The Battle of Monmouth Court House
June 28, 1778 in Monmouth, New Jersey
On June 18, at 3:00 A.M., Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton began evacuating his forces out of Philadelphia to move to New York City. Since France entered the war, it was possible that the French Navy could blockade the mouth to the Delaware River, cutting off Philadelphia. New York could be more readily supplied by sea. Since the British did not have enough ships to transport everything at one time, it would take a few trips to move everything. Clinton knew that the French Navy could intercept the ships if they wanted to. Therefore, Clinton decided to send some 3,000 Tories and 2 Hessian regiments by transports and the main British Army would travel overland to Sandy Hook, where they would be shipped across to New York. Clinton had 11,000 troops, 1,000 Loyalists, and a baggage train 12 miles long and advanced only 40 miles in a week. After Philadelphia was officially abandoned, Gen. George Washington triumphantly reentered the city, leaving Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold in command there.
Washington dispatched various small commands northeast and east to shadow, harass, and delay the British move across New Jersey. He correctly guessed that Clinton would march his army along a more southerly route toward New York and so planned accordingly. Washington wanted to bring on battle with Clinton before he reached the safety of New York. Not all of Washington's officers agreed with his plan.
Maj. Gen. Charles Lee advised to await developments, and argued that since the French alliance meant almost certain victory in the long run, it was unwise to commit their force against the British under any circumstances other than overwhelming superiority. Lee's advice was based largely on his opinion that American soldiers were incapable of facing British regulars in a stand-up battle.
On June 24, the British brushed aside a body of New Jersey militia at Crosswicks. Washington decided to hold a council-of-war. Lee convinced most of the officers to vote not to engage the British in an all out assault. They could not afford to lose a major engagement. In spite of Lee, Washington determined that the British were vulnerable to attack as they were spread out with their baggage trains. Washington decided to compromise, and sent an additional 1,500 troops to operate against Clinton's exposed left flank. Washington offered the job to Maj. Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, along with Brig. Gens. Charles Scott and William Maxwell. Later in the day, Washington ordered another 2,000 troops for the harassment force. This raised the total number to over 5,000 troops able to harass the British rear guard.
The main American columns moved in a more northerly trek across New Jersey through Coryell's Ferry, Hopewell, Kingston, and Princeton. Both the American and British routes intersected at Monmouth. When Washington figured out that Clinton was heading to Monmouth, he reinforced Scott's command but had to put an officer in charge with sufficient rank to lead the 4,000 troops. He preferred and sent Lafayette to Englishtown, but Lee decided to seek the command. Washington allowed Lee to take command with the understanding that he was not to interfere with Lafayette if an action was underway when Lee arrived on the scene.
On June 27, Lee was next to the British army. Washington ordered the bulk of his army to march for Englishtown to suppost Lafayette and Lee. Washington sent orders to Lee telling him to attack the vunerable left flank as soon as the British continued their retreat. Washington would support him with the main army. Lee did nothing to prepare for the upcoming attack. He called a conference and told his officers only that they should be alert for orders on the battlefield. He would make plans as he encountered the British and learned of their situation. He did not issue any orders to Dickinson, with the New Jersey militia, or Col. Daniel Morgan, with his rifle regiment. Both commanders were on the flanks of the British column.
On June 28, in the morning, the British were camped along Dutch Lane and the Freehold-Mount Holly Road, while the main Continental Army was camped at Manalapan Bridge, 4 miles west of Englishtown.
At 8:00 A.M., Lee's advance body of 5,000 troops and 12 guns approached the British rear guard a few miles north of Monmouth Court House. They slowly moved forward. Dickinson reported that he was engaged with the British and they seemed to be falling back. Wayne's division skirmished with a British converging party, but almost immediately Lee lost command of this situation. He issued various orders moving units from one place to another, never developed a clear plan of attack, and his subordinates became confused.
Lee had failed to gather data on the ground or the position of the British, and now he heard conflicting reports that the British was moving out and that they were preparing an attack. Lee was annoyed at the lack of intelligence about the British, which he had failed to order gathered. The British were both falling back, moving their baggage, and preparing an attack with the rear-guard, but Lee couldn't get reports that clearly stated this.
Lee finally got a picture of the British placements in his head and ordered units to move to their left and right, to cut off the 1,500-man British rear guard and capture them. Units marched out to the flanks, but then received no orders. Wayne, in the center, was told to feint an attack. Lee wanted hold the rear guard while he encircled the British, but his officers didn't know the plan.
Wayne's brigade was the first to make contact with the British, just north of Monmouth. The spreading fight alerted Clinton to the proximity of a significant American column in his rear. Brig. Gen. Count D. von Knyphausen was ordered to watch his left flank and continue marching. Meanwhile, Clinton turned Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis's wing of 14 battalions and the 16th Light Dragoons around to meet and crush Lee's vanguard before the rest of the American army could reach the field.
The British movement disrupted Lee's plan to isolate and destroy their rear guard, and threatened the American right flank. Lee sent Lafayette towards the right to support it. As they did, the British opened up on the Americans with their cannon. Lee sent some of his men into Monmouth to avoid the fire. On the left, the flank units saw what seemed to be a retreat in the center as Lee's men took cover. At the same time, Oswald's artillery unit in the area moved to the rear when they ran out of ammunition. The flank units on the left moved back, since they had no orders. They failed to inform Lee of their movements or sent word for orders, although they did ask some of Lee's aides if they had orders for them.
Lee rapidly lost control of the situation and his command began retiring to the southwest and the west along the causeway crossing Middle Ravine. Clinton's infantry rapidly pursued the fleeing Americans. Some attempts were made to establish hasty defensive positions during the withdrawal, but much of Lee's command moved as a disorganized mob. Lee made no orders, had no rear guard, and no one understood why they retreated. Lafayette sent for Washington to come forward. Lee thought he was saving the advance corp by moving it out of harms way.
