Today, the Washington Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778.
From the Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution by Benson John Lossing, published in 1852:
The 28th of June, 1778, a day memorable in the annals of the Revolution, was the Christian Sabbath. The sky was cloudless over the plains of Monmouth when the morning dawned, and the sun came up with all the fervor of the summer solstice. It was the sultriest day of the year. Man alone was the discordant note.
At about one o’clock in the morning, Lee sent an order to General Dickinson to detach several hundred men as near the British lines as possible, as a corps of observation. Colonel Morgan was also directed to approach near enough to attack them on their first movement.
Orders were likewise given to the other divisions of the advanced forces to make immediate preparations to march; and, before daylight, Colonel Grayson, with his regiment, leading the brigades of Scott and Varnum, was in the saddle, and moving slowly in the direction of Monmouth court-house.
General Knyphausen, with the first division of the British troops, among which was the chief body of the Hessians, and the Pennsylvania and Maryland Loyalists, moved forward at daybreak. Sir Henry Clinton, with the other division, did not follow until eight o’clock. Dickinson observed the earliest movement, and sent an express to Lee, and to the commander-in-chief, the moment Knyphausen began his march.
Washington immediately put the army in motion, and sent orders to General Lee to press forward and attack the enemy, unless there should be very powerful reasons to the contrary. This discretionary clause in the orders eventuated in trouble.
Lee advanced immediately with the brigades of Wayne and Maxwell, and sent an order to Grayson to press forward and attack the pickets of the enemy as speedily as possible, while he himself pushed forward to overtake and support him.
Grayson, with the two brigades, had passed the Freehold meeting-house, two miles and a half from Monmouth, when he received the order. Lee’s aid, who bore it, gave it as his opinion that he had better halt, for he had learned on the way that the main body of the British were moving to attack the Americans.
This information was erroneous, but it caused Grayson to tarry. General Dickinson, who was posted on a height on the eastern side of a morass received the same intelligence, and communicated it to Lee, through the aid, on his return.
Lee conformed to the reports, and, after posting two regiments of militia upon a hill southeast of the meeting-house, to secure a particular road, he pushed forward, with his staff, across the morass, at a narrow causeway near the parsonage and joined Dickinson upon the height.
There conflicting intelligence was brought to him. At one moment it was asserted that the enemy had moved off with precipitation, leaving only a covering party behind; at another, that the whole army was filing off to the right and left to attack the Americans.
While he was endeavoring to obtain reliable information on which to predicate orders, LaFayette arrived at the head of the main body of the advanced corps.
Having satisfied himself that no important force of the enemy was upon either flank, Lee determined to march on. His whole command now amounted to about four thousand troops, exclusive of Morgan’s corps and the Jersey militia.
The broken country was heavily wooded to the verge of the plain of Monmouth. Under cover of the forest, Lee pressed forward until near the open fields, when he formed a portion of his line for action, and, with Wayne and others, rode forward to reconnoiter.
From observations and intelligence, he concluded that the column of the British army which he saw deploying on the left were only a covering party of about two thousand men; and entertaining hopes that he might succeed in cutting them off from the main army, he maneuvered accordingly.
Wayne was detached, with seven hundred men and two pieces of artillery, to attack the covering party in the rear; not, however, with sufficient vigor to cause them to retreat to the main body. Meanwhile Lee, with a stronger force, endeavored, by a short road leading to the left, to gain the front of the party.
Small detachments were concealed in the woods, at different points on the enemy’s flanks, to annoy them. At about nine o’clock in the morning, just as Wayne was prepared to make a descent upon the enemy, a party of American light horse, advancing on the right, observed the Queen’s Dragoons upon an eminence in the edge of a wood, parading as if they intended to make an attack.
Lee ordered his light horse to allow the dragoons to approach as near as could be done with safety, and then to retreat to where Wayne was posted, and let him receive them. The maneuver was partially successful; the dragoons followed the retreating light horse, until fired upon by a party under Colonel Butler, ambushed in the edge of a wood, when they wheeled, and galloped off toward the main column.
Wayne ordered Colonel Oswald to bring his two pieces of artillery to bear upon them, and then pushed forward himself, with his whole force, to charge the enemy with bayonets. Colonel Oswald crossed a morass, planted his guns on a small eminence, and opened a cannonade at the same time.
