Episode 046

Lee You Had One Job – The Battle of Monmouth

In full retreat from Philadelphia to New York, British Commander Sir Henry Clinton is challenged outside Monmouth Courthouse by none other than George Washington himself.

Last week’s episode ended with what George Washington described as a fine piece of military trickery, Lafayette outmaneuvering and escaping superior British force with limited casualties and losses.

And as we discussed, there was a bit of politics involved in placing a French commander in charge of that mission, as the French and Americans had just recently signed an alliance against Great Britain.

The British were beginning to feel the pressure of such an alliance. While they wintered in Philadelphia’s finest homes, Washington and his men endured a hard & deprived winter at Valley Forge. But the soldiers who went into winter at Valley Forge were not the same that following summer…

An influx of European strategists, spurred on by the recent alliance, which included men such as the Prussian Baron von Steuben, Marquis de Lafayette, Johann, Baron de Kalb; and Poles Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir, Count Pulaski, aided Washington in the creation of a well-drilled, professional fighting force.

With this force at his back door and a French fleet in American waters, Clinton was forced to retreat his men back from Philadelphia to New York on June 18 1778, and his British-Hessian force’s route was forced to be by land, to avoid any possible encounters with a French fleet.

As the American’s approached the now “empty” city, Loyalists in the city managed to hop aboard a ship and escape down the Delaware river. General Benedict Arnold, who lead the force that reclaimed the city without bloodshed, was appointed the military governor of Philadelphia, and on June 24 Congress, who had been temporarily quartered in York PA, moved back into Philadelphia.

Sir Henry Clinton had originally intended to march to New York. The first week convinced him that his army with its train was too cumbrous to make the journey by land and it was reported that General Gates was moving from the Hudson River valley with his army to block the British retreat. Clinton decided to divert to the coast and take ship. At Allentown the British and German force branched off the main route towards Monmouth to head north east.

General Washington too was marching east from Valley Forge seeking to intercept the slow moving British column. The two groups would meet near Monmouth courthouse.

General Washington hurried his army forward to. An advanced force of some 4,000 troops were allocated to attack the marching British Army and cut it in half. Washington offered the command of this assault to Major General Charles Lee. Initially Lee refused the appointment, lacking confidence in the success of the plan. When the force was increased in size to 5,000 men and given to the Marquis de Lafayette, Lee changed his mind and insisted on the command. Lee had the task of attacking the British column in the flank and delaying it so that the main American army could come up and give battle.

Clinton suspected that Washington would attack him in strength and ordered Knyphausen to begin his march up the Middletown road to the North at 4am on 28th June 1778. Warned by Dickinson and his New Jersey militia that the British army was on the move, Washington ordered Lee to attack and bring the British withdrawal to a halt until he could bring up the main strength of the American army along the Monmouth Road.

Lee lay to the west of the Middletown road and should have delivered a coordinated attack on the slow moving column. Properly planned this could have halted the British withdrawal to the north east and enabled the main American army under Washington to attack from the rear. It seems that Lee gave no proper orders to his commanders and permitted them to commit their troops as they saw fit.

Skirmishes with parties of British troops took place as Lee’s force moved tentatively forward towards the Middletown Road. Confused fighting broke out with Clinton’s rearguard, largely composed of British regiments. Finally Lee ordered his troops to retreat on the main American army. As he withdrew down the road, Clinton launched his troops in pursuit.

General Washington, bringing the main American army along the Monmouth road, encountered, not the rear of the British column, but Lee’s regiments, retreating in considerable disorder with the British advancing behind them.

George Washington prided himself on his ability to control his temper. Few people beyond his immediate family and closest aides ever saw him lose his composure. But on the afternoon of June 28, 1778, Washington exploded in a rage at his second in command General Charles Lee, in a moment that became legendary among the officers who were present.

When Washington finally met up with Lee on the road near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey, he cursed his second in command. Washington was so vehemently upset at Lee for fleeing from the British that, as General Charles Scott reported, the “leaves shook on the tree.”

While his disgraced second headed behind the lines, Washington rode through the ranks on his white charger, inspiring the soldiers with his confidence. Lord Stirling’s men were placed on the left, Greene’s soldiers on the right, and part of Lee’s original force were placed under the command of Wayne and located in the center. Lafayette stood in reserve with the rest of Lee’s forces.

