The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse

Routes taken by the Continental Army from Valley Forge (dark blue) and the British Army from Philadelphia (red) to the Battle of Monmouth. Where the roads allowed, the British first division took the western route while the second division followed a parallel route farther east. The dashed blue line shows Lafayette’s attempt to catch the British when he was commander of the vanguard.

General overview of the battle

Lee’s attack on the British rearguard

American rearguard action

British withdrawal and American attacks. The 1st Grenadier Battalion was left behind in the general withdrawal, and it was caught by Wayne’s Pennsylvania Brigade as it moved south to link up with the 4th Brigade (not shown). The 33rd Regiment of the 4th Brigade came up in support, and together they forced the Pennsylvanians to retreat until Greene’s artillery on Combs Hill forced the British to retreat in turn

28 June 1778

The British defeat at Saratoga in October 1777 changed everything. It convinced the French that the odds had shortened on a patriot victory, and they laid down a big bet in the shape of a formal alliance, ratified by Congress on 4 May 1778. Now Britain would be involved in a war far outreaching the importance of that being waged against the thirteen colonies. At stake would be not only its empire but also the very real possibility of an invasion of Britain itself. The West Indies were economically crucial to the British economy, and to defend them against French incursions would involve moving troops and ships from North America. Sir Henry Clinton, who had succeeded Sir William Howe as commander in chief in May 1778, was soon called on to send 5,000 men for an expedition against St. Lucia and, consequently, would be forced to abandon Philadelphia.

On 16 June 1778 the evacuation of the city began, and by the eighteenth all 10,000 British and Hessian troops had crossed the Delaware to begin the long hot slog back to New York. Danger lay all along the route, of course, but for Clinton the overland option seemed far preferable to having his whole army intercepted on the high seas by a French fleet. In any event, the thousands of Loyalists who desperately fought for berths in the limited transports available (a scramble reminiscent of the evacuation of Saigon in 1975) would have made it impossible for the British commander to have shipped his army and its huge baggage and artillery trains back to New York.

Washington, still in his encampment at Valley Forge, was faced with something of a dilemma. To take on the retreating British column offered the prospect of a victory that, on the heels of Burgoyne’s humiliation at Saratoga, almost certainly would have ended the war instanta. On the other hand, he could simply allow the British to return unmolested to New York, where they could be bottled up and allowed to wither without any risk to his own force. Washington, by nature, invariably favored the more aggressive approach. And although some historians have claimed that a resounding American defeat at the hands of Clinton in New Jersey could have jeopardized the whole war, it is difficult not to agree with Washington that at this stage of the game the benefits of victory far outweighed the risks.

The battle of Monmouth Courthouse that would take place in a three-mile-long by one-mile-wide corridor of “morasses” and ridges on 28 June 1778 would be not only the longest of the whole war but also the most tactically confused at the individual-unit level. Yet its overall architecture and dynamics are quite clear.

Clinton’s column, stretched out over twelve miles, lumbered through the scorching heat. Temperatures would top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) on the day of battle. At its head was the division commanded by the Hessian general Knyphausen. In the rear was the largest element, commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis; and sandwiched between both were the baggage and artillery, dictating the pace. The column moved slowly through dry sand roads that dragged on the wheels as effectively as mud. The army was like a great shaggy bear heading off to its lair with its shanks being constantly nipped and worried by patriot skirmishers that the beast would occasionally and ineffectively try to swat.

On 12 June Washington could report his main army strength at over 13,000, and despite the generally anemic response of most of his military council to the prospect of a general engagement (Charles Lee, for example, who had been exchanged from captivity in March, was particularly outspoken against what he saw as a disastrously overambitious attack, calling it “criminal”), Washington felt emboldened to test the British positions with a strong advance probe. He initially offered this assignment to Lee as the highest-ranking general under the commander in chief. Lee, perhaps bridling at what he saw as Washington’s favoritism of the young Lafayette, refused it with a patronizing nod to his youthful rival. This refusal of the command is interesting because it is usually seen as the crabby elder soldier’s condescension to a younger contender as being “a more proper business for a young volunteering general.” But perhaps Lee had grounds for his umbrage.

Lafayette has been described as “the logical candidate.” Washington was now placing his trust in him, but because Lafayette was only twenty years old in June 1778 and had very little combat or command experience, one has to doubt his credentials in the face of a slew of other contenders. And although a biographer, Harlow Giles Unger, describes Lafayette before the battle of Monmouth as “the next-highest-ranking combat officer” (after Lee), Washington’s favoring of the young man and his clumsy handling of Lee show a leader whose command effectiveness had been compromised by equivocation.

Washington held Lee in awe, as did many in the patriot officer corps, and his reward was to be the butt of Lee’s sneering. When Washington was struggling for survival during the retreat across the Jerseys in 1776, Lee almost contemptuously disregarded his pleas for reinforcement. When Lee was exchanged from captivity in March 1778, Washington put on a lavish show of welcome that Lee treated ungraciously. Washington would have had to be a saint not to have harbored some resentment at the Englishman’s hubris. Where as Charles Lee was a difficult man to like, unkempt, foulmouthed, and generally bizarre, Lafayette was charming and amiable, and showed an almost filial affection toward his commander in chief. Whatever the psychological shoals and riptides, Washington’s vacillations and maladroit attempts to “manage” the two men would be disastrous.

