General Washington Did Not Lead from Behind: Epic Leadership at the Battle of Monmouth

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze / Public Domain

This week marks the 238th anniversary of a Revolutionary War battle that is noteworthy, in part because it showcased General George Washington’s extraordinary leadership abilities.

Washington did not direct his troops from behind, but instead courageously led from the front, exposing himself to the same dangers that threatened his men. His example inspired the Patriots to perform remarkable acts of heroism under extremely harsh conditions, in the face of fierce opposition — one of among several landmark battles, such as Trenton, Assunpink Creek, and Princeton, at which Washington’s intrepid leadership turned the tide.

For nearly twelve miles, a seemingly endless train of wagons snaked across the hot, dusty roads of New Jersey. General Henry Clinton, the current commander in chief of the British forces, transported more than ten thousand of his men, plus camp followers and Loyalists, from Philadelphia to New York City. The sheer size of the group made it extremely unwieldy, and the unrelenting heat and sandy roads slowed the lumbering column even further. On a good day, the long procession of scarlet crept only five or six miles closer to New York.

In Valley Forge, General George Washington had a decision to make: should he allow the British to escape to New York or should he take a chance at obtaining an impressive victory by attacking the troops on the move?

Ever a man of action, Washington decided that the potential gains from a victory outweighed the risks, and he opted to attack before the enemy could reach New York. The story of this battle is recounted in a new bestselling book, Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of Maryland, some of whom played a key role at Monmouth. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, detailing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence.

Command of Washington’s advance troops fell to General Charles Lee, who had been captured earlier, then released in a prisoner exchange, but not before he offered up advice to the British on how to defeat the Continental Army (unbeknownst to Washington at the time – the plan, in Lee’s handwriting, was found in the Howe family archives in 1857). Now, Lee would meet his former captors on the ground near the courthouse in Monmouth, New Jersey.

Charles Lee was one of the most bizarre and brilliant general officers in the American Revolution. He began his career in the French and Indian War, and later saw action in Portugal and the Russo-Turkish War. Returning to America, he married the daughter of a Mohawk chief, who gave him his nickname Boiling Water, a reference to his volatile temper. His mercurial temperament has led some biographers to surmise that he may have been bipolar. Physically, he was often described as gangly, with a head proportionally too large for his body. Fairly slovenly and careless with his appearance, Lee was also known to be somewhat coarse, frequently employing obscene language. A great dog lover rarely seen without his train of canines, the general once quipped that dogs, unlike men, were faithful.

On June 28, 1778, Lee set out with fifty-four hundred men to attack Clinton’s rear guard near present-day Freehold, New Jersey. However, upon hearing of Lee’s thrust, Clinton had quickly ridden back two miles and ordered six thousand of his best men “to face about and march back with all speed to attack the Rebels.”

The battle began around midday in a three-mile-long, one-mile-wide area of solid ground hemmed in by swamps and rocky hills. Lee planned to surround Clinton’s forces, but the strength of the opposition took him by surprise. After only an hour, wilting in the blazing sun with temperatures soaring above one hundred degrees, the Patriots began a disorganized retreat.

Washington, meanwhile, was still leading the bulk of the Continental Army, including the Marylanders, toward the battleground when he began to encounter Lee’s men fleeing from the field. The first sign of disaster was a panicky young fifer who carried the news. Soon, larger groups of soldiers, many of whom were wounded and suffering from heat exhaustion, confirmed his story. Incensed, Washington questioned every officer he met about why Lee had ordered a retreat. Eventually, he met Lee himself in an encounter that has become legendary.

By some accounts, Washington simply looked Lee in the eye and asked, “I desire to know, sir, what is the reason—whence arises this disorder and confusion,” to which Lee had no real reply. Other eyewitnesses insist that Washington’s language was much more colorful. General Charles Scott, who later became governor of Kentucky, said it was the only time he heard Washington swear. “It was at Monmouth and on a day that would have made any man swear,” Scott said. “Yes, sir, he swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees, charming, delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since. Sir, on that memorable day, he swore like an angel from heaven.”

