Monmouth, N.J.

28 June 1778

Monmouth picture

Jeremiah Greenman's Diary of June 27-28, 1778

Stephen Olney's description of Monmouth.

Simeon Thayer's description of the action at Monmouth. from Simeon's hand, and William W. Burr hand.

Possible description of Major Thayer detached as the Major of Col. Cilley's picked men.

Joseph Plumb Martin's account of the Battle of Monmouth.

An excellent review of the Battle of Monmouth by John U. Rees;
"What is this you have been about to day?"
The New Jersey Brigade at the Battle of Monmouth

An outline of Lee's Division at Monmouth by John U. Rees;
"General Lee being detached with the advanced Corps"
Composition of Charles Lee's Division

Monmouth was a memorable battle in several respects. Although it was fought to a draw, each side could take pride in the outcome. For Gen. Henry Clinton, who had never before commanded in battle, it climaxed a bold and well-directed venture in which he succeeded in getting most of his army and all of his 1500 wagons through some seventy miles of enemy territory. For Washington it was a triumph that an army that only a few months before had been reduced to a few thousand half-naked and ill-disciplined troops could stand up to the pride of the British army. This, in turn, was a tribute to many people: to the hardy men who had stuck with the army all winter, to the recruits that had poured in during May, to Gen. Steuben's tireless drill work, to Commissary Wadsworth and Quartermaster Nathanael Greene, to the militia of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and to the French Alliance, which lifted the spirits of the soldiers as it did of all Americans. Gen. Clinton, who was to remain in command of the British army for the rest of the war, gained a respect for the American army that day that he was never to lose.

Monmouth was memorable in other ways. It was, for example, the last major engagement fought in the north; it was the longest battle of the war; and it was fought, as no other major engagement, in stifling heat. None who survived the day would ever forget the heat. With more than fifteen hours of sunshine, 28 June was the fifth day of a heat wave, which on the day of the battle saw temperatures close to 100 deg. Fahrenheit. The sun beat down mercilessly on the men who fought back and forth through sandy fields and around steaming morasses with nothing but scrubby pines for shade. The British and Germans, with woolen uniforms and heavy packs, suffered especially; but on both sides dozens died of heat stroke, and those who survived were half-crazed with thirst and limp with heat exhaustion.

Finally Monmouth was memorable as marking the end of Gen. Charles Lee's military career, which ended in disgrace. As Nathanael Greene writes to Jacob Greene, a formal complaint was entered against him by Gens. Wayne and Scott, and a month later a courtmartial found him guilty of disobeying orders, making a shameful retreat, and showing disrespect for the commander in chief in subsequent letters. In December, Congress upheld the findings. It is difficult to be dispassionate about this brilliant, eccentric, opinionated, ambitious, and sometimes irascible man. Even some nineteenth-century partisans of Washington considered that he was dealt with too harshly. Twentieth-century writers have gone much further in his defense. John Alden, in a scholarly and sympathetic biography published in 1951, saw Lee's conviction as a complete miscarriage of justice, a partisan decision that would have made Lee's exoneration tantamount to a condemnation of Washington. His conclusions are reinforced by Theodore Thayer's detailed study of the battle with the revealing title of Washington and Lee at Monmouth: The Making of a Scapegoat.

It was Lee's advance that first engaged the British at Monmouth. As senior officer to Washington, Lee had been offered and had turned down the command of the detachment recommended by the council on 24 June (above) to strike at the British rear. He considered the small unit beneath his rank and agreed that Lafayette should be put in charge. When he learned, however, that there would be four thousand men involved, he changed his mind and exercised his seniority to get command. Since he had opposed any attack on Clinton's army and had not hidden his disparagement of the new American army, Washington was for from enthusiastic in handing over the command to him. It must also have given Washington pause that Lee, who had been absent for sixteen months, was unacquainted, as he admitted, with the brigade and regimental commanders. He had also shown himself far from perspicacious in anticipating Clinton's drive across Jersey.

