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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Battle of Monmouth

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth, a fact which came to my mind as I was looking at nearby New Jersey sites for a summer camping trip. The battle on June 28, 1778 was the first major engagement after the Continental Army's winter at Valley Forge, and it was fought under weather conditions much like the ones we'll have this weekend--both sides suffered many casualties from heat stroke, in addition to those felled by combat. 

The Rosenbach has a very interesting document relating to the battle: an eyewitness account of the actions of Major General Charles Lee, Washington's most senior general at the battle. Lee failed to move decisively against the British at the start of the engagement and then ordered a retreat. His troops ran into Washington's advancing troops; Washington publicly criticized his actions and re-formed his men. An angry Lee demanded an apology from Washington and a court-martial to clear his name. He would be convicted of disobeying orders and insubordination and removed from the army for a year.

The Rosenbach letter is to Lee from John Clark, a major and auditor of accounts for the army, who was at the battle. It  is clearly a response to a request by Lee for Clark's account of the events. It was written after the July-August court martial, but may possibly have been requested as part of Lee's attempt to get Congress to overturn the conviction.

John Clark, autograph letter signed [draft]  to Charles Lee. Philadelphia, 3 September 1778. Rosenbach Museum & Library AMs 785/15

According to Clark's statement, Washington asked Clark to "inform General Lee that 'tis my Orders he annoy the enemy as much as in his power, but at the same time, proceed with caution and take care the enemy don't draw him into a scrape, that I have information that the Enemy's rear have left Monmouth, have ordered the Troops with me to throw of their Packs and will march on to reinforce him”

Clark  "delivered the above orders to him, which I did & still do conceive to be discretionary and as such he received them as he replied, I give you my word I shall not advance a foot further, my men are fatigued excessively and it would be sacrificing them to pursue: they reconnoitered the enemy found them forming a line of Battle with the cavalry on their right returned & gave the Gen information."

Lee then asked Clark to help lead the men over a morass. When they came under attack from the British, Lee ordered the troops to form along a fence, but one of his subordinates, Col. Jackson, replied “his men were too fatigued they could not form.”

Clark relates what happened next: "in a few minutes after I observed those troops marching from the fence, upon which Gen Lee asked the officers the reason, they said Col. Jackson ordered them. The Gen'l was much enraged, rode forward to the Col & told him he (Gen'l Lee) was the commanding officer & no one else shou'd give orders & drew his sword, the Colonel apologized & I parted with the General, having first requested that I would inform his Excellency [George Washington] that by too much precipitancy in one of his Brigadiers and false intelligence his Troops were thrown into confusion & that he was retiring..."

Ultimately Congress upheld the court-martial's verdict. Lee returned home to Virginia, where he began a smear campaign against Washington; he was ultimately dismissed from the army in 1780. He would die in Philadelphia in 1782. His will stated that he should not be buried in a churchyard, since " “I have kept so much bad company when living that I do not choose to continue it when dead.” but he was in fact buried in the graveyard at Christ Church.

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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