Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the Battle of Monmouth.
The Battle of Monmouth was fought in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and was part of the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777-78. The Continental Army attacked the rear of the British Army column as they left Monmouth Courthouse. It is also known as the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse.
Unsteady handling of lead Continental elements by Maj. Gen. Charles Lee had allowed British rearguard commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, to seize the initiative; but Washington’s timely arrival on the battlefield rallied the Americans along a hilltop hedgerow. Sensing the opportunity to smash the Continentals, Cornwallis pressed his attack and captured the hedgerow in stifling heat.
Washington consolidated his troops in a new line on heights behind marshy ground and used his artillery to fix the British in their positions. He then brought up a four-gun battery under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene on nearby Combs Hill to enfilade (a volley of gunfire directed along a line from end to end ) the British line, requiring Cornwallis to withdraw.
Finally, Washington tried to hit the exhausted British rear guard on both flanks, but darkness forced the end of the engagement. Both armies held the field, but the British commanding general, Henry Clinton, withdrew undetected at midnight to resume his army’s march to New York City.
While Cornwallis protected the main British column from any further American attack, Washington had fought his opponent to a standstill after a pitched and prolonged engagement. This was the first time that Washington’s army had achieved such a result.
Lee, Washington’s second-in-command, advised awaiting developments as he did not wish to commit the American force against the British regulars. However, Washington determined that the British column was vulnerable to attack as it traveled across New Jersey with its baggage train, and they moved from Valley Forge in pursuit.
Washington was still undecided how to attack the British column and held a council of war. The council, however, was divided on the issue with a small group of officers, including Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne, urging a partial attack on the British column while it was strung out on the road. Lee was still cautious, advising only harassing attacks with light forces.
On June 26, Washington chose to send 4,000 men as an advance force to strike at the British rear guard as they departed Monmouth Courthouse in order to delay the British withdrawal until the main American force could give battle.
On June 28, in the morning, the British were camped along Dutch Lane and Freehold-Mount Holly Road, while the main Continental Army was camped at Manalapan Bridge, four miles west of Englishtown.
At 8 a.m., Lee’s advance body of 5,000 troops and 12 guns approached the British rear guard a few miles north of Monmouth Courthouse. 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 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 make a distracting attack. Lee wanted to 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. Wilhelm von Knyphausen was ordered to watch his left flank and continue marching.
Meanwhile, Clinton turned 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 cannon 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 retreating 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 corps 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.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.