The British, led by General Charles Cornwallis, struck first at Lord Stirling, then at Greene, before attacking Wayne in the middle. By evening both sides were exhausted.
Washington ordered General Wayne with the last of Lee’s regiments, Stewart’s 13th Pennsylvania and Ramsay’s 3rd Maryland, to form to the North of the road and hold the British advance. These regiments resisted strongly but were driven back by the British 16th Light Dragoons. Their stand gave Washington the time to form the rest of the American army, with artillery on Comb’s Hill to the South of the road enfilading the attacking British foot.

Fierce fighting took place as the British attempted to drive back the American line. This was the first test of Steuben’s re-trained American Continental Foot regiments and they withstood the trial well. As the evening wore on the British troops fell back and returned to their journey north, leaving the Americans on the field

Many men had been killed or wounded, while still more had collapsed in the 100 degree weather. Washington’s own horse had died in the heat. Noticing British campfires burning in the distance, Washington decided to continue the fight in the morning. But at sunrise, he realized that the redcoats had kept their fires burning as a ruse and were safely on their way to New York. While the British had escaped, the Americans claimed victory in the Battle of Monmouth and Washington was lauded for his bravery. Lafayette later recalled, in regards to Washington’s service at Monmouth that, “I thought then as now I had never beheld so superb a man.”

The British suffered some 300 casualties and the Americans 350. Up to 100 men are thought to have died of heatstroke during the battle.

During the march from Philadelphia Clinton’s army lost around 550 deserters, of whom 450 were from the Hessian regiments. This is a striking figure. In the course of a few days Clinton lost the equivalent of a battalion.

After the battle, Major General Charles Lee demanded and received trial by court martial for his performance at the battle. He was convicted and sentenced to one year’s suspension from duty. Fortescue, the historian of the British Army, seems convinced that Lee’s conduct arose from treacherous motives.

Some US authorities categorise Lee as a traitor. Lee is a strange and interesting character. He first arrived in America as a captain in Halkett’s 44th Regiment, taking part in Braddock’s disastrous march to the Ohio River during 1755. Lee continued to serve during the French and Indian War. He was given the nickname of “Boiling Water” by the Iroquois due to his temper. He was also the subject of an assassination attempt by members of his regiment.

After the war he left the British Army and joined the Polish Army, apparently rising to the rank of General. Unable to obtain senior rank in the British Army, Lee returned to America and joined the American Army, achieving his ambition of senior command. It seems more likely that Lee’s flawed character caused his command failings rather than deliberate treachery.

Molly Hayes, known today as Molly Pitcher, was at Freehold that unbearably hot day bringing water to her husband and his fellow gunners as they fired their cannon. Let’s talk about ol’ Molly, as most of my US listeners can recall from grade school, she apparently took over guns for her husband.

There are so many different legends to Molly Pitcher that some historians believe her story is folklore or a composite of several people. Though there has been ample research done mostly by her decedents, independent review of the documents and the conclusion suggested more research is needed. Most sources identify her birth name as Mary Ludwig, daughter of Maria Margaretha and Johann George Ludwig. Most sources identify her first husband as William Hays (also sometimes referred to as John Hays), who was in the artillery and fought at the Battle of Monmouth.

During the American Revolutionary War, William Hays enlisted as a gunner in the Continental Army. As it was common at the time for wives to be near their husbands in battle and help as needed, Pitcher followed Hays back to New Jersey during the war’s Philadelphia Campaign (1777-78).

Hays fought in the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, a brutally hot day. His wife was present as well, and she made countless trips to a nearby spring to fill pitchers of cold water for soldiers to drink and to pour over their cannons to cool them down.

As legend has it, the soldiers nicknamed her Molly Pitcher for her tireless efforts. But the legend only began with her new name. According to accounts, Pitcher witnessed her husband collapse at his cannon, unable to continue with the fight. She immediately dropped her water pitcher and took his place at the cannon, manning the weapon throughout the remainder of the battle until the Colonists achieved victory. According to the National Archives, there was a documented witness to Pitcher’s heroic acts, who reported a cannon shot passing through her legs on the battlefield, leaving her unscathed:

“While in the act of reaching a cartridge … a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. … She observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher… and continued her occupation.”

With her actions on that day, Molly Pitcher became one of the most popular and enduring symbols of the women who contributed to the American Revolution.

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