Eve of Battle of Monmouth

By William Horner
Originally published by
Moreau Brothers of Freehold, NJ 1932
Reprinted in 1974

The population of East New Jersey at the beginning of the Revolution was, exclusive of slaves, about 35,000 (of whom nearly one quarter lived in Monmouth), and was increasing rapidly, as was that of West New Jersey. This growing pressure of population led to a resurgence of the controversy over the division line between East and West New Jersey, which, while outwardly peaceable, had no small part in determining the later political alignment between patriot and tory.

The second provincial Convention met at Trenton on May 23, 1775, and, as related in the last chapter, provided for the raising and organization of one or more companies of militia, each consisting of eighty men, in each township and corporation of the province. It met again on August 5th, when it directed that fifty-four companies, each consisting of sixty-four minute-men, be organized. These were to be divided into ten battalions, one of which was to be raised in Monmouth. The muster rolls of the Middletown-Point companies have been given in earlier pages. Philemon Dickson and WIlliam Livingston (afterwards Governor) were appointed Brigadier-Generals to command this force.

At its next meeting, October 3d, the Convention further provided for "the enlistment of two regiments of regulars, one to be commanded by William Maxwell, the other by William Alexander," who is popularly spoken of as Lord Stirling.

Friction With Tories

As the spirit of resistance to oppression rose higher, as the urge to independence grew stronger, as the fires of patriotism flamed forth into unity, so the forces of selfishness, of vested interest, of reaction, drew together those who, timidly fearing to put it to the touch to win or lose it all or faint-heartedly afraid to look behind the screen that veiled the future's mystic face, blindly chose to withdraw into the carapace of selfhood -- in fatuous worship of the gods of things as they are.

Gradually tightening and shortening, the lines dividing patriot and tory now began to snap, particularly in the northern part of the colony, where the royal interest was predominant. Armed clashes took place in Sussex (December 1775) and other of the upper tiers of counties. At this time, however, the loyalists in Monmouth were, in the main, treaded with much consideration, although their disarming was begun and some of the more active and malignant of them were placed under bonds, removed to far away points, or jailed. It was not until the Declaration of Independence forced all men into definite alignment that the hostile ranks began to be sharply opposed. For a time after that Declaration, until they were thoroughly cowed by the Battle of Monmouth, the Royalist element seemed, on the whole, to make head.

The Battle of Long Island

The departure of the Middletown-Point contingent, to the tune of "Duncan Davie," for participation in the Battle of Long Island (Aug. 27, 1776) has already been told. In this battle the American forces were badly beaten, losing more than 600 in killed alone, several times that number in wounded, and about 1000 made prisoners. This defeat and the consequent surrender of New York city spread consternation and dismay among the patriots of Monmouth, and directly led to that Tory uprising in which Monmouth Court-House was seized and held for a week by them. "Col. David Forman, whose home was in that section, was sent thither with his battalion and was in such a state of rage that he stamped out the revolt with remorseless energy."

The Turn of the Tide

The American victories of Trenton, Assunpink, and Princeton followed a little later. These were but small affairs, so far as the numbers engaged are concerned. None the less, they were big with moment for the patriotic cause. They not only brought new hope to New Jersey and to Monmouth, they not only heartened the patriotic fervor throughout the country, but their effects were powerfully and favorably felt in every Chancellery in Europe, and are now generally acknowledged to have marked the turn of the tide toward final and complete victory.

The American defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, in both of which so many of the men of Monmouth under General David Forman and Colonel Asher Holmes, were so desperately and actively engaged, and the long, hard winter at Valley Forge, temporarily threw their depressing shadows across our county, Patriotic hopes were then at their lowest, but lowest only as the hour is darkest just before the dawn.

The March to Monmouth

The British occupation of Philadelphia not having succeeded in "breaking the back of the rebellion," as Howe had expected and prophesied, that supine commander was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton. This wiser and more energetic leader determined upon the evacuation of Philadelphia and the concentration of the British armies at New York city and in its vicinity. The reasons that influenced his decision to accomplish this by a march across New Jersey rather than to transport them by sea, as they had come, are not altogether clear.

On June 17, 1778, he crossed the Delaware river into New Jersey, his army consisting of about 10,000 well-armed and perfectly equipped troops, accompanied, and hampered, by swarms of Tory refugees and by an enormous baggage train whose length extended over twelve miles of road, the progression of which has already been related. This army and this train, impeded and harassed by the New Jersey brigade under Maxwell, who felled trees and broke down bridges in front of the advancing enemy host, marched across New Jersey in three converging columns -- one by Mt. Holly, one through Columbus, and the third by was of Bordentown.

