The Battle of Monmouth The longest single battle of the American Revolution - History
Read about the history below, pens made from trees at the site will be found here.
Through the winter of 1777-78 the Americans had lost their largest city and capitol to British occupation, but they had gained an army and an ally. By May Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne, had been forced to surrender his army to the rebels at Saratoga, N.Y and the French were coming .
Washington's command, which had once dwindled to a mere 5,000 troops, was now thought to be in the neighborhood of 13,000, perhaps larger than the British force in Philadelphia.
France had declared war with Britten (again). With the new French threat Clinton received orders from London to dispatch some of his units to West Florida and the West Indies, which left him too few troops to continue occupying Philadelphia and N.Y. Tory Loyalists impressed on Clinton, that they could not stay safely after he left Philadelphia. The British fleet in America, did not have enough transport to evacuate by sea both soldiers and civilians in a single trip. Clinton decided to send some 3,000 Tories to New York by sea, along with two regiments of mercenaries. The balance of his command would march through New Jersey to rendezvous with the fleet near South Amboy. From there, they would be transported to the safety of Staten Island.
Washington's spies in Philadelphia learned of Clinton's plan. An overland trek would present the Colonials with an excellent chance of hitting the British army in flank. Another decisive American victory coming on the heels of Saratoga could be the knockout blow of the war. For the first time, Washington felt he had enough men with enough training and discipline to succeed.
On June 18, the evacuation of Philadelphia began. Clinton's army was a formidable panoply of professionals; two battalions of tall Grenadiers, Hessians, Black Watch Highlanders, the Coldstream Guard, two regiments of Light Dragoons, and Tory volunteers.
Opposing on the opposite shore of the Delaware were no more than 1,000 rebel militia under Colonel Philemon Dickinson. However, Washington's Continental Army, breaking camp in Valley Forge, would soon be crossing the river as well.
Washington sent out Colonel Stephen Moylan's Dragoons to follow and harass Clinton. Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s New Jersey militia and Colonel Daniel Morgan’s Rangers would join them. Those three, along with Dickinson, would have the objective to give the enemy some annoyance by destroying bridges, felling trees across roads and filling up wells with stones.
After determining the most likely route of the British march, across New Jersey, through Haddonfield, Mount Holly, Crosswicks, Allentown and Cranbury — Washington planned to head northeast to Doylestown, and then east to cross the Delaware River at Coryell's Ferry, New Hope. He could then swing through Hopewell and Kingston. If Washington beat Clinton to Cranbury, the rebels would be able to occupy the high ground above the village.
Although they had farther to go than the king's men to reach Cranbury, the Continentals would be traveling lighter and faster than the British in their wool uniforms, and packs weighing anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds. Moreover, the middle of Clinton's line of march would have no fewer than 1,500 wagons.
Clinton however heard a rumor that Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, victor of Saratoga, was moving south to join Washington. Clinton, afraid of crossing the Raritan with his flank exposed to Gates, veered off to the northeast toward Sandy Hook.
In the first six days, with a baggage train strung out over 12 miles the British covered only 30 miles, while the Continentals had marched 57. On June 24, while Clinton was still reordering his army at Allentown, Washington held a council of war at Hopewell, a few miles west of Cranbury.
Lee argued for avoiding battle, warning that a loss might jeopardize the new alliance with France. A compromise resulted. A 1,500-man detachment from the main body, commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles Scott, would be sent ahead to harass the British. As an afterthought, Dan Morgan and his Rangers were ordered to hang on the enemy's right.
On the 25th, Washington moved to Kingston. There he detached another 1,000 men. Lee was offered command of this advance guard, but he declined. Washington turned to Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, who was only 20 years old. Lafayette eagerly accepted. Washington's young staff officer, Alexander Hamilton, was dispatched to assist him. They met near Robin's Tavern, some eight miles from Allentown, and Hamilton reported back that the British were marching toward Monmouth Court House (now Freehold).
Now commanding the men previously dispatched, Lafayette's combined force was now composed of some 6,000 troops, about half the size of Washington's entire army when it had crossed at Coryell's Ferry. When this dawned on Lee, he demanded that he replace “the little French boy.” Washington felt he had no choice, and Lee galloped down toward Robin's Tavern.
In both armies, mosquito-bitten, exhausted soldiers struggled through 90 degree days and violent evening thunderstorms as dusty roads turned to muck. Washington decided to abandon his heavy baggage and marched toward Clinton in the cool of the night.
By the morning of the 26th he had reached Cranbury, but his forces had dispersed so widely in the darkness that Hamilton wrote, “We are entirely at a loss where the Army is.” One thing was certain: The two armies were so close to each other that a fight could break out at any time. Washington therefore sent Lafayette with the men still directly under his command east to join Lee at Englishtown, which was only about five miles from Monmouth Court House where Clinton had encamped. Lee's advance guard was further reinforced by the rest of Scott's brigade and that of James Mitchell Varnum. However, even with the additional troops, Lee had no stomach for the fray.
