On June 26, 1778, nine days into their march from Philadelphia to New York, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton and his beleaguered British army lumbered into a small New Jersey town called Monmouth Courthouse. Beset by torrential rains and temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees, Clinton’s 11,000-man, 3,000-horse column—which stretched nearly 12 miles—was dwindling by the day. Infantrymen in thick woolen uniforms, shouldering 100-pound packs, dropped in their tracks from heat stroke. Desertion was rampant, especially among Hessian mercenaries.
General George Washington’s militia dogged the British column, dismantling bridges, poisoning wells and blocking the road with felled trees. Rather than engage Clinton’s superior force, Washington’s ragamuffin fighters fired on the Redcoats from the forest, typically discharging one volley and then vanishing into the trees.
Washington knew that harassing the British as they slogged their way to New York City was not going to win the war. Monmouth was less than 25 miles from Sandy Hook, N.J., and a short ferry ride to the safety of Manhattan––which would be far easier than Philadelphia for the British to defend and resupply. But while Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne and Maj. Gen. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, lobbied for at least a partial attack on Clinton’s vulnerable column, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, a power-hungry character who had spent 18 months in captivity before a prisoner exchange allowed him to rejoin Washington, urged caution.
The British spent a day resting in Monmouth. Early the next morning––Sunday, June 28—Washington sent word to Lee that he should strike the British rear guard as it left town. Washington, leading a force of 6,000, would then move in from the west to provide support.
Whether his incompetence was by design or default, Lee led his 5,000 men into what historian Edward G. Lengel in his General George Washington: A Military Life called “a deepening muddle,” which amounted to a series of halfhearted skirmishes that triggered a 6,000-man British counterattack led by Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
Washington watched the scene from his horse’s saddle. Around 1 p.m. he saw a young fifer retreating apace. Riding forward, he encountered two more retreating soldiers and then entire units falling back.
“By God!” one American colonel cried, “They are flying from a shadow!”
Somewhere in this steamy mess, Washington found Lee. Staring down from his saddle, Washington fixed him with a “withering gaze,” according to some accounts. Others have him cursing Lee “until the leaves shook on the trees.” Then the big man on the big white horse turned to organizing his scattered army for what proved the longest and last major battle fought in the Northern theater between the main American and British armies.
I visited Monmouth Battlefield State Park 234 years and two months after the smoke had cleared. The 2,928-acre park [www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/monbat.html] is off Business Route 33 between Fort Monmouth and Freehold. Near the visitor center (which remains closed through winter for renovations) stands the statue of Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben. A Prussian-born professional soldier, Steuben, despite speaking little English, arrived at Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777–78 and drilled Washington’s green troops into a more disciplined army. His efforts would be put to the test in Monmouth.
Just behind the baron’s bronze effigy is a plaque honoring the indefatigable Molly Ludwig Hays McCauly, who accompanied her husband into battle on that 100-plus-degree day. Molly brought pitchers of spring water to desperately thirsty soldiers and tended to the wounded. After her husband collapsed, she reportedly took up his position at a scalding-hot cannon atop Combs Hill, overlooking the battlefield.
On the self-guided walking tour we made our way over the undulating terrain, planted with fruit trees and pumpkins and bisected by three creeks. It was here Washington set up a defensive strategy to slow the approaching British.
Walking along a hedgerow on a muggy August afternoon, it was easy to imagine saber-wielding British dragoons charging into the thin American line, and Washington’s troops fighting back with bayonets as Steuben had taught them. In an exhausting series of attacks, counterattacks and retreats, the fighting lasted until 6 p.m. Finally, Clinton broke off the battle and withdrew toward Monmouth. Leaving their dead and seriously wounded behind, the British decamped around midnight and carried on toward Sandy Hook.
While most historians consider the battle a draw, the Americans claimed victory: They had met the British in open battle and forced a retreat. The British lost around 300 men, with 640 wounded, while the Americans counted 350 dead and 160 wounded. The army Steuben had trained in winter at Valley Forge had stood tall on a blistering summer afternoon against the vaunted British regulars.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.