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This Day in History: George Washington saves his army at Monmouth

On this day in 1778, George Washington saves his army from certain defeat at the Battle of Monmouth. That conflict had nearly ended in disgrace and a retreat when one of Washington’s officers made a critical mistake.


Fortunately, General Washington arrived on the scene, just in time.

The clash at Monmouth occurred just after Washington’s army emerged from its long winter at Valley Forge. Americans were in pursuit of the British, then evacuating Philadelphia. The British army was moving very slowly—too slowly! Washington began to wonder if he was being pulled into a trap.  On June 24, he held a council of war.


Most of his officers were reluctant to risk a full-fledged battle.  The French had just agreed to help the American effort. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to avoid general engagements until after their arrival?  Smaller harassing actions seemed more appropriate. One officer was particularly adamant that Americans should avoid a large engagement against the British army: General Charles Lee.


Perhaps it was unfortunate that Lee ended up in command of the advance force that Washington sent to harass the British rear guard?


Lee moved against the British on the morning of June 28,  but it did not go very well.


“Much of what unfolded was disorderly,” historian John Ferling reports, “due in no small measure to the conduct of the officers. Indeed, the men who fought at Monmouth appeared to be far better trained than those who commanded them.”  Before too long, miscommunication among officers had prompted a general retreat of Lee’s forces.


Washington later wrote of his “great surprize and mortification” when he discovered the “whole advanced Corps retreating, and, as I was told, by General Lee’s orders without having made any opposition, except one fire . . . .”


Truthfully, he was more than just surprised. He was furious! Lee and Washington exchanged sharp words in the field. A private later wrote that Washington was “in a great passion,”  while one of the officers reported that Washington “swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees.”  (Washington lost his temper, but some scholars believe that allegation of actual swearing may be exaggerated; Washington didn’t generally swear.)


Washington assumed command and turned the retreat around. The battle continued for the rest of that painfully hot day, soon turning into an artillery duel between the two sides. 


Both armies finally retired for the evening, but Washington expected to continue the next morning. At daybreak, he made a startling discovery: The British had “marched away in such silence” that Americans had not seen or heard it.  Pursuit was “impracticable and fruitless.”


Americans declared victory because they retained the field. In reality, the battle was a bit of a stalemate. The British had escaped to New York with their baggage train intact. On the other hand, American forces, fresh from new training at Valley Forge, had held their own against the British!


The postscript to the story is that Charles Lee ended up facing a court martial over his command.  Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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