Combat at Crosswicks

Now quoting Barger and Howe, "the latter attempted to cross Crosswicks creek over a drawbridge near the latter place. The continental troops, and a great part of the militia stationed in that vicinity under Gen. Dickinson, had been withdrawn, excepting those of Cols. Phillips and Shreve, who had been previously detached to guard a ford one mile further up the creek, and only the three regiments of Cols. Frelinghusen, Van Dike, and Webster remained, when a party of the enemy appeared, and with great zeal began to repair the bridge, the planks of which had been pulled up, and the draw raised. For this purpose they ripped off the planks from and adjoining hayhouse. Upon their approach, the troops rushed down with the greatest impetuosity, and a small party from one of the regiments, happening to be considerably advanced, caused them to retire, with the loss of four killed and several wounded. This detachment then united with the other two at Crosswicks, and in the course of the same day, attempted crossing the bridge there, which had also been destroyed by the Americans. Another skirmish occurred, in which a British office and two or three men were shot. An American named Clevinger was killed. He had cut away the last sleeper of the bridge, and, while retreating, was shot in the back of the head, fell among the high grass, and was discovered a few days later. The next day the enemy repaired the bridge and proceeded on their march. During this skirmish the Americans, who were stationed on the Woodwardsville side of the creek, fired several cannon-balls, one of which lodged in the Friends meeting-house."

"A gentleman with the troops during these skirmishes, say, in a publication of the day, 'The conduct of the militia saved, in my opinion, Trenton and the country adjacent from rapine and desolation.'"

Washington Watchful

While all this was going on, Washington, ever watchful in his vigilance, was on the alert. In his own words, "On the appearance of the enemy's intention to march through Jersey becoming serious, I detached General Maxwell's brigade, in conjunction with the militia of that state, to interrupt and impede their progress by every obstruction in their power, so as to give time to the army under my command to come up with them, and take advantage of any favorable circumstances that might present themselves. Having proceeded to Coryel's Ferry (now Lambertville), and crossed the Delaware at that place, I immediately detached Col. Morgan, with a select corps of 600 men, to reinforce Gen. Maxwell, and marched with the main body towards Princeton."

Americans Advance

Washington now detached an additional 1500 picked troops, under Brigadier-General Scott, to reinforce Maxwell and more effectively annoy and delay the eenmy on his march, while he advanced with the main body of about 10,000 men to Kingston. At this point he detached another 1000 selected men, under Wayne, to join the advanced guard, which now numbered about 5000 men. He placed the whole of this force, which included Maxwell's brigade and Morgan's riflemen, under command of Lafayette, with orders "to take the first fair opportunity of attacking the enemy's rear."

Leaving his heavy baggage at Kingston, Washington took up his march toward Cranbury, through which he passed on the morning of the 27th, encamping that night between that village and Englishtown, the head of the army being about three miles from the latter village.

Meanwhile, "the advanced corps moved from the position it had held the night before, and took post in the evening on the Monmouth road, about five miles from the enemy's rear, in the expectation of attacking them the next morning on their march."

Washington Perturbed

The night before the battle of Monmouth was passed by Washington at the house of Captain John Anderson (24 1/2), who was himself a valorous and distinguished soldier of the Revolution. The patriot leader indeed passed the night at Captain Anderson's house, but it was not for him a night of repose or restful sleep. "The brave leader of the Patriot army paced the porch floor a greater part of the night, watching for the approach of the British troops."

Clinton's Combinations

On the day after the fight at Crosswicks bridge, that structure having been repaired, Sir Henry Clinton led his army, followed by its huge and hampering train of overloaded wagons and bat-horses, to Allentown. Here he halted the main body of his fighting troops, under command of General Earl Cornwallis, while he diametrically altered the disposition of his army and reversed the order of his march.

The cumberous and unwieldy procession of supply and ammunition wagons, with their attendant multitude of refugees and camp-followers and the almost unmanageable train of heavy artillery, which had before brought up the rear, were now placed in the van and on the only road practicable for such heavy guns and overloaded wagons, sent on ahead of the fighting forces, by way of Imlaystown. This section of the army was placed under the convoy of General Knyphausen, to whom was assigned for the purpose a body of some 1500 selected troops, consisting of Dragoons, Light-Infantry, Hessians, and organized bodies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West New Jersey loyalists.

Clinton's March

Behind all these came Lord Cornwallis with the main force of the British army, so disposed as to best protect the supplies and ammunition from a rear attack by the Americans, who "needed the goods." To better accomplish this end, he threw out a lateral of light troops to serve as a flying screen and interposing buffer between his marching forces and the attacking army of Washington. This column, paralleling the course of the main army as closely as possible, made its way by drift-roads and bridle-paths, describing a northerly arc from Allentown, through what were afterwards known as Wrightsville and Milhurst, to a point where West Freehold now is, where it rejoined and rested upon the army of Clinton and Corwallis.

This lateral was the enemy force with which the American advanced guard were in skirmishing touch and with which, on the morning of the 28th, the first fighting took place; it them, with some changes in its composition, having been thrown into a new arched formation, whose left wing rested on a position about where Elton now is, the centre being about a mile west of the Court-House, and the right wing at about the junction of Dutch Lane with the Middletown-Point road, at which point it united with and was supported and strengthened by the troops under Knyphausen. The whole formed a veiling and protecting screen between the main British army with its fettering baggage train, and the American army under Washington -- intent upon its prey.

