Last week I covered British efforts to march across New Jersey after evacuating Philadelphia. They were marching to New York City. General Clinton had sent his heavy equipment, civilians, prisoners, and the sick via the British fleet. The bulk of his army marched overland.
The Continentals under Washington sent only a token force to reclaim Philadelphia. Leaving behind his sick and invalids, Washington moved the entire army under his command out of Valley Forge and into New Jersey, toward the retreating British column.
As the Continental Army began its first major campaign of 1778, it did so with a new second in command of the army. Charles Lee had been a British prisoner of war since late 1776. When the British had captured him a few weeks before the battle of Trenton, the Continental Army was on the ropes. Many expected it to fail at any time. Many were also calling for Lee to replace Washington as commander of the army. Lee, at that time, had refused to join his army with Washington’s for a final showdown. Instead, he found one excuse after another to remain in Northern New Jersey. It was only after his capture that his army merged with Washington’s, providing enough soldiers for the attack on Trenton.
|George Washington at Monmouth by E. Leutze
As he neared his exchange, Lee began to think again about how the Americans might win the war. He had not altered his view that the Americans could never stand up directly against British regulars in the field.
Lee proposed that the Americans move most of their civilians and supplies further west, possibly moving Congress to Pittsburgh. Civilians might move further downriver where they would be under Spanish protection. The Continentals could then begin a total guerilla war with the British, or what he called “Indian-style” fighting. Americans would use hit and run tactics to keep the British from returning to normal rule, but would avoid a major field battle.
Lee had never had a particularly optimistic view of Continental soldiers. Upon first joining the Continental Army, Lee had to restrain Washington from attacking the British in Boston. Lee won his first independent command in Charleston, South Carolina only because the officers under his command refused to abandon Sullivan’s Island as he had suggested. When he returned to New York City in late 1776, he very forcefully insisted to Washington that they abandon the city before they became trapped there.
In many of these strategic choices, Lee was not wrong. His attempts to avoid a major engagement possibly saved the Continental Army from ruin during those early years. Washington’s attempts at major battles during Lee’s imprisonment, Brandywine and Germantown, did not go particularly well and put the entire Continental Army at risk.
Lee, however, did not appreciate that he returned to a very different army in the spring of 1778. Continental officers and soldiers had gained battle experience at Brandywine and Germantown. General von Steuben’s training at Valley Forge had professionalized the army and made them more prepared for a European-style battlefield.
The army and Congress had come to the consensus following the Conway Cabal, that Washington was the right man for the job. They were no longer interested in looking for a replacement. Many of the top generals from the beginning of the war were no longer in positions of influence and power. They had been replaced by newer men, many of whom had been promoted while Lee was a prisoner. Some of the top major generals, including Lafayette, DeKalb, and von Steuben, had not even been in the Continental army before Lee’s captivity. These newer officers had developed a fierce loyalty and trust in Washington as their commander.
When Lee rode into Valley Forge in April 1778, he did not seem much interested in these changes. After meeting with General Washington and the military leadership, Lee rode to York, Pennsylvania to consult with Henry Laurens and the Continental Congress. Lee said that he found the army in a worse situation than he expected, and commented that he did not think General Washington was fit to command a sergeant’s guard. His behavior indicated that he was still positioning himself to replace Washington as commander of the army. Lee then returned home for a few weeks and only rejoined the Continental Army in late May, only weeks before this campaign began.
Maintaining his view that the Americans should not face a major encounter with the British, Lee spoke rather forcefully at Washington’s councils of war against such an engagement. Lee also seemed dismissive of young General Lafayette and went out of his way to question General Von Steuben’s credentials. Lafayette, from his first encounters with Lee, observed that the general hated Washington.
At one meeting to discuss an attack on the British column, Lee commented “To risk an action in our present circumstances would be to the last degree criminal.” At a later meeting, Lee agreed to a compromise to deploy 1500 soldiers to harass the British but not to commit to an all-out battle between the two armies. Washington deployed those soldiers, but the next day deployed another 1500 soldiers under General Charles Scott. With Dickinson’s militia, Washington had over 4000 soldiers actively attacking the column.
Command of the Advance Corps
Washington had suggested that Lee take command of this advance detachment. Lee, however, demurred, saying that such a command should go to a young volunteer general, not to the second in command of the army. In response, Washington gave command of the advance force to Lafayette. In giving commands to Lafayette and to General Anthony Wayne over more senior generals, Washington was putting in command those who favored the most aggressive action against the British.
On June 27, Lee caught up with Lafayette at Englishtown, NJ. Washington brought the remaining army to Cranbury, about three miles away. He then rode to Englishtown to confer again with his generals. He ordered Lee to attack the following morning, but left it to Lee to work out the specifics. Washington then returned to the main army.
That afternoon, Lee held his own council of war with Lafayette and other top officers. Lafayette asked about the plan of attack, to which Lee responded that they would just act according to circumstances. Lee had prepared no strategy, nor had he bothered to scout out the terrain.
