A Bit of History
Word came in May 1777 to General Washington at Valley Forge that the long-sought alliance with France was secured. The British soon evacuated Philadelphia and headed north to defend their stronghold in New York City, and on June 19, 1778, Washington’s troops marched out of Valley Forge in pursuit. The British left Philadelphia on June 18 and marched through Mount Holly and Bordentown. They reached Monmouth Court House on June 27 and stopped for a day to rest. The next morning, Washington and his subordinate, General Charles Lee, attacked rearguard elements of General Sir Henry Clinton’s British Army.
Although the American army outnumbered its foe two-to-one and had undergone extensive training in the art of war during its winter encampment at Valley Forge, Lee, who launched the initial attack, lacked confidence in the ability of the Continental soldiers under his command. In failing to press his advantage, Lee ceded the initiative to his British counterpart, General Charles Lord Cornwallis, who commanded the rear elements of Clinton’s army.
What began as a promising opportunity devolved into a potential disaster. As Washington approached the fighting, he encountered panic stricken troops fleeing the enemy. Enraged, he galloped ahead of his wing, In an angry confrontation on the field of battle, Washington removed Lee from command. Rallying what troops he had, Washington continued the assault on the British. The commanding general’s delaying action gave time for the rest of the Continental Army to come up and join the battle.
General Washington Stemming the Retreat at Monmouth Courthouse
Washington placed General Nathaniel Green’s division on the right and the division of General William Alexander, “Lord” Stirling, on the left. Lee’s men were turned over to the Marquis de Lafayette, who kept those troops in reserve. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne assumed command over other elements of Lee’s force and manned Lafayette’s front. Artillery was placed on both flanks, with the guns on the right positioned to rain enfilading fire on the British.
An American counterattack on the British right forced the Redcoats to fall back and reorganize. Cornwallis then led his men in attack on Greene’s division. Supported by artillery, Greene’s men stiffened their line and repulsed Cornwallis and his troops.
The fighting see-sawed back and forth under the brutal June sun for several hours. By 6:00 P.M., however, the British had had enough. While Wayne wanted to press the attack, Washington demurred, believing that his men were “beat out and with heat and fatigue.” The British did not give Washington a chance to renew the fight in the morning, slipping away under the cover of darkness and resuming their withdrawal to New York City.
Monmouth was the biggest and longest one day battle of the war. The two sides did not engage in any large battles in the north after Monmouth. The Americans were encouraged that the new drill and discipline they learned from General von Steuben enabled them to hold their own against veteran British troops in open battle.
Monmouth Battlefield State Park
I had a fantastic day tramping around this battlefield. Although the day was hot and humid, I little noticed it as I was so focused on reconstructing the various battlefield elements of infantry maneuvering, artillery placement, and the order of the battle. Much of my time was spent studying battlefield maps and attempting to match them with the landscape before me. There was much that happened here on this very long day of battle and so I will do my best to make it comprehensible.
As I indicated in the opening video, Washington was just itching for a fight as he believed that not only was his army better trained and prepared than ever before (more on that when I visit Valley Forge), but he saw this as a rare opportunity when he could fight a battle with the odds in his favor. Against the wishes of many of his subordinates, Washington chose to send a force under General Charles Lee and the Marquis de Lafayette to bring on a battle with the withdrawing British troops under General Henry Clinton.
Below is a map depicting the action that I described above. Near the bottom of the map where it shows Lee’s last line behind the hedgerow – this is where I was standing.
As General Lee led a retreat back to Washington’s position to the north, Washington intercepted him and gave orders to begin a delaying action while the main Continental army regrouped. You can read about Washington’s confrontation with Lee in the A Bit of History section. There was a trail that led to this famous (or infamous, depending how you look at it) confrontation, but after wondering around for a while scrutinizing my map against landmarks, I had to give up the search.
Just a brief note on Lee. General Lee (no relation to Robert E.) was one of Washington’s most trusted and experienced generals. He also happened be an eccentric oddball, one of the most unusual military figures in American history. After his confrontration with Washington, he was subsequently court-marshalled and ended leaving the Continental Army for good.
Lee with one of the dozen dogs that continually surrounded him.
After stemming his retreating soldiers, Washington rallied them to hold off the British advance, organized a defensive position, and summoned American reinforcements.
In this video, I am standing along the British lines during the artillery battle just opposite of my location in the previous video.
I had to end my tour today with a video tribute to my personal hero, General George Washington.
If that eloquent tribute inspired you to learn more about Washington, then check out the link below when I visited Mount Vernon in 2015 on my first Civil War battlefield tour.
Tomorrow…Day 6 – Philadelphia!