Wayne was prosecuting his attack with vigor, and with every prospect of full success, when he received an order from Lee to make only a feigned attack, and not push on too precipitately, as that would subvert his plan of cutting off the covering party.
Wayne was disappointed; he felt that his commander had plucked the palm of sure victory from his hand; but, like a true soldier, he instantly obeyed, and withheld his troops, hoping that Lee would himself recover what his untimely order had lost.
In this, too, the brave Wayne was disappointed; for only a portion of the troops on the right, under Lee, issued out of the wood in small detachments, about a mile below the court house, and within cannon-shot of the royal forces.
At that instant Sir Henry Clinton was informed that the Americans were marching in force on both his flanks, with the evident design of capturing his baggage, then making a line of several miles in the direction of Middletown.
To avert the blow, he changed the front of his army by facing about, and prepared to attack Wayne with so much vigor, that the Americans on his flanks would be obliged to fly to the succor of that officer. This movement was speedily made by Clinton, and a large body of cavalry soon approached cautiously toward the right of Lee’s troops.
LaFayette perceiving this, and believing it to be a good opportunity to gain the rear of the division of the enemy marching against them, rode quickly up to Lee, and asked permission to make the attempt. “Sir,” replied Lee, ” you do not know British soldiers; we cannot stand against them; we shall certainly be driven back at first, and we must be cautious.”
LaFayette replied, “It may be so, general; but British soldiers have been beaten, and they may be again; at any rate, I am disposed to make the trial.”
Lee so far complied as to order the marquis to wheel his column by his right, and gain and attack the enemy’s left.
At the same time, he weakened Wayne’s detachment on the left, by ordering the regiments of Wesson, Stewart, and Livingston to the support of the right.
He then rode toward Oswald’s battery to reconnoiter. At that moment, to his great astonishment, as he said, Lee saw a large portion of the British army marching back on the Middletown road toward the court-house.
Apparently disconcerted, he immediately ordered his right to fall back. The brigades of Scott and Maxwell, on the left, were already moving forward and approaching the right of the royal forces, who were pressing steadily on in solid phalanx toward the position occupied by Lee, with the apparent design of gaining Wayne’s rear and attacking the American right at the same moment.
General Scott had left the wood, crossed a morass, and was forming for action on the plain, and Maxwell was preparing to do the same, when Lee ordered the former to re-enter the wood, arrange his column there, and wait for further directions.
Perceiving the retrograde movement on the right, and perhaps mistaking the spirit of Lee’s order, Scott re-crossed the morass, and retreated through the woods toward the Freehold meeting-house, followed by Maxwell.
As soon as intelligence of this movement reached Lee, he sent an order to LaFayette to fall back to the court-house. The marquis obeyed, but with reluctance. As he approached the court house, he learned, with surprise and deep mortification, that a general retreat had begun on the right, under the immediate command of Lee, and he was obliged to follow.
The British pursued them as far as the court-house, where they halted, while the Americans pressed onward across the morass above Carr’s house to the broken eminences called the heights of Freehold, where they also halted.
The heat was intense, and both parties suffered terribly from thirst and fatigue. In many places they sunk ankle-deep in the loose, sandy soil. Their rest was of short duration.
The royal troops pressed forward; and Lee, instead of making a bold stand in his advantageous position, resumed his retreat toward the Freehold meeting-house.
A panic seized the Republican troops, and over the broken country they fled precipitately and in great confusion, a large portion of them pressing toward the causeway over a broad morass, where many perished; while others, overpowered by the heat, fell upon the earth, and were trampled to death in the sand by those pressing on behind them.
In the first retreat, a desultory cannonade had been kept up by both parties; but now nothing was heard but a few musket-shots and the loud shouts of the pursuing enemy.
While these maneuvers in the vicinity of Monmouth court-house were occurring, Washington, with the reserve, was pressing forward to the support of Lee.
When the latter made the discovery that a large covering party was in the rear of the royal army, and formed his plan to cut them off, he sent a messenger to the commander-in-chief, assuring him that success must follow.
On the reception of this intelligence, Washington ordered the right wing, under General Greene, to march to the right, “by the new church,” or Freehold meeting-house, to prevent the turning of that flank by the enemy, and to “fall into the Monmouth road a small distance in the rear of the court-house,” while he prepared to follow, with the left wing, directly in Lee’s rear, to support him.
