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Valley Forge and Monmouth

Introduction; Struggle for the Hudson Valley | Foreign Aid
Morristown to Germantown | Valley Forge and Monmouth

Every American reader is familiar with the story of the sufferings of the patriot army at Valley Forge.

To this valley among the hills that border the winding Schuylkill, some twenty miles from Philadelphia, Washington led his half-clad army of eleven thousand men about the middle of December, 1777. As the men marched to this retreat their route could be traced in the snow by the blood that had oozed from broken shoes. On reaching the place they found it shelterless, and for two weeks they toiled in the bitter weather, building huts in which to spend the winter. Many were without blankets, and had to sit by the fire all night to keep from freezing.

Washington informed Congress, on December 23, that he had in camp 2,898 men "unfit for duty because they are barefoot, and otherwise naked." The rudely built hospitals were soon crowded with the sick and dying. Some died for want of straw to make a bed on the frozen ground, others for want of sufficient nourishment.

"The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything," wrote Lafayette years afterward; "they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes, their feet and legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them." Thus that long and dreary winter was spent by the patriots who won for us the independence of America, and the fewness of the desertions of that trying hour attest the depths of their patriotism.

But our pity is mingled with indignation when we consider that most of this suffering arose from mismanagement and the incompetency of Congress. The country was full of clothing and provisions; "hogsheads of shoes, stockings, and clothing were lying at different places on the roads and in the woods, perishing for want of teams, or of money to pay the teamsters."

Congress had degenerated woefully since the passing of the great Declaration. Franklin was in Paris, Henry was governor of Virginia, Jefferson, Rutledge, and Jay were no longer on the roll. The wily politician was too often chosen instead of the statesman and the patriot, and his baneful influence has not ceased to be felt from that time to the present. Incompetent men were promoted in the army by Congress, in spite of the protests of the commander in chief, and the result was mismanagement and widespread demoralization.

It was during this fateful winter also that the detestable plot known as the "Conway Cabal" took place. Thomas Conway was an Irishman who had long been in the service of France, and was an officer of some reputation. He had been in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and was about to be promoted when Washington, believing the movement unwise, protested. Conway was highly offended, and in a short time he had concocted a scheme to overthrow Washington, and to elevate Gates to his place.

Conway's chief fellow-conspirators were Thomas Mifflin and Dr. Rush of Pennsylvania, and James Lovell, a member of Congress from Massachusetts. Anonymous letters, attacking Washington and comparing his failure in Pennsylvania with the success of Gates at Saratoga, were spread about, and many of the uncritical were won over. Even Congress seemed to favor the plotters; it reorganized the Board of War, made Gates its president, Mifflin a member, and Conway inspector general of the army.

This board was given much power that properly belonged to the commander in chief. Thus matters seemed to be moving to a focus, when suddenly the whole scheme exploded and came to naught. Young James Wilkinson, a member of Gates's staff, while merry with wine, disclosed the secret correspondence between Conway and Gates; and the information reached the ears of Washington, who set about probing the scheme with a quiet dignity that won the admiration of all. In a few weeks public sentiment was so changed that no one could be found who would acknowledge having had anything to do with the plot. Even Conway, being wounded in a duel and expecting to die, wrote Washington a letter expressing his sincere grief at what he had done.

One thing more must be mentioned in connection with this winter at Valley Forge -- the coming of Steuben. The army was but half trained until it was taken in hand by this noble old German, who had been schooled on the staff of Frederick the Great. With infinite pains he drilled the men day after day. Losing his patience at times, it is said that he would exhaust his vocabulary of French and German oaths, and then call on his aid to curse the blockheads in English.1 He acknowledged afterward, however, that the Americans were wonderfully quick to learn; and it is certain that from this time to the end of the war the patriot soldiers could measure up almost, if not fully, to the standard of the British regulars.

While the Americans were enduring the hardships of Valley Forge, the British were living in luxury in Philadelphia. Most of the patriots had fled from the city, and the loyalists and the soldiers spent the winter in a round of gayeties, -- theaters, balls, and parties, -- and to these were added gambling, cockfighting, and horse racing.

Franklin wrote from Paris that Howe had not taken Philadelphia, but Philadelphia had taken Howe. While the army at Valley Forge was drilling and becoming more inured to the hardships of war, that at Philadelphia was deteriorating through luxury and idleness; and their relative efficiency was greatly changed when they met again on the battlefield.

General Howe had undertaken the task of subjugating the colonies with much reluctance, and he never proved himself a vigorous, dashing commander. Neither his operations during the preceding summer nor his winter of pleasure in Philadelphia was pleasing to the authorities, and his recall was determined upon. Sir Henry Clinton was chosen to succeed him, and he at once decided to evacuate Philadelphia and move his army to New York. Three thousand loyalist residents, afraid to face their countrymen, begged to be taken away, and Clinton sent them to New York by sea, while he proceeded to cross New Jersey with his army.

