Battle of Monmouth

An overview of one of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War.

The Battle of Monmouth raged in the scorching heat on June 28, 1778. The British Commander, Sir Henry Clinton, stated in a letter home that it was 96 degrees in the shade. The moving battle covered a distance of about 20 linear miles, beginning in Freehold Courthouse and continuing into Middletown, NJ. Of the approximately 30,000 troops engaged in battle, about 501 died, half of which succumbed to heat stroke.

The main portion of the battle took place on what is now Monmouth Battlefield State Park, which contains approximately 1900 acres of battlefield property. In 1778, portions of the property were being farmed, including the sites of the Derrick Sutfin house, the John Craig house and the Tennent Church Parsonage.

The foundations for this long, bloody battle began early in of the spring 1778. France agreed to support the United States and began sending large quantities of arms to the troops at Valley Forge. British Commander Sir Henry Clinton became concerned of the possibility of a French naval blockade of Philadelphia. He decided to move the Crown Forces from Philadelphia to New York City. New York had two good forts and a large number of British war ships were anchored off Sandy Hook, NJ.  He sent supplies via ship, but also decided to take his 20,000 men across "the Jersies", along with a baggage train of about 1,500 wagons containing provisions, munitions, and equipment. When George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, found out about this move, he moved his troops out of Valley Forge and planned to intersect the British. He sent Daniel Morgan and his riflemen to slow the British baggage train down by sniping at the marching troops as they marched towards Sandy Hook.  On June 26th a heavy down pour occurred and Clinton decided to rest his troops at Monmouth Courthouse (Freehold), NJ.  The severe weather kept Washington and the Continentals in Cranbury the whole day.  On June 27th, the Continentals moved to Englishtown, 3 miles west of Monmouth Courthouse and within striking distance of the British.

Before daybreak on June 28th the British army began moving out of town towards Middletown, NJ. Approaching from Englishtown were 5,000 American troops under Major General Charles Lee, Second-in-Command of the Continental Line. At the same time, Washington was advancing with 8,000 men from Manalapan Bridge, 6 miles west.

As Lee's troops approached the "great plain" circling toward the British rear guard, they did not remain concealed in the woods. British Grenadiers witnessed them, and before long the Continental Army saw a dust cloud caused by 9,000 crack British and Hessian troops, who had doubled back to attack Lee's approaching men. The attacking Grenadiers, Brigade of Guards and three Brigades of British Foot formed a half-mile wide double line as they approached the Continentals.

Against Washington's direct orders to attack the British, Lee ordered his men to retreat after nearly exhausting their ammunition. The confusion resulted in an what appeared to be a disorderly withdrawal. While seeking a defensive position Lee lost communication with two large detachments: William Maxwell's New Jersey Brigade and Charles Scott's light infantry of 1,500 men. Incorrect information led Lee to believe Scott and Maxwell had already withdrawn, leaving Lee with only 2,500 men against Clinton's forces of 10,000.

Lee's withdrawal left several Continental units stranded in the woods. While some were able to escape, four battalions were cut off by the rapid advance of the British. All of the battalions eventually joined Washington, who ordered Lee to delay the British advance long enough for Washington to get his main army in position.

Rather than discouraging the British, the new American formations made the British strengthen their efforts. Once in position, Clinton led an attack against the Continentals and in minutes, the British took most of Lee's positions. But as two Continental battalions fled with Grenadiers in pursuit, a sudden attack of grapeshot from Continental guns killed the leader of the battalion and the British advance collapsed. 

To try to silence the Continental artillery, Clinton brought ten field pieces and two 5 1/2" Howitzers to a hill at the hedgerow and bombarded American positions with solid shot and shell for hours, with Washington had positioned ten cannons on the Perrine ridge and returned fire. This was the longest and largest land artillery duel of the entire Revolutionary War.  With a distance of two-thirds of a mile between the opposing artillery forces and a great deal of blinding smoke, damage was minimal. It was during this artillery duel that Molly Pitcher, aka Mary Hays, gained her notoriety. By mid-afternoon Clinton reluctantly ordered his flanking columns to withdraw, but gunfire from a Continental brigade blocked their position, forcing Clinton to withdraw his artillery. Without the support of their artillery, retreating British columns were left vulnerable.

This was Washington's chance to mount his planned offensive. Dispatching some of Scott's men along with Anthony Wayne and three of his Pennsylvania regiments, the retreating Third Brigade and the rear of the British First Division were confronted. Wayne's attack on the First Division provoked a brutal firefight that raged around the hedgerow and parsonage buildings until the British were forced to withdraw. By then it was late afternoon and both armies were exhausted, ending the Battle of Monmouth. Clinton withdrew his troops toward town and lit decoy campfires, escaping with his troops during the night.

As soon as the British withdrew, a political battle erupted in the Continental Army. The second-in-command of the Army, Major-General Charles Lee, wanted Washington's job. Lee's reputed battlefield failures gave Washington's supporters an opportunity to attack Lee. They began spreading rumors that Lee was an incompetent coward. To clear his name, Lee requested a court-martial. The trial essentially gave the Continental Army officer corps the opportunity to vote on their commander-in-chief, and they supported Washington.

Right up through his court-marial, Lee believed his actions were justified regardless of the fact that his retreat caused a much larger battle than Washington originally intended. Letters sent between Washington and Lee illustrate the tension between these two officers; you can read these letters and find out more about his court-martial by clicking the above link, "Washington/Lee Letters".

This is an extremely abbreviated account of the longest battle of the Revolution with many events occurring.  However, BRAVO has been able to accurately locate the areas where much of the events occurred and has corrected earlier interpretations.  The location of the causeway bridge where Washington met Lee has been identified as being over a half mile away from where earlier historians had placed it. The actual location of the spring head where "Molly" drew her water has been found.  The exact locations of the Derrick Sutphin orchard and the Parsonage orchard have been located by precisely mapping where heavily impacted musket ball and grape and canister shot have been excavated.


Sources:

 

"A Deadly Minuet: The Advance of the New England "Picked Men" against the Royal Highlanders at the Battle of Monmouth", published in The Brigade Dispatch, 1996. Written by Dr. Garry Wheeler Stone, Daniel M. Sivilich, and Mark Edward Lender.

"Forman's Mills During the Battle of Monmouth", written by Dr. Garry Wheeler Stone, New Jersey State Park Service, with assistance from Mary Ann Kiernan and James T. Raleigh.