To facilitate the march of the men, and to contribute to their comfort on that sultry morning, they were ordered to disencumber themselves of their packs and blankets. Many laid aside their coats, and, thus relieved, prepared for battle.
While the chief was making this disposition near the Freehold meeting-house, a countryman, mounted on a fleet horse, came in hot haste from the direction of the contending forces. He brought the astounding intelligence that the Continental troops were retreating, with the enemy in close pursuit.
The commander-in-chief could not credit the report, for he had heard only a few cannon-peals in the direction of the court-house, and he did not conceive it possible that Lee would retreat without first giving battle.
He spurred forward, and, when about half way between the meeting-house and the morass, he met the head of the first retreating column. He was greatly alarmed on finding the advanced corps falling back upon the main army without notice, thereby endangering the order of the whole.
Giving a hasty order to the commander of the first retreating division to halt upon an eminence, Washington, with his staff, pushed across the causeway to the rear of the flying column, where he met Lee at the head of the second division of the retreating forces.
The commander-in-chief was fearfully aroused by the conduct of that officer, and, as he rode up to Lee, he exclaimed, in words of bitter anger and tone of withering rebuke, “Sir, I desire to know what is the reason, and whence arises this disorder and confusion!”
Stung, not so much by these words as by the manner of Washington, Lee retorted harshly, and a few angry words passed between them. It was no time to dispute, for the enemy was within fifteen minutes’ march of them.
Wheeling his horse, Washington hastened to Ramsay and Stewart, in the rear, rallied a large portion of their regiments, and ordered Oswald, with his two pieces of cannon, to take post upon an eminence. By a well-directed fire from his battery, Oswald checked the pursuing enemy.
The presence of the chief inspired the fugitives with courage, and within ten minutes after he appeared, the retreat was suspended, the troops rallied, and soon order appeared in the midst of the utmost confusion.
Stewart and Ramsay formed under cover of a wood, and co-operated with Oswald in keeping the enemy at bay.
While the British grenadiers were pouring their destructive volleys upon the broken ranks of the Americans, the voice of Washington seemed omnipotent with the inspiration of courage; it was a voice of faith to the despairing soldiers.
Fearlessly he rode in the face of the iron storm, and gave his orders. The whole patriot army, which, half an hour before, seemed on the verge of destruction, panic-stricken and without order, was now drawn up in battle array, and prepared to meet the enemy with a bold and well-arranged front.
This effected, Washington rode back to Lee, and, pointing to the rallied troops, said, “Will you, sir, command in that place?” “I will,” eagerly exclaimed Lee. “Then,” said Washington, “I expect you to check the enemy immediately.” “Your commands shall be obeyed,” replied Lee; ” and I will not be the first to leave the field.”
Back to the main army Washington now hurried, and with wondrous expedition formed their confused ranks into battle order on the eminences on the western side of the morass.
Lord Stirling was placed in command of the left wing; while General Greene, on receiving intelligence of Lee’s retreat, had marched back, and now took an advantageous position on the right of Stirling.
General Lee displayed all his skill and courage in obedience to the chief’s order to “check the enemy.” A warm cannonade had commenced between the American and British artillery on the right of Stewart and Ramsay when Washington re-crossed the morass to form the main army, while the royal light horse charged furiously upon the right of Lee’s division.
At that moment Hamilton rode up to Lee, and exclaimed, “I will stay with you, my dear general, and die with you. Let us all die rather than retreat.”
But the enemy pressed so closely upon them with an overwhelming force, that the Americans were obliged to give way. As they emerged from the woods, the belligerents seemed completely intermingled.
The enemy next attacked Livingston’s regiment and Varnum’s brigade, which lined a hedgerow that stretched across the open field in front of the causeway over the morass. Here the conflict raged severely for some time.
Some American artillery took post on an eminence in rear of the fence, and played with power; but the British cavalry, and a large body of infantry, skillful in the use of the bayonet, charging simultaneously upon the Americans, broke their ranks. Lee immediately ordered Varnurn and Livingston, together with the artillery, to retreat across the morass, while Colonel Ogden, with his men drawn up in a wood near the causeway, gallantly covered the whole as they crossed.
