The Battle of Monmouth
Learn more about the 1778 Battle of Monmouth in our Digital Encyclopedia.
George Washington's Mount Vernon had the opportunity to speak with Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone about their recently published book, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle. Fatal Sunday is the new, definitive account of this important, but often overlooked, Revolutionary War campaign in New Jersey.
We came to Monmouth from several directions. First, there was a gap in the military literature—historians have known for years that the Monmouth campaign needed a thorough new study. The battle had a reputation as one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) of Revolutionary engagements to understand; but we had access to a wealth of new sources, including some wonderful archaeology, that allowed us to decipher the course of events. What we found gave us a much deeper appreciation of what American and British troops endured over the course of an agonizing day. We were also convinced the campaign had a largely neglected political dimension. Monmouth was the first battle to test Washington as commander-in-chief after the Conway Cabal affair, the first battle after the British decided to shift their strategy away from the American North, and the first opportunity to demonstrate any influence Steuben’s training regimen at Valley Forge had on the combat effectiveness of the Continental Line. All of these matters had a direct bearing on the intertwined military and political aspects of the patriot war effort; in fact, we’ve argued that the Monmouth campaign was essential to Washington’s rise to “indispensable” status, and thus critical to the success of the Revolution itself.
The British position is easiest to explain. Britain realized a military decision in the North was unlikely, and with France now in the war, it needed troops to defend the rest of the empire. The ministry decided to evacuate Philadelphia and re-deploy much of the army to other theaters (including the American South) considered more critical to imperial interests or more likely to produce favorable results. The British commander-in-chief, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, had orders to get his command back to New York City and undertake the necessary re-deployment; and given a shortage of shipping, that meant marching most of his troops across New Jersey. If Washington showed fight, Clinton would have been delighted; but his job was to get his men back to New York. The American task was trickier. Washington knew his army was better than it was in 1777—but how much better? He didn’t want to risk a major defeat in chasing Clinton. That would have been militarily and politically disastrous; but politically he couldn’t afford to let Clinton just march away. He needed positive results to bolster his own standing and to buoy patriot morale after the Valley Forge ordeal. So Washington decided to shadow Clinton, try to close, and land a strong punch—enough for a limited victory claim—without bringing on a general engagement. That is, he had to avoid letting Clinton get clean away, or letting Clinton draw him into a showdown battle.
Not really—not that Clinton didn’t want them to try. Patriot scouts were positive Clinton’s desire for a major battle accounted for his slow pace across New Jersey and for his relatively lengthy stay in and around the village of Monmouth Court House (also called Freehold). Terrain favored the British around Freehold, so any heavy fighting would have worked against a significant American attack. Some patriots, notably Pennsylvania major general John Cadwalader, did want a real battle, arguing an American defeat would still hurt the British and wouldn’t mean much with the French entering the war. There was some logic to this view, but it was very much a minority opinion. Most senior patriot officers eventually agreed with Washington’s decision to hit Clinton as hard as possible without risking a general engagement.
Yes, but it should not be exaggerated. The core of the Continental Army consisted of veterans who had fought well at Brandywine, Germantown, and elsewhere. But Knox and Steuben had made good use of their time at Valley Forge. The Continental Artillery performed superbly at Monmouth. Evidence of Steuben’s training can be found in the Lee court martial accounts of Butler’s march on Monmouth Court House and Jackson’s rapid swinging his men from column to front to face the 16th Light Dragoons. Most telling, however, are the descriptions of Colonel Joseph Cilley leading a battalion of picked men against the Royal Highlanders. Drawn from 18 battalions, Cilley’s picked men had never had a chance to drill together, but the colonel was able to lead them through complicated maneuvers, sometimes under fire, to force the Highlanders off of the field. By standardizing drill, Steuben had improved the maneuverability, effectiveness, and morale of the Continental Army.
Charles Lee had a difficult assignment. He had to lead a vanguard of some 3,500 to 4,000 men of mixed commands, led by officers he didn’t know, into terrain he didn’t know, against an enemy whose strength and intentions were unknown. He had to do this in the face of conflicting intelligence reports and without adequate cavalry or other scouting capabilities. Nevertheless Lee executed a nearly perfect movement to contact, quickly assessed the enemy situation, and formulated a reasonable plan to cut off what he thought was a relatively small British rear guard. It would have been exactly the limited blow and victory Washington had in mind. When faced with an overwhelming British counter-attack, and an unauthorized retreat by a sizable part of his command, Lee pulled back in fairly good order, looking for a place to make a stand until Washington brought up the main army. When he met the commander-in-chief—and the two generals had their famous contretemps—Lee in fact was headed for the very ground on which Washington organized the main American line. Lee then fought an admirable delaying action at the Hedgerow, buying the time Washington needed to form the main army. Charles Lee certainly made some mistakes—lots of officers did that day—but all in all he fought a good battle at Monmouth.
Lee’s battlefield performance at Monmouth did not merit a court martial, and it’s important to note that Washington never requested one. After Lee’s turbulent correspondence to the commander-in-chief, Washington asked only for a court of inquiry into Lee’s conduct—it was Lee who demanded a full court martial. Despite the verdict of the court martial, Lee did not disobey positive orders to attack (his orders from Washington were discretionary) and he did not conduct a disorderly retreat; he did as well as any officer could have under the circumstances. But Lee was disrespectful to Washington, which was foolish in the extreme. It was also Lee’s inability to control his temper and wounded sense of honor that, in effect, forced the army, and subsequently Congress, to choose between him and Washington. Lee’s friends warned him against this, but he was his own worst enemy. One of the army’s top generals had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Washington.
