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Stand and Fight: George Washington and the Battle of Monmouth


After a hard winter and spring of training, drilling, and survival at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, General George Washington’s revitalized Continental Army was put to the test against British General Sir Henry Clinton’s army near Monmouth Courthouse in Freehold, New Jersey on Sunday, June 28, 1778.

As Clinton’s army was moving northward through New Jersey toward New York, the lead Continental elements under General Charles Lee attacked the rearguard of the British column as Washington brought up the main American force. On that scorching hot Sunday of hundred-degree heat, Lee’s battlefield leadership left much to be desired and Washington was disheartened when he rode up and found the whole advance guard in retreat. General Washington demanded an explanation from his second-in-command: "What is the meaning of this, sir? I desire to know the meaning of this disorder and confusion!” After Lee responded that the Americans “would not stand the British bayonets,” Washington exploded. General Charles Scott of Virginia claimed that the Commander-in-Chief “swore on that day till the leaves shook on the trees.” The Marquis de Lafayette, a young French officer who had quickly become one of the most trusted members of Washington’s staff was a witness to the confrontation and wrote, “It was the only time I ever heard General Washington swear.”

As a wave of stout Redcoats drove forward, aiming to deliver a crushing blow to the disorganized and fleeing Rebels, Washington took charge, countermanding Lee’s order to retreat and rallying the Americans. A fiery Washington asked his soldiers, “Will you fight?” And fight they would, responding “with three thunderous cheers that reverberated across the ridgeline,” as noted by authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. “His presence,” wrote Lafayette, “seemed to arrest fate with a single glance.” The Commander-in-Chief’s force of will was so strong that he was able to stop the retreat and “brought order out of confusion, animated his troops, and led them to success,” according to another of Washington's trusted young staff members, Alexander Hamilton.

General George Washington rallying the troops at the Battle of Monmouth. (Photo Credit: Britishbattles.com)

Demonstrating their new professionalism and discipline under fire, the soldiers of the Continental Army battled the British in the punishing heat for several hours. Lafayette admired how Washington rode up and down the American lines “amid the shouts of the soldiers, cheering them by his voice and example and restoring to our standard the fortunes of the fight.” The broiling sun was so intense that Washington’s horse died in the heat. Although the fierce clash featured “both sides giving and taking patches of ground,” according to the historian Benson Bobrick, neither the British nor the Continentals were able to attain “a decisive action.” With the two armies exhausted, the battle settled down toward evening. Washington planned to continue the fight in the morning, but Clinton’s army managed to slip away that night, escaping toward Sandy Hook, where a British fleet awaited them.

The wife of an American artilleryman, Mary Ludwig Hayes was with her husband at the Battle of Monmouth and according to Bobrick, "she helped him man his gun." Bobrick also adds, "After the battle, she did legendary service carrying water for the wounded, which earned her the nickname 'Molly Pitcher,' by which all such battlefield angels have since been known." (Photo Credit: Britishbattles.com)

The Battle of Monmouth cost both sides approximately 350 casualties, “more to heat than to bullets,” according to Bobrick. Although many historians today evaluate the fight on June 28, 1778 as a tactical draw, General Washington and his army proudly claimed victory. Monmouth was confirmation to the men of the Continental Army that the preceding months of intense training and drilling had indeed turned them into sharper soldiers. While the battle provided a major morale boost to the Continentals and their supporters, for General Henry Clinton and the British, Monmouth was a dispiriting missed opportunity to inflict a major blow to the Americans in what was becoming an increasingly protracted and complex struggle.

Following the battle, Washington called for his warriors “to unite in thanksgiving to the Supreme disposer of human Events for the Victory which was obtained on Sunday.” Defeat had loomed at Monmouth, but Washington checked Lee’s retreat, inspired his troops to stand and fight, and as Drury and Clavin emphasize, led his army with firmness as it withstood “a series of murderous assaults.” When the Marquis de Lafayette reflected on his beloved commander’s actions on the field of fire at Monmouth, he declared, “I thought then as now I had never beheld so superb a man.”

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Monmouth.

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Battle of Monmouth.

Valley Forge by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin.

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