Lee was the last to leave the field, and brought off Ogden’s corps, the rear of the retreating troops, in admirable order. Instantly forming them in line upon the slope on the western side of the morass, he rode to Washington, and said, “Sir, here are my troops; how is it your pleasure that I should dispose of them?”
The poor fellows had thus far borne the whole brunt of the battles and retreats of the day; Washington, therefore, ordered him to arrange them in the rear of Englishtown, while he prepared to engage the enemy himself with the fresh troops of the second and main division of the army.
The action now became general. The second line of the main army was speedily formed in the wood which covered the eminence on the western side of the morass; the left commanded by Lord Stirling, the right by General Greene, and the center by Washington himself.
Wayne, with an advanced corps, was stationed upon an eminence, in an orchard, a few rods south of the parsonage, while a park of artillery was placed in battery on Comb’s Hill, beyond a marsh, on his right. This battery commanded the height on which the enemy was stationed, and did great service.
The British, finding themselves warmly opposed in front, attempted to turn the American left flank, but were repulsed. They also moved toward the American right, but, being enfiladed by a severe cannonade from a battery under Knox, upon a commanding piece of ground occupied by General Greene, they fell back.
Wayne, in the mean time, kept up a brisk fire upon the British center from his position in the orchard, and repeatedly repulsed the royal grenadiers, who several times crossed the hedgerow and advanced upon him.
Colonel Monckton, their commander, perceiving that success depended upon driving Wayne from his position, harangued his men, and, forming them in solid column, advanced to the charge “with all the regularity of a corps on parade.”
Wayne’s troops were partially sheltered by a barn, situated very near the one now standing a few rods from the parsonage. He ordered them to reserve their fire until the enemy should approach very near, and then, with sure aim, pick out the officers.
Silently the British advanced until within a few rods of the Americans, when Monckton, waving his sword, with a shout, ordered his grenadiers to the charge. At the same moment Wayne gave a signal; a terrible volley poured destruction upon the assailants, and almost every British officer fell.
Among them was their brave leader, Colonel Monckton. Over his body the warriors fought desperately, hand to hand, until the Americans secured it, and carried it to their rear.
Hotly the conflict raged, not only at the center of the enemy’s line, but at various other points. Wayne finally repulsed the grenadiers; and the whole British army soon gave way, and fell back to the heights above Carr’s house, occupied by General Lee in the morning.
It was a strong position, flanked by thick woods and morasses, with only a narrow way of approach on their front. It was now almost sunset, yet Washington resolved to follow up his advantage, and attack them in their new and strong position.
For that purpose, he ordered General Poor, with his own and the Carolina brigade, to move round to their right; General Woodford to gain their left, and the artillery to gall them in front. There were so many impediments, owing to the broken character of the ground, that twilight came on before a proper disposition for battle could be made, and the attack was postponed until morning.
The army reposed that night upon their arms upon the battle-field, ready to spring upon their prey at the first gleam of light. Wrapped in his cloak, the chief, overpowered with fatigue, slumbered, with his suite, beneath a broad oak, around which many of the slain slept their last sleep.
He felt certain of victory when his troops, refreshed, should rise to battle; but the morning light brought disappointment. At midnight, under cover of darkness, Sir Henry Clinton put his weary host in motion.
With silent steps, column after column left the camp and hurried toward Sandy Hook. So secret was the movement, and so deep the sleep of the patriots, that the troops of Poor, lying close by the enemy, were ignorant of their departure, until, at dawn, they saw the deserted camp of the enemy.
They had been gone more than three hours. Washington, considering the distance they had gained, the fatigue of his men, the extreme heat of the weather, and the deep, sandy country, with but little water, deemed pursuit fruitless, and Sir Henry Clinton escaped.
Washington marched with his army to Brunswick, and thence to the Hudson River, which he crossed at King’s Ferry, and encamped near White Plains, in West Chester county. The Jersey brigade and Morgan’s corps were left to hover on the enemy’s rear, but they performed no essential service.
The British array reached Sandy Hook on the 30th, where Lord Howe’s fleet, having come round from the Delaware, was in readiness to convey them to New York.
The battle of Monmouth was one of the most severely contested during the war.
The Washington Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with a depiction of the Field of Monmouth.