Monmouth, New Jersey

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Monmouth, New Jersey

MONMOUTH, NEW JERSEY. The Battle of Monmouth, on 28 June 1778, was one of the most complex, least decisive, and ultimately most controversial actions fought by the Continental army during the Revolution. It implicated the reputation of George Washington, the army's commander in chief; it ended the military career of Washington's principal subordinate commander, Charles Lee; and in many respects it ended both the middle period of the war and major campaigning in the northern states. Understanding the dynamics of the battle is impossible without considering the state of the Revolution itself in the early summer of 1778.

THE BATTLE'S CONTEXT

The Valley Forge winter ended neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but rather with a frenetic flurry of activity as both sides adjusted to the fact that a war for independence had become entangled with—or even subsumed by—a world war between Great Britain and France. The announcement in early May 1778 of the February treaties of alliance and commerce between France and the United States provided the occasion for a demonstration at Valley Forge of the new drilling skills of the American army after six weeks of intensive training under the Prussian volunteer, Friedrich Steuben. Whether or not the army's capacity to march, whirl, and display on the camp's Grand Parade ground would reflect or predict its ability to perform better in harsh combat conditions than it had the previous year at Brandywine and Germantown was not known. Whether its next battle, at Monmouth seven weeks later, meaningfully tested that question, is a matter of debate among modern historians. The view expressed below is that it did not.

The entry of France into the war meant that Britain would reduce its levels of material involvement in the North American colonies, first in order to protect its even more vital economic interests in the West Indies sugar islands, which were sure to be a focus of naval activity, and second in order to guard against invasion across the English Channel. On the North American continent, military resources would be deployed more selectively. New York City would remain the British headquarters. Major detachments would be made to the Caribbean and to East and West Florida. The British army would intensify its search for a soft or vulnerable location where enthusiastic civilian support of the king would multiply the return on military investment. Pennsylvania had clearly not proved to be such a place during and after the 1777 campaign. In practice, British land campaigning would be pulled toward the one remaining area where this theory had not been tested: the southern plantation states. There, land troops could also cooperate more easily and supportively with British naval forces operating nearby, in and around the Caribbean Basin.

MARCHING THROUGH NEW JERSEY

The new British commander in chief, Henry Clinton, arrived in Philadelphia in early May to take command of the army from William Howe. He had been directed by the War Office to detach troops to the southern theaters from that place. Operating within a reasonable window of command discretion, however, he decided that such a delicate operation could best be performed from New York rather than Philadelphia. He therefore began preparing the army for withdrawal from Pennsylvania. When the large and influential Delaware Valley Loyalist community, whose members had risked their fortunes for the crown, resisted being abandoned by the redcoats, Clinton knew that he would have to offer its members passage to New York. This would encumber Lord Howe's fleet and require the British army to march back overland to New York.

Washington and his commanders knew that Philadelphia would be evacuated soon. During the spring he canvassed his generals on a range of options, from attacking Philadelphia, to transferring the "seat of war" to New York, to letting the British initiate the campaign. The generals split on these alternatives and Washington himself chose to wait and see. By early June the decision made itself. The British accelerated their preparations to retreat to New York while the Americans concentrated on building up their forces, making logistical preparations for the new campaign, and pressing Steuben's training program to the maximum possible extent.

Clinton began loading his ships and ferrying troops and equipment across the Delaware to New Jersey after 11 June. Washington's logistical officers responded by plotting out routes toward the Delaware above Trenton and from there toward the Hudson, and by stocking supply depots along those routes. On 16 June, Washington issued orders for the army's march toward three river crossing points between Coryell's Ferry and Easton. The news two days later that the British had evacuated Philadelphia triggered a race toward the north. The British force of about ten thousand men (many of the German troops were sent with the fleet) marched in two parallel columns north through New Jersey along the Delaware River toward Allentown, southeast of Trenton. They were encumbered by a large baggage train, which—with the columns themselves—stretched awkwardly for almost twelve miles. The weather was hot and the roads were badly worn. Washington's troops left Valley Forge, continuing to display their ability to march very quickly, something that they had done the previous summer and fall, long before Steuben began to train them. Lightly encumbered by baggage, they reached and crossed the Delaware before Clinton's force reached the bend in that river below Trenton. When Washington reassembled his army in Hopewell, New Jersey, he decided that it might be appropriate to go on the offensive. A council of war on 24 June split on the matter. A majority of generals, led by Charles Lee, argued for at most a cautious engagement with rear elements of Clinton's force but for avoiding a general engagement. A smaller number, articulated by Nathanael Greene and Anthony Wayne, wanted more aggressive measures. Washington favored the latter position but held his counsel.

