Battle of Monmouth

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

After Washington had made what he supposed to be his final dispositions for the impending battle, as set forth in the last chapter, General Charles Lee -- British-born, -- whose every word and action througout the whole of the early part of the engagement smelled of disaffection and savored of treachery, either for the purpose of frustrating the successful carrying out of the plans of Washington, or because he was eaten-up with jealousy lest Lafayette might gain success and glory, chose to assert his prerogative of seniority and to supersede that General in the command of the advanced guard of our army, numbering about 5,000 men and comprising more than one-third of our effectives.

At three o'clock the following morning, Sunday, June 28, 1778 -- a day sultry beyond words of description -- Clinton's encumbering wagon-train began its slow and toilsome march toward the safety of Sandy-Hook. It was conveyed and protected by a force of 1500 men, under General Knyphausen. Before eight o'clock the greater portion of this division had passed into Dutch Lane. This was closely followed by the second division of the British main army, under command of Lord Cornwallis, by common consent, the best British general in America. His division extended along the main road, reaching back nearly to the court-house, and was, in turn, followed at a little distance, by the rear division under the personal command of Clinton. This extended back to the Smithburg neighborhood. Beforehand

About five in the morning General Dickinson, in command of the New Jersey militia, some 800 men, which had been detached and detailed to harass and delay the progress of the enemy baggage-train, got word to Washington that the head of the British army had begun its march toward Middletown.

The American Chief immediately proceeded to set his own army in motion, meanwhile sending an aide to Lee ordering him to move on and attack the enemy "unless there should be very powerful reasons to the contrary," Washington at the same time advised Lee that he was marching to his support with the utmost expedition, his men disencumbered of packs and blankets.

At some time before eight o'clock, Wayne, with about 700 men and two batteries of six-pounders (under Maudit), was directed by Lee to make a frontal attack on the second British division, which was commanded by Cornwallis, while he, Lee, gained its read and captured it. This division, supported by two advantageously planted batteries of field-pieces, now lay spread somewhat loosely out over the fields adjacent to the fork-off of Dutch Lane from the main road.

The Battle Opens

Hardly had Wayne's two batteries begun to play and his troops to fire, he by this time having occupied the ground between Briar Hill and the marshy sources of McGalliard's Brook, than the vacillating Lee sent orders that the attack should be only a feint. This aroused the suspicions of Lafayette, who, scenting trachery, twice sent messages to Washington by John Laurens, praying the Command in chief to come at once in person to the field of action.

A Heady Charge

It was at about this time that a party of American cavlary, coming up from the rad to strengthen Wayne, discovered a gap in the British lines, between the divisions of Clinton and of Cornwallis, which left all the space opposite where the Battle Monument now stands comparatively free from enemy troops. On the spur of the moment, apparently, and without waiting for orders, the American horseman drove in furious charge in the direction of the main road, hoping to cut the British army into confusion and disorder. Their headlong onslaught was, however, stopped and frustrated by an unsuspected worm-fence, running a few hundred feet west of where the monument now stands, and they were forced to retire in some disorder. This is the point nearest the Court-House reached by our troops in that day's fighting.

This backward movement, being construed by the other American troops that were advancing to the support of Wayne as a retreat of the whole of the American advanced forces, they too, halted and then began to fall slowly back.

In the meantime the Queen's Rangers had made a frontal attack on Wayne's main body. This, confused by contradictory orders, made but a feeble and scattered reply to the musket and artillery fire of the enemy, and, in its turn, began to retire in disorder.

While all this was going on a party of British Bragoons had made a savage attack upon our right -- an attack that, with the aid of two field-pieces was checked by Colonel Stuart.

Americans Break

This double attack, the appearance on the fighting field of a new British force, composed of the 17th Light Dragoons and a brigade of red-coat regulars, hastily recalled from Knyphausen's division by the now thoroughly alarmed Clinton, together with the confusion resulting from Lee's vacillating orders, completed the demoralization of the entire American vanguard. They broke and, "on the run," began to pour back toward Engishtown and the protection of the main army.