On the 27th , Washington ordered Lee to attack the British before they got away from Monmouth Court House. The others eagerly awaited Lee's plans. None came. At midnight, Washington dispatched a courier ordering Lee to have Philemon Dickinson make contact with the enemy as soon as possible. Lee grudgingly passed the order on to Dickinson, but by 4 a.m. he had issued no orders in support of Dickinson. As the stars faded, Dickinson stood on a hill overlooking the road to Monmouth Court House, with the Tennent Church at his back. The British were already preparing to march. Knyphausen was taking to the road to Sandy Hook, and Cornwallis' division, nearer the courthouse itself, would soon be forming ranks to follow. Dickinson reported the movement to both Lee and Washington as early as 5 a.m. He then dispatched a scouting party, which advanced about a half mile beyond Tennent Church before they saw firing, and a party of militia retreating from the enemy. A number of Dickinson's men posted ahead of the scouting party had encountered a British flanking party detached by Cornwallis. The Americans sent a regiment with a single cannon across the bridge, and the British retired in good order.
When Washington received notice of the movement, he immediately ordered his men to drop their packs by the roadside, march to Englishtown and join Lee, who was once again exhorted by courier to press the attack. It was 7 a.m., and the temperature had already reached 80 degrees.
At 8 o'clock, hearing of the skirmish Lee halted his leisurely advance from Englishtown, just before arriving at the Tennent Church. Some reports claimed that the British were in retreat, but the flanking party seems to have convinced Dickinson that the British were advancing. In the confusion, men first crossed and then re-crossed the bridge over the West Ravine, not knowing whether to attack or withdraw.
After wasting an hour considering the matter, Lee had finally made up his mind to fight, but he had neither reconnoitered the field nor drawn up even the sketchiest battle plan, and when he ordered his troops to deploy, they spilled off the road in all directions, picking whatever terrain seemed to suit them.
Believing that there was no more than a holding force of some 2,000 men left at the courthouse, Lee ordered Wayne, joined by Lt. Col. Eleazar Oswald's artillery, and preceded by Colonel Richard Butler's Pennsylvanians, to advance toward Briar Hill. Just past the East Ravine, Butler ran into the Queen's Rangers, coming at him full-tilt with sabers drawn. A ragged volley rang out, green-coated Tories tumbled from their saddles, and the Rangers withdrew. Lee then heard a report that the Rangers were retreating toward the Middletown road, along with all of Cornwallis' division. Exulting, the general led his men across the East Ravine and formed up on the opposite rim. Intending to leave some troops as a reserve on Briar Hill, Lee planned to circle north and cut off Cornwallis before he could close up with the rest of Clinton's force. Word of that plan was sent to Washington.
Clinton, concluded that his baggage train was about to be ambushed. He started back toward the courthouse with most of his cavalry and several other regiments, while Lee continued his now pointless encircling movement. Lafayette, with three regiments and some artillery from Wayne's vanguard, was ordered toward the courthouse to close the bottom of a trap that no longer existed.
When Lee finally saw the British 3rd, 4th and 5th brigades advancing over Briar Hill, he ordered Maxwell and Scott to line their troops up to face them. Lee had failed to inform all his subordinates of his plan, so an already confusing engagement degenerated into outright chaos.
When Oswald's artillerymen were sent back to replenish their ammunition, other Continental troops, including Scott's and Maxwell's, mistook their retirement for an ordered retreat. Scott also thought that Lafayette was retreating and began withdrawing his own men to the western side of the East Ravine. That left Grayson isolated, and he, too, decided to withdraw to protect himself. The entire American line began to disintegrate as Lafayette, having been informed that Scott had retired, began to fall back.
Clinton now saw his chance. He brought up reinforcements. With 3,000 troops heading toward the courthouse, Cornwallis was ordered to attack immediately with the soldiers at hand and turn the Yankee retreat into a rout. The Redcoats swarmed over abandoned Yankee positions by Briar Hill. Learning of that, Lee abandoned his attempt at encirclement, by 1:30 p.m. he ordered a retreat. He consulted with his French engineer, Louis Duportail. Duportail pointed out a slight ridge about a mile or so from Monmouth Court House. Perhaps a stand could be made there.
Again, though, Lee seems to have been unable to get the word of the plan to his subordinates. So the retreat continued, despite the fact that Lee still had more than 3,000 men, against only 1,500 to 2,500 of the king's men that had actually arrived on the scene.
At about 1 p.m. Washington had heard the distant gunfire and had received Lee's dispatch announcing his plan to encircle the enemy. As he approached the bridge at the West Ravine about an hour later, he thought all was going well. Then a terrified young fifer came down the road, babbling of disaster, soon confirmed by companies and then whole regiments of sullen soldiers slogging down the road, some falling out, and fainting from the murderous heat. An astonished Washington questioned every officer he could find as to why the army was retreating. None could give a coherent answer.
