This Day in History: James Monroe’s little-known service in Washington’s army
On this day in 1758, future President James Monroe is born. Did you know that Monroe was a participant in George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River? Monroe was then only 18 years old.
He almost did not survive the experience.
Washington’s army had spent much of the fall of 1776 retreating across New Jersey before finally crossing safely into Pennsylvania. By the time they escaped the British, morale was low. The Continental Congress was on the verge of capitulating. The war for independence could be over before it started, unless something drastic happened.
Washington decided to send his men back over the Delaware River on Christmas night. He would launch a surprise attack on Trenton. He needed a victory!
The attached painting of the crossing is familiar and Washington is easily recognized. But did you know that the man standing next to Washington, holding a flag, is supposed to be Monroe? The young Monroe’s presence in that boat constitutes a bit of artistic license. In reality, Monroe was already on the other side of the river. He’d crossed with William Washington much earlier.
Captain Washington and Lieutenant Monroe had been delegated a special task: Cross the river, go inland to one of the main intersections, and hold that road against any traveler who might warn the Hessians that General Washington’s army was coming.
“Whilst occupying the position,” James Monroe later recalled, “the resident of a dwelling, some distance up a lane, had his attention directed to some unusual commotion by the barking of dogs. He came out in the dark to learn the cause, and encountered my command, and supposing we were from the British camp ordered us off. . . . When he discovered that we were American soldiers . . . he returned to the house and brought us some victuals. He said to me, ‘I know something is to be done, and I am going with you. I am a doctor, and I may help some poor fellow.’”
Did Providence intervene at this point? Some think so. Captain Washington and Monroe soon received a command to “hasten to Trenton” for the commencement of the attack. The doctor, Dr. Riker, went with them.
As the attack began, Captain Washington and Monroe were working with forces to the north of Trenton. The Hessians were initially taken off guard, but they were soon scrambling to pull their cannon into position. Washington and Monroe led the effort to capture it. The effort succeeded, but unfortunately both Washington and Monroe were wounded in the process. Monroe’s wound was serious. Fortunately, Dr. Riker was nearby.
“I received a ball in my shoulder,” Monroe later wrote, “and would have bled to death if this doctor [Riker] had not been near and promptly taken up an artery.”
We hear much of George Washington’s critical leadership and victory at Trenton, just when it was needed most. We hear much less about the bravery shown by our future 5th President on that day, although General Washington himself later wrote of the “manner in which [Monroe] distinguished himself at Trenton.”
As for Monroe, he considered his service at Trenton to be one of his proudest achievements.
Perhaps that makes it a fitting story with which to remember his birthday?
David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (2004)
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Harlow Giles Unger, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness (2009)
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1880) (reprinting Monroe’s account)
James Monroe, The Autobiography of James Monroe (Stuart Gerry Brown ed. 1959)
Rick Britton, James Monroe: Bona Fide Hero of the American Revolution (Journal of the American Revolution; Jan. 31, 2013)