The British troops moved forward but slowly in the sweltering heat of that torrid day. Lee was thus given time in which to halt the disorderly panic-flight of his men and to rally them in a new battle-line on favorable ground, about one-third of the distance from the Court-House to Tennent church. So favorable was this position for defense that, had Lee made any real attempt to fight, it would have been virtually out of the question for the enemy to have dislodged him before the arrival of Washington with his main army.

Yet, when, probably around ten o'clock, the British launched a vigorous attack against this position, the panic-stricken Lee, whose chicken-hearted timidity was reflected in the conduct of the men under him, with almost no attempt to fight back, ordered a resumption of the flight -- a flight that knew no stem or stay until halted by the marshy ground along the northerly branch of Wemrock Brook.

A Spot of Brightness

One bright spot there was in this sorry, sordid, picture. Colonel Butler made a vigorous and successful resistance to a menacing charge of British cavalry, and thus protected the fleeing Americans from the utter ruin that seemed imminent.

The Coming of Washington

The stampeded Americans, hemmed in by both marshy branches of Wemrock, now began to mill around in utter confusion amid the fields on the Freehold side of the Presbyterian parsonage-farm. It seemed that practically the whole contingent must fall a prey to the overwhelming force of the main British army, now advancing, although still at some little distance, with methodical and disciplined regularity, to complete the work so well begun.

In this appalling situation our men were heartened and electrified to new resistance by a tumultous cheering from the rear that told them that Washington had come.

Lee Called To Account The Commander-in-Chief, on receiving intelligence of the peril that threatened to overwhelm and annihilate his entire advanced-guard, had left the main army and galloped on ahead at full speed. When he reached the scene of action, thunderstruck by the dangerous and inexcusable plight in which he found our forces, he was take possession of by a white rage. Putting spurs to his horse, he dashed savagely toward Lee, who is said to have been calmly surveying the deplorable scene with small appearance of concern. As Washington charged toward the recreant general he drew his sword. The onlookers expected to see him hew the culprit Lee from the saddle. Regaining control of himself, however, Washington lowered his sword and curbed his horse, so sharply that its stiffened forefeet ploughted deep furrows into the ground and its nose almost touched the head of that of Lee.

In cold heat the American Chieftain demanded from Lee an accounting of his conduct. This was done in language that has been much disputed, but that was surely suphurous and in which the words "damned poltroon" or "damned poltroonery" were almost certainly used. After listening a short half-moment to Lee's stammering excuses, Washington peremptorily ordered that officer to the rear, while he himself set about restoring the falling fortunes of the day.

Pale and quivering from the merciless lash of Washington's tongue, Lee drew off a few hundred feet to the rear, where he continued to sit immobile upon his horse, gnawing his lips.

American Rout Halted

Meanwhile, the American Commander rode about through our disordered troops, reassuring them, bringing then once more into some semblance of order, and directing them in methodical resistance and retreat; all the while under sharp attack by the advancing enemy, who were how, however, in their turn brought to a halt by the fire of hastily unlimbering batteries. At this juncture Colonel Hamilton galloped up and informed Washington that the main fighting force of the British fighting troops was close at hand and would be upon him within a few minutes.

Lee Restored To Command

The large menace now imperatively demanding his personal attention, Washington, on the assurance of that really capable office that he would make a fight of it and "not by the first man to quit the field," restored Lee to his command.

Rejoining his main army, now rapidly coming up, the General-in-Chief deployed his troops and drew them up in two lines on rising ground about half way between Tennent church and the branch of Wemrock that crossed the Englishtown road at a point some two and a half miles northwesterly from the Court-House building -- a position so strong naturally that it would have been difficult indeed for Clinton to have forces. Our right wing was under the command of Greene, who occupied a very favorable position. Lord Stirling took command of the left, while the artillery, as before, was command by Knox. Washington, of course, commanded the center and directed the whole general course of the battle.

Lee Fights Well

From the time of his restoration to command Lee seems to have fought bravely and skillfully. His dispositions were good, his troops were well-handled, and his batteries replied sharply and effectively to the British cannonade.

