Battle of Monmouth: Washington's Continentals Attack Retreating British Rearguard

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Battle of Monmouth: Washington's Continentals Attack Retreating British Rearguard

"Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth" by Emanuel Leutze (c. 1852)
Oil on canvas; original version (23' X 13') at University of California, Berkeley
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 28, 1778

For today's history lesson, I go back to the American War of Independence to chronicle an important – but largely ignored – battle of that war. It was the first major fight for the Continental Army after wintering in Valley Forge. In addition, it is one of the few times that Gen. George Washington lost his cool, and uttered "very singular expressions."


The Revolutionary War had not been going well for the United States. The year 1777 saw a number of victories for the British, including the capture of the city of Philadelphia, the second largest port of the 13 colonies. It was also the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington of Virginia, went into winter bivouac at Valley Forge, about 20 miles from the captured city.

One highlight for the Continental Army that year was the victory at Saratoga in October. This American triumph not only stopped a British invasion trying to cut off New England from the other colonies, but gave France the final impetus to openly enter the war on the side of America. Also, in June of that year, the French officer the Marquis de Lafayette landed on American soil. Offering his services to Congress, he volunteered to serve without pay and was given a major-general's commission. He reported to George Washington, and was offered the position of the general's aide-de-camp. [For those who are interested, Lafayette's full given name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier; yes, quite a mouthful…]

"Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge, 1777 [sic]" by Augustus G. Heaton
"Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge, 1777 [sic]" by Augustus G. Heaton

During the winter of 1777-1778, the American army survived a lack of food and deaths from disease (about 2500 out of 10,000 men expired). During this time a number of foreign officers sought service with the Continental Army, the most famous being Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Steuben was a Prussian officer who served in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War. He had been on the staff of Frederick the Great. He came to America and in February 1778 began the arduous task of teaching raw American recruits to fight like European soldiers.

He formed a model company of 120 men who, once they were proficient in the drills, taught their fellow soldiers the proper techniques. Steuben spoke German and French – no English – but when he swore at his new charges in German or French and got no reaction, he would get one of aides to "…swear at them for me" in English. In addition, Steuben promulgated regulations for proper camp alignment and the positioning of latrines and kitchens. Many of his regulations were still in use in the U.S. Army 150 years later.

Finally, in May of 1778 the Continental Army left its Valley Forge encampment. It had suffered privation and death, but was stronger and better trained. Gen. Washington was anxious to try this untested army against the finest army in the world, the British.

Meanwhile, there was a shakeup in the British command. General Howe resigned his command, and was replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton as commander-in-chief. France's entry into the war forced a change in British war strategy, and Clinton was ordered by the government to abandon Philadelphia and defend New York City, now vulnerable to French naval power. The British sent out a peace commission whose offers, made in June 1778 as Clinton was preparing to abandon Philadelphia, were rejected by Congress.

Prelude to the Battle

Gen. Clinton was ordered to ship some troops to the West Indies and to West Florida, which reduced the number of men at his disposal to defend Philadelphia. He originally planned to sail his force from Philadelphia to New York, but a lack of troop transports prevented this. He did, however, send his heavy equipment and several thousand Loyalists – who feared revenge attacks – via water. He then committed to a 100-mile overland march to New York City, leaving Philadelphia on June 18 with 11,000 British and Hessian soldiers, about 1000 Loyalists, and a 12-mile long baggage train.  

As the British column wound its way across the New Jersey countryside, American scouts harassed the enemy by burning bridges, muddying water wells, and felling trees across roads. Due to these acts – and the length of the wagon train – the British made slow progress. In the meantime, Gen. Washington was anxious to attack the enemy, and give them a taste of their own military medicine. On about June 25, Washington held a council of war with his subordinates. A minority of them, led by Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne, wanted to attack the British rear guard with main force. However, a larger majority, led by Maj. Gen. Charles Lee – who was Washington's second-in-command – urged only harassing attacks with light forces. Finally, Washington decided to attack.

Engraving of Charles Lee by C. Corbutt (1775); Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC
Engraving of Charles Lee by C. Corbutt (1775)
Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC

On June 26, Washington chose to send 4000 men as an advance force to strike at the British rear guard as they departed Monmouth Courthouse, in order to delay the British withdrawal until the main American force could give battle. He first offered assigned this task to Gen. Lee, who refused. However, when Washington increased the number of troops to 5000 and sought to put Lafayette in command, Lee objected – he was the senior officer in the army, after all – and took command. Alexander Hamilton, observing all this as one of Washington's aides, called Lee's conduct "childish."

[Lee was a former British Army officer, and had been held prisoner by them up until about a year and half before Monmouth. Washington wanted to give Lee's troops a chance to prove themselves, as the majority of them had received the intensive training from von Steuben. It is also possible Washington wanted to test Lee's loyalty. At one point in his British army career while stationed in the colonies, he married a Mohawk woman whose father was a chief. His tribal name was "Ounewaterika," which means "boiling water" for his temper.]

Battle of Monmouth

Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778 showing initial positions and later phase (Map courtesy of the History Department, U.S. Military Academy)
Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778 showing initial positions and later phase
(Map courtesy of the History Department, U.S. Military Academy)

Sunday, June 28, 1778 dawned hot and humid. Temperatures eventually reached the high 90's, with some reports of 100º F or more. Later in the afternoon, there were summer thunderstorms which dampened the battlefield.

Gen. Lee's troops were supposed to attack the flank of the British line of march, hoping to either split the line or to pin the rearguard, allowing the main units of the Continental Army to attack. Gen. Lee had little confidence in Washington's plan, apparently showing no regard of the training given the troops during the previous winter. He apparently also regarded himself as the best officer in the Continental Army, and regarded Washington with some contempt.