Clinton's scouts kept him aware of the shadowy presence of this Continental escort, and—feeling pressured by it—he abandoned plans to march straight across the waist of New Jersey to New Brunswick and Perth Amboy, and from there across Staten Island toward New York City. Instead, Clinton bent his march northeast toward Sandy Hook, in Monmouth County, from where the army would have to be ferried up the harbor to the tip of Manhattan Island. This course took the British army through an alternating landscape of farmland and barrens or wetlands, with the latter increasing as it approached the Atlantic coast. The roads became increasingly sandy. The army, now marching as a single column rather than two, spread over an even longer stretch of terrain. Soldiers in woolen uniforms began to feel the effects of an early summer heat wave.

The Americans were moving due east from Princeton through Cranbury, closing on the left rear flank of the British army. Clinton sent much of his baggage, and the units in which he had the least confidence—consisting of about four thousand troops—to the front of his column, under the command of the German general, Wilhelm Knyphausen. He commanded the main body of the army itself, numbering about six thousand men, from the center, and dispatched Lord Cornwallis to the rear of the column to guard against sniping attacks. He intended to have Knyphausen march rapidly toward Middletown and then to Sandy Hook. Cornwallis would move more leisurely, while Clinton himself would lag in the middle in order to be able to support Cornwallis if his tempting presence drew the Americans into a general engagement. Clinton's main responsibility was to get his army back into headquarters unharmed and quickly enough to make the strategic detachments ordered by the War Department. But he had no objection to an opportunity to bloody his adversary on the way there if Washington was willing to fight it out.

THE BATTLE SETTING

On 25 June, Washington decided to send forward a probing detachment of about fifteen hundred men to see if Cornwallis's rear guard might be roughed up. He offered command of the detachment, as a matter of protocol, to General Lee, but Lee—having counseled against aggressive tactics and considering the projected probe to be at best a paltry maneuver—refused the assignment. Washington then gave his protégé, the Marquis de Lafayette, the command of the enterprise. As an evolving series of decisions increased the number of troops committed to the enterprise to twenty-five hundred, and then to four thousand men, Lee reconsidered the matter and claimed the right to command it as a prerogative of his rank as second-in-command of the army as a whole. Washington may have thought better about allowing a dissenter against offensive action to undertake the project, but he again deferred to Lee's entitlement as a matter of military custom. By late in the day on the 27th, the detachment had been increased again to about five thousand men.

On that day the British rested at a sandy crossroads village called Monmouth Court House, where the seat of the county government and its judicial bodies sat. The courthouse lay at the intersection of five roads that converged from all directions across central northeastern New Jersey. A small stream called Wemrock Brook, and its several branches, carved the countryside into a series of ravines—designated the West, Middle, and East Ravines—interspersed with piney woods and marshy lowlands. Washington did no more—indeed, he did considerably less—than he had done the day before the Battle of Brandywine nine months earlier, to survey the ground that might be fought over. If he had developed an overly complex tactical plan for the attack at Germantown, now he obviated that difficulty by developing no particular plan at all. Rather, he directed Lee and his subordinate officers, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Generals Anthony Wayne, William Maxwell, and Charles Scott, to push ahead of the main American force and to make contact the next day with rear units of Clinton's army. If they could precipitate a significant engagement without becoming overwhelmed, they should do that. Washington promised to be following nearby with the main body of the army, close enough to the action to reinforce Lee and his commanders whenever necessary.

