Close Call at Monmouth, 1778
This was probably one of the largest engagements fought in the American Revolution. No larger battles occured in the United States until the Civil War. Yet, there is a surprising paucity of books concerning this pivotal event. Why is this so? Monmouth certainly gets mentioned in every history of the Rev War, but in-depth studies are scarce. William Stryker wrote a full length history many years ago, and while its comprehensive, the author's bias is decidedly slanted toward the patriot cause. Stryker does provide a more detailed description of the battle, but with some unfortunate errors. In particular noting that the British attacks upon the Hedgerow and elsewhere were in column! Certainly no such formation was ever employed at this or any other Rev War battle. The current work does not make this mistake, and the Spirit of 1776 Syndrome which taints so much research on the Rev War is not as present here, yet the book still falls short in a number of ways.
The current authors unfortunately have not created the definitive study of the battle however. Too much time is wasted covering local New Jersey events during the Rev War. For sure the significant amount of infighting between Loyalist and Rebel was a key element of the conflict in this divided region, but it bears little importance on the Monmouth Campaign and battle itself. The authors would have done better to have written a separate book chronicling the Civil War in Jersey and concentrated instead on Monmouth.
With less than 300 pages too much time is taken up with background events, local history, and descriptions of the armies, leaders and equipment. For sure the book does pick up when the authors discuss the armies and leaders as it is here that we begin to get some idea what the decisive encounter in New Jersey might look like. Although covered many times before in other books, there is a nice evaluation of the training and efficiency of both armies and what they were capable of in 1778. Some good information is also provided on weapons with the authors having conducted live firings to compare with the written accounts of musketry adds interest. Like previous authors this book stresses too much on the transformation of the Continental army under Von Steuben's reforms. For sure Washy had a better army at Monmouth than at any previous battle, but the Americans never really stood up to the British in the open here.
In the opening stages General Lee falls back in disorder before the British advance under Clinton and Cornwallis. Then Washy rides onto the scene and in a grand repeat of his showing at Princeton the year before rallies and reforms the American line. That line withstands the series of largely uncoordinated British attacks behind fences, hedgerows and a modest Hill. These attacks are conducted by the British in linear order, or in some cases very disordered lines from chasing the rebels across the fields. Not in columns! This hardly demonstrates the ability of the new model American army to conduct itself against the British squarely in the open. In fact had Clinton been able to push his heat-exhausted troops harder they might have gained the crucial ground that Washy manages to make his epic stand upon.
Both sides suffered greatly from the heat that day, which neared 100 degrees. By far the British and their German allies fared the worse in that regard. Because of their heavier uniforms they were a lot worse off than the Americans. Despite this they chased Lee for several miles over hills and through morasses and ravines and then tried to mount determined assaults upon strongly held positions. If anything more credit should be given to the British on that hot day for accomplishing what they did. No wonder they simply could not push the issue any more. Clinton was sensible in that regard, and once he saw how strongly the Rebel army was placed on that hill he wisely called off his attacks and drew back. His mission was to get back to New York while preserving his army and saving his baggage train. Fighting Washy and the rebels behind the usual defensive barricade was not part of his plan. Washy tries to counter-attack later, but the effort is never more than half-hearted intended more for sure than anything else.
When it comes right down to the battle itself the authors spend less than 50 pages describing the campaign and battle. This is notably less than Stryker's earlier work and not much more than the brief, though more detailed account in the Osprey series book on Monmouth. There is some discussion about casualties both sides sustained, and the authors quote the usual paucity of numbers, but do note that it is likely both armies suffered significantly more. This reviewer certainly thinks that was so.
There is a nice end chapter about how the battlefield was honored and preserved over the years with New Jersey just barely saving it from the rapacious real estate developers! Jersey tends to drag its feet when it comes to history! Another deals with the legends of the battle, including that feisty little maid Molly Pitcher who keeps popping up all the time! Who was she? We will likely never know for sure. She remains one of the enduring legends associated with this battle.
Overall a nice little book, but NOT the final word on this topic. More maps need to be provided, in particular to show Charles Lee's chaotic advance in the morning. More maps, and a narrative of at least another 100 pages to do justice to this epic battle and its aftermath. This book is a good start however. Another historian needs to take up the challenge of Monmouth one day.