Lee has asked General Philemon Dickinson, whose militia were already in the field, to provide intelligence on enemy movements. He also ordered Colonel Daniel Morgan’s riflemen to assist with the attack. However, Lee’s written orders to Morgan were vague as to the time and date of the attack. When Morgan received the orders at around 2:00 AM on June 28th, he assumed the attack was scheduled for the morning of June 29th.
As the Americans prepared their attack, the British column under General Henry Clinton was trying to find a good defensive position to defend against such an attack. On June 24, while still in Allentown, NJ, Clinton rearranged the marching order of his column. He moved the Hessians, who had been the rearguard, to the front of the column. Behind them, he put his 1500 supply wagons.
As the British marched, they faced continual harassment. Morgan’s riflemen took potshots at the column from the British right flank. Dickinson’s New Jersey militia continually raided the column’s left flank as it marched. This forced the British to deploy skirmishers, thus slowing down the column’s overall movement. Even worse than enemy fire was the unbearable heat. A Hessian commander reported that nearly one-third of his soldiers had fallen out of line due to heat exhaustion. Carrying 100 pound packs and wool uniforms did not agree well with the soldiers suffering under the blazing summer sun. Many days of rain leading up to this time also resulted in a boom of mosquitos, which also attacked the column without mercy.
Two days after leaving Allentown, on the afternoon of June 26, the British had reached Monmouth Courthouse. Cornwallis’ best troops set up camp several miles north of Monmouth, while the large Hessian division camped several miles to the east of Monmouth.
Clinton opted to rest the men in camp the next day, June 27th. Many were in danger of dying from heat stroke and a brutal thunderstorm overnight had made conditions even more miserable. Instead of trying to move his army forward, Clinton scouted the terrain to make sure he had a good defensive position in case of attack. Swampy areas and ravines protected their flanks and made anything but a direct attack difficult. It was as good a position as the British would find.
At around 2:00 a.m. on the morning of June 28th, Lee received orders from Washington to deploy several regiments to advance on the enemy camp. If the enemy had begun its retreat, the force should attack them. Lee organized a brigade, but could not find a local guide to help his army make the march in the dark. A nighttime thunderstorm also made travel difficult. Lee did not force them to march, but decided he could rely on Dickinson’s militia to provide intelligence.
Around dawn, Lee received word that the enemy was retreating eastward toward Sandy Hook. Most of Lee’s 4500 man army needed time to form up. So, most did not leave Englishtown until 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. to begin the four mile march to Monmouth.
Although Lee had not sent out scouts, Washington had. General von Steuben and Washington’s aide Colonel John Laurens spotted the enemy leaving Monmouth that morning. They got so close that the British spotted them. Mistaking Laurens for Lafayette, they sent troops on horseback to capture the officers. The Americans were able to escape, but only after a daring chase through the woods. Von Steuben sent a messenger to inform Lee that the British had broken camp and were moving east. Having been up all night, von Steuben then caught a short nap in a house near Englishtown.
Acting on the intelligence that the British were retreating, Lee hoped to march to Monmouth and capture any rearguard left there to delay an enemy attack. As he marched, Lee received further intelligence that the British had not actually marched off. Rather, they were forming into a line of battle and preparing to engage the American attackers. If this was correct, Lee would be facing possibly the entire 12,000 man army against his advance force of 4500. Lee halted his march while he tried to get better intelligence. Instead, he received contradictory reports. Some said the British were retreating. Some said that they had formed a defensive line of battle just outside of Monmouth. Some said the British were attacking and preparing to hit the American flanks as Lee advanced.
|Initial Attack (Wikimedia)
With that news, Lee pressed forward, ordering General Wayne to take the lead position, supported by field artillery. As the force emerged from the ravines into a broader field, The American cavalry spotted Simcoe’s rangers, who were mostly mounted on horseback. The Queen’s Rangers charged, chasing the American cavalry. When they realized they were also charging into American lines of infantry, the British troops withdrew.
Wayne ordered his advance guard to pursue the retreating British dragoons. Finding the British rearguard in disorder and confusion, Wayne sent a message to Lee asking him to bring up his entire force to capture the rearguard. Lee sent a few hundred reinforcements, but did not want to commit his army. As Lee advanced, he discovered Simcoe’s Rangers had taken a defensive position on a hill. He ordered Wayne to advance on them slowly while he sent another force around their left flank to get behind them. Lee hoped that he could capture the loyalists rather than simply chase them away.
British Push Back
The British had mostly pulled up and marched away before dawn. The leading division of about 6000 Hessians and the 1500 supply wagons had already gotten miles away from the battlefield before the Americans arrived. General Clinton remained with a 4000 man force near Monmouth. General Cornwallis commanded another 2000 men nearby.
|British Counter-Attack (Wikimedia)
Clinton knew that Lee’s advance force was close, and that Washington’s main force was still several miles away. If the British turned, they might be able defeat Lee’s division in detail before Washington could arrive. At worst, his stand would buy time for his supply wagons to put more distance between them and the enemy.