Despite these handicaps, Lee was a bold, competent, and experienced field commander; and most historians would agree with Thayer's assessment that Washington's selection of the twenty-year-old Lafayette had been far more dubious. (Monmouth, pp.29-33) Lafayette was inexperienced as a field commander and ambitious to the point of rashness. He had gone forward in such haste and was so ill prepared that Washington felt compelled next morning to warn him that "Tho giving the Enemy a stroke is a very desireable event, yet I would not wish you to be too precipitate in the measure." (Fitzpatrick, GW, 12: 121)

By the time Lee took over from Lafayette on Saturday, 27 June, there was little time left if an attack were to be made on Clinton's army. Clinton had arrived near Freehold on the twenty-sixth, encamping his main army of some six thousand men under Cornwallis west of Freehold Court House and Knyphausen's four thousand troops (with most of the British baggage wagons) just east of the courthouse. A day's march would put them safely at Middletown, unsuitably high ground for an American attack. But Clinton chose not to advance immediately. By staying over the twenty-seventh to rest his men and horses, he virtually invited an attack by Washington, hoping perhaps to wipe out the humiliation of their retreat. On 27 June, Lee arrived at Englishtown five miles northwest of Clinton. The same day Washington advanced the main army to Ponolopon Bridge, two and a half miles from Englishtown. Although Clinton may have invited an attack, at the same time, he made plans to move on toward Sandy Hook. He ordered Knyphausen to march at 3:00 A.M. on Sunday, 28 June, Cornwallis to follow two hours later.

Also on Saturday, the twenty-seventh, Washington asked Lee to call a council of his generals to plan an attack for the next morning. Lafayette, Wayne, and Maxwell were present, but Scott did not arrive until later. Morgan, somewhere to the south of Clinton, could not be reached. Since the council was ignorant of the area and of British dispositions, Lee told them in essence that they would have to play it by ear. At Washington's direction in a night message, Lee ordered Gen. Philemon Dickinson's New Jersey militia and Gen. Daniel Morgan's rifleman to open an attack on the enemy's flanks early in the morning and directed Col. William Grayson's Virginia regiment to support them. Unfortunately, the message that Morgan received was so confused as to date and time that Morgan sat out the entire battle waiting for his cue. Lee ordered Lafayette to command a division composed of Wayne's and Scott's brigades.

At 4:00 A.M. on Sunday, Knyphausen marched off for Middletown. Clinton was far more worried about an American attack on his long wagon train than he was about an attack on the main army under Cornwallis, whose six thousand troops were the cream of the British army. At 6:00 A.M. Dickinson had moved out to Tennent Meeting House, two miles east of Englishtown. By the time Lee's army of some 4100 men and 8 cannon left their Englishtown camp, Knyphausen had progressed several miles along the Freehold-Middletown Road - a road that ran on high ground. Lee's road ahead was roughly parallel to Knyphausen's route and a few miles to the north, but it traversed an area cut through by ravines and swamp-bordered creeks. Knyphausen was far enough advanced that Clinton could turn his attention to Lee.

When Lee's segment reached the bridge across the first creek (at a place ominously called "West Morass"), Cornwallis was already through Freehold on the road to Middletown. Lee's army, with Wayne's and Scott's brigades under Lafayette in the lead, followed by Maxwell and Jackson's small detachment, made its way across the first and second ravines before they saw and were seen by Cornwallis's rear guard. Simcoe's hussars and dragoons attacked Wayne's vanguard, but were repulsed by a musket volley. Lafayette, while reconnoitering across the third morass, espies a large body of dragoons to the east on Briar's Hill, which Cornwallis had already passed. After Lee got his main army across the ravine, a short artillery duel ensued. At mid-morning Lee learned of a road leading off to the left toward Formans Mill which was free of the enemy. He decided on a broad encirclement move to the left against Cornwallis's rear while Wayne with a small detachment would "amuse" the enemy in the center.

Lee had barely started the maneuver, with Scott in the lead, when it appeared that Wayne's unit of some six hundred men were insufficient to cope with what the Americans had believed to be the rear guard but which turned out to be much larger. Clinton, still fearing a possible attempt on his baggage train, ordered Cornwallis and a force of two thousand dragoons, grenadiers, and light infantry to strike at Lee's center. It was this force that Wayne was in the process of "amusing." Lee reinforced Wayne however, ordered him not to engage the enemy but to distract him while Lee could make his encirclement. The heat by this time had grown intense. Also, Clinton was bringing his full force to bear on Lee.

