could dig in for a battle when needed. Washington not only had his own army, which was as large as Clinton’s British and Hessian column, but he also had thousands more Continentals in the Northern army near Peekskill, New York under General Horatio Gates. These men could be brought into action against the British in northern New Jersey. Another 500 man army, a mix of Continentals and Pennsylvania militia under General John Cadwalader left Philadelphia to support the Continentals. More Pennsylvania Associators were also being mustered in hopes of adding to the American forces.
At around 9:00 AM on the morning of the 24th, Washington called another council of war. Articulating the same views as at the prior council, General Lee still strongly opposed an attack. He thought that an attack on such a well-disciplined enemy of equal size only risked a major defeat. He still wanted to await the arrival of an army from France before seeking another general engagement.
Lee said he thought they should build a “bridge of gold” for the British to assist them with their retreat. After all, the enemy was going away, as they wanted, and there was no benefit in trying to confront them. Lee recommended they deploy reinforcements to Maxwell and Dickinson to keep up the harassment of the British column, and keep it on the move to New York. But he saw no real point in trying to impede or slow down the march, let alone bring on a general engagement between the two armies.
Generals Greene, Wayne, and Lafayette all favored sending a much larger force to annoy the British column, and to bring the remainder of the army behind that force as backup in case the British column turned on them. Lafayette argued that it “would be disgraceful and humiliating to allow the enemy to cross the Jerseys in tranquility.”
In the end, the council agreed to send a 1500 man force to support Maxwell’s and Dickinson’s men harassing the British column. Lee signed the compromise agreement, as did Lafayette and Greene. Wayne did not, saying he still believed a much stronger force was needed and that he preferred that they try to push the enemy into a full pitched battle. Lafayette and Greene also later sent letters to Washington saying they hoped the 1500 reinforcements would draw the British into a larger battle. Lafayette’s letter said that Generals Von Steuben and Duportail also supported this position.
Later that day Washington deployed about 600 riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan to support General Maxwell. He then deployed another nearly 1500 men under General Charles Scott to annoy the British left flank and rear. Washington also sent communications to General Dickinson to coordinate attacks with the local New Jersey forces. He deployed General von Steuben to get better intelligence on the enemy’s movements.
General Scott is another Continental general I’ve avoided introducing up until now. Scott took an unusual path to becoming a general, starting his military career as a private. In 1755, shortly after the death of his father, sixteen year old Scott enlisted the Second Virginia Regiment. He had been apprenticed to become a carpenter, but apparently decided military life would be more interesting.
Later in the war Sergeant Scott served under Colonel George Washington in the effort to capture Fort Duquesne in the expedition led by British General John Forbes. Washington saw merit in the young teenager and commissioned him to ensign. After the fall of Fort Duquesne, Scott remained with his unit in the Pittsburgh area, rebuilding defenses and manning garrisons on western outposts. Near the end of the war, Virginia needed volunteers to put down a Cherokee uprising on the frontier. Scott volunteered and received his captaincy. There, he served under Lieutenant Colonel Adam Stephen.
After suppressing the Cherokee uprising, the Governor of Virginia disbanded Captain Scott’s regiment. Around this same time, Scott’s older brother died, leaving him several valuable estates in western Virginia. Scott got married and settled into the life of a prosperous tobacco farmer.
As tensions between the colonies and Britain grew, Scott backed the patriot cause. In 1775, shortly after Lexington, Scott raised a company of soldiers and began drilling again. He offered his company’s services to Patrick Henry during a military confrontation with the governor. When Virginia established its first two regiments in late 1775. Scott received commission as lieutenant colonel in the Second Virginia. He played a key role in the Battle of Great Bridge, helping to capture Norfolk and forcing Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore to flee to a British Navy ship.
In 1776, Scott’s regiment was absorbed into the Continental Army. He soon received a commission to full colonel, and was assigned command of the 5th Virginia Regiment. There, he served under his old commander, now-General Adam Stephen. They both served under General Washington for the Christmas attack on Trenton. Scott played a conspicuous role in the second battle of Trenton as well as the Forage War that winter.
In March 1777, Scott returned home to Virginia. Washington soon recalled him, and with Washington’s recommendation, Congress promoted Scott to brigadier general. He continued to serve under, by this time, Major General Stephen. Scott led his brigade at Brandywine and was one of the most forceful advocates for the attack at Germantown.
