Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The last great battle in the north
(Osprey Campaign Series) Author: Brendan Morrissey
The battle of Monmouth Courthouse was not only the last major action in the Northern theater, it was also the longest and hardest-fought engagement of the entire Revolutionary War. When the British abandoned Philadelphia to return to New York City, American troops harassed their retreat. On the morning of 28 June 1778, General Lee, George Washington’s lieutenant, attacked the British rearguard but his attack went badly wrong. The British rearguard, now reinforced, threw Lee’s troops into a headlong retreat. Lee was relieved of his command and Washington’s Continentals then stood toe-to-toe with the British, bloodily repulsing a series of powerful attacks by crack troops.
Chris Parker Writes
This is a very well done book. The battle itself was in two stages. The opening act saw Lafayette commanding a strike force of around 10,000 men and guns. His orders were to strike the British rear guard at Monmouth Courthouse as the army moved off to Philadelphia. This action was compounded both by the weather which was terribly hot and the fact that General lee decided he wanted to command this force after all and muddled up the whole affair. The second action that day was when Washington and the entire American army arrived to take on the returning British army that had about faced and marched back to help the rear guard.
If I had one complaint to make about the book it would be the battlefield map. It covers both of the actions of the day and this makes it difficult to follow them. I would have preferred they use the same map twice and showed each action on it’s own. Please don’t let this comment keep you from checking out this book, it is well worth the read.
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Other reviewers wrote about Monmouth Courthouse
This book was pretty straight forward until the Battle started. After that it just totally lost me. I read the battle account very slowly and tried to piece together what happened at Monmouth Courthouse, but I can’t do it reading this. Maybe Monmouth Courthouse (It is a very confusing battle – CP) is just a really confusing battle. Lee’s attack seems to amount to troops running around helter skelter with no one having a clue what is going on. Good luck reading this and trying to put the troops on today’s landscape. I guess I can understand why the soundbite for Monmouth becomes the story of Molly Pitcher or the Lee/Washington confrontation. The casual reader simply wouldn’t be able to understand the battle. I was at the visitors center at Monmouth Battlefield and people would push the button for the narrative on the diorama and then walk away before the program was even half done. People don’t get it. Neither do I.
Brendan Morrissey’s Monmouth Courthouse 1781 is his fourth addition to the Osprey Campaign series on the American Revolution. Morrissey has a decent grasp of his subject and he has honed his narrative style in each succeeding volume. However, Morrissey’s coverage of the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse suffers from two inter-related problems: an over-focus on the question of American Major General Charles Lee’s role in the battle and an ambiguous battle narrative. Essentially, much of this volume revolves around the question – was Charles Lee unfairly relieved of command – rather than a true analysis of the battle itself.
Morrissey’s introduction and campaign chronology starts out decently, but starts to thin out in the section on opposing commanders, which only covers well-known figures such as Clinton, Cornwallis, Lee and Washington. What about some of the brigade commanders? The section on opposing armies is also decent, highlighting the introduction of brigades and light infantry in the increasingly professional American army. Oddly, there is no section on opposing plans. Morrissey provides five 2-D Maps: North America in January 1778; New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies; action at Barren Hill 20 May 1778; Two roads to Monmouth; Monmouth Battlefield. Unfortunately, the map of the Barren Hill skirmish adds nothing to the campaign narrative, and this volume is sorely lacking a decent 2-D map zoomed in to the actual battlefield area at Monmouth. After recently visiting the Monmouth battlefield, I found the maps in this volume were not very useful for someone standing on the actual terrain. The three 3-D “Bird’s Eye View” maps are: Lee’s advance; Lee’s Retreat; and Clinton’s withdrawal. The three color battle scenes by Adam Hook are: the capture of Lieutenant Colonel Ramsay; the 42nd Foot in the Sutfin Orchard; the guns on Comb’s Hill.
Morrissey’s campaign narrative meanders through a variety of disparate events in early 1778 until he finally moves into the British withdrawal from Philadelphia that initiated the sequence of events that culminated at Monmouth Courthouse. It is apparent that Washington’s pursuit of the withdrawing British army was hardly rapid, even a bit sluggish (Washington had lost most of one field army in 1776 and was probably reticent to risk his main army unless sure of the outcome). However, the Americans were able to catch up with the British army near Freehold, New Jersey on 27 June 1778. After much debate, Washington gave the mission of attacking the British rearguard to Charles Lee. According to most accounts, Lee botched the attack in a half-hearted effort and was relieved by Washington, who was able to turn the battle into a draw. In Morrissey’s version of the battle, Lee was unfairly relieved.
I think Morrissey has stuck his neck out pretty far in attempting to defend Charles Lee and to base his assessment of the battle in terms of whether or not the America advance guard commander was unfairly relieved. First, what did Charles Lee ever really do for the Patriot cause? At Charleston, he provided advice that the locals didn’t need. In the 1776 New York campaign, he managed to disobey orders and then get himself captured, probably collaborating with his British hosts. Morrissey suggests that Lee was court-martialed after the battle due to Washington’s “popularity,” which ridiculously equates the man who almost single-handedly welding together America’s war effort in the Revolution to some modern-day celebrity. Morrissey claims that Lee was neither disrespectful nor treacherous, but merely undone by adverse circumstances and unruly subordinates. This is hogwash. Washington was not a capricious sort of commander who acted on whimsy; historians should give him the benefit of the doubt that the reasons were justified. What would Morrissey have us believe – that Washington acted out of rage or petty jealousy?
It is also difficult to evaluate how well (or badly) Lee performed his mission of attacking the British rearguard given Morrissey’s hard-to-follow tactical narrative. Morrissey writes: “[Lee] ordered Grayson to proceed with caution, he sent Jackson to join him at the front of the column and asked Wayne to take charge of those two detachments and a third unit (taken from Scott’s command) under fellow Pennsylvanian Colonel Richard Butler.” Huh? I can’t tell who is doing what here. The American command structure of the advance guard was jumbled, with a variety of units provided detachments of their best troops, but Morrissey lumps them into a potpourri of poorly-identified names, with little attempt to distinguish the size or relationship of these detachments. Morrissey claims that the terrain and the sudden re-appearance of the British rearguard frustrated Lee’s efforts to mount a coherent attack. I think the more likely reasons for Lee’s discomfiture were simply military incompetence and poor leadership skills. When the Revolution started, Lee was one of several foreign officers who impressed Congress with his resume and secured a commission, but close examination of his record indicates that his command experience at high level was negligible. It is interesting that both Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, who had been majors in the British army, performed poorly on the battlefield and were poor leaders of men. When Lee botched a straightforward attack and let his picked troops rout, it was too much for Washington. Most of all, Morrissey’s over-focus on Lee misses much of the significance of the first battle involving von Steuben-trained American continentals and British regulars. One of Washington’s goals was to test the efficiency of these new troops and it must have been galling to see them running away with hardly a fight. As every officer knows, a commander is responsible for everything his troops do or fail to do, and Lee was thus responsible for not only failing his mission, but allowing a disgraceful rout to occur after only minor skirmishes.
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Thank you – Chris Parker