In May of 1778, The British commander, General Clinton in Philadelphia, faced with a war with France decided it was prudent to protect New York City and Florida. He sent 3000 troops to protect Florida by sea. Then On June 18, the British began to evacuate Philadelphia, crossing New Jersey to go to New York City. They have 11,000 troops, a thousand loyalists and a baggage train 12 miles long.
Now it is the Americans turn to harass the British, and they do in small ways, burning bridges, muddying wells, cutting trees across roads, and snapping at their heels. The British advance only 40 miles in a week. The weather is warm and wet, and traveling is hard muddy work. The Hessians suffer most as they carry heavy packs, and many fall from the heat, others desert.
General Lee advises to await developments-he doesn’t want to commit the army against the famous ability of the British regulars. He has more experience than Washington, and has influence on all the officers, and Washington has a tendency to defer to him, against his own judgment. In a war council a majority of officers vote not to engage the enemy in an all out assault. The Americans, though now trained and better equipped, and had almost the same number of troops, they could not afford to lose a major engagement.
In spite of Lee, Washington determines that the British were vulnerable to attack as they were spread out across the state with their baggage trains, and moved from Valley Forge into NJ in pursuit.
On the 23rd and 24th, the army encamps on the farm of John Hart, in Hopewell, and Washington calls a council of war at the home of John Hunt. Incredibly, most of the officers vote not to attack the British while they are vulnerable. Washington decides to compromise, and have an advance corp engage the enemy. Now military etiquette comes into play. General Lee, who is senior should be offered the job. He doesn’t want it and he doesn’t support an attack- he doesn’t think Americans can stand against British regulars. Washington offers it to Lafayette. Already he has the NJ militia and Morgan’s riflemen on Clinton’s flank, and orders Lafayette with Generals Scott and Maxwell to move near the British.
Lee changes his mind- a mission of this size should be his to command. Washington allows him to take over command of the advance corp. He adds to the advance corps the brigades of Wayne and Poor, for a total of 6000 men, for an attack on the rear of the British column. Washington will support him with the main army.
On the 27th Lee is next to the British. Washington orders Lee to attack the next day, and Washington will support him with the main army. Lee does nothing to prepare for it. He tells his generals he will have to make plans as he encounters the enemy and learns their situation. He issues no orders to General Dickinson, with the NJ militia, or Col. Morgan, with the rifle regiment, which units are on the flanks of the British column. He does not gather information or look at maps.
On June 28, General Dickinson, commanding the NJ militia, reports he is engaged with the British and they seem to be falling back. Lee moves forward slowly. He has failed to gather data on the ground or the position of the enemy, and now he hears conflicting reports that the British are moving out and that they are preparing an attack, and is annoyed of the lack of intelligence about the enemy-which he has failed to order gathered. The British were both 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 gets a picture of the enemy placements in his head and orders units to move to their left and right, to cut off the rear guard of the enemy and capture them. Units march out to the flanks, but then receive no orders. Wayne, in the center, is told to feint an attack. Lee wants hold the rear guard while he encircles them, but his generals don’t know the plan.
General Clinton believes the American army wants to capture and plunder his baggage train, and in response to the flanking units, decides to attack where he thinks the main column is, actually the right flank of the American line, to force the flank units in to support. He sends more men to reinforce the rear guard and make the attack.
The movement of the British disrupts Lee’s plan to isolate and destroy the rear guard, and threatens the right flank. Lee sends Lafayette towards the right to support it. As they do, the British open on the Americans with cannon. Lee sends some of his men into the village of Monmouth to avoid the fire.
On the left, the flank units see what seems to be a retreat in the center as Lee’s men take cover, and at the same time Oswald’s artillery unit in the area moves to the rear when they run out of ammunition. The flank units on the left move back, since they have no orders. They fail to inform Lee of their movements or send word for orders, all though they do ask some of his aides if they have orders for them.
