Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 12: On His Own Responsibility: A New Army at Monmouth (March to June 1778) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 12: “On His Own Responsibility”: A New Army at Monmouth (March to June 1778) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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“On His Own Responsibility”: A New Army at Monmouth (March to June 1778)
Incursion into Jersey.—General Lacy surprised.—Attempt on Lafayette at Barren Hill.—General Howe resigns.—Is succeeded by Sir Henry Clinton.—He evacuates Philadelphia.—Marches through Jersey.—Battle of Monmouth.—General Lee arrested.—Sentenced to be suspended.—Thanks of Congress to General Washington and the army.
March 1778As the spring opened, several expedients1 were undertaken by the British. Colonel Mawhood made an incursion into Jersey, at the head of twelve hundred men. Governor Livingston2 was immediately requested to call out the militia in order to join Colonel Shreeve, whose regiment was detached for the protection of that state. The legislature had omitted to make provision for paying them, and the governor could not bring them into the field. Mawhood of course was unrestrained; and the devastation committed by his party was wantonly distressing. After completing his forage, unmolested, he returned to Philadelphia. During the continuance of this incursion, which lasted six or seven days, not more than two hundred militia could be collected.
Not long afterwards, an expedition was undertaken against General Lacy, who, with a small body of Pennsylvania militia, varying in its numbers, watched the roads on the north side of the Schuylkill.
Colonel Abercrombie, who commanded this expedition, avoided all Lacy’s posts of security, and threw a detachment into his rear before he discovered the approach of an enemy. After a short resistance, he escaped with a loss of a few men, and all his baggage. His corps was entirely dispersed, and he was soon afterwards replaced by General Potter.
To cover the country more effectually on the north side of the Schuylkill, to form an advance guard for the security of the main army, and to be in readiness to annoy the rear of the enemy should he evacuate Philadelphia, the Marquis de Lafayette was detached on the 18th of May, with more than two thousand choice troops, to take post near the lines.
He crossed the Schuylkill, and encamped near Barren Hill church eight or ten miles in front of the army. Immediate notice of his arrival was given to Sir William Howe, who reconnoitred his position, and formed a plan to surprise him. On the night of the 19th, General Grant with five thousand select troops, marched on the road leading up the Delaware, and after making a considerable circuit, reached Plymouth meeting-house, rather more than a mile in rear of the Marquis, between him and Valley Forge, before sunrise next morning. In the course of the night, General Grey with a strong detachment, had advanced up the Schuylkill, on its south side, and taken post at a ford two or three miles in front of the right flank of Lafayette, while the residue of the army encamped at Chesnut hill.
Captain M’Clane, a vigilant partisan, was posted some distance in front of Barren hill. In the course of the night, he fell in with two British grenadiers at Three-Mile run, who communicated to him the movement made by Grant, and also the preparations for that made by Grey. Conjecturing the object, M’Clane detached Captain Parr with a company of riflemen to harass and retard the column advancing up the Schuylkill, and hastened in person to the camp of Lafayette. That officer instantly put his troops in motion, and passed the Schuylkill at Watson’s ford, which was rather nearer to Grant than himself, with the loss of only nine men.
General Grant followed his rear, and appeared at the ford just after the Americans had crossed it. Finding them advantageously posted, he did not choose to attack them; and the whole army returned to Philadelphia.
This was the last enterprise attempted by Sir William Howe. He resigned the command of the army to Sir Henry Clinton, and embarked for Great Britain. About the same time, orders were received for the evacuation of Philadelphia. The great naval force of France rendered that city a dangerous position, and determined the administration3 to withdraw the army from the Delaware.
The preparations for this movement indicated equally an embarkation of the whole army, or its march through Jersey. The last was believed to be most probable, and every exertion was made to take advantage of it.
General Maxwell with the Jersey brigade was ordered over the Delaware, to Mount Holly, to join Major-General Dickenson, who was assembling the militia for the purpose of co-operating with the continental troops.
