Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Meeting Notes: November 16, 2016

"Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle," Mark Lender

Fought on a June 1778 day when temperatures climbed above 95 degrees, the Battle of Monmouth was fought on two fronts---both the military one and the political one.

“It was a hard fought tactical draw,” said historian Mark Edward Lender at the November 16, 2016 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “From a tactical draw came a political victory, and George Washington became an icon.”

Just a few months earlier Washington was looking like anything but an icon. In fact his ability to maintain command of the Continental army was very much at stake.

During the latter months of 1777, Washington’s army lost the battles of Brandywine Creek, Germantown and several smaller battles that led to the American evacuation of Philadelphia, the new nation’s capital. While Sir William Howe’s British army occupied Philadelphia during the Winter of 1777-78, Washington’s army endured the hard winter and shortages of food and other supplies at Valley Forge. Troop morale dropped, and an increasing number of American enlisted men and their officers began to question the leadership skills of their commander-in-chief.

In what historians today call the Conway Cabal, several American generals plotted with certain members of the Continental Congress to get Washington removed as commander-in-chief and replaced by Horatio Gates, the commander of the American army that won the Battle of Saratoga and forced the surrender of the British army under the command of John Burgoyne. The three American generals who were primarily behind the “cabal” were Thomas Conway, Thomas Mifflin and Horatio Gates.

“Mifflin was a dangerous man as far as Washington was concerned because he had good connections,” said Lender. “Gates definitely wanted Washington’s job after Saratoga when he got the public credit for winning the battle at a time when the country needed some good news.”

When word of the “cabal” leaked out and got back to Washington, he publicly confronted his critics. This caused them to back away temporarily, at least until after the next military campaign.

Washington wasn’t the only commanding general in the Philadelphia area with serious army problems. Sir Henry Clinton, the newly appointed commander of the British army occupying Philadelphia was disgusted with his new job and his bosses in London. 

As a result of France’s entry into the war on the side of the Americans, the British government ordered Clinton to evacuate Philadelphia and to move his army back to New York City where a significant number of his troops would board ships bound for Florida and the West Indies. Since the British navy didn’t have enough ships to transport Clinton’s army to New York City, his army would need to march across New Jersey to get there.

On June 18, 1778 the British completed their evacuation of Philadelphia with most of Clinton’s army crossing the Delaware River and occupying Haddonfield, NJ. Commanding Clinton’s first division was Charles Cornwallis. Commanding the second division and protecting the baggage train was Wilhelm von Knyphausen. 

Wherever possible the British army took two roads on their march toward New York City because their army stretched for 12 miles. In response to the British march through New Jersey, Governor William Livingston called out approximately 2,000 New Jersey militia under the command of Philemon Dickinson. 

“Think about it. What was the reputation of militia at this point during the war? It wasn’t very good. However, the New Jersey militia had become battle-hardened and had two years of experience. They were an entirely different animal from two years earlier,” said Lender. 

The New Jersey militia’s job was to delay the British army and to skirmish with them. Meanwhile Washington moved his army from Valley Forge and across the Delaware River to Baptist Meeting House, known today as Hopewell, NJ. 

After holding a council of war with his senior subordinates Washington decided to hit the British hard but not to risk the entire Continental army in a general engagement. He selected approximately 4,000 troops to carry out this special assignment under the commands of Charles Scott and Anthony Wayne, and the overall command of Charles Lee. 

Lee was Washington’s second-in-command but the two men weren’t close to each other and shared very different viewpoints on how to fight the war. Lee had returned to the American army only a few weeks earlier after spending 18 months as a prisoner-of-war. 

“Charles Lee had the propensity to shoot himself in the foot. He was similar to Jackie Gleason in ‘The Honeymooners’---he had a big mouth,” joked Lender. 

When Washington offered Lee the command of this special force, he declined the offer because he didn’t feel it was a worthwhile command for an officer of his rank (major general). Washington then turned to the Marquis de Lafayette who eagerly accepted.

“Lafayette was only 19 years old,” said Lender, “and as a tactical commander he had a lot of growing up at this time.”

Shortly after Lafayette accepted the special command Lee changed his mind and agreed to lead the American vanguard against the British rearguard. On the night of June 27 Washington told Lee to use his discretion to land a blow against the British but not to take any undue risks with his troops. On the morning of June 28, 1778 Lee’s vanguard caught up with a small British force near Monmouth Courthouse.

“Lee had a difficult assignment,” said Lender. “Since he had just returned to the American army after spending 18 months as a British prisoner, he didn’t know his subordinates very well. In addition he didn’t know the terrain where he was going to fight, and he didn’t know what the British were doing. Were they retreating or staying put? The truth was that some British troops were retreating and some were defending.”

Lee ordered Anthony Wayne’s troops forward to hit the retreating British forces lightly for the purpose of getting them to stand and fight. Meanwhile Lee ordered Lafayette to circle around the British flank and hit these British troops from the rear. 

“Wayne hit the British a little bit harder than he intended,” said Lender. “As a result these British troops retreated back to Cornwallis’ first division, which turned around and advanced toward the Americans. Instead of 800 versus 2,000 troops, it was more like 6,000-8,000 British troops who were now bearing down on the Americans.”

The American attack ground to a halt. Some of the units started falling back without any orders issued by Lee. 

“Lee doesn’t know what to do,” said Lender. “His troops are retreating but in good order.”

A local militia officer and farmer named Peter Wikoff rode up to Lee and offered his assistance, and where the Americans might form a defensible line. While Lee was maneuvering his retreating units toward this new defensible position, Washington rode up to Lee. 