Washington dismissed Lee and took charge of the battle. Eyewitnesses remember him riding on his charger, halting the fleeing men and inspiring them to turn and face their enemy. Lafayette later wrote, “General Washington was never greater in battle than in this action. His presence stopped the retreat; his strategy secured the victory. His stately appearance on horseback, his calm, dignified courage, tinged only slightly by the anger caused by the unfortunate incident in the morning, provoked a wave of enthusiasm among the troops.”

As he often had throughout the war, Washington called upon the Marylanders, giving them the task of delaying the British while the rest of the American army formed up. “If you can stop the British for ten minutes, till I form, you will save my army!” Washington sternly told Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Ramsay of the 3rd Maryland Regiment.

“I will stop them or fall,” stammered Ramsay.

Hastily, Ramsay ordered his men to hide in a wood near the road and await the arrival of the enemy, then just two hundred yards away. As the British troops approached their position, the Continentals opened fire. The Redcoats immediately charged into the trees, cutting down dozens of Patriots.

Brandishing his sword, Ramsay killed the first Redcoat who approached, but the British soon had him surrounded. A pistol shot grazed his right cheek, and several other officers died. One of the dragoons charged Ramsay, but the Redcoat’s pistol misfired, allowing the Marylander to attack with his sword, drag the cavalryman from his horse, and take his place in the saddle. His heroics ultimately failed to save him, however, as the dragoons eventually overpowered him and took him prisoner. Accounts of how Ramsay avoided death differ. One legend says that a British officer decided to spare Ramsay’s life when he saw the American’s Masonic ring; some officers of the Maryland Line were some of the most powerful Freemasons in America. Another story claims that Ramsay covered himself in blood and mud and feigned death, until a merciful Redcoat officer saw through the ruse and decided to take him prisoner.  Ramsay’s devoted wife Jenny, a camp follower, later followed her husband into captivity.

The Marylanders sacrificed themselves to buy precious time for Washington to bring up the rest of his troops, positioning a line on the high ground that bordered the battlefield to face the oncoming British juggernaut

After the British scattered, the Continental troops formed a line of battle, some positioning themselves behind trees, and the Redcoats turned their attention to the left side of the American line. Failing to break through, the British and Hessians mounted attacks on the right flank, then the center. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, commanding the rear formations, personally directed the attack on the American position. For hours, British and American cannon fired volley after volley at each other. During the engagement, “Our Great good General [Washington] in person led the fight and was the whole time exposed to the fire of the Artillery,” recalled one Maryland officer.

As the battle drew on toward evening, the heat began to take its toll on man and animal alike. Washington’s own horse, a beautiful charger, dropped dead from heat exhaustion. Like the horse, the men in the thick of the battle had grown incredibly fatigued from hour after hour of endless fighting in the punishing sun. However, the American lines stood firm, buttressed by Washington’s commanding presence. Throughout the long winter at Valley Forge, they had drilled for countless hours under Baron von Steuben. Now those drills were paying off as Washington’s army found the courage and tenacity to repel repeated attacks.

Around six o’clock in the evening, it was over; the British pulled back. Eager to press his advantage, Washington called forward his least exhausted troops to make an assault of their own. But it was not to be. The exhaustion of the troops, the lateness of the hour, and the approaching darkness forced Washington to scotch the attack until dawn. The Patriots slept in the field that night with their rifles and muskets close at hand. Washington himself lay under a tree, using his cloak as a blanket.

When dawn broke the next morning, the refreshed Americans arose and prepared to resume battle; however, the British were nowhere to be found. “The Enemy took the advantage of Moon Shine about 1 o’clock the Morning of the 29th and retreated to avoid the attack Intended to be made on them by daybreak,” wrote one Marylander. “They left a number of their Wounded Officers & Men at Monmouth Courthouse & Some prisoners they had taken.” Washington’s dynamic leadership transformed a disastrous rout into an opportunity for victory.

Selfless leadership that places country above all else is a quality that knows no time, is always in demand, but in short supply.

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Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest bestselling book, featured at Barnes & Noble. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah, and was nearly killed by Chechen terrorists during a firefight. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. @combathistorian


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