Yes and no. “Molly Pitcher” is historical fiction, a mythic character celebrating the strength and courage of American women. The published facts are mostly false, and the painted and printed images of Molly are ridiculous. The facts behind the fiction are that during the American Revolution, at least two women did fight in the artillery: Margaret Corbin at Fort Washington (where she was wounded) and Mary Hays at Monmouth. While the documentation of Mary’s actions at Monmouth is thin, it is consistent and plausible. Her husband was a gunner in Captain Francis Proctor’s artillery company and a physician’s memoir places Proctor at the north end of Perrines Hill. There Joseph Plumb Martin saw a woman carrying cartridges to the loader of a 4-pounder field piece. We know the location of this field piece. One of the cartridges broke, and archaeologists found four of the dropped 2-ounce case shot.
At the time, little notice was taken of Mary’s actions. There were soldiers’ wives with all of the armies. They received rations and theoretically were under military discipline. Many did washing and mending for the officers. At Monmouth, a woman participated in Wayne’s attack on the British rear, and a British soldier’s companion was killed when Monmouth County militia attacked the British baggage train.
His contemporaries considered Monmouth one of Washington’s finest hours. In fact, he was a bit slow in bringing up the main army while Lee’s vanguard was engaged, but when faced with the realities of Clinton’s counter-attack, Washington reacted effectively and decisively. He arranged for the necessary delaying action (which he assigned to Lee and Anthony Wayne), organized the main Continental line on Perrine’s Hill, and was a picture of cool leadership the rest of the day. He displayed no theatrics (unlike Clinton who led from the front), but showed himself to the troops and encouraged them—a fine example of steadiness under fire—and he managed the battle by sending out small counter-attacks during the afternoon. He was very much in command of the situation, and his army knew it. His evening advance of his main line allowed patriots to claim the field—a huge moral statement. The Battle of Monmouth was a pivotal moment for the general; it was the success he needed to dispel lingering doubts about his ability as commander-in-chief, affirm is grip on the army, and free himself from serious public criticism for the rest of the war. It was only after Monmouth that Washington became the iconic “man on the white horse” (although he rode a dark mount at Monmouth!).
It was a stupendous victory for Washington. The battle was indeed a tactical draw, but only from a narrow, post-action, battlefield perspective. Look at the two commanders’ tactical goals as of midday, June 28th—Clinton wanted to destroy a significant portion of the Continental Army and he failed utterly. On the other hand, Washington wanted a limited engagement with limited damage to the Continental Army and that is exactly what he got. Step back further, and consider the commanders’ wishes as of June 24th after the Continental Army council of war at Hopewell. Clinton was hoping for a chance to defeat the Continental Army, while Washington was sending subordinates forward (first Lafayette, then Lee) to launch demonstrations against the British Army. Washington’s tactical goals were purely political—to burn enough powder to preserve the honor of the Continental Army and protect his position and his policies. And what was the outcome of the battle? Washington, and not a subordinate, got to preside over not a demonstration but a massive sound-and-smoke show, the largest field artillery engagement of the war. When the British began to disengage, he directed a masterful piece of military theater creating the impression that the Continentals had driven the British from the battlefield. Washington’s goals had always been political and he succeeded beyond his greatest expectations. The outcome of the battle elated the Continental Army and supporters of independence. The British Army and Loyalists were disheartened. To evaluate the battle solely from a tactical perspective is to misunderstand it.
We have in mind an annotated edition of the Charles Lee court martial transcript. It was one of the most important military trials in American history, and it aroused real controversy among the Revolutionary generation. How often does the second-ranking general of any army get court-martialed? The transcript is not only the best single source on the Battle of Monmouth, but also a wonderful trove of information for historians interested in the careers of such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, Anthony Wayne, and many others. There are a number of transcript versions, including excerpts published in British newspapers, and we need to reconcile them. Our edition would identify the individuals concerned, clarify matters of conflicting testimony, provide maps of the key points of contention, and explore the reactions (American and British) to the trial and its verdict. In addition, I’ve (Mark Lender) become fascinated by the Conway Cabal. As Garry and I argued in Fatal Sunday, the criticisms of Washington’s leadership were deeper and of more substance than most modern scholarship has allowed, and I’m convinced there’s a lot more to the story. So the “Cabal” is next in the queue, and I’ll be looking at the various motives (and they were not all naive or nefarious) and actions of those who questioned Washington’s leadership—and what the general’s responses demonstrated of his character and ability to maintain his vision of the army and the Revolutionary cause while under intense political fire. Meanwhile, Garry is working on a preservation plan for a Revolutionary War captain’s home threatened by highway construction, and he is contributing to a book on 50 years of research at Historic St. Mary’ City, Maryland. We’ll be busy.
Mark Edward Lender holds a Ph.D. in American History from Rutgers University. He is now Professor Emeritus of History at Kean University, from which he retired as Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author or co-author of ten books and numerous other works, including A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789 (with James Kirby Martin) and Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Diary of Joseph Bloomfield (also with Martin). Lender’s scholarship has won a number of awards, including the Cincinnati History Prize, the Mark Keller Award, the Richard P. McCormick Prize, and the Richard J. Hughes Award, the New Jersey Historical Commission’s highest award for service to New Jersey history.
Garry Wheeler Stone is a retired archaeological historian whose career includes 16 years as chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland, and 23 years as historian at Monmouth Battlefield State Park. A past president of the Society for Historical Archaeology, he has authored or co-authored articles on St. Mary’s City, impermanent architecture, 17th and 18th-century ceramics, Valley Forge, and the Battle of Monmouth. He has received numerous awards for his work in historic preservation and historic site development, and a chapter from his dissertation was recognized as the best article appearing in the Maryland Historical Magazine during 1987.