On the 17th of June, intelligence was received that great part of the British army had crossed the Delaware, and that the residue would soon follow. The opinion of the general officers was required on the course to be pursued. General Lee,4 who had been lately exchanged, and whose experience gave great weight to his opinions, was vehement against risking either a general or partial engagement. General Du Portail, a French officer of considerable reputation,5 maintained the same opinions; and the Baron de Steuben concurred in them. The American officers seem to have been influenced by the counsels of the Europeans; and, of seventeen Generals, only Wayne and Cadwallader were decidedly in favor of attacking the enemy. Lafayette appeared inclined to that opinion without openly embracing it; and General Greene was inclined to hazard more than the counsels of the majority would sanction.
June 1778On the morning of the 28th, Philadelphia was evacuated; and by two in the afternoon, all the British troops were encamped on the Jersey shore. As their line of march, until they passed Crosswick’s, led directly up the Delaware, General Washington found it necessary to make an extensive circuit, and to cross the river at Coryell’s ferry, after which he kept possession of the high grounds, thereby retaining the choice of bringing on or avoiding an action.
As Sir Henry Clinton encamped at Allentown, the main body of the American army lay in Hopewell township. Major-General Dickenson, with one thousand militia and Maxwell’s brigade, hung on his left flank; General Cadwallader with Jackson’s regiment and a few militia was in his rear; and Colonel Morgan with a regiment of six hundred men watched his right.
Notwithstanding the almost concurrent opinion of his general officers against risking an action, Washington appears to have been strongly inclined to that measure. A council was therefore once more assembled, who were asked whether it would be advisable to hazard a general action? If it would, ought it to be brought on by a general or partial attack, or by taking a position which must compel the enemy to become the assailants?
Should a general action be unadvisable, he asked what measures could be taken to annoy the enemy on his march?
The proposition respecting a general action was decidedly negatived. But it was advised to reinforce the corps on the left flank of the enemy with fifteen hundred men; and to preserve with the main body of the army a relative position, which would enable it to act as circumstances might require.
In pursuance of this opinion, the troops on the lines were strengthened with fifteen hundred select men commanded by General Scott; and the army moved forward to Kingston.
Knowing that several officers whose opinions were highly valued wished secretly for something more than skirmishing, General Washington, who was still in favor of an engagement, determined to take his measures on his own responsibility; and ordered General Wayne with one thousand men to join the advanced corps. The continental troops of the front division now amounting to at least four thousand men, it was proper that they should be commanded by a Major-General. Lee had a right to claim this tour of duty; but, supposing that nothing important was to be attempted, he showed no inclination to assert his claim, and yielded it to Lafayette. The orders given to this General, were to gain the enemy’s left flank and rear; give him every practicable annoyance; and attack by detachment, or with his whole force, as the occasion might require. General Washington moved forward to Cranberry for the purpose of supporting his front division, which had pressed forward and taken a position about five miles in rear of the British army, with the intention of attacking it next morning on its march.
Lafayette had scarcely taken command of the front division, when Lee, perceiving that great importance was attached to it by the general officers, began to regret having yielded it. To relieve his feelings without wounding those of Lafayette, General Washington detached him with two additional brigades to Englishtown, to which place the Marquis had been directed to march. It was expressly stipulated that any enterprise already formed by Lafayette should be carried into execution as if the commanding officer had not been changed. Lee acceded to this condition; and, with two additional brigades, joined the front division, now amounting to five thousand continental troops. The rear division moved forward, and encamped about three miles in his rear. Morgan still hovered on the right flank of the British, and General Dickenson on the left.
The position of Sir Henry Clinton on the heights about Monmouth Court-House was unassailable, and he was within twelve miles of the high grounds about Middletown, after reaching which he would be perfectly secure. Lee was therefore ordered to attack the British rear as soon as it should move from its ground.
About five in the morning, intelligence was received that the front of the enemy was in motion. Lee was ordered to attack the rear “unless there should be powerful reasons to the contrary,” and was at the same time informed that the rear division would be on its march to support him.
Sir Henry Clinton had observed the appearances on his flanks and rear, and had changed the order of his march. The baggage was placed in front under the care of Knyphausen, while the flower of his army formed the rear division under the particular command of Lord Cornwallis, who was accompanied by the commander-in-chief.
