June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
On June 18 the last of 10,000 British troops led by Gen. Henry Clinton left Philadelphia and began marching toward New York City. The withdrawal was one of the first fruits of the colonists’ alliance with France, as Clinton feared a blockade by the French Navy. On hearing of the departure, Gen. George Washington broke camp at Valley Forge and distributed his Continental Army and the local militia around southern New Jersey. On June 24 he sent a force to Monmouth to confront the British there. Leading this detachment was the Marquis de Lafayette.
Under normal circumstances these troops would have been under Gen. Charles Lee, who, with much self-promotion and a bit of military talent, had made himself second-in-command to Washington. But Lee was dubious about the whole campaign and initially declined to lead Lafayette’s men. After the Frenchman had left, however, and Lee saw the scale of the operation, he demanded to be put in charge. Although Washington doubted Lee’s reliability, he had no choice but to accede to his demand. He took over Lafayette’s 5,000-strong division at Englishtown on June 27, and that night he received orders to attack.
At sunrise the next day Clinton’s troops arose in their camp at Monmouth and started marching toward Middletown. Lee’s response might charitably be described as cautious. After several hours of dithering that allowed most of the British troops to depart unmolested, he finally ordered an assault on the rear guard but was unable to coordinate his brigades.
When Washington arrived early in the afternoon, he was shocked to find Lee’s men retreating. He angrily confronted Lee and then rode off to take command himself, skillfully arranging the scattered units into a regular line.
The afternoon saw a British counterattack that led to the last major Northern battle of the Revolution and one of the biggest, with 10,000 men engaged on each side. After several hours of bloody but inconclusive fighting, both armies withdrew, severely fatigued in the intense heat with their heavy uniforms and packs. Dozens of men on each side died of heat stroke. At one point during the fighting, a Pennsylvania Continental artilleryman’s wife named Mary Ludwig Haves, who was bringing much-needed water to the troops, stepped in to serve the gun after her husband was wounded. The action earned her eternal fame as Molly Pitcher, one of several Revolutionary heroines who took their husbands’ places in battle.
After a few hours’ rest Clinton’s troops resumed their march that night and were in New York within a week. Although the colonists had failed to halt the enemy, Monmouth ended up working in their favor, for it resulted in Lee’s dismissal. Shortly after the battle, the prideful general sent Washington a haughty letter chastising him for his abusive words on the battlefield and demanding an apology. When Washington refused, Lee called for a court-martial to clear his name. The court suspended him from the Army for a year, and he never returned to service, much to Washington’s relief.