Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the Battle of Monmouth, which took place during the Revolutionary War. The article picks up where the first part left off.
Washington returned to the rear of the retreating troops, where his aides reported that the British were within minutes of reaching the retreating column. Seeing the body in danger, Washington rallied the disorganized elements of Lee’s command into a new line behind a hedge, in blocking positions.
This would hopefully slow the British down until the rest of his army could arrive. Washington ordered Lee to begin delaying action while their main force regrouped. These units put up fierce resistance, then under pressure they made a fighting retreat to safety.
Washington began ordering the troops to form a strong defensive line. The artillery was rushed forward and Greene unhitched at least four guns on prominent high ground below the creek known as Comb’s Hill. Supported by a brigade of infantry, Greene’s artillery fired a volley of cannon fire on the advancing British.
This cannon fire, combined with small arms and supported by other artillery fire from the front, temporarily stabilized the waiting position. Clinton brought up his artillery and an artillery duel began. It was one of the most intense artillery duels of the war. A mounted attack against Washington’s left, accompanied by a final British thrust by mounted infantry and grenadiers, fell back and broke the line of hold.
At 12:30 p.m. the battle resumed as the British crossed the Dividing Brook. After brief and vicious clashes in wooded terrain and along the hedgerow, the Americans, under Lee, fell back across Spotswood Middle Brook. As the British charged the bridge, they found the Americans occupying a very strong position on the ridge of Perrine Farm behind a battery of 10 guns. Exhausted by a forced march and cannonaded with grapeshot, the British faltered and the attack collapsed.
To silence the American artillery commanding the bridge, the British positioned 10 guns and howitzers in front of the hedge. For hours the biggest land artillery battle of the war raged. The Americans win the artillery duel at the end of the afternoon. As the fighting raged in the north, Cornwallis organized an attack in the south against Greene’s front. In precise ranks, they advance towards the Americans.
Greene’s men fired on the British from the front and his artillery tore through their flanks. The guns raked the hedge, forcing the British artillery to withdraw and their infantry to change position. Unable to break through and having suffered heavy casualties, Cornwallis gave up. A series of heavy attacks were launched against Wayne’s men in the center of the American line before Cornwallis was finished, but these too were repelled.
As the British artillery fell silent, Washington cautiously counterattacked. First, two New England battalions advanced along Spotswood North Brook to skirmish with the retreating Royal Highlanders. Next, Wayne led three Pennsylvania regiments across the bridge to attack the retreating British Grenadiers. After heavy fighting, Wayne’s men were forced back to the shelter of the rectory and orchard buildings.
At 3:30 p.m., after a fierce fight in the heat and humidity of the afternoon, Clinton ordered his troops to withdraw. Washington wanted to pursue the fleeing British but in the heat and humidity his troops were too exhausted.
At 5:30 p.m., with Wayne’s men now in line with Alexander and Greene, Washington straightened his front and waited for Clinton’s next move. This move never came. As night fell he had fresh troops ready to attack around the British flanks, but they had to hold due to the loss of daylight. Clinton withdrew his troops about a mile to the east.
During the battle, Mary Ludwig Hayes (known today as Molly Pitcher), a camp follower who brought water to the troops from a nearby spring, took the place of her wounded husband at a cannon when he was injured. Under fire, and losing men, the artillery unit would fall back until they volunteered to take their place. Bravely, she served the cannon instead of her husband.
At 10 p.m., after being allowed to bivouac for a few hours, Clinton silently awakened his troops and ordered them to begin following the baggage train. They broke camp and marched to Sandy Hook in far northeast New Jersey.
From there, they quickly embarked on a short journey over Lower New York Bay and through The Narrows to the safety of Manhattan. Washington cautiously decided not to follow and instead marched his army north to join other American forces encamped along the Hudson River.
Although Washington failed to destroy the British column, he had inflicted damage on their troops and proved that American troops, if properly led, could oppose the British regulars. The British had defended their baggage train, but were unable to defeat the Americans in open battle.
On June 30, Clinton arrived at Sandy Hook. For the next five days, British forces were evacuated to New York.
Both sides claimed victory at the Battle of Monmouth. American forces took credit for the British flight from Philadelphia and New Jersey and saw a big boost in morale. Most historians regard this battle as a tactical draw.
Since the Americans held the ground, they claimed victory; but it was really a draw or even a British victory, since the British were only defending their baggage train, not looking for a battle. The battle was a political triumph for the Continental Army and Washington. They had encountered the British in the open field and forced them to retreat.
In the aftermath, Lee asserted his innocence in a scathing letter to Washington and requested a court martial. Washington submitted formal charges and placed Lee under arrest. Six weeks later, a military tribunal found Lee guilty of disobedience and willful neglect of duty, and he was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the military. This verdict was later upheld by Congress, but Lee refused to accept the suspension. He was later expelled from the army and retired into obscurity.
The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse was the longest and last battle between the two main armies. After that, fighting involved secondary forces, as the war moved to the southern settlements. The American army had proven that it could take on an entire British army in a pitched battle.
Harold B. Wolford is president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.