EARLY AMERICAN RETREAT

In the middle of the night on 27 June, Clinton sent Knyphausen and his segment of the army forward toward Middletown with the baggage train. Clinton followed with the rest of the army toward daybreak on the 28th. Washington had almost immediate notice of the movement and he ordered Lee to engage the enemy as soon as possible. Some of Lee's skirmishers clashed briefly and inconclusively with Knyphausen's force beyond the sleeping village, but they broke off the chase. Lee then brought his main body of troops up and formed a line along the road between the courthouse and the East Ravine to the northwest. Clinton waited until Knyphausen's troops and wagons were well under way and then ordered Cornwallis to turn around and march back to Monmouth to receive Lee's force. Lee's improvised arrangement of units was struggling to maintain its shape as more and more British troops arrived on the battlefield against it. His efforts to shift regiments from one location to another as the clash grew were counterproductive. It soon became clear that generals such as Lafayette and Wayne, who had advocated engaging the British in councils of war, were less than confident under the direction of Lee, who had not. The confusion communicated itself to ordinary soldiers as an invitation to panic, and groups of men began to withdraw in search of safer positions. Lee decided that he had little ability to protect his force as a whole, especially against mounted redcoats, who could maneuver easily in sand and swamps while exhausted American infantrymen were all but helpless there. Lee tried to retract his troops toward the second ravine, but the retreat quickly became a general one.

Washington, meanwhile, pursuant to his promise to Lee and the other commanders the previous evening, was hurrying his main body of troops toward Monmouth Court House to support what he hoped would become a decisively successful action. He expressed puzzlement when initial indications that the battle had been joined were followed by silence as the retreat began. Lee, Wayne, and Lafayette heroically struggled with some success to reform their units and to stop the withdrawal, but stragglers from the various divisions moved to the west. By ones and twos, and then by small groups, these individuals came into Washington's line of vision as he hurried toward the village. He incredulously and angrily queried several of these parties, not wanting to believe, and then not understanding, as evidence mounted of an action going badly wrong.

Washington finally encountered Lee himself near the West Ravine. He heatedly demanded an explanation of the situation from Lee, who took several minutes even to become coherent. Lee believed that he had creditably extracted his force from imminent disaster stemming from intelligence problems and insubordinate assistants, complicated by Clinton's unexpected willingness to commit a large part of his force to repel an attack on his rear guard. He professed incredulity that, instead of being congratulated, he was subjected to an impromptu cross-examination. When Washington expressed angry dissatisfaction with Lee's explanations, perhaps inevitably, the latter reminded his commander that he had urged against instigating a general action. This rightly caused Washington to exclaim that orders were orders, whatever the recipient may have thought about their soundness, and, inevitably, to wonder why Lee had accepted the command of the detachment in the first place if he was opposed to its mission.

Both men then remembered that a battle was raging around them, and Washington, as was his custom, moved forward toward the fighting to try to restore order. At Brandywine the previous year, he had done the same thing, except that he had then worked toward the rear of the Birmingham Meeting clash. At Monmouth he headed forward toward the point of action. Before he moved out, Washington ordered Nathanael Greene, who was in the main section of the army that had arrived with Washington, to move his division to the right onto a hill to try to cover the battlefield. Greene took several artillery units with him and scrambled onto the elevation.

THE AMERICANS REGROUP

Washington then learned that Cornwallis, after allowing the Americans to retreat in front of him with relatively little pressure, had begun to advance, hoping to turn the withdrawal into a rout like the one at Germantown. The redcoats were less than fifteen minutes away, moving between the East and Middle Ravines. Washington assumed that the British would continue their march toward Middletown and Sandy Hook after repelling Lee's probe, rather than continue the action. The news that he was mistaken portended a long and difficult afternoon. His aides found an officer from the New Jersey line who was familiar with the ground in the area and who suggested that it could be defended. Washington ordered that the most stricken and heat-exhausted of the retreating troops should be taken into the woods in the immediate rear to be cooled, calmed, and refreshed. Of the remaining units in the forward group, Anthony Wayne's appeared to be the most intact. Washington sought to use it to anchor a holding action until he could bring the fresh troops that he had brought forward into play. He ordered several broken regiments to merge temporarily into a new one and placed them behind a hedgerow near the West Ravine. Wayne would nominally command the holding action. Washington and Charles Lee achieved a sort of impromptu battlefield détente when the commander in chief asked, and his subordinate agreed, that Lee assume command of the rear guard supporting Wayne's troops. Nathanael Greene's force—including some artillery—which had shifted to the American right, overlooked the scene from an elevation known as Comb's Hill. Henry Knox, the commander of the Continental artillery forces, took the rest of his gunmen to an elevation on the left side of the American line, which also commanded the impending clash.