One of Lee's difficulties - perhaps no fault of his - was communicating with his regimental commanders. He sent an aide to confer with Scott, but the aide returned to report that Scott was no longer on the left where Lee had positioned him. Lee was flabbergasted. Having waited for some time, without further orders from Lee, Scott and Maxwell had decided to withdraw when they saw troops in the center retreating - probably Col. Eleazer Oswald's artillerymen, who had run out of ammunition. Lee thought of going after Scott to make him return, but becoming aware now that Clinton's entire force was pushing toward his army, he decided that, even though he had not ordered a retreat, he now had no choice but to do so. Lafayette, pressed by Cornwallis and learning of Scott's retreat, withdrew the rest of his men. This entire action had lasted but half an hour. It was now 1:30 P.M. Scott's brigade had withdrawn on their own, but Lee kept the rest of his troops more of less intact, offering effective resistance all the way. They fell back over the morass, then assembled near Freehold. During the entire retreat, Wayne showed his displeasure with Lee by refusing to speak to him. Scott eventually arrived back at Tennent Meeting House, where he met with Washington's advance under Lord Stirling. Lee, in the meantime, had retreated to a line selected by du Portail about a mile west of Freehold at Carr's House, still three miles from Washington's approaching army. With Clinton's brigades approaching this line, Lee ordered his men to form on an elevation back of the first morass, although some regiments had already retreated beyond this point.

Washington's first word of Lee's retreat reached him by way of a young fifer. Washington refused to believe it. He sent Robert Harrison, an aide, to investigate; Harrison reported that Grayson and other regimental commanders with whom he had talked did not know why they were retreating and were indignant, which, writes Thayer, "is good evidence of the fighting quality of the regimental officers, if not of their military sagacity." (Monmouth p. 52) Washington soon met Lee face to face. Reports of witnesses vary greatly as to Washington's explosive reactions to Lee's retreat. Whether, as some say, the air was blue with Washington's curses, there is no disagreement that he was beside himself at what he considered a shameful retreat from Clinton's rearguard. Lee tried to explain that he had run into Clinton's main army of six thousand men and that prudence dictated he save his men. Washington apparently did not listen to this explanation, but in a few minutes he cooled enough to ask Lee to command the front line while he went back to form the main army behind the bridge. "As was his habit at a critical time or in the thick of a fight," writes Thayer, "Washington again proved himself courageous and decisive." (Monmouth, p. 53) Almost every officer present would have agreed with Nathanael Greene's words to Jacob Greene: "The commander in Chief was every where, his Presence gave Spirit and Confidence and his command and authority soon brought every thing into Order and Regularity."

Such praise of Washington, however, does not imply that Lee had acted against orders or had been unwise in ordering a retreat as Washington and others maintained. As for acting against orders, as he was convicted of doing, a careful reading of Washington's words seems to support Lee's contention that he had been authorized to use his discretion. At Lee's trial Richard K. Meade, a Washington aide, testified he was directed by Washington to tell Lee to attack the enemy as soon as possible "unless some very powerful circumstance forbid it." (Lee Papers, 3: 8) In a letter to Gates early that morning, Washington said of Clinton's army that he intended to "harass them as much as possible," and to Laurens he wrote a few hours later that he had ordered Lee to "attack their rear if possible." (Quoted by Thayer, Monmouth, p.39)

As for Lee's wisdom in withdrawing his men, the preponderance of the evidence would support Lee. Clinton, with his three to two numerical advantage (not to mention his qualitative advantages - especially in the number and ability of his dragoons and grenadiers) had no doubts about annihilating Lee if he had not retreated. Said Clinton: "Had Washington been blockhead enough to sustain Lee, I should have catched him between two defiles; and it is easy to see what must have happened." Of the eastern - most raving, Clinton said it was one "which I might have held against the world." (Willcox, Clinton p. 235)

When Washington road back to the main line, Lee had but a few minutes to form a line on the Heights above Middle Spotswood Brook before waves of Clinton's dragoons, grenadiers, and light infantry, with Clinton brandishing his sword in their midst, attacked. The fighting was severe. Olney's Rhode Islanders first pushed the enemy back with bayonets, then fell back. Simeon Thayer, Nathanael Greene's friend, lost an eye; Hamilton was almost killed; and Clinton barely escaped with his life. Lee's men held out for almost an hour.