At last, down the road came the lanky, dust-covered figure of Charles Lee. The Virginia gentleman seems to have lost his aristocratic reserve. It is reported that Washington swore at Lee until the leaves shook on the trees. Another version has him merely saying, “I desire to know, sir, what is the reason, whence arises this disorder and confusion.” All witnesses agreed, however, that his ire reduced Lee to an unintelligible stammer.
Washington then turned and galloped up and down the lines of thirsty, bedraggled men. He was mounted on a great white charger, and all could easily read the determination on his face. Lafayette never forgot it: “His presence stopped the retreat - his fine appearance on horseback, his calm courage, roused to animation by the vexations of the morning, gave him the air best calculated to excite enthusiasm - I thought then, as now, that never had I beheld so superb a man.”
Washington turned around the last two regiments in the line of retreat. The 13th Pennsylvania and the 3rd Maryland, had just fallen out on the north side of the road when they were attacked by a raiding party of the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons. As the Marylanders and Pennsylvanians began to waver, Washington sent in Varnum's brigade and Oswald with six artillery pieces. Four more pieces were then summoned, and Henry Knox, came up to take charge of them.
The Continental artillery was cleverly positioned on both wings of the field, where it could enfilade a British advance from opposite directions. Finally, the 4th New York arrived, taking up position with Varnum behind a sheltering hedge. Thus the first Yankee line of battle, running between the West and Middle ravines, was composed of Ramsay and Stewart to the north of the road with Varnum and Livingston behind the hedge to the south.
Just behind that line, Washington placed another division and to the rear and left of it was another. To the rear and right was Nathanael Greene and a reserve under Lafayette formed the final line.
Clinton and Cornwallis, emboldened by the earlier American retreat, decided to press the attack, with the famed Black Watch leading the way. However, a Yankee battery of big guns opened on the Highlanders with such fury that they were forced to fall back.
The British then brought up some guns of their own, and an artillery duel broke out. The British officers were startled to see the Americans turn around and fight with such calm deliberation when only an hour or so before they appeared to be a defeated mob.
Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben, who witnessed the men stand firmly before the onslaught, must have been gratified. Here was the reward for his exertions at Valley Forge. Washington, accompanied by Steuben, rode up and down the line, half-hidden by the battle smoke. It was Washington's only protection, sometimes he was seen only 30 to 40 feet from the enemy.
Just as it appeared that a division might buckle from repeated assaults, two regiments of New Hampshire men and some Virginians, about 1,000 fresh troops, emerged from the woods nearby and pounced upon the extreme right of the British line, whose soldiers fell back in surprise.
Clinton, having failed to break the Yankee left, now decided to try the right. Lord Cornwallis would personally command the assault. His men moved into the crossfire of Yankee artillery. In front, Greene's muskets blazed forth. Five British officers were shot down, along with a heap of their men. Cornwallis fell back, his soldiers black with powder and dazed from the now over 100 degree heat.
Clinton, loath to break off the engagement, ordered an assault against the hedgerow. Light Infantry, Grenadiers and Dragoons advanced to within 40 yards only to be thrown back by a volley from 1,000 muskets. They re-formed and rolled forward, drums beating, only to be stopped again.
It took the shaken British an hour to dress their ranks and prepare for a third assault. At 40 yards' range, a great moan went up as musket balls tore through the splendidly uniformed soldiers, and the whole British line crumpled. The British, however, managed to work their way around both flanks of the hedge, and the Americans fell back in good order. It was the end of the day.
Both sides had the will but not the light to carry on, the cannonade persisted in the smoldering dusk, but the Battle of Monmouth was over. Both sides had been worn out as much by heat and thirst as battle.
Clinton allowed his men to bivouac on the field for a few hours. Then they were silently awakened by their officers and at midnight stole away. By morning, there was a gap of six hours between the two armies. With another day of blistering heat ahead and his own soldiers still weary from their long battle the day before, Washington decided not to try to close it.
Both sides had fought bravely, and neither had surrendered the field. The battle ended only with sunset and mutual exhaustion. Clinton, in command of the only significant British fighting force in the 13 colonies, could have lost the war that afternoon, but he made good his escape in spite of everything.
By July 5, Howe's transports had brought him to New York. He had averted a catastrophe by just six days — on the 11th, Vice Adm. Hector comte d'Estaing arrived off Sandy Hook with the French fleet, looking for him.
Lee was charged with disobeying orders, running from the enemy and showing disrespect to his superior. Lee was found guilty on all counts and suspended from his command.
Monmouth was no ambush like Trenton, no rear-guard action like Princeton. It was a day long pitched battle, fought against the vaunted Redcoats and the best mercenaries the king's coin could buy. The Continentals were real soldiers now.