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|Battle of Monmouth
June 28, 1778, the last time two full armies met in battle during the Revolutionary War
In June of 1778, British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered to evacuate Philadelphia and join up with the main British Army at New York City. The original plan was for Clinton's army to be transported by sea, but the British Navy did not have enough ships available so Clinton dedided on an overland march northeast through New Jersey. The evacuation began on the morning of June 18, and by that evening Clinton's army had reached Haddonfield, a few miles south of Camden, New Jersey.
Word of the British evacuation of Philadelphia was welcome news to General George Washington, whose army had just spent a miserable winter at Valley Forge. The Continental Army broke camp and went in pursuit of Clinton's army on June 19. Washington was unsure whether he should launch a full-scale attack on the British while they were on the move, so he called a meeting of his command staff for input. Although none of his generals believed a full-scale attack was wise, they could not agree on an alternative plan. Brigadier General Anthony Wayne and Major General Marquis de Lafayette called for a partial attack on the British column while it was strung out on the road, but Major General Charles Lee advised only guerrilla action to harass the British. Washington finally decided to send about half of his army as an advance force to strike at the rear of the British column. Command of the advance units was initially offered to Lee, but Lee did not believe the plan was sound and refused the command. He changed his mind, however, after Washington agreed to send a larger force than originally planned and offered the command to Lafayette.
Washington formulated his plan on June 26, while Clinton's army was encamped near Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey. Lee's advance force approached Monmouth during the evening of June 27, but the approach was so ill-handled by Lee that Clinton had already begun breaking camp by the time Lee was within striking distance.
The Battle of Monmouth began about 10am on June 28, when Lee launched an unplanned attack on Clinton's rear guard, commanded by Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. The Americans initially appeared to have the upper hand, but Lee was giving so many contradictory orders that his generals sent a message to Washington requesting that the Commander-In-Chief appear on the field of battle as quickly as possible.
While units led by General Wayne were occupied with Cornwallis and the British rear guard, Lafayette asked Lee for permission to attack Clinton's main army from the rear. Lee approved action against Clinton's left, but then pulled three regiments away from Wayne to support the right flank. Seeing the shifting of American positions, Clinton decided to focus his efforts on Wayne's position. Seeing Clinton's movements, Lee decided the British were preparing to launch a full-scale assault and ordered a retreat.
The Americans were in full disorderly flight when they met Washington. When asked why they were running from the battlefield, the soldiers told Washington that Lee had ordered a retreat and that Clinton's army was close behind. An incensed Washington ordered an immediate end to the retreat and within a short time had the men drawn up into ordered battle lines. When Lee finally rode up Washington was so enraged that it is reported he actually cursed at his general, something he rarely did. After dismissing Lee from the battlefield, Washington returned to his troops and prepared to meet the British.
By the time the second half of the Battle of Monmouth began the temperature was over 100 degrees and men on both sides were suffering from heat stroke. The British had not been on the run, however, so they had an advantage when they first met Washington's battle lines. Cornwallis was able to overrun Washington's front lines, but Washington again rallied his men and established a new line. The new line allowed Washington's artillery to rain down on the British with abandon, and by twilight the British had had enough and withdrew from the battlefield. Washington expected the battle to begin anew the next day, but Clinton spent the night withdrawing his entire army from the area; Washington chose not to pursue him further.
According to official records, the Battle of Monmouth cost the lives of 69 Americans, with another 161 wounded and 132 listed as missing; the British reported 65 killed, 170 wounded, and 64 missing. Militarily the battle was a draw, since neither side gained the field of battle. The British won a strategic victory, however, since they were able to complete their withdrawal and eventually joined up with the main army in New York. Having spent a miserable winter at Valley Forge, the Americans came away from Monmouth with renewed confidence in their abilities and faith in their commander.
Although the war would last another five years, no other engagement between two full armies was ever fought. Lee was later court-martialed for his actions at Monmouth and relieved of his command for one year; he never led another unit.
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This page was last updated on June 27, 2017.