When the size of the advance guard became a substantial 4,000-plus, Lee about-faced and asserted his right by seniority to its command (he would be “disgraced” otherwise, he said), and Washington acquiesced, putting aside the uncomfortable fact that Lee vehemently opposed the commander in chief’s whole strategy. Reflecting the confusion he had created, as well perhaps as his reluctance to tackle Lee head-on, Washington’s orders were vague and contradictory. Lee was to bring on “an engagement or attack the enemy as soon as possible” but yet not allow himself to become embroiled. As to the tactical means, that was left up to Lee. The problem was Lee also had no idea what he intended to do, telling his commanders at 5:00 PM on the twenty-seventh that he could make no plan because he was ignorant of the terrain and the enemy’s strength.

Although Lee had been ordered to reconnoiter during the early hours of the twenty-eighth, he neglected to do so until around 6:00 AM, by which time Clinton had already sent off Knyphausen and the baggage on the northeast road toward Middletown, and shortly thereafter followed him with Cornwallis’s division. A rear guard was left at Monmouth Meeting House, and it was this that whetted Lee’s appetite. Lee’s disposition of his forces, however, was chaotic. They were “shifted about in kaleidoscopic arrangements and rearrangements” and served only to alert Clinton and Cornwallis, who, like an enraged bear, swung around and turned on their attackers. It was a very big bear. Cornwallis’s command (which Clinton accompanied) was composed of the brigade of Guards; both battalions of British grenadiers; all the Hessian grenadiers; both battalions of the British light infantry; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th infantry brigades; the 16th Light Dragoons; and John Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers, the premier Loyalist regiment.

It was little wonder that Lee’s command began to fall apart, and one of the ironies, given the complications of the Washington-Lee-Lafayette triangle, was that it was probably Lafayette’s shifting of position (unauthorized by Lee) which was mistakenly interpreted as a retreat and triggered a panicked response in other regiments. In no time Lee found himself swept up in a full-scale retreat, his men flowing back due west toward their starting positions to seek the refuge of the rest of the army some five miles back. A battle that Washington had always intended (despite his more pusillanimous advisers) to be highly aggressive had been turned on its head. The hunters were now the hunted.

With chivalric heroism, legend has it, Washington rode among the retreating and defeated, astride his great white charger, rallying and returning them to the fight by the sheer magnetism of his personality. To add to the irony of Lafayette’s contribution to Lee’s discombobulation, one of the primary contributors to the Washington legend (some might even say deification) was none other than Lafayette himself. In his Mémoires, published in 1837, three years after his death, he remembered: “General Washington was never greater in battle than in this action. His presence stopped the retreat; his strategy secured the victory. His stately appearance on horseback, his calm, dignified courage, tinged only slightly by the anger caused by the unfortunate incident in the morning, provoked a wave of enthusiasm among the troops.” Lee was stopped by Washington and given, by popular account, a scorching public tongue-lashing, which reduced the little bombast to spluttering incoherence. (Washington would later deny using any “singular expressions.”)

Heroic intervention may well have played its part, but as Washington created his defensive line on the high ground above the western “morass,” it was something altogether less romantic that held the army together: von Steuben’s long training sessions of formation drill and volley fire during the Valley Forge winter. (Alexander Hamilton would later record that he had never understood the point of military discipline until he saw von Steuben’s “reformed” army at work that afternoon.) At first against Stirling on the American left wing, then against Greene on the right and Washington in the center, the British and Hessians threw in attack after attack, which, although executed with extraordinary commitment and sacrifice, withered under disciplined musketry and artillery fire. The patriot lines would not be broken.

As evening drew on, this, the longest battle of the war, literally burned itself out, both armies exhausted by the unrelenting heat. The British recorded “3 sergeants, 56 rank and file died with fatigue [sunstroke].” The Americans lost thirty-six to the same cause. A standoff artillery duel was all either side could muster. Washington, aggressive as always, was not prepared to accept the failure of his original intention and ordered Brigadier General William Woodford’s Virginians and Clark’s North Carolinians to counterattack on both British flanks. The fast-closing night, however, put an end to any further action, and at midnight the wily Clinton slipped away and rejoined Knyphausen. A week later he and his army were safely in New York.

The battle of Monmouth, if reduced to a description of unit movements, is confusing and frustrating because many of the sources are contradictory. But there is a fascinating, if conjectural, connective vein that runs though it: the idea of betrayal. If Lee had betrayed Washington’s trust in the past (he may also have more literally betrayed the American cause while in British captivity), Washington certainly had his revenge by battle’s end. A cynic might conclude that Washington’s special relationship with Lafayette, his muddying of the command structure, his vague instructions, and Lafayette’s own conduct during the first phase of the battle, “set up” the unfortunate and unsympathetic Lee for failure: a failure for which he would be, conveniently, the scapegoat.

Lee’s own temperament could not have been more useful to Washington. Lee simply self-destructed under the disgrace, insulted the commander in chief in writing, and was thrown out of the army. One last irony, though, is that many of the officers—both American and British—present during the first phase attested that Lee’s conduct in the face of an overwhelming British force was appropriate and carried out with military professionalism. For Washington it must have been an irony sweetly to be savored.

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