The Battle of Monmouth 1778
War: American Revolutionary War
Date: 28th June 1778.
Place: New Jersey.
Combatants: The army of British and German troops against
American Continental troops and militia.
General Washington rallying Lee's retreating regiments
Generals: Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, Major
General Earl Cornwallis and Major General Knyphausen against General
George Washington and Major General Charles Lee.
Size of the armies: 10,000 British troops against 11,000
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British wore red coats
and headgear of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats
depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or
battalion company men. The two regiments of light dragoons serving
in the army, the 16th and 17th, wore red coats and leather crested
helmets. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the
Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate.
The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war
progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore
blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing. Both
sides were armed with muskets and guns. Many of the American
militia, particularly the Pennsylvanians carried long, small
calibre, rifled weapons.
Winner: The battle is generally taken as a draw.
Battle of Monmouth : General Lee's unsuccessful attack leading to
General George Washington and his army spent the winter of
1777/8 at Valley Forge in considerably straightened circumstances.
As the winter wore on the supply situation was brought under control
and something approaching a proper issue of equipment and rations
was made to the troops. Memorably the Prussian officer General
Steuben trained the American regiments in a form of European battle
drill, devised and adapted to suit American troops.
The British army spent the winter in Philadelphia. Lieutenant
General Howe returned to England, relieved of his appointment in
command in America at his own request, to be replaced by General
Clinton. Clinton arrived with orders to evacuate Philadelphia and
concentrate the British forces at New York.
On 18th June 1778 the British army with artillery, supplies and the
Loyalist populace of the city left Philadelphia and began the
laborious march to the North-East.
Molly Pitcher loading her husband's cannon during the Battle of
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General Washington marched east from Valley Forge seeking to
intercept the slow moving British column. He did so at Monmouth
Clinton had originally intended to march to New York. The first
week convinced him that his army with its train was too cumbrous to
make the journey by land and it was reported that General Gates was
moving from the Hudson River valley with his army to block the
British retreat. Clinton decided to divert to the coast and take
ship. At Allentown the British and German force branched off the
main route towards Monmouth to head north east.
The 6th Continental Regiment was raised in Massachusetts and took
part in the siege of Boston,
Saratoga, in the defence of Philadelphia, at Monmouth Court House
and in Rhode Island
General Washington hurried his army forward to. An advanced force
of some 4,000 troops was allocated to attack the marching British
Army and cut it in half. Washington offered the command of this
assault to Major General Charles Lee. Initially Lee refused the
appointment, lacking confidence in the success of the plan. When the
force was increased in size to 5,000 men and given to the Marquis de
Lafayette, Lee changed his mind and insisted on the command. Lee had
the task of attacking the British column in the flank and delaying
it so that the main American army could come up and give battle.
The weather was unsettled, high day-time temperatures giving way
to heavy rainstorms.
Clinton suspected that Washington would attack him in strength
and ordered Knyphausen to begin his march up the Middletown road to
the North at 4am on 28th June 1778. Warned by Dickinson and his New
Jersey militia that the British army was on the move, Washington
ordered Lee to attack and bring the British withdrawal to a halt
until he could bring up the main strength of the American army along
the Monmouth Road.
Battle of Monmouth : General Washington rallies Lee's regiments
and resists the British attack
Lee lay to the west of the Middletown road and should have
delivered a coordinated attack on the slow moving column. Properly
planned this could have halted the British withdrawal to the north
east and enabled the main American army under Washington to attack
from the rear. It seems that Lee gave no proper orders to his
commanders and permitted them to commit their troops as they saw
fit. Skirmishes with parties of British troops took place as Lee’s
force moved tentatively forward towards the Middletown Road.
Confused fighting broke out with Clinton’s rearguard, largely
composed of British regiments. Finally Lee ordered his troops to
retreat on the main American army. As he withdrew down the road,
Clinton launched his troops in pursuit.
General Washington, bringing the main American army along the
Monmouth road, encountered, not the rear of the British column, but
Lee’s regiments, retreating in considerable disorder with the
British advancing behind them.
Memorably this is the one occasion Washington is said to have
sworn. He deployed a consignment of oaths directed at Lee, to the
admiration of those listening, before ordering Lee to the rear.
Washington then galloped forward and began the task of rallying
Lee’s disordered troops.
Washington ordered General Wayne with the last of Lee’s
regiments, Stewart’s 13th Pennsylvania and Ramsay’s 3rd Maryland, to
form to the North of the road and hold the British advance. These
regiments resisted strongly but were driven back by the British 16th
Light Dragoons. Their stand gave Washington the time to form the
rest of the American army, with artillery on Comb’s Hill to the
South of the road enfilading the attacking British foot. Fierce
fighting took place as the British attempted to drive back the
American line. This was the first test of Steuben’s re-trained
American Continental Foot regiments and they withstood the trial
well. As the evening wore on the British troops fell back and
returned to their journey north, leaving the Americans on the field.
Major General Charles Lee
The British suffered some 300 casualties and
the Americans 350. Up to 100 men are thought to have died of
heatstroke during the battle.
During the march from Philadelphia Clinton’s army lost around 550
deserters, of whom 450 were from the Hessian regiments. This is a
striking figure. In the course of a few days Clinton lost the
equivalent of a battalion. Many of these men will have joined
Clinton continued the march to Sandy Hook where his army was
embarked and carried by the Royal Navy to New York. The operation to
retake Pennsylvania and New Jersey ended, leaving British fortunes
at a low ebb.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
Major General Charles Lee demanded and received trial by court
martial for his performance at the battle. He was convicted and
sentenced to one year’s suspension from duty. Fortescue, the
historian of the British Army, seems convinced that Lee’s conduct
arose from treacherous motives.
Some US authorities categorise Lee as a traitor. Lee is a strange
and interesting character. He first arrived in America as a captain
in Halkett’s 44th Regiment, taking part in Braddock’s disastrous
march to the Ohio River during 1755. Lee continued to serve during
the French and Indian War. He was given the nickname of “Boiling
Water” by the Iroquois due to his temper. He was also the subject of
an assassination attempt by members of his regiment.
After the war he left the British Army and joined the Polish
Army, apparently rising to the rank of General. Unable to obtain
senior rank in the British Army, Lee returned to America and joined
the American Army, achieving his ambition of senior command. It
seems more likely that Lee’s flawed character caused his command
failings rather than deliberate treachery.
During the battle Molly Pitcher, the wife of an American gunner
officer, is said to have taken over the firing of her husband’s
cannon, when the crew became casualties.
- History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
- The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward