American Revolution: Battle of Monmouth

Fighting at the Battle of Monmouth
Washington at the Battle of Monmouth. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Monmouth was fought on June 28, 1778, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Major General Charles Lee commanded 12,000 men of the Continental Army under the leadership of General George Washington. For the British, General Sir Henry Clinton commanded 11,000 men under the leadership of Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis. The weather was extremely hot during the battle, and almost as many soldiers died from heatstroke as from battle.

Background

With the French entry into the American Revolution in February 1778, British strategy in America began to shift as the war became increasingly global in nature. As a result, the newly appointed commander of the British Army in America, General Sir Henry Clinton, received orders to dispatch part of his forces to the West Indies and Florida. Though the British had captured the rebel capital of Philadelphia in 1777, Clinton, soon to be short on men, decided to abandon the city the following spring to focus on protecting his base at New York City. Assessing the situation, he originally wanted to withdraw his army by sea, but a shortage of transports compelled him to plan a march north. On June 18, 1778, Clinton began evacuating the city, with his troops crossing the Delaware at Cooper's Ferry. Moving northeast, Clinton initially intended to march overland to New York, but later opted to move toward Sandy Hook and take boats to the city.

Washington's Plan

While the British commenced planning their departure from Philadelphia, General George Washington's army was still at its winter quarters encampment at Valley Forge, where it had been tirelessly drilled and trained by Baron von Steuben. Learning of Clinton's intentions, Washington sought to engage the British before they could reach the safety of New York. While many of Washington's officers favored this aggressive approach, Major General Charles Lee strenuously objected. A recently released prisoner of war and an adversary of Washington's, Lee argued that the French alliance meant victory in the long run and that it was foolish to commit the army to battle unless they had overwhelming superiority over the enemy. Weighing the arguments, Washington elected to pursue Clinton. In New Jersey, Clinton's march was moving slowly due to an extensive baggage train.

Arriving at Hopewell, NJ, on June 23, Washington held a council of war. Lee once again argued against a major attack, and this time managed to sway his commander. Encouraged in part by suggestions made by Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, Washington decided instead to send a force of 4,000 men to harass Clinton's rear guard. Due to his seniority in the army, Lee was offered command of this force by Washington. Lacking confidence in the plan, Lee declined this offer and it was given to the Marquis de Lafayette. Later in the day, Washington enlarged the force to 5,000. Upon hearing this, Lee changed his mind and demanded that he be given command, which he received with strict orders that he was to hold a meeting of his officers to determine the plan of attack.

Lee's Attack and Retreat

On June 28, Washington received word from the New Jersey militia that the British were on the move. Directing Lee forward, he instructed him to strike the flank of the British as they marched up Middletown Road. This would halt the enemy and allow Washington to bring up the main body of the army. Lee obeyed Washington's earlier order and held a conference with his commanders. Rather than devising a plan, he told them to be alert for orders during the battle. Around 8 p.m. on June 28, Lee's column encountered the British rear guard under Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis just north of Monmouth Court House. Rather than launch a coordinated attack, Lee committed his troops piecemeal and quickly lost control of the situation. After a few hours of fighting, the British moved to flank Lee's line. Seeing this movement, Lee ordered a general retreat up the Freehold Meeting House-Monmouth Court House Road after offering little resistance.

Washington to the Rescue

While , Washington was bringing up the main army. Riding forward, he encountered the fleeing soldiers from Lee's command. Appalled by the situation, he located Lee and demanded to know what had happened. After receiving no satisfactory answer, Washington rebuked Lee in one of the few instances in which he swore publicly. Dismissing his subordinate, Washington set to rallying Lee's men. Ordering Wayne to establish a line north of the road to slow the British advance, he worked to establish a defensive line along a hedgerow. These efforts held off the British long enough to allow the army to take up positions to the west, behind the West Ravine. Moving into place, the line saw Major General William Alexander's men on the left and Major General Nathanael Greene's troops to the right. The line was supported to the south by artillery on Comb's Hill.

Falling back to the main army, the remnants of Lee's forces, now led by Lafayette, re-formed to the rear of the new American line with the British in pursuit. The training and discipline instilled by von Steuben at Valley Forge paid dividends, and the Continental troops were able to fight the British regulars to a standstill. Late in the afternoon, with both sides bloodied and exhausted from the summer heat, the British broke off the battle and withdrew toward New York. Washington wished to continue the pursuit, but his men were too exhausted and Clinton had reached the safety of Sandy Hook.

The Legend of Molly Pitcher

While many of the details regarding the involvement of a "Molly Pitcher" in the fighting at Monmouth have been embellished or are in dispute, it seems there was indeed a woman who brought water to American artillerymen during the battle. This would have been no small feat, as it was desperately needed not only to alleviate the men's suffering in the intense heat but also to swab the guns during the reloading process. In one version of the story, Molly Pitcher even took over from her husband on a gun crew when he fell, either wounded or from heatstroke. It is believed that Molly's real name was Mary Hayes McCauly, but, again, the exact details and extent of her assistance during the battle is unknown.

Aftermath

Casualties for the Battle of Monmouth, as reported by each commander, were 69 killed in battle, 37 dead from heatstroke, 160 wounded, and 95 missing for the Continental Army. British casualties included 65 killed in battle, 59 dead from heatstroke, 170 wounded, 50 captured, and 14 missing. In both cases, these numbers are conservative and losses were more likely 500–600 for Washington and over 1,100 for Clinton. The battle was the last major engagement fought in the northern theater of the war. Thereafter, the British holed up in New York and shifted their attention to the southern colonies. Following the battle, Lee requested a court-martial to prove that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Washington obliged and filed formal charges. Six weeks later, Lee was found guilty and suspended from the service.