In the meantime Washington helped Lord Stirling extend his line along high ground above Spotswood Brook, with Knox's artillery emplaced below. Washington, seeing Lee's spent forces, ordered them back to Englishtown to rest. Students of the battle have since wondered why they were not held in closer reserve; when Lee returned to the line, the battle was over.

Until this time Nathanael Greene had been concerned with supply matters. Now, Washington ordered him to march to Freehold to head off an anticipated attempt by Clinton to attack Washington's right. After marching for three miles, within two miles of Freehold, Nathanael Greene heard of Lee's retreat, and without orders he headed back to help Washington. As his division retraced their steps along Combs Hill, Nathanael Greene decided to order his eight or ten cannon to the top of the hill, bringing up Gen. Woodford with some six hundred Virginians to protect the artillery. Nathanael Greene was now to the right of Stirling's long line. The artillery from Combs Hill began to hit the British left. Cornwallis led a detachment across the creek to silence it, but he was driven back in a virtual rout by the heavy fire of Nathanael Greene's cannon and small arms.

Clinton made one last attempt on the American line by trying to turn Stirling's left flank. Washington sent Col. Joseph Cilley of New Hampshire with one thousand men to the defense. In a ferocious charge, Cilley's men advanced with muskets and bayonets against grenadiers and the famous Black Watch Highlanders, pushing them back with considerable losses. Some historians have seen this as the final turning point. Anthony Wayne, who had been restive all day at his inability to get at the enemy, made one dramatic offensive move with Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia troops. In the charge British Col. Henry Moncton lost his life; Col. John Laurens almost lost his. Soon Wayne retired back across the creek. It was by now almost 4:00 P.M. For the next two hours, artillery on both sides fired, but the battle was over.

This time the British withdrew. They left doctors to care for the wounded, of which Clinton counted 170, a figure too low. Clinton reported 124 dead, 59 of them of heat exhaustion; but the Americans buried over 200 British. American losses were listed as 60 killed, 150 wounded, but the figure was also too low.

Clinton waited for the moon to sink, and then put his army in motion. It was midnight. The Americans were aware of the British continuation toward Sandy Hook, but other than assigning Moylan's horse to follow them, Washington could do nothing further with his weary army to impede Clinton's progress. Five days later Clinton was fortunate in embarking his troops at Sandy Hook for New York.

Charles Lee's long ordeal was soon to begin. Washington's quarrel with him might well have ended with the battle if Lee had not written a long letter two days later in which he demanded reparation for the injustice done him by Washington on the field. Washington answered by defending his actions, saying he found the terms of Lee's letter "highly improper" In a fit of anger, Lee wrote of the "tinsel dignity" attending Washington's office. In a third letter, he demanded a courtmartial. (Thayer, Monmouth, pp. 70-73, quotes the letters.) As noted above, he was eventually convicted on charges of disobedience of orders, for making a shameful retreat, and disrespect to the commander in chief. Although Alden and Thayer are convincing in their defense of Lee against the first two charges, they agree it would be difficult for a court to find him innocent of being disrespectful to Washington. John W. Shy would agree with them. Writes Shy: "No one carefully reads the record of trial, examines the ground, and considers the British side of the battle would find Lee guilty of the first two charges. But no one who reads his letters to Washington will believe him innocent of the third. Under the circumstances an acquittal on the first two charges would have been a vote of no-confidence in Washington."(John W. Shy, "Charles Lee: The Soldier as Radical," in George Athan Billias, ed., George Washington's Generals [New York: William Morrow and Co., 1964], p. 45.)


Greene, Nathanael. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Edited by Richard K. Showman, et al. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Rhode Island Historical Society, 1976--. Vol. 2 pg 452-456

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