Soon after the rear had moved from its ground on the 28th, Lee prepared to execute the orders he had received, and directed General Wayne to attack the rear of their covering party with sufficient vigor to check its march, but not to press it so closely as either to force it up to the main body, or draw reinforcements to its aid. In the meantime he continued to gain the front of this party by a shorter road, and, intercepting its communication with the line, to bear it off before it could be assisted.
While in the execution of this design, a gentleman in the suite6 of General Washington came up to gain intelligence; and Lee communicated his object.
Before he reached his destination, there was reason to believe that the British rear was much stronger than had been conjectured.
Sir Henry Clinton, perceiving that his rear was followed by a strong corps, that a cannonade was commenced upon it, and that a respectable force showed itself at the same time on both his flanks, suspected a design on his baggage, and determined to attack the troops in his rear so vigorously as to compel the recall of those on his flanks.
Lee now discovered the strength of the British rear division; but was still determined to engage on the ground his troops occupied, though his judgment disapproved the measure, there being a morass7 immediately in his rear.
This was about ten. While both armies were preparing for action, General Scott (as stated by General Lee) mistook an oblique march8 of an American column for a retreat, and repassed the ravine in his rear.
Being himself of opinion that the ground was unfavorable, Lee did not correct the error he alleges Scott to have committed, but ordered the whole detachment to regain the heights. He was closely pressed, and some slight skirmishing ensued, without much loss on either side.
As soon as the firing announced the commencement of the action, the rear division advanced rapidly to support the front. General Washington, to his astonishment and mortification, met the troops retiring before the enemy without having made an effort to maintain their ground. The only answer they could make to his enquiries was, that, in obedience to the orders of their General, they had fled without fighting. In the rear of the division he met Lee, to whom he spoke in terms implying disapprobation of his conduct.9
Colonel Stewart and Lieutenant-Colonel Ramsay were ordered to check the pursuit with their regiments; and General Lee was directed to stop the British column on the ground then occupied. These orders were executed with firmness and effect; and the troops, when forced from the field, were formed in the rear of Englishtown.
This check afforded time to draw up the second line on an eminence covered by a morass in front. The artillery, under Lieutenant-Colonel Carrington, played with considerable effect on a division of the British which had passed the morass and was pressing forward. They stopped the advance of the enemy.
Finding themselves warmly opposed in front, the British attempted to turn first the left, and afterwards the right, flank of the American army, but were repulsed. At this moment General Wayne was advanced with a body of infantry to engage them in front, who soon drove them behind the ravine.
The position now taken by the British army was very strong. Both flanks were secured by thick woods and morasses; and their front was accessible only through a narrow pass. Yet General Washington was determined to renew the engagement. Poor, with his own and the North Carolina brigade, was ordered to gain their right flank, while Woodford should turn their left. The artillery was ordered to advance and play on their front.
The impediments on the flanks were so considerable that, before they could be overcome, it was nearly dark. Farther operations were, therefore, deferred till the morning, and the troops lay on their arms. General Washington passed the night in his cloak, in the midst of his soldiers. About midnight the British withdrew in such silence that their retreat was not discovered until day.
It was certain that they would gain the high grounds about Middletown before they could be overtaken; and the face of the country did not justify an attempt to oppose their embarkation. Leaving a detachment to hover on their rear, the army moved towards the Hudson.
The loss of the Americans in the battle of Monmouth was eight officers and sixty-four privates killed, and one hundred and sixty wounded. Among the slain were Lieutenant-Colonel Bonner of Pennsylvania, and Major Dickenson of Virginia, both much regretted. One hundred and thirty were missing; but many of them rejoined their regiments. Of the British, four officers and two hundred and forty-five privates were buried on the field. Some were afterwards found, increasing their dead to nearly three hundred. Sir Henry Clinton, in his official letter, states his wounded at sixteen officers and one hundred and fifty-four privates. The uncommon heat of the day proved fatal to several on both sides.
In addition to the loss sustained in the action, the British army was considerably weakened in its march from Philadelphia to New York. About one hundred prisoners were made, and near one thousand soldiers, chiefly foreigners, deserted.
