Two-hundred and forty one years ago, today, one of the most famous, yet controversial, exchanges between two commanding generals on a battlefield occurred in a field west of Monmouth Court House (present-day Freehold), New Jersey.
George Washington had arrived in Englishtown roughly an hour and a half ahead of the Continental Army’s main body and sat down for breakfast sometime around ten in the morning, June 28, 1778. Six miles away, Major General Charles Lee’s vanguard of roughly 5000 men was just about to throw itself at the British rearguard north of Monmouth Court House.
When those elements came into contact, what resulted was anything but a general engagement. Within an hour Lee’s men were retreating west with newly arrived British troops committed by Lieutenant General Henry Clinton right on their heels. Disaster loomed for the Americans as a result of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and poor generalship on the part of Lee’s subordinates. The American vanguard’s commander had specific orders from Washington to fall upon Clinton’s rear as it marched out of Monmouth, and now Lee was desperately attempting to stave off defeat.
At 11:30 the lead elements of the Continental Army’s main body pushed through Englishtown and made their way towards the battlefield. Washington joined them, not yet aware of Lee’s situation. As the general and his men got closer, however, the sounds of musket fire could be distinctly heard.
Arriving in the fields west of the Monmouth Court House, Washington was greeted by Alexander Hamilton, who informed him that Lee was engaged with an ever-growing British force. The young officer advised his chieftain to continue west with the main body, but send a smaller force south to cover the American right. Washington agreed, and with this new information in hand, rode forward to ascertain what exactly was going on. His orders were for Lee to bring on an engagement with Clinton’s rearguard and hold until the main body could be brought up to support him. He had no reason to believe that his second in command had not accomplished this.
Galloping further east, Washington was met with concerning news. From a militia officer, and soon after from a fifer, he learned that Lee’s men were not pinning the British rearguard, but instead retreating in the face of the enemy. Confused as to what was transpiring, he ordered Lieutenant Colonels Robert Harrison and John Fitzgerald of his staff to ride ahead and find General Lee. As they made haste down the Englishtown Road, Washington continued on toward Perrine Ridge, a gently sloping rise north of the road and several miles west of the village. There, he met more troops of the vanguard making their way west in full retreat. Taking command of the situation as best he could, the general ordered each unit he passed to form up on the rise of ground and rest. Many of the officers and men in the vanguard were just as confused as Washington was as to why they were retreating (one officer told him that the vanguard was “flying from a shadow”). There was no time to ask questions, though. “Here, fortunately for the honour of the army, and the welfare of America,” staffer John Laurens remembered, “General Washington met the troops retreating in disorder, and without any plan to make an opposition.”
Riding onward, the commander in chief finally located Lee south of the road on a hill near the Rhea farm. The exchange that occurred between the two commanders has fallen victim to myth over the centuries. Many widely accepted versions of the encounter have come from individuals who either recollected it decades later or were not even present at the time. Charles Lee, who obviously was there, remembered it as follows:
When I arrived first in his [Washington’s] presence, conscious of having done nothing that could draw on the least censure, but rather flattering myself with his congratulation and applause, I confess I was disconcerted, astonished and confounded by the words and manner in which his Excellency accosted me…. The terms, I think, were these—“I desire to know, sir, what is the reason—whence arises this disorder and confusion?” The manner in which he expressed them was much stronger and more severe than the expressions themselves. When I recovered myself sufficiently, I answered, that I saw or knew of no confusion but what naturally arose from disobedience of orders, contradictory intelligence, and the impertinence and presumption of individuals, who were vested with no authority, intruding themselves in matters above them and out of their sphere. That the retreat … was contrary to my intentions, contrary to my orders, and contrary to my wishes…. To which he replied, “All may be very true, sir, but you ought not to have undertaken it unless you intended to go through with it.”
Following this exchange, according to Lee’s aide Captain John Mercer, who was also present, Washington simply “passed him by” and continued on.
Later accounts of the horseback encounter would have Washington calling Lee a “damned poltroon,” and swearing “until the leaves shook on trees.” Lafayette and Brigadier General Charles Scott, respectively, passed these versions on. Neither of them was there when it happened, so their accounts must be viewed as pure exaggerations.
There is also an accepted version of the exchange that finds Lee relieved of command and sent to the rear of the army. This is also not true. In fact, Lee very much remained on the field and assisted in organizing a delaying effort to buy Washington time to form and secure his position on Perrine Ridge.
After Washington hastily formed his rearguard in an area nearby known as the “Point of Woods”, he summoned Charles Lee to assist him in organizing the rest of the delaying force. Lee again assumed command of all troops this side of Perrine Ridge, and Washington rode back to the high ground to form the main American defensive line. Before departing, Lee promised his commander that, “I myself should be one of the last to leave the field….”
Alexander Hamilton was nearby when Lee gave Washington his word. Upon hearing this, Hamilton, “flustered and in a sort of frenzy of valor,” raised his saber and shouted, “That’s right, my dear General, and I will stay, and we will die here on this spot.” Lee was not burning with the same sentiments as the lieutenant colonel. “I am responsible for something more than my own person,” he told his young comrade, “I am responsible to the General and to the continent for the troops I have been entrusted with.” Continuing, and probably embarrassing Hamilton a bit, Lee quipped, “When I have taken proper measures to get the main body of them in a good position, I will die with you on this spot, if you please.” Hamilton and Lee would not need to die that day, but plenty of others would before it was over.
Lee’s rearguard south of the Englishtown Road near the Point of Woods and along a fence line known simply as the “Hedgerow,” was short, but valiant, and it secured Washington enough time to form and stabilize his new line on Perrine Ridge. When Lee, one of the last to retire from the field, returned to the main American line he was ordered by Washington to reform his shattered command around Englishtown. He had not been relieved of duty on the spot, but as time passed that hot afternoon, Washington ordered Baron von Steuben to ride west and assume command of Lee’s men. Effectively, Charles Lee would never lead troops on a battlefield again. The event that transpired next is widely remembered by students of history. Lee was court-martialed in early July under the charges of disobedience of orders, misbehavior before the enemy, and disrespecting Washington in several letters written following the battle. In August, he was found guilty on all three charges.
When writing my upcoming Emerging Revolutionary War Series book, A Handsome Flogging: The Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778, I went into the project believing the old myths about the encounter between Lee and Washington that day. I believed that Lee deserved all of the criticism and disdain he subsequently received then and has since. After a diving deeper into the man, the general, and the events that unfolded at Monmouth, I now see things differently. He was a great soldier, but an obvious narcissist and egotistical maniac, which led to his ultimate downfall. His service at Monmouth, however, should not be remembered by history as cowardly or insubordinate. What do you think?