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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 Americans.

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 Map
Battle of Monmouth : General Lee's unsuccessful attack leading to his retreat

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 Pitch loading a cannon
Molly Pitcher loading her husband's cannon during the Battle of Monmouth
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General Washington marched east from Valley Forge seeking to intercept the slow moving British column. He did so at Monmouth Courthouse.

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
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.

Map of the Battle of Monmouth Map - Washington Resisting British attack
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
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 American regiments.

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.