Following Germantown, Generals Scott and Stephen accused each other of failures in leadership during the battle. This ended with Stephen’s discharge from the army. Scott then served under General Lafayette, and marched out of Valley Forge under the French general’s command. To attack the British column in New Jersey, General Scott had his independent command of 1500 soldiers to harass the enemy.
Deployment of Forces
The morning after Scott’s deployment, Washington ordered the remainder of the army to leave their tents and other equipment behind, and move about seven miles further east to Rocky Hill and Kingston, along Millstone Creek. From Rocky Hill, Washington deployed General Wayne with about 1000 men to harass and impede the head of the British column as it marched north. Washington also sent General Lafayette along with Wayne, and also let his aide, Colonel Alexander Hamilton go with them for the purpose of keeping him informed of the brigade’s movements. Another source says that Lafayette received a contingent of 3000 Continental troops with which to confront the British.
So, Washington was committing far more troops to the field than the council had recommended. He was deploying them both in front of the British column and behind it. Regardless of the council consensus, Washington seemed bent on provoking a full-on battle.
|Gen. Sir Henry Clinton|
Over in the British camp, General Clinton had planned to march north from Allentown to Brunswick, about 25 miles away. Brunswick had been a major British camp a year earlier, before General Howe had abandoned the post when he pulled all of his troops back to New York. The British were quite familiar with the terrain. From there, the column could move east to Amboy and cross into British-controlled Staten Island.
Ordinarily, an army on the march on open roads could make that distance in a single day. Given Clinton’s pace thus far, it would take him three to five days to get there. Clinton expected that the Continentals would intercept his column at Cranbury Township, about ten miles to his north. The Continentals could probably get there first, select good defensive ground and force a confrontation on their terms.
Instead of marching north to confront the Continentals, Clinton turned the British column to the east, marching toward the Jersey shore. It was a little over thirty miles to Sandy Hook, but it would avoid a confrontation with the Continentals. From there, the British column would have the support of the British Navy in New York Harbor. The Continentals likely would not attack in that situation and would allow the British to transport the army across the bay back into the city.
So while the Continentals were trying to provoke a battle, The British under General Clinton were pretty clearly trying to avoid one. The change of direction moved the British away from a confrontation and created a race to the sea. General Clinton even debated destroying the 1500 wagons travelling with his army in order to speed up the pace. In the end, he decided against it, since he thought it would make him look weak and afraid if he just ran as fast as he could. Clinton already had a morale problem. During the march, he had several soldiers tried and hanged for desertion.
He did not want to appear to be running away from the Continentals. He was simply consolidating forces in New York per his orders from London. Even if he was avoiding a confrontation, he did not want it to appear that way. Even so, his decision to change direction and avoid a battle, redirected the British column to the east toward a village known as Monmouth Courthouse.
Next week, the Battle of Monmouth.
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Stone, Garry W & Mark Lender “Fatal Sunday” American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 62 Issue 4, 2019. https://www.americanheritage.com/fatal-sunday
Hamilton, Alexander, and William Irvine. “The Battle of Monmouth. Letters of Alexander Hamilton and General William Irvine, Describing the Engagement.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 2, no. 2, 1878, pp. 139–148. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20084337, also available: https://archive.org/details/jstor-20084337
(from archive.org unless noted)
Brown, Henry Armitt The Battle of Monmouth, Philadelphia, Christopher Sower Co. 1913.
De Peyster, John Watts The Engagement at Freehold, known as the battle of Monmouth, N.J., more properly of Monmouth Court-House, 28th June, 1778, New York, A.S. Barnes & co. 1878.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bilby, Joseph & Katherine Bilby Jenkins Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, Westholme, 2010.
Griffith, William R. IV A Handsome Flogging: The Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778, Savas Beatie, 2020.
Lender, Mark E. & Garry Stone Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle Univ. of Okla. Press, 2016.
McBurney, Christian George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War, Savas Beatie, 2020.
Morrissey, Brendan Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The Last Great Battle in the North, Osprey, 2004.
Stryker, William S. The Battle Of Monmouth, Kessinger Publishing, 2010 (this is a reprint of a 1927 book with no free ebook version available).
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.
Ward, Harry M. Charles Scott and the Spirit of 76, Univ. of Va Press, 1988
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.