Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the Battle of Monmouth, which took place during the Revolutionary War. The article picks up where part one left off.
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 corps 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 four 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 performed a volley of cannon fire at the advancing British.
This cannon 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 duel 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 wooded 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 cannons 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 three 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 one 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 husband’s 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 husband’s place.
At 10 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 five days, the British forces evacuated to New York City.
Both sides claimed victory at the Battle of Monmouth. 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 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 he was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the army. This verdict was later upheld by Congress, but Lee refused to accept the suspension. He was then expelled from the army and retired into obscurity.
The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse was the longest and last battle fought between the two main armies. After this, the fighting involved secondary 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.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.