The enemy now reopened the engagement by a powerful and vicious charge of Light-Horse against Lee's right. Despite the most desperate resistance, in successive charges they slowly drove the Americans, fighting back across the fields within the embracking arms of Wemrock. Taking advantage of the partial shelter afforded by a fence and hedgerow, the Americans now mad a determined fight, withstanding successfully for a time, repeated charges of that British horse. The fighting that took place at this point, though short, is said to have been as fierce and bloody as any that occurred through all the length of that long day.

But, despite the effective play of Knox's well-served batteries from Comb's Hill and the stubborn fighting of our people, the superior weight and numbers of the British cavalry and infantry gradually wore them down and forced them to retire slowly and sullenly behind the protection of Wemrock's brook and marshes. Here, Lee once more reformed his spent and gasping soldiers and, advancing slightly, once more presented a well-ordered front to the foe.

Washington now took charge of the conduct of the battle in person. Sending Lee with his wasted and wearied troops behind the lines for rest and recuperation, he advanced his army a little from its former position and quickly formed a new battle-front, composed of the main division of the army, augmented by the portion of the second division that had not been actively engaged.

In this new line Greene, as before, commanded on the right, Lord Stirling on the left, and Washington in the center. Wayne and his troops, who really held the key to the situation, had gained advantageous ground behind the parsonage, its barn, and outbuildings. On an eminence in a nearby orchard he had placed a battery of six field-pieces, under Maudit. This was supported and covered by a detachment of 500 men. The batteries of Knox, posted on Comb's Hill, a scant half-mile away, and at other dominating points, commanded the entire field and were to work a world of woe upon the advancing foe. The center of Washington's army was drawn up behind Wemrock north branch and astride the road from Englishtown to the Court-House.

The red-coats renewed the contest by making several charges in strength against the American front, all of which were repulsed. They now were drived back by detached parties of our infantry and by an enfilading fire from Greene's batteries. Next, they launched themselves in force against our right, in furious onrush. This onslaught was met by the Americans with answering charge. Greene then advanced a body of troops, well provided with artillery, to a commanding point. When these went into the action the enemy was driven back with heavy loss. This may be said to end the first "round" of the fighting decisive of the day. The honors were with America.

A Lull

Now came a lull in the storm, a stillness in the air, a pause in the strife. Both sides dressed and arranged their ranks for the final struggle. The tall and stalwart Grenadiers of the Guard preened themselves, buttoned closer their crimson coats, drew tighter their leather belts, adjusted their heavy knapsacks, settled more firmly their lofty headgear. The Americans shed coat and waistcoat, boot and shoe, canteen and scabbard -- for greater freedom in the fight.

In All the Panoply of War

In ordered ranks and spaced platoons, to beat of drum and shrill of fife, in cadenced step and stately pomp, with gleam of arms and blare of brass, the flower of Britain's soldier, the far-famed Grenadier Guards, again came on, once more moved forward in ominous onset.

Clad in coats of scarlet wool (symbolic of the evil cause in which they strove), regimentally identified by differing facings and crossed by bayonet -- and accouterment -- supporting belt and baldric, which white waistcoats and breeches and black shoes and gaiters, bearing on their shoulders heavy knapsacks and on their heads tall and still beaver hats, as they had fought all through that hot and hellish day, so, now, they began their forward march, in weighty mass -- a gorgeous sight, a gleaming pageant, a fearful threat.

They set out slowly, moving as a single man, in rhythmic step, their muskets held in such perfect alighment that a single ball from one of Green's guns struck the weapons from the hands of every single man in one whole rank.

The Crisis

But not for long kept they thus their ordered way. The brave and fiery Monckton, rising in his stirrups in fierce harangue, soon led them to the charge, cheering at double-quick, in supreme endeavor to break Wayne and overwhelm him, for his was the keystone of the American position. If Wayne were beaten Washington would be defeated, and victory would crown the British arms.

Wayne knew that gravid Time was now ripe, knew that the Hour was now about to strike for him and his, knew that the Turning-Point had been reached. His mercurial nature tempered by stern resolve, his fervid seal sobered by a great burden of anxiety, for once his mind worked with all the precision of a chronometer. He harangued his men in burning words. He succeeded in infusing into them something of his own spirit, in enduing them with something of his own determination to do or die. He made every preparation, took every precaution, availed himself of every advantage of place and circumstance.