Clinton's Headquarters

The headquarters of Sir Henry Clinton, up to the morning of the battle, were fixed at the house of William Conover, about two miles from the Court-House, on the Burlington road. Here, during and earlier portion of his occupancy, while he permitted his officers to take possession of the bed-rooms of the ladies of the family and turn these out to sleep on the bare floors of passages and outbuildings, his conduct was, in the main, considerate and kindly. But as news came to him of the movements and dispositions of Washington's army and he began to realize something of the dealiness of the peril in which he and the army under him were placed, his urbanity forsook him, his temper soured, and he permitted his soldiers to rob and destroy with little or no effort to prevent them. This can, perhaps, be better understood, though not condoned, by a realization of the strain under which the British commander must have labored in face of the disaster that threatened to overwhelm him and his army.

British Infamy

A day in advance of the baggage train, to clear the way and mend roads and bridges for its passage, Knyphausen sent a reconnoitering, pioneering, and engineering force, composed of both regular and irregular troops and accompanied by many small bands of home-reared marauders. All these distinguided themselves by wanton outrage and vindictive destruction. Between a point a mile west of Allentown and the present village of Holmdel more than a score of dwelling-houses, pointed out as belonging to prominent patriots, were burned, and barns and out-buildings pulled down and destroyed. Other houses were looted and damaged, silverware was stolen, choice pieces of furniture burned or carried away, ricks of hay and straw given to the flames, the whole countryside stripped clear of pigs and poultry.

During this progress of the flower of British chivalry through Monmouth county more than thirty of our women were subjected to the most direful outrage and the final indignity. It is small wonder that an inherited prejudice against Britain and things British persists even today in this and other sections of our country through which English armies once made their woeful way.

In after years tales dark and dire were whispered with bated breath among our fathers of vengeance taken by husbands and fathers on some of our own renegades who were thought to have been guiltily near or to have lent aid and encouragement at this time to the foreign foes engaged in the actual commission of the crimes. The names of these unfortunate ladies have been mercifully, rightly, and purposely permitted to pass into oblivion. One or two of these the writer remembers to have heard when young, because of the peculiarly painful circumstances surrounding them and because British officers in full uniform were involved.

Tradition has it that on account of this particular series of atrocities not even a single one of the 700 or more men who deserted from the British army in its passage through our section dares to settle within the limits of our county.

From the day of the Battle all major outrages and depredations ceased as if by magic, and we hear of little more serious than the sacrifice of cattle for food or the pulling down of fences for firewood. So thoroughly were the British cowed by the results of Clinton's claimed "victory" at Monmouth that they sang small indeed; while the more virulent of the Tories hid their diminished heads and the lesser kind became Patriots over night. This sudden change of attitude and conduct clearly shows who the British soldiers and their Tory allies thought were the winners in that fight.

On Eve of Battle

The disposition of the contending armies on the eve of battle, was then, that Clinton's army was strung astride the Monmouth road, preponderantly on its northwesterly side, from a point at about where Smithburg now is to the juncture of Dutch Lane. Here it was continued by Knyphausen, with about 1500 effectives, a part of whom, mostly Tory irregulars, had been detached and sent on ahead to clear the way for the baggage and artillery trains and to protect them from the attacks of the Monmouth militia.

This last, under Colonel Asher Holmes, to whom had been assigned the task of impeding the progress of that division of Clinton's army and of attacking it wherever possible, was posted in different positions on both sides of Dutch Lane as far as a point beyond the present Vandenburg. So situated, the caterpillar-like baggage train crawled its painful way between the protecting lines of British soldiery meaced the while by Holmes and his Monmouth militia, who, twice during the progress of the battle vainly hurled themselves in headlong and bloody charge against solid masses of British regulars.

The main body of Washington's army, about 8000 in number, was disposed along the road from Cranbury to a point within about three miles of Englishtown. Its advanced guard of about 5000 men, under Lafayette, occupied the debatable ground between the two opposing armies, while Colonel Daniel Morgan and his 600 riflemen were posted at Shreve's Mills, where their number was being constantly augmented by the arrival of militia contingents from Toms River and other shore places. This Morgan detachment would probably have turned the British defeat into a debacle had it been brought into action. But, through some misunderstanding of orders, it remained inactive throughout the battle, while Morgan, like a caged tiger, impotently paced back and forth all through the bloody day, within hearing of the guns of battle, sounding to him like drums of doom.

The night of the 27th was passed by Clinton on uneasy bed at the Conover farmhouse. Corwallis, wherever he may have been, probably slept soundly, his skin full of brandy, after having been assisted to his couch by two grenadiers of the guard. Washington paced the Anderson porch throughout the night, in lonely vigil.

The Field of Decision had been reached, the stage was set for battle.

Introduction and Preface-Hornor - useful advice in reading chronicled history
Battle of Monmouth - Hornor
Passage of British after Battle of Monmouth - Hornor Go to Directory of Historical Material