At about 5:00 am, the British Army resumed its march to New York. Nearby New York militia monitoring the "lobsterbacks" sent a messenger back to Gen. Washington with the news. Within an hour, Lee's force moved out of camp in pursuit of the British. At about 8:00 am, Lee's 5000-man force was in position, and began their attack on the marching enemy.

However, things started going wrong almost immediately. Lee had given no specific orders to his subordinate commanders – among them "Mad" Anthony Wayne – except to be alert for further battlefield commands. For several hours, the British regulars and Continental infantry fought a serious of confusing, uncoordinated fights, with the British more often coming out on top. Lee issued confusing and contradictory orders – or no orders at all when requested – endangering the entire operation. At about noontime, the entire Continental right flank pulled back to avoid being outflanked by British cavalry. This retrograde movement caused the rest of Lee's soldiers to panic, and most of the men began a hasty, disordered retreat. A few units tried to stem the tide and delay the pursuing British, but the enemy's numbers forced them to join their comrade's.

Washington Arrives on the Scene

Shortly afterwards, Gen. Washington arrived on the scene with the expectation of hooking up with Lee's vanguard. Unfortunately, about a mile west of Monmouth Courthouse, he met the first groups of Continentals retreating from the initial fighting. Washington asked a few quick questions, the last being "Who ordered the retreat?" When told it was Lee himself, one witness reported that Washington exclaimed, "Damn him!" Riding a bit further forward, Washington met Gen. Lee, rushing pell-mell to the rear. Confronting his subordinate in a rage, Washington gave him a severe dressing down, relieved him of command, and ordered him to the rear.

"Washington at the Battle of Monmouth" by John Ward Dunsmore (1908); Washington is on the white horse, reproaching Lee (Image courtesy of
"Washington at the Battle of Monmouth" by John Ward Dunsmore (1908)
Washington is on the white horse, reproaching Lee
(Image courtesy of

[There are several versions of what Washington said or how he said it. Years later, Lafayette said that Washington had called Lee a "damned poltroon." Another American officer said Washington's speech was "like the voice of an angel" and that his words "shook the leaves on the trees." Finally, in his letter requesting a court-martial, Gen. Lee stated that Washington used "very singular expressions" to him. The fact that Lee was not specific in what his commander said has been interpreted by some historians that Lee objected to Washington's tone, more than his actual words. Another eyewitness asked years later about Washington's words reportedly said, "If there was a day when Gen. Washington had cause to swear, it would be Monmouth."]

Washington made quick work of rallying his army, and formed a battle line to resist the oncoming British. Two miles west of Monmouth Courthouse, Washington used the West Ravine, a deep defile along the Monmouth Courthouse- Freehold Meeting House Road as a rallying point. He placed troops under Nathaniel Greene on his right, and soldiers under Maj. Gen. William Alexander (claiming the title of Lord Sterling) on his left. In his center and slightly forward of his main line, he set in place the remainder of Lee's command now being led by Gen. Wayne. Reserve troops under Lafayette were to the rear. Several batteries of artillery were set up on each flank, hoping to enfilade the approaching British.

The British rearguard, commanded by Gen. Charles Cornwallis, was now joined by more detachments of soldiers, including Hessian light infantry. For about five hours, the two armies fought long and hard. At about 3:00 pm, Washington ordered Gen. Greene to send several regiments and some artillery onto nearby Coombs Hill. Before long, the left flank of the British was being enfiladed by musket and cannon fire. The British assaulted the ravine again and again, but the withering fire from Coombs Hill finally drove them back.

As Cornwallis's attack on Greene took place, other British forces attacked Wayne's men, who were deployed behind a long hedge at right angles to the road. Three British assaults were turned back, but the fourth one overlapped Wayne's flanks, and the men were forced to retire behind the Continental main line.

For the next couple of hours, there was no fighting except some long-range cannonades by both sides' artillery. At about 6:00 pm, all firing stopped, and the British withdrew to a position east of the ravine. Washington rearranged his battle line, wanted to resume the fighting, but both sides were exhausted, and nightfall brought an end to the battle. The next morning, Washington wanted to renew the fight, but scouts discovered the British camp to be deserted, as they had resumed their march at about 10:00 pm.


Casualties reported by both sides were rather light. Modern historians have set the British losses at about 1100 dead, wounded, and missing. A large number of the Hessian mercenaries deserted the British on the continued march to New York. American casualties were probably about 500 dead and wounded, with about 100 men dying of heat stroke.

Footnote #1: The battle has been termed a tactical draw, as the British Army was still mostly intact. The real winner in this fight was the Continental Army, which proved that it was now fully capable of a stand-up fight with their enemy, and had forced them to retreat.

Footnote #2: It was the battle of Monmouth at which the legend of Molly Pitcher was born. This folkloric figure has been identified fairly reliably as Mary Ludwig Hays MacCauley. She was a camp follower in the Continental Army, who carried water to her husband's artillery section to cool off the gun barrels, as well as to swab out the cannon between firings. When her husband was either wounded or fell prostrate from heat exhaustion, she took his place and manned the gun for the balance of the battle.

"Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth"; Engraving by J.C. Armytage (1859); Image in the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC
"Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth"
Engraving by J.C. Armytage (1859)
Image in the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC

Footnote #3: Monmouth was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War in the northern U.S. Most of the action now revolved to the southern states.

Footnote #4: In the aftermath, Gen. Lee asserted his innocence in a sharp letter to Washington and demanded a court martial. Washington obliged him, 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 was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the army. This verdict was later upheld by the Congress, but Lee refused to accept the suspension. He was then expelled from the army and retired into obscurity. He died in October of 1782.

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