Before these positions could be consolidated the advancing redcoats, displaying the wall of bayonets that were famously presumed to terrorize less seasoned and less disciplined troops, reached the front and fell on the Americans. General Clinton also brought up mounted troops—another element in which the British had a clear technical superiority to the revolutionaries. These cavalry charged into the Continental line. The fighting became fierce in the late afternoon heat. The Americans at first seemed to buckle under the pressure but then regrouped and resisted furiously. Gradually and grudgingly, the Continentals yielded control of the West Ravine, but Lee's reserves absorbed some of the pressure and prevented the American line from breaking down. At this point the American artillery, advantageously positioned on the heights on both sides of the battlefront, emerged as a decisive element. Greene's units and Knox's force fired from close range into both sides of the British advance, and redcoat casualties mounted sharply. Clinton's heavy guns attempted to suppress the American fire, but they were firing from the plain onto small rises on either side and were unable to accomplish their objective. The general slope of the ground meant that the British were mostly fighting uphill, even when they moved forward.

Clinton made several more almost desperate efforts to throw enough strength at the American line to break it and thereby to secure the ground beyond the ravine, but in every case the advances were driven back with heavy casualties on both sides. After 5 p.m., with considerable daylight remaining barely a week past the summer solstice, there were indications that the British attack was ebbing. Washington was tempted to resume the role of the aggressor and to try to drive the British from the battlefield, but with the continuing heat, the need to attend to casualties, and a sense of the army's long-term interests, he declined to do so. Clinton withdrew his army to Monmouth Court House and camped overnight. As William Howe had done at Brandywine, Washington camped on the battlefield, claiming one of the main technical criteria of victory. He planned to resume the action in the morning, but the British rose early and marched toward Sandy Hook, from where they were ferried into New York City.

WHO WON?

While both sides claimed victory in the engagement, they implicitly did so on the basis of different assessments of what the battle had been about and what their objectives for it were. For the first time in a year and one-half—since Trenton and Princeton—the Americans could make a plausible claim to be called the victors in a significant armywide confrontation. Their casualties were somewhat fewer than those of the British (see below); they slept on the core part of the battlefield while the enemy pulled back and then withdrew altogether; and they measurably improved their confidence in terms of being able to hold their own in the face of enemy fire. Still, the battle itself was a hybrid or even a mongrelized event, and the British had a plausible case to make as well. General Clinton was trying to get his awkward train of men and equipment back to New York City, and he did so expeditiously, after fighting off a concerted rebel effort to disrupt his march. From the British perspective, a rebel insurgency had morphed into a more familiar Atlantic and even a global war against an enemy that they knew well how to fight. They were determined to embrace that reality, and Monmouth did nothing to prevent that end.

POST-ACTION CONTROVERSY

The outcome at Monmouth at first split and then solidified the American command structure. Although Washington and Charles Lee patched up their confrontation and worked together on the battlefield to extract the army from danger, Lee could not contain his anger. He had expected to be praised for doing just that with the forward elements when he met Washington behind the Middle Ravine on June 28, and he was amazed to be criticized instead. Several days of brooding enlarged this hurt into the sense that he had actually delivered Clinton's and Cornwallis's rear guard into Washington's hands on advantageous terrain, and that he was thus significantly responsible for any success. Washington could brook neither of these claims, especially since they were delivered to him in several impetuous and curt letters, which implied that Lee hoped to defend his honor in an administrative proceeding. Washington was more than willing to give him that opportunity. On 30 June he had Lee formally arrested in preparation for a court-martial. He charged Lee with disobedience of his orders for failing to attack the enemy, of "misbehavior" for "making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat," and finally with displaying disrespect to himself in the course of their post-battle correspondence.

To address these charges here would be to re-describe the battle and is not really necessary. Historians generally agree that Lee was innocent of the first two charges but unquestionably guilty of the third. The strategic and political needs of the Continental establishment itself, and of its military institutions, cannot be separated from an account of the post-action controversy. Washington had withstood what he and his partisans believed to have been a winter-long effort by his enemies—represented principally by General Thomas Conway—to undermine his position and supplant him from his command. He had made significant strides in shaping the army that he himself called "new" the previous summer into a credible long-term military instrument. The Revolution had been irrevocably transformed by the reality of French diplomatic recognition and material assistance and by the fact of the new international war.

