August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
Eleventh in a series of paintings for AMERICAN HERITAGE
When in June of 1778 Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and moved his army of ten thousand British and German troops toward New York, Washington called his officers together to discuss strategy. Their decision—which, said Alexander Hamilton, “would have done honor to the most honorable society of midwives, and to them only”—was to keep watch on Clinton’s flank but to avoid a major action.
Washington thought differently. He wanted a fight and sent out an advance guard under Lafayette. But when the Americans came into contact with the British near Monmouth Court House, New Jersey, on the morning of the twenty-eighth, the cranky and unstable General Charles Lee had taken command. Lee wanted no part of a battle. When he saw one shaping up, he issued a series of contradictory orders that led to a confused, obscure fight in which groups of American troops drifted here and there aimlessly. Soon Lee’s whole force of five thousand was in retreat, the men staggering in the hundred-degree heat.
Washington arrived on the field about noon and, astonished and enraged, galloped up to Lee and demanded an explanation. Lee paltered, and Washington pressed on along the road to Monmouth. He came at last upon two regiments of Maryland and Pennsylvania troops bringing up the rear of the retreat, with the British only two hundred yards behind them. Washington rallied the two regiments and went back after fresh troops to form a new line behind them. As men began to come up, the American line stiffened and finally stood firm against fierce assaults from British infantry and cavalry. A year before, the American troops under such pressure would have broken and run, but now they were seasoned by a winter of training at Valley Forge, and time and time again they threw back the best that Clinton could send against them.
All through the sweltering afternoon the attacks came on, and by five o’clock the British and Hessians were so spent that they could do no more. Washington ordered a counterattack, but the heat and the fighting had sapped the Americans too, and so the longest battle of the war, and the last important fight in the North, came to a close.
That night Clinton withdrew, and eventually brought his army safely to New York, as he had planned. While Washington had not actually won a victory, he had held his ground and inflicted more casualties than he took—some two hundred and fifty British and Germans were killed, and only seventy-two Americans.
Perhaps the happiest consequence of the battle was to get the perpetually troublesome Charles Lee out of the army. He demanded a courtmartial, got one, and was found guilty. Initially suspended from his command for a year, Lee took it upon himself to write Congress so obnoxious a letter that he was finally dismissed from the service for good.
About five in the morning General [Philemon] Dickinson sent an express, informing that the front of the enemy had begun their march. I instantly put the army in motion, and sent orders by one of my aides to General Lee, to move on and attack them, unless there should be very powerful reasons to the contrary; acquainting him at the same time that I was marching to support him …
After marching five miles, to my great surprise and mortification, I met the whole advanced corps retreating, and, as I was told, by General Lee’s orders, without having made any opposition, except one fire …
Yes, sir, he [Washington] did once [swear]; it was at Monmouth and on a day that would have made any man swear. Yes, sir, he swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees. Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since. Sir, on that memorable day he swore like an angel from heaven!
I proceeded immediately to the rear of the corps, which I found closely pressed by the enemy and gave directions for forming part of the retreating troops, who, by the brave and spirited conduct of the officers, aided by some pieces of well-served artillery, checked the enemy’s advance, and gave time to make a disposition of the left wing and second line of the army. … The enemy, by this time, finding themselves warmly opposed in front, made an attempt to turn our left flank; but they were bravely repulsed, and driven back by detached parties of infantry. …
One little incident happened during the heat of the cannonade, which I was eye-witness to, and which I think would be unpardonable not to mention. A woman whose husband belonged to the Artillery, and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.
… General [Anthony] Wayne advanced with a body of troops, and kept up so severe and well-directed a fire, that the enemy were soon compelled to retire behind the defile, where the first stand in the beginning of the action had been made.
In this situation the enemy had both their flanks secured by thick woods and morasses, while their front could only be approached through a narrow pass. I resolved, nevertheless, to attack them … but the impediments in the way prevented [it] … before it was dark. … In the mean time, the enemy were employed in removing their wounded, and, about 12 o’clock at night, marched away in … silence …
The extreme heat of the weather, the fatigue of the men from their march through a deep, sandy country, almost entirely destitute of water, and the distance the enemy had gained by marching in the night, made a pursuit impracticable and fruitless. It would have answered no valuable purpose, and would have been fatal to numbers of our men—several of whom died the preceding day with heat.
Were I to conclude my account of this day’s transactions without expressing my obligations to the officers of the army in general, I should do injustice to their merit and violence to my own feelings. They seemed to vie with each other in manifesting their zeal and bravery …
The peculiar situation of General Lee at this time, requires that I should say nothing of his conduct. He is now in arrest.