Sheltering and concealing a portion of his porce behind the barn and other outbuildings of the parsonage messuage, to emerge when called at moment of trembling balance, he directed the remainder of his men to withhold their fire until the enemy was within a score of paces, and even then to fire only on word of command.

As Rush of Mighty Waters

Swinging and sweating under the fierce rays of the tropic sun and through the heavy loam of the churnedup fields, the red-coat regulars advanced at quick-step, in splendid order and with adminable courage. Monckton was at their head, waving his sword and cheering them on. At his thunderous "Charge!" they broke into a run. As the rush of mighty waters they hurled themselves upon our people.

Their onward rush was met by withering fire, as Wayne gave the word. Then the Americans, with exultant shout, stormed forth to war.

Monckton fell, and with him two other officers and full two-score of men. The British line faltered, wavered, halted, fell back. Quickly rallied by their officers, they once more came on in frenzied charge -- to avenge their dead. Wayne, now strengthened by the men called forth from shelter of shed and barn, was equally eager for the fray. He answered charge by charge. He gave back blow for blow.

The opposing foemen met -- head to head and face to face, in full career. There were hectic hacking and hewing, cutting and thrusting, clubbing and stabbing, slashing and slaying. Then, a few maddened moments of frantic fighting, in which individual Americans are said to have been so overwrought by fury that, with atavistic impulse, they cast away their weapons, to clutch at foeman throat with bare, constrictive hands -- a maelstrom of bloody men milling on a gory mound of dead and wounded other men.

The British Lose

The pace was too hot to hold, the fight too fierce to last, the strength of man too small to long endure such strain. The British neck of pride now bent. The British heart of valor failed. The British urge to onset died.

The Grenadiers, thus thrown back from last abortive struggle to gain the day, to avenge their fallen dead, and to shatter the key-stone of the American arch of strength, now retired upon their fellows, imparting a realization of defeat to the whole body of their army and bringing home to it and to Clinton the knowledge that the fight was lost, that victory was not to be had.

The British Retreat

Clinton now ordered the entire force to retreat to the strong position from which Lee had been driven, or, rather, fled, at ten in the morning. Here, strengthened by the 33d Infantry, the enemy awaited the expected onset of the exultant Americans; being forced yet a while to try to hold their ground, because the whole of their rich baggage-train had not yet found the safety of the hills.

Washington, although the day was far spent and darkness was not far off, determined, none the less, to attack at once and complete the victory. To this end he ordered General Poor, with two brigades, to move around upon the British right, while General Woodford effected a similar encompassing movement about their left, the artillery of Knox playing against which the Commander-in-Chief intended to lead the main attack in person.

But this was not to be. The ground was rough, the goin hard, delays and difficulties multiplied. Poor and Woodford could move but slowly. The men were spent. Night came on apace. The completeness of victory could not be attained within the limits of that one day.

Washington wisely ordered that activities should cease and that the setting of the final seal of triumph should await the coming of the first flush of breaking day.

Washington Bivouacs Upon the Field

The jaded Americans, wearied to exhaustion, sank down in their tracks and slept upon their arms. Washington, wrapped in miliarty cloak of wool, lay down among his men, under the spreading branches of a friendly tree in the middle of the field.

With the falling of the night the British lit bivouac fires on the eminence upon which they had come to a halt, in semblance of encampment. Here they rested on their arms for a time, while their wounded were rushed to the read and a portion of their dead were hastily buried.

Soon, the shouting and the tumult died, noise and movement ceased, quiet and stillness reigned in either camp -- save for the measured tread of men on sentry-go.

The Finale

But the beaten British rested not so for long. Within an hour or two they were once more in flight, protected by concealing darkness. So quietly, so silently, so stealthily did they make their disheartened get-away that it was not until the morning broke that the Americans, advancing to the attack, were made aware of it.

Washington found only an unoccupied field, bare and empty save for the writhing forms of some two-score British wounded and the stiff bodies of a dozen dead, stretched out upon the ground -- white and gastly, stripped and stark.

Introduction and Preface-Hornor - useful advice in reading chronicled history
Eve of The Battle of Monmouth - Hornor
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