Washington sent a request to Lee for a report of the battle and Lee sent back word that he was "doing well enough." Not satisfied with this response, Washington moved forward to find the roads crowded with retreating American troops. He dispatched aides to find the cause of the retreat. The troops reported they were ordered to retreat by Lee. Riding down the road, he found Lee leading a retreat across the Rhea Farm. Washington asked him for the meaning of this, and Lee thought he had saved the army by retreating. Washington repeated the question and Lee stammered some excuses about his orders not being followed, then said that the American army should not bring on a general engagement against the British.
Washington rode back to the rear of the retreating troops, where his aides reported the British were within a few minutes of reaching the retreating column. Seeing the corp endangered, Washington rallied the disorganized elements of Lee's command into a new line behind a hedgerow, into blocking positions. This would hopefully slow down the British until the rest of his army could come up. Washington gave Lee orders to begin a delaying action while their main force regrouped. These units put up a stiff resistance, and then under pressure, they made a fighting withdrawal to safety.
Washington began to order the troops into a strong defensive line. Artillery was rushed forward and Greene unlimbered at least 4 cannons on a prominent bit of high ground below the stream known as Comb's Hill. Supported by a brigade of infantry, Greene's artillery enfiladed the advancing British. This fire, combined with small arms and supported by other artillery fire from the front temporarily stabilized the holding position. Clinton brought up his artillery and an artillery dual began. This was one of the most intense artillery duels of the war. A mounted attack against Washington's left, together with a final British push by mounted infantry and grenadiers, folded and broke the holding line.
At 12:30 P.M., the battle resumed as the British pushed across the Dividing Brook. After brief, vicious clashes in a wood lot and along the hedgerow, the Americans, under Lee, fell back across Spotswood Middle Brook. As the British charged the bridge, they found the Americans occupying a very strong position on the Perrine Farm ridge behind a battery of 10 guns. Exhausted from a forced march and cannonaded with grapeshot, the British faltered and the attack collapsed.
To silence the American artillery commanding the bridge, the British positioned 10 cannon and howitzers in front of the hedgerow. For hours, the largest land artillery battle of the war raged. The Americans won the artillery duel late in the afternoon. As the fighting raged on in the north, Cornwallis organized an attack in the south against Greene's front. In precise rows, they advanced towards the Americans. Greene's men shot the British from the front, and his artillery ripped into their flanks. The guns raked the hedgerow, forcing the British artillery to withdraw and their infantry to shift position. Unable to break through and having suffered heavy losses, Cornwallis gave up. A series of heavy attacks were launched against Wayne's men in the center of the American line before Cornwallis had finished, but those were also repulsed.
As the British artillery fell silent, Washington cautiously counterattacked. First, two New England battalions advanced along Spotswood North Brook to skirmish with the retreating Royal Highlanders Then, Wayne led 3 Pennsylvania regiments across the bridge to attack the withdrawing British Grenadiers. After some heavy fighting, Wayne's men were forced back into the shelter of the parsonage buildings and orchard.
At 3:30 P.M., after a bitter stand-up fight in the afternoon heat and humidity, Clinton orders his troops to withdraw. Washington wanted to pursue the fleeing British but in the heat and humidity, his troops were too exhausted.
At 5:30 P.M., with Wayne's men now on line with Alexander and Greene, Washington straightened his front and waited for Clinton's next move. That move never came. As dusk fell, he had fresh troops ready to attack around the British flanks, but they had to hold due to the loss of daylight. Clinton withdrew his troops about 1 mile to the east.
During the battle, Mary Ludwig Hayes (known today as Molly Pitcher), a camp follower who brought water to the troops from a nearby spring, took over her wounded husbands place at a cannon when he was wounded. Under fire, and losing men, the artillery unit was going to fall back until she volunteered to take his place. Bravely, she served the cannon in her husbands place.
At 10:00 P.M., after being allowed to bivouac for a few hours, Clinton silently awakened his troops and ordered them to begin to follow the baggage train. They broke camp and marched on toward Sandy Hook in extreme northeast New Jersey. From there, they quickly embarked upon a short voyage over Lower New York Bay and through The Narrows to the safety of Manhattan. Washington prudently decided not to follow and instead marched his army northward to rejoin other American forces encamped along the Hudson River.
Though Washington had failed to destroy the British column, he had inflicted damage to their troops, and proved that American troops, if properly led, could stand against the British regulars. The British had defended their baggage train, but were unable to defeat the Americans in open battle.
On June 30, Clinton arrived at Sandy Hook. For the next 5 days, the British forces evacuated to New York City.
Both sides claimed victory at the Battle of Monmouth. British losses were considerably higher than the Americans, but the latter force was further depleted by heavy desertions. The American forces took credit for the British flight from Philadelphia and New Jersey, and experienced a large boost in morale. Most historians regard this battle as a tactical draw. Since the Americans held the field, they claimed the victory, but it was really a draw or even a British victory, since the British were only defending their baggage train, not looking for a battle. The battle was a political triumph for the Continental Army and Washington. They had met the British in open field and forced them to retreat.
In the aftermath, Lee asserted his innocence in a sharp letter to Washington and demanded a court martial. Washington obliged him, submitted formal charges, and placed Lee under arrest. Six weeks later, a military court found Lee guilty of disobedience and willful neglect of duty, and was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the army. This verdict was later upheld by the Congress, but Lee refused to accept the suspension. He was then expelled from the army and retired into obscurity.
The Battle of Monmouth Court House was the longest and last battle fought between the two main armies. After this, the fighting involved secondary forces (though still large forces), as the war shifted to the southern colonies. The American army had proved that it could stand up against an entire British army in a pitched battle.