The Battle of Monmouth: A Most Consequential Revolutionary War Battle

The Battle of Monmouth: A Most Consequential Revolutionary War Battle
The Battle of Monmouth was a great morale booster for the Continental Army soldiers and also recognition of George Washington as the army's leader. "Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth," 1851-1854, by Emanuel Leutze. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
Updated:

In spite of the victory in New York at Saratoga in October of 1777, several losses around the same time in Pennsylvania resulted in the capture of the capital city of Philadelphia, which forced the Second Continental Congress to flee to York. The rather demoralized Continental Army would spend the winter at Valley Forge.

Miserably cold, hungry, and suffering from disease, the troops, led by George Washington, who had been defeated numerous times during the Philadelphia campaign, did their best to survive the winter. Rather than lick their wounds until spring, the Continental Army was whipped into shape through the militaristic demands of Prussian nobleman, Baron Friedrich von Steuben.

Baron von Steuben took a ragtag group of colonials and turned them into a unified army. "Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben," 1780, by Charles Willson Peale. (Public Domain)
Baron von Steuben took a ragtag group of colonials and turned them into a unified army. "Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben," 1780, by Charles Willson Peale. (Public Domain)
According to Garry Wheeler Stone, the co-author of “Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle,” von Steuben did more than instruct the “ragtag” soldiers on how to become more disciplined.
“What von Steuben did was take a group of state armies and unify them [from] separate divisions into a unified army,” he said during an interview on The Sons of History podcast. “It was learning how to maneuver an entire army. It was standardizing the manual of arms across the entire army from Georgia to Massachusetts. He gave it a cohesion, a uniformity it had never had before.”

Von Steuben used war games to prepare the Continental Army for future battles, battles that would continue for the next five years (the preliminary Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities between Britain and America, was signed on Nov. 30, 1782). Stone said the war games taught battalions, brigades, and divisions how to maneuver cohesively.

“Maneuvering thousands of men is an art,” he said.

Discipline on Display

Stone said that this discipline was on display in one of the most consequential, though often overlooked battles of the American Revolution: the Battle of Monmouth. The author has studied the battle over the decades, and for nearly a quarter century was the historian at Monmouth Battlefield State Park.
Henry Clinton led the British forces at the Battle of Monmouth. "General Henry Clinton," 1762-1765, by Andrea Soldi. (Public Domain)
Henry Clinton led the British forces at the Battle of Monmouth. "General Henry Clinton," 1762-1765, by Andrea Soldi. (Public Domain)

The Battle of Monmouth was primarily the result of the Continental Army’s defeat of the British at the Battle of Saratoga. When word spread across the Atlantic that a British army had surrendered to the Continental Army, the French were convinced to officially aid the Americans. This forced the British to recall many troops from the American campaigns and station them in other parts of the globe to protect the empire.

Some of those troops were under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, who led the Philadelphia Campaign. His orders were to vacate Philadelphia and return to New York City. To reach New York, Clinton and the British Army had to cross New Jersey.

Clinton intentionally moved his troops slowly through New Jersey in hopes of forcing a battle with the Continental Army. Washington knew he needed to do something with the opportunity, but feared a full scale battle would result in unacceptable losses.

Washington’s “battle was much more immediate. It was with his detractors in the Continental Congress, and to a lesser extent the Continental Army,” Stone said. “Washington personally had to demonstrate successful leadership or he was going to be outmaneuvered by his opponents in the Continental Congress. They were trying to limit his authority.”

Part of this attempt to undermine Washington was the Conway Cabal, a coordinated effort among some members of Congress and military officers, including generals Horatio Gates, Thomas Mifflin, and Thomas Conway. Although the cabal fell apart during the winter and spring of 1778, Washington still needed a positive military outcome. According to Stone, the goal “was to have just enough fighting with the British Army so that it wouldn’t have looked like they had done nothing.”

A Noisy Victory

Washington and his council of war decided to target the British First Division’s rear guard. What resulted was a failure that nearly resulted in disaster. Gen. Charles Lee, who had just returned to command after being a captive of the British for more than 15 months, was ordered to attack with approximately 4,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, Lee was about as unfamiliar with his fellow officers as he was with the topography.
Maj. Gen. Charles Lee ordered a retreat that left Washington to finish the battle. Maj. General Charles Lee, circa 1776-1790, engraving by Johann Michael Probs. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
Maj. Gen. Charles Lee ordered a retreat that left Washington to finish the battle. Maj. General Charles Lee, circa 1776-1790, engraving by Johann Michael Probs. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

What was supposed to be a hit-and-run attack on a small portion of the British rear guard quickly turned into a Continental retreat. Regardless, Lee conducted an orderly retreat, contrary to popular belief. He maneuvered the soldiers toward Washington’s main line and fought a delaying action at the Hedgerow. It was here that the exhausted British found themselves fighting Lee with Washington atop a hill with about a dozen cannon.

“There is a huge artillery bombardment that accomplishes all of nothing. But it was noisy. It was stupendous,” Stone said. “Many letters home were about this giant fireworks show. At the end of that, as the British withdraw, Washington very cautiously sends detachments to harass their rear units while keeping most of his army safe on the hill.”

The Battle of Monmouth was a key battle for George Washington. "George Washington at Princeton," 1779, by Charles Willson Peale. (Public Domain)
The Battle of Monmouth was a key battle for George Washington. "George Washington at Princeton," 1779, by Charles Willson Peale. (Public Domain)

Stone pointed out that Washington and Clinton had two very different military expectations for the skirmish. Washington had hoped to damage just enough of the British to impress Congress, restore the morale of the army, and move his position forward. These objectives were accomplished in spades.

Clinton, on the other hand, had hoped to lure the Continental Army into a large exchange and crush at least a large portion of the rebellion. This objective utterly failed. In fact, due to the massive artillery bombardment and the British Army making their escape in the middle of the night, it appeared as though the Americans had soundly defeated the British.

“So when the army wakes up the next morning and finds that the British have left in the middle of the night, did that army feel like a loser or a winner?” Stone asked rhetorically. “From private to general, they all felt the winner. And it’s Washington who led this and he never anticipated leading this. He’d never anticipated bloodying the First Division (rearguard) of the British Army. He had just intended to harass them as they got out of the state. So this was a stupendous win, not only for the Continental Army, but personally for Washington. Afterwards, no one dares criticize Washington. And if they do, they are in danger of having to fight a duel.”

Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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