At first Lee expected Washington to congratulate him for conducting an orderly retreat. Instead Washington was visibly angry with Lee and couldn’t understand why Lee’s troops were retreating instead of attacking the British. Contrary to what many historians have written over the years, Washington did not relieve Lee on the field. 

“Nobody knows exactly what Washington said to Lee. Lafayette claimed that Washington called Lee ‘a damn poltroon’ but Lafayette made this claim 46 years after the battle. Scott claimed that Washington ‘swore on that day until the leaves shook on the trees,’ but Scott must have possessed incredible hearing because he was over a half mile away when Washington and Lee met each other,” quipped Lender.

Soon after the encounter Washington rode forward and realized that the British were advancing in large numbers. He gave Lee a choice. Lee could either stay in command of the retreated forces along the new defensible line, or he could ride back to the main American army and bring up these troops. Lee chose to command the new defensible line, which allowed Washington to ride back and deploy the main army and artillery on high ground called Perrine’s Ridge.

Meanwhile the British troops continued their advance but got ambushed by a flank attack from Anthony Wayne’s troops that were located in a wooded area called Point of Woods. British doctrine said that if ambushed, British troops were to turn and attack. The British did but got disorganized. Clinton and Cornwallis kept attacking with unorganized troops but the new American defensive line on high ground inflicted heavy cannon fire on some of Great Britain’s top guards and grenadiers.

“During the fight, Clinton did something really stupid,” said Lender. “He tried to lead from the front and nearly got shot before a British soldier slashed an American who was trying to shoot Clinton.“ 

At approximately 1:45 p.m. the British infantry quit attacking. Then their own artillery opened fire, and for the next two hours both the British and American artillery fired at each other in what historians now call the Great Cannonade. While both sides made a great deal of noise, they inflicted few casualties.

It was during the Great Cannonade that the Legend of Molly Pitcher was born. Most likely there were two women on the battlefield at this time and one of them was probably Mary Hays, who served next to her husband on a gun crew. Reports vary but most likely she served water to her gun crew on this extremely hot day (thus the “Pitcher” name), or carried ammunition from the box to the loader. There are also accounts of a woman serving as a rammer on a gun crew but this is less likely true. 

After the Great Cannonade some American troops and artillery under the command of Nathanael Greene fired into the British left flank from a strategic position called Combs Hill. Taking heavy casualties, the British pulled back their troops late in the afternoon and resumed their march toward New York City. They left behind their seriously wounded soldiers. Washington sent small units of troops to shadow the British and to harass them. 

According to Lender, the Americans suffered approximately 500 killed or wounded at Monmouth while the British casualties were much higher at approximately 2,000 troops killed, wounded or deserted. As a result of the record heat on the day of this battle, more soldiers died from heat exhaustion than combat.

“The Battle of Monmouth was over but there was a political end game. Charles Lee had to go,” said Lender.

Two days after the battle Lee wrote a letter to Washington and demanded an apology for the way Washington treated Lee when they first met during the middle of the battle. Rather than apologize, Washington offered Lee an official inquiry into Lee’s conduct during the battle. Instead Lee asked for a full court-martial in order to clear his name. Washington promptly agreed and had Lee placed under arrest.

During this time several of Washington’s most loyal subordinates, including Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, began a massive letter-writing campaign where they “spun” the Battle of Monmouth into a great victory, and praised most of the senior American officers other than Charles Lee. Letters of this nature were sent to very influential Americans, such as Henry Laurens who was John Laurens’ father and also president of the Continental Congress.

At the court-martial the judges were all good friends of Washington’s. They found Lee guilty of disobeying orders to attack on the morning of June 28, making an unnecessary and disorderly retreat in the face of the enemy and disrespecting the commander-in-chief for what he wrote to Washington shortly after the battle. Lee was officially suspended from the army for one year but he never returned.

“The charges of disobeying orders to attack and ordering an unnecessary and disorderly retreat were ridiculous but Lee was definitely guilty of insubordination”, said Lender.

Mark Edward Lender is the co-author along with Garry Wheeler Stone of the new book entitled Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle. He is also a professor emeritus of history at Kean University in Union, NJ and the co-author of A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic and Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield. Lender is also a member of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond and serves as chairman of the organization’s annual book award committee.

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics: 

1. The membership voted unanimously to support two board recommendations to rename the Round Table’s annual book award after the late Harry M. Ward, and to donate $100 toward the University of Richmond’s Harry Ward Scholarship in History. Dr. Ward was a founding member of ARRT-Richmond and served as its senior advisor for many years.

2. President Bill Welsch called the membership's attention to an article that appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of "Hallowed Ground," the quarterly magazine of the Civil War Trust and Campaign 1776. The article entitled "Burgeoning Partnerships" cites the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond for being the first American Revolution Round Table in the nation to make a donation to Campaign 1776 and its efforts to preserve the nation’s American Revolution and War of 1812 battlefields. 

3. Mark Lender, chairman of the Round Table’s annual book award committee, announced that the winner of the 2016 book award is Claudio Saunt’s West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776

4. Walt Pulliam presided over the election of ARRT-Richmond officers for the 2017-18 term. He read the list of nominees received so far, one person for each office. (See the ARRT-Richmond website for the complete list.) Pulliam then called for additional nominations from the floor and when no further nominations were made, he called for a vote. The membership unanimously approved the proposed nominees for the 2017-18 term. 

--Bill Seward

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