If you remember the battle, this is probably the picture that comes to mind. From the brush of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, who also gave us Washington Crossing the Delaware, it presents the orthodox version of what happened under a sweltering New Jersey sun on June 28th, 1778.
Like all popular conceptions of history, there is much here that is true. Washington did gallop into a disorganized and retreating vanguard and he was astonished and then outraged by what he saw. According to some—not all—eyewitnesses, June 28th was one of the few instances when Washington unleashed his not inconsiderable temper, this time in a stream of abuse aimed at his second in command, Charles Lee. So far, so good.
In a council of war that young colonel Alexander Hamilton likened to a gathering of midwives, Washington and his generals pondered if and when to strike Sir Henry Clinton’s army as it retreated from Philadelphia to New York City. Lee, who always insisted that Continentals could never stand against British bayonets, advised building a bridge of gold for the redcoats and Germans—anything to expedite their progress northward, out of New Jersey, into the strategically vital but restricted enclave of Manhattan. Others advocated striking a blow, thus setting the stage for compromise. 1,500 men would be sent to pester the enemy’s rear guard. Offered this fragment of a command, Lee rejected it out of hand as beneath his dignity. Further, he expressed his lack of faith in the mission. The baton passed to Lafayette and, as it did, the size of the force increased until it included nearly half the American army.
This was the result of divided councils—and the divided mind of the American commander-in-chief. No decision made at Monmouth ever seemed to be final. Second thoughts led to more and more units being committed until the shadowing force had taken on real substance: about 5,000 men. At this point Lee decided he wanted the command after all. In a remarkable show of flexibility and graciousness, Lafayette stepped aside. In an even more remarkable show of flexibility, Washington turned the command back to Lee. Though dirty, disheveled and eccentric both in dress and habits, as a former British officer Lee was looked upon by Washington and just about everyone else in the army and congress as an indispensible man—just the man for the delicate task of following, harassing and, if opportunity offered, even striking a professional-trained and dangerous foe.
And yet Lee truly believed Americans could never resist European regulars. He honestly wished to build a golden bridge to New York for Sir Henry Clinton. And he was on record as strenuously opposed to the mission he had just asked to lead. In other words, he should never have been entrusted with this assignment. Hamilton later characterized Lee’s behavior at Monmouth as childish. It is difficult to find a nicer word to describe Washington’s grip on his subordinates.
And his plans were no better. Lee was instructed to strike at Clinton without bringing on a general engagement. Plainly, Washington wanted it both ways. And the augmentation of force—with its corresponding chances of a major, decisive action—is probably what convinced Lee he belonged in the van of the army. But if Washington merely meant to harass Clinton, why send almost half the army? If he wanted to draw serious blood, why not send the whole army?
In his defense we should remember that Washington was by nature an aggressive soldier. By 1778 he has spent three years squelching his instincts to strike his enemies, all for the good of the cause he served. Caught between classic Whig fears of a standing army and a militia that only turned out when it felt like it, he limited himself to a Fabian policy spiced with tours de force like Trenton and Princeton. The clear-eyed realist who understood that he must deal with people as they are, and not as he wished them to be, adopted the same attitude towards American military realities. But those realities had shifted. He now led the largest army he had commanded since the Siege of Boston. More importantly, that army had been trained to march and fight like European professionals by a European professional, the Baron von Steuben. At least some of the indecision displayed at Monmouth must be attributed to a passionate man’s struggle between prudence and daring. While yearning to hit hard, he never forgot that the life of his army and the life of the American cause were essentially one and the same thing.
Once Lee finally took the field he discovered that the ground itself presented grave dangers, being cut by three deep ravines, each traversed by a single narrow bridge or causeway. If Clinton chose to turn and fight and if he drove Lee’s men—as Lee himself confidently expected would happen if Clinton chose to fight—any one of those ravines could prove to be a nasty, bloody trap. Further, Lee was confronted with confused and conflicting intelligence. As a professional soldier, of course, he should have been prepared for this sort of thing but today it rattled him. Nevertheless, he managed to set in motion wide flanking maneuvers to left and right, designed to cut off the British rear guard from their main force. Lee’s eccentricities included a mercurial temperament and he started exulting in what looked to him like a deft coup. But Clinton, who had just as professional an eye as his opponent, recognized the threatened envelopment and quickly marched 4,000 re-enforcements to save the situation.
If Washington had given Lee murky instructions, Lee had given his subordinates no guidance whatever—beyond the statement that they should conform their movements to circumstances. So when Lee pulled back part his right wing in the face of British re-enforcement he unwittingly created a circumstance that led his left wing to follow suit. What followed looked a lot like—and may actually have been—a disorderly retreat. Whatever it was, Washington rode into the middle of it.
And here, in the words of Robert Middlekauff, “Washington then did what he always did well—restored control when chaos surrounded him.” Like another general 84 years later at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, Washington didn’t waste time dwelling on the mistakes that had created the crisis that threatened to overwhelm him. He redeemed those mistakes by building a defensive line on the fly and fighting the British to a standstill. It is a glimpse of what made Washington great. Not a an accomplished tactician or strategist, he nevertheless had the personal presence, the force of character, the moral stature—call it what you will—to somehow be the man we see in Leutze’s canvas.