How these circumstances would impact the battlefield was not clear, but the commander in chief's impregnable control of the army had to be reaffirmed. Washington's officer corps had overwhelmingly rallied around him at Valley Forge, despite some inevitable carping and complaint. The court-martial staff was drawn from that corps, and Lee's fate was sealed: he was convicted on all three of Washington's charges. Congress confirmed the result, although it modified some of the specific language of the decree and softened the penalty. Lee was suspended from his commission in late 1778 and—after continuing to protest bitterly his innocence—dismissed from the army two years later. He died in 1782 in obscurity and became a temporary scapegoat for the Revolution's travails. If not for the disgrace in 1780 of Benedict Arnold—who spent the week of Monmouth reestablishing Revolutionary control in Philadelphia as its temporary military governor—Lee might have become the great scapegoat of the war itself.

ASSESSING STEUBEN'S IMPACT

As it had after another engagement in central New Jersey eighteen months before—the Battle of Princeton—the Continental army veered northwest from Monmouth Court House in a relatively exuberant mood. If it had not earned an unequivocal victory, it had at least showed its mettle and resourcefulness. It is doubtful that Monmouth provides, as some scholars have claimed, the "proof of the forge," convincing evidence of the transformational character of the army's stoic virtue on the Schuylkill River and of Friedrich Steuben's professional training of its members. The battle was too idiosyncratic in its structure and cadence to constitute such a test. The Continentals showed much of the willingness to attack a stronger force that they had done at Germantown the year before. When that attack quickly unravelled—whether because of the ineptness of Lee or the impulsiveness of his immediate subordinates—the privates showed the same ability to regroup under hot fire that they had done at Brandywine. Once Washington reestablished a stable front line, they withstood repeated charges from some of Clinton's best units in a way that may well suggest general improvements over the preceding ten months. This probably reflects, however, the contributions of Continental artillery forces, which seized advantageous high ground on either side of the West Ravine, and whose members repeatedly fired devastating volleys into the flanks of the British attackers during the last hours of the battle. If so, it should be noted that these skillful, fractious individualists were less involved in Steuben's training exercises at Valley Forge than perhaps any other parts of the army.

After Monmouth, the army did little if any organizationwide campaigning in the North for the rest of the war. Washington marched his force to White Plains, New York, east of the Hudson River. After surveying its condition, he gradually distributed it along a broad crescent running from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Westchester County, New York, then stretching across the Hudson at the Highlands and finally curving south and east across the New York-New Jersey border to an anchor on the Atlantic near New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. The "lessons" of Valley Forge that Washington applied between 1778 and 1783 reflected the value of maintaining an alert but loose grip around an entrenched, urban enemy headquarters.

The patrolling and skirmishing that the army did in support of this modest but critical mission depended less on Steuben's manual of arms and close-order drill than on a pride in military professionalism and a commitment to the principles of civilian supremacy and republican liberty. The impromptu Continental march to Yorktown and the 1781 siege there, as well as the use of elements from the northern army in the chaotic southern campaigns of 1778–1781, may reinforce Monmouth's role in demonstrating the army's conventional combat prowess imbibed at Valley Forge. But if this is the case, that point remains to be demonstrated.

CASUALTIES

These are more highly disputed and indeterminable than for most Revolutionary war actions. The Americans suffered at least 106 men killed, 161 wounded, and 95 missing, some of whom undoubtedly died, probably of the heat, and were buried in the woods near the battlefield. The British admitted losses of 177 killed, 170 wounded, and 64 missing. Again, heat-related deaths were considerable on both sides and may not have been included in official totals.

SEE ALSO Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Clinton, Henry; Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of; Greene, Nathanael; Howe, William; Knyphausen, Wilhelm; Lafayette, Marquis de; Lee Court Martial; Lee, Charles (1731–1782); Maxwell, William; Princeton, New Jersey; Scott, Charles; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von; Wayne, Anthony.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

An Account of the Action from Brandywine to Monmouth: A Seminar on the Impact of the Revolutionary War on the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: Council of American Revolutionary Sites, 1997.

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington, A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Smith, Samuel Stelle. The Battle of Monmouth. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1964.

Stryker, William S. The Battle of Monmouth. 1927. Reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970.

                              revised by Wayne K. Bodle