So recently I have been working on a Monmouth Court House project. Last night an alternate scenario popped into my head. I wanted to ask you, the readers, your opinion. During the spring of 1778, what if Charles Lee, recently exchanged from a year and a half imprisonment, had been appointed as military governor of Philadelphia instead of Benedict Arnold? What if Arnold had then been ordered to join Washington’s army? He obviously would have never gotten the chance to fall in love with Peggy Shippen (we know what happened next), but his widely known aggressiveness and leadership capabilities also could have played a significant role in the upcoming Monmouth Campaign. What do you think may have happened? Would Arnold have influenced Washington’s decision making? Could he have potentially commanded the Continental Army’s vanguard that opened the fighting at Monmouth like Lee did? How would he have behaved if he once again commanded American troops in the field? This is all counterfactual history, of course, but just something to have fun with and think about.
4 thoughts on “An Interesting “What If?” Question: Benedict Arnold and the Monmouth Campaign”
Arnold would certainly have been more aggressive than Lee, but let me suggest that would have been a tactical disaster. By retreating so quickly, and in such a disorganized fashion, Lee inadvertently saved the vanguard by getting it out of the way before Clinton could wipe it out. That gave Washington time to take a strong defensive position and rally the retreating portions of the army. If Arnold had commanded, odds are that: 1) he would have stayed to fight farther forward, 2) Washington’s main body would have had farther to travel with less time to rest from the march, and 3) it would have been committed piecemeal. In other words, Arnold would have given Clinton exactly the kind of fight the latter wanted. Washington would have had to eventually surrender the field and retreat.
That said, it’s tough to imagine Clinton reversing course entirely and pursuing a defeated Continental Army very far after the battle. Burdened by a substantial baggage train and refugees, he was set on returning to New York. So, the Continentals would have suffered another defeat like Germantown. The political consequences might have been worse, however, if they renewed demands for Washington’s removal from command.
Anyway, there’s my two cents!
Thanks for the reply. That is an interesting take on things that I did not consider. Arnold’s aggressive nature may very well have had a negative impact if he led the army’s vanguard. The same could be said if Lafayette retained command of it rather than Lee. Washington relied heavily on the advice of his generals throughout the spring. It is possible that adding another offensive-minded man to the mix (with Wayne, Lafayette, Steuben, Greene, etc…) could have led to a pitched fight even sooner somewhere along the British route. Who knows? Maybe not. Fun to speculate though!
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There is really no way to know what affect Arnold would have had on Washington at Monmouth. They never actually participated together in a battle or campaign. Arnold’s history is that he was able to work effectively under orders from a superior officer.
In my opinion Arnold was the best officer in either army until his wound at Saratoga where he almost list his leg. Arnold wanted a position in the army in early 1778 but his leg was still too injured to carry out an active command. It would not have been realistic for him to take a campaign position under Washington or anyone else
If Arnold did not have the leg wound and had substituted for Lee, he would not have conducted himself as Lee did. Arnold had excellent fighting instincts whereas in my opinion Lee was a former British army officer whose record was less than stellar. It would have been fortunate for Washington and the result of the Monmouth battle if Arnold had been present.
I also do not believe that Arnold’s decision to change sides had nothing to do with Peggy Shippen in his life.
Steve Darley Author of three books on Arnold in Rev War and upcoming book of 13 unknown journals of Arnold’s expedition to Quebec.
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Thank you for the response! Lee lacked initiative, while Arnold oozed it. In the comment above this, Eric brought up a good point that it may have actually had a negative impact on the battle if Arnold, commanding the vanguard in Lee’s place, refused to back out of the fight during the morning action at Monmouth.
I wish we could have seen Arnold with Washington’s army. His style complimented Washington’s and many of his other generals’ as well. For his sake it obviously would have been much better had he not been assigned to the Philadelphia post! Maybe holding an important field command under someone who actually appreciated him would have changed his entire outlook on everything. Thanks again for the input!
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