The conduct of Lee was generally disapproved. It is, however, probable that explanations would have rescued him from the imputations cast on him, could his haughty temper have brooked10 the indignity he believed to have been offered to him on the field of battle. General Washington had taken no measures in consequence of the events of that day, when he received from Lee a letter expressed in very unbecoming terms, requiring reparation for the injury sustained “from the very singular expressions” used on the day of the action.
This letter was answered by an assurance, that as soon as circumstances would admit of an enquiry, he should have an opportunity of justifying himself to the army, to America, and to the world in general; or of convincing them that he had been guilty of disobedience of orders, and of misbehavior before the enemy. On his expressing a wish for a court-martial, he was arrested—
First, for disobedience of orders, in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June, agreeably to repeated instructions.
Secondly, for misbehavior before the enemy on the same day, in making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat.
Thirdly, for disrespect to the commander-in-chief in two letters.
Before this correspondence had taken place, strong and specific charges of misconduct had been made against General Lee by several officers, particularly by Generals Wayne and Scott.
A court-martial, of which Lord Sterling was president, found him guilty of all the charges exhibited against him, and sentenced him to be suspended for one year. This sentence was afterwards, though with some hesitation, approved almost unanimously by Congress. The court softened in some degree the severity of the second charge, by finding him guilty, not in its very words, but “of misbehavior before the enemy, by making an unnecessary, and in some few instances, a disorderly retreat.”
Lee defended himself with his accustomed ability; and suggested a variety of reasons in justification of his retreat, which, if they do not absolutely establish its propriety, give it so questionable a form as to render it probable that a public examination would not have taken place, could his proud spirit have stooped to offer explanation instead of outrage to the commander-in-chief.
His suspension gave general satisfaction to the army. Without being master of11 his conduct as a military man, they perfectly understood the insult offered to their General by his letters, and believed his object to have been to disgrace Washington, and elevate himself to the supreme command.
The battle of Monmouth gave great satisfaction to Congress. A resolution was passed unanimously, thanking General Washington for the activity with which he marched from Valley Forge in pursuit of the enemy; for his distinguished exertions in forming the line of battle, and for his great good conduct in the action. He was also requested to signify the thanks of Congress to the officers and men under his command.
After remaining a few days on the high grounds of Middletown, Sir Henry Clinton proceeded to Sandy Hook, whence his army passed over to New York.
[1. ]Stratagems, schemes for surprising and deceiving the enemy.
[2. ]William Livingston (1723–90) of New York and New Jersey, Continental Congressman and briefly Brigadier General in the New Jersey militia before being elected its first governor, in 1776.
[3. ]His Majesty’s Government, the British Cabinet led by Prime Minister North.
[4. ]Charles Lee (1731–82), English-born British soldier, soldier of fortune, and ultimately resident of Virginia; from 1775 Major General in the Continental army. Captured in December 1776, he was exchanged in April 1778.
[5. ]Louis Le Begue de Presle Duportail (1743–1802), French army engineer, volunteer, and ultimately Major General in the Continental army; from 1777, Brigadier General and Chief of Engineers.
[6. ]French for attendants, those accompanying and serving an important person; retinue.
[7. ]A marsh or swamp.
[8. ]A move in which each soldier marches in a diagonal (forty-five degrees) to the right or left of his original front.
[9. ]Thus Marshall characterizes a confrontation which witnesses describe as explosive anger, with Washington galloping up to Lee shouting “What is the meaning of this?” Lee recorded that he was “disconcerted, astonished, and confounded by the words and manner in which His Excellency accosted me,” although no eyewitnesses confirm the rumor that Washington swore. Indeed, Lee noted that Washington’s manner was “much stronger and more severe than the expressions themselves.” See James T. Flexner, George Washington in the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967), pp. 304–5. As opposed to this work for tender ears, Marshall is only slightly less restrained in the full Life, which includes the phrase “terms of some warmth” (I, p. 298). On Washington’s control, and use, of his anger, see Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp. 114–19.
[10. ]Endured, suffered.
[11. ]Skilled in the theory or practice of, thus fit to judge.