At around 10:00 AM Clinton ordered Cornwallis’ division to about face and go at a fast march to attack Lee. Clinton’s division would back them up. As the summer sun grew close to mid-day, large numbers of British soldiers dropped from heat exhaustion and passed out. The march, however, did arrive in time. Around noon, Lee’s attempt to capture Simcoe’s rangers fell apart as the Americans saw Cornwallis’ division advancing on them.
Lee ordered Lafayette to take a small division to outflank the new attackers. Lafayette, concerned about the idea of attacking Cornwallis’ division with an inferior force wrote back to confirm these orders. Lee confirmed and claimed that victory was at hand. Lee then abandoned his attempt to encircle the rangers and sent more troops to back up Lafayette. While all this was happening in confusion, the center of the American lines, commanded by Generals Scott and Maxwell, began to retreat back to the ravines.
|Molly Pitcher at Monmouth
Lee ordered the Rhode Island regiments to cover the American retreat. However, when the British brought up field artillery, the Rhode Island soldiers turned and retreated with the rest of the army. The entire advance corps, pushed by Cornwallis’ division, retraced their steps back through the middle ravine toward the west ravine, where they had marched earlier that morning.
Washington Confronts Lee
As Washington’s main force approached the battlefield that morning, the commander began to receive reports that the American lines were in confusion. He came across the first retreating soldiers who told him the army was, in fact, in full retreat. At first, he thought they must be lying and ordered them detained. Then as he encountered more soldiers in retreat, he realized the terrible truth. The Continental army was, in fact, in full retreat.
Washington had long had a reputation for being nearly imperturbable. He never let his emotions show, except on very rare occasions. This was one of those rare occasions. Washington exploded in fury at his second in command. One officer later recounted that the stream of curses and invectives that flowed from Washington’s mouth caused the leaves on nearby trees to shake.
Washington left behind a dazed and flustered Lee and immediately assumed command of the field. He ordered retreating regiments turn around. He found Wayne and ordered him to take 600 men to form a line against the British vanguard, now estimated to be about fifteen minutes away.
At the same time, Lee had regained his composure and began forming defensive lines. The chagrined officer assured Washington he would be the last man to leave the field. The advancing British approached Lee’s lines. They also took fire on their right flank from Wayne’s force in the woods. The British immediately launched a bayonet charge into the woods to disperse Wayne’s division. Wayne’s men held their position, leading to some of the most brutal hand to hand combat of the day. Eventually the Americans withdrew before the superior force.
By this time Clinton’s main force had joined the battle. Lee’s defensive line held off a cavalry charge. Seeing that, Clinton personally drew his sword and ordered two battalions of grenadiers to charge the enemy line. The battle descended into chaos as the troops engaged. General Knox brought up several field cannons and devastated the British lines with grapeshot. Colonel Hamilton, Colonel Laurens, and Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burr all had their horses shot out from under him. Washington, who was riding all over the field, issuing orders and commanding movements had his own horse collapse and die from heat exhaustion.
As more British reinforcements joined the fray, Lee found his line threatened on both the right and left flanks. He ordered a slow and orderly withdrawal from the position. As the Americans withdrew, Lee, true to his word, was the last American to cross the bridge.
Clinton, however, was not finished yet. He ordered a division under General William Erskine to push into the west ravine and attack the Americans as they pulled back. Erskine ran into a larger enemy under General Lord Stirling and the two sides fired from their lines. Knox brought up artillery to support Stirling, while Clinton brought up more reinforcements and British artillery to reply. The result was one of the fiercest field artillery duels of the war, lasting for several hours.
|British Withdrawal (Wikimedia)
As dark fell across the field of battle, both sides settled into camps. Clinton had had enough fighting. Leaving his campfires burning, he marched his men off around midnight and fled the scene. The brutal night march which continued into following day allowed Clinton to catch up with the Hessian division and wagons.
From there, the Army moved unmolested to Sandy Hook, arriving on July 2. The British navy transported the army and equipment across the bay to New York City.
The British reported 123 killed, about half of those from enemy fire, the other half from heat exhaustion. They also reported 170 wounded and 64 missing. This was likely an undercount. The Americans reported burying four enemy officers and 245 soldiers. The Americans reported 106 killed, about one-third of them from heat, as well as 161 wounded and 132 missing.
The most important outcome though, was that the Americans held the field having faced down the British in a traditional European-style battlefield. Both sides seemed to find a new respect for the Continental Army as a result.
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Monmouth Courthouse: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/monmouth
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
(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.
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.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Alden, John Richard General Charles Lee, Traitor or Patriot? Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1951.
Bilby, Joseph & Katherine Bilby Jenkins Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, Westholme Pub. 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.