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American Revolution: Battle of Monmouth


American Revolution: Battle of Monmouth

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Battle of Monmouth - Summary:

Departing Valley Forge in June 1778, General George Washington moved his army across the Delaware River with goal of attacking General Sir Henry Clinton as his troops marched from Philadelphia to New York. On June 28, Washington dispatched Major General Charles Lee with 5,000 men to assault the British rear guard near Monmouth Court House, NJ. Lee mismanaged the fight and was forced to retreat with the British in pursuit. As Lee feel back, Washington advanced with the main army and rallied the troops. Repeated British attacks were beaten off before the fighting ended with both sides ultimately claiming victory.

Battle of Monmouth - Commanders:

Battle of Monmouth - Dates:

The Battle of Monmouth was fought on June 28, 1778, near Monmouth Court House, NJ. On the day of the battle the weather was extremely hot, with many soldiers suffering from heat stroke.

Battle of Monmouth - Situation in June 1778:

With the French entry into the American Revolution in February 1778, British strategy in America began to shift. Having captured the rebel capital of Philadelphia in 1777, the British decided to abandon the city the following spring to focus on protecting their base at New York. On June 18, 1778, the newly appointed commander of the British Army in America, General Sir Henry Clinton, began evacuating the city, with his troops crossing the Delaware at Cooper's Ferry. Moving northeast, Clinton initially planned to march overland to New York, but later opted to move towards Sandy Hook and take boats to the city.

Battle of Monmouth - Washington's Plan:

With his army emerging from winter quarters at Valley Forge, where it had been tirelessly trained by Baron von Steuben, Washington sought to engage Clinton before he could reach the safety of New York. While many of Washington's officers favored this aggressive approach, it was strenuously objected to by Major General Charles Lee. A recently released prisoner of war and an adversary of Washington's, Lee argued that the French alliance meant victory in the long run and that it was foolish to commit the army to battle unless they had overwhelming superiority. Weighing the arguments, Washington elected to pursue Clinton.

Arriving at Hopewell, NJ on June 23, Washington held a council of war. Lee once again argued against a major attack, this time swaying his commander. Washington decided instead to send a force of 4,000 men to harass Clinton's rear guard. Lacking confidence in the plan, Lee turned down command of this force, and it was given to the Marquis de Lafayette. Later in the day, Washington enlarged the force to 5,000. Upon hearing this, Lee returned to Washington and demanded that he be given command, which he received with strict orders that he was to hold meeting of his officers to determine the plan of attack.

Battle of Monmouth - Lee's Attack & Retreat:

Lee obeyed Washington's order and held a conference with his commanders where, rather than devise a plan, he told them to be alert for orders during the battle. Around 8:00 on June 28, Lee's column encountered the British rear guard under Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis just north of Monmouth Court House. Rather than launch a coordinated attack, Lee committed his troops piecemeal and quickly lost control of the situation. After a few hours of fighting, the British moved to flank Lee's line. Seeing this movement, Lee ordered a general retreat after offering little resistance.

Battle of Monmouth - Washington to the Rescue:

While Lee's force was engaging Cornwallis, Washington was bringing up the main army. Riding forward he encountered the fleeing soldiers from Lee's command. Appalled by the situation, he located Lee and demanded to know what had happened. After receiving no satisfactory answer, Washington rebuked Lee in one of the few instances where he swore publicly. Dismissing his subordinate, Washington set to rallying Lee's men. Establishing a new line along a hedge row, they held off the British just long enough to allow the army to take up positions to the west.

Falling back to the main army, the remnants of Lee's command aided in repelling repeated British assaults on the American lines. The training and discipline instilled by von Steuben at Valley Forge paid dividends as the Continental troops were able to fight the British regulars to a standstill. Late in the afternoon, with both sides bloodied and tired from the summer heat, the British broke off the battle and withdrew towards New York. Washington wished to continue the pursuit, but his men were too exhausted and Clinton was able to reach the safety of Sandy Hook.

Battle of Monmouth - Aftermath:

Casualties for the Battle of Monmouth, as reported by each commander, were 69 killed, 37 dead from heat-stroke, 160 wounded, and 95 missing for the Continental Army and around 65 killed, 59 dead from heat-stroke, 170 wounded, 50 captured, and 14 missing for the British. In both cases, these numbers are conservative and losses were more likely 500-600 for Washington and over 1,100 for Clinton. The battle was the last major engagement fought in the northern theater of the war, as the British holed up in New York and shifted their attention to the southern colonies. Following the battle, Lee requested a court martial to prove that he was innocent of any wrong doing. Washington obliged and filed formal charges. Six weeks later Lee was found guilty and suspended from the service.

The Battle of Monmouth is often remembered for the legend of "Molly Pitcher." While many of the details regarding "Molly Pitcher" have been embellished or are in dispute, the story refers to a woman who brought water to American artillery during the battle. This water was intended for swabbing the guns during the reloading process as well as cooling the hot gun crew. In one version of the story she replaced her husband on a gun crew when he fell wounded or from heat stroke. The "Molly Pitcher" of Monmouth is generally identified Mary Ludwig Hayes.

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