Seeing his left fall back, Lee orders the right to also withdraw as well, and a sometimes confused retreat begins. The entire advance corp is now falling back. Lee makes no orders, has no rear guard, no one understands why they retreat. Lafayette sends for Washington to come forward. Lee thinks he is saving the advance corp by moving out of harms way.
Washington sends to Lee for a report, and Lee sends back that he is “doing well enough.” Not in anyway satisfied, Washington moves forward, to find the roads crowded with retreating troops. He dispatches aides to find the cause, but they can not see a reason for the retreat. The troops report they were ordered to retreat by Lee. Riding down the road, he finds Lee.
Washington asks Lee for the meaning of this retreat, in an annoyed manner. Lee, who thinks he has saved the army by retreating, is confused by Washington’s brusque manner and says ” Sir…Sir!”. Washington repeats the question. Lee stammers some excuses about his orders not being followed, then says again that Americans are not able to stand against the British. Enraged, Washington says “Sir, they are able, and by God they shall do it!”
Washington rides back to the rear of the retreating troops, where his aides report the British are within a few minutes of reaching the retreating column, as the advance corp is filing through a causeway or bridge over a morass/ravine. Seeing the corp endangered, he begins to order troops into blocking positions, and orders them to hold the British advance while the rest of the corp gets over the causeway. These units put up a stiff resistance until the troops are safe across and support troops are in position behind them, then under pressure make a fighting withdrawal to safety.
Washington begins to order the troops into a strong defensive line, using some of the exhausted advance corp, and some fresh troops. Riding all over the field, sometimes under fire, by his presence he is able to reverse the flow of events. He orders units into action and they move with precision, shifting like the trained troops Von Steuben has made them. The best of the British attack repeatedly as the Americans shuffle into line, and the Americans hold, sometimes falling back but always under control. Lee, finding Washington has begun to issue orders, fails to do anything, thinking himself relieved. As the advance corp is coming across the causeway, Washington orders Lee to position troops to defend the line. Lee does nothing, issues no orders. Some of the retreating men, full of fight, if exhausted from the heat and humidity, leave the retreating column and form with Washington. As the last of the retreating advance corp is brought safely across the causeway, Lee, last man across, reports to Washington for orders, and is told to take his troops to Englishtown creek and set up, far to the rear. Forces are brought forward and positioned by Washington and though the rest of the day the Americans hold the best of the British forces. As dusk falls, Washington has fresh troops ready to attack around the British flanks, but they have to hold due to the loss of light.
During the battle, a woman known today as Molly Pitcher, a camp follower who brought water to the troops from a nearby spring, took over her husbands place (John Hayes) at a cannon when he was wounded. Under fire, and loosing men, the artillery unit was going to fall back until she volunteered to take his place. Bravely she served the cannon in her husbands place. After Hayes death after the war she married John McCauley. moved to Carlisle, Penn. and died there Jan. 22 nd, 1833.
At 10 pm, General Clinton orders his units to begin to follow the baggage train, and when the moon set about 11pm, they sneak quietly off to protect the baggage. They leave abandoned personal goods and weapons, and their dead and some of the worst wounded behind them.
Though Washington has failed to destroy the British column, he had inflicted damage to their troops, and proven that Americans can stand against the regulars, without the advantage of surprise. The British have defended their baggage, but were unable to defeat the Americans in open battle. Since the Americans hold the field, they claim the victory, but it is really a draw or even a British victory, since the British were only defending their baggage train, not looking for a battle. However, the British had covered 9 miles a day until the battle. After the battle, they covered 24 miles in one day. Both sides lost about 350 men in killed, wounded or captured. both sides lost men heavily due to heat exhaustion.
In the aftermath, Lee is court-martialled, and is found guilty, and is removed from the Army for a year. He never returns to bother Washington again with either his ego or bad advice. Monmouth was the last battle fought between the two MAIN armies, and the longest. After this, the fighting involved secondary forces (though still large forces), as the war shifted to the southern colonies.