The ever-vigilant Washington was on the alert, and his army, after the long winter of privation, took courage with the dawning of spring and with the glorious news of the French alliance, and came forth with the vigor of a well-trained athlete. It was the 18th of June when Clinton's rear guard left Philadelphia, and before sunset of that day the Americans occupied it; two weeks later Congress had returned and was sitting in its accustomed place. But Washington was not content to occupy the city; he determined to strike the British ere they reached New York.

Clinton was greatly encumbered with a baggage train twelve miles long, and Washington soon overtook him. The two armies were about equal in strength, each containing some fifteen thousand men; and for once -- thanks to Baron Steuben -- the Americans were equal to the enemy in fighting qualities. Clinton would gladly have avoided an engagement, but Washington was eager to attack him

The battle would probably have been the greatest of the war -- a fight to the finish between two armies of equal strength -- but for the disobedience and treachery of one man, Charles Lee, who had lately been exchanged. As stated before, Lee was a traitor to the patriot cause; but Washington, not suspecting this, gave him his old command as senior major general. Lee now opposed an attack on Clinton and, being overruled, he sullenly refused to lead the attack. Lafayette was appointed to take his place, but next day Lee, professing to have changed his mind, requested to be allowed to lead the charge, as his rank entitled him to do. Washington, with the consent of Lafayette, magnanimously, but very unfortunately, granted the request.

The 28th of June, 1778, became the fateful day of the coming together of the two armies. The British left wing under Cornwallis had encamped the preceding night near Monmouth Courthouse, while the right wing under Knyphausen lay near on the road toward Middletown. In the early morning Washington sent Lee forward to attack Cornwallis in flank, while he, with the main army, would come up and make the attack general. Lee advanced and took a strong position, partially surrounding Cornwallis, when, to the astonishment of the enemy as well as of his own men, Lee ordered a retreat across a swamp. Wayne, who had already begun the attack, was thunderstruck at this command, but could do nothing but obey his superior. Clinton saw the strange movement and was quick to follow up the advantage it gave him. Lafayette was about to dash his force against Clinton when Lee stopped the movement.

Everything now pointed to a complete English victory, and so it would have been but for the arrival of the commander in chief. Washington, amazed at hearing of Lee's retreat, galloped to the front, and, meeting Lee at the head of the retreating column, demanded in a terrific voice an explanation of his conduct. Lee quailed at the impetuous anger of his chief, who was usually so calm and self-contained. He muttered something about his not having favored a general engagement, when Washington, losing all self-restraint, shouted that he must be obeyed. He then wheeled about and put a stop to the disgraceful retreat, and, meeting Lee again, ordered him to the rear and himself took immediate command of the battle.

The mercury mounted to ninety-six degrees in the shade on that scorching Sunday when the battle of Monmouth was fought, and more than fifty men on each side who escaped the enemy's bullets fell by sunstroke. Scarcely fifteen minutes elapsed after Washington reached the front, before the Americans, while under fire, had formed into line of battle. Greene commanded the right wing and Lord Stirling the left, while Wayne held the center, and Knox managed the artillery. The British were soon checked, and then steadily pushed back until the Americans occupied the high ground from which Lee had retreated in the morning.

At one time during the conflict the British colonel, Monckton, seeing the necessity of dislodging Wayne, advanced at the head of his troops for a desperate charge with the bayonet; but Wayne's bullets flew like hail, the column was driven back, and nearly every officer, including Monckton, was slain.

The battle raged until nightfall, when the darkness ended it. Washington determined to renew the attack at daybreak; but Clinton silently withdrew in the night, and at the coming of dawn was far on his way toward the seacoast.

The battle of Monmouth was the last general engagement on northern soil. English historians have usually pronounced this a drawn battle; but while it was not a decisive victory, the advantage lay clearly with the Americans. The British loss was over four hundred, and exceeded the American loss by nearly a hundred. Within a week after the battle some two thousand of Clinton's soldiers, mostly Germans, deserted him, and most of them became substantial American citizens.

The extraordinary conduct of Lee at this battle can be explained only on the assumption that he was a traitor to his adopted country. Most historians have sought to condone Lee's action and to claim him still among the patriots. This view we would gladly accept were it not for the discovery, many years later, of his private correspondence with Howe, in which he advises the latter as to the best means of conquering the colonies. His aim at Monmouth was, doubtless, to compass the defeat of the Americans and to throw the blame on Washington for not taking his advice. If then Congress had honored him for his superior wisdom with the chief command, he would probably have opened peace negotiations with Clinton. But Lee's plan was frustrated, and he soon found himself under arrest for writing an impertinent letter to his chief.

A court-martial suspended him from command for a year, and ere its close he got into a broil with Congress and was expelled from the army. Lee retired to a plantation which he had in Virginia, surrounded himself with pet dogs, and lived among them, apart from humanity, until 1782, when he made a trip to Philadelphia, where he suddenly died of fever. He was buried at Christ Church, and thus his last wish, that he might not be buried within a mile of a church, was disregarded.

A few weeks after the battle of Monmouth we find Washington encamped at White Plains, east of the Hudson, while Clinton occupied the city of New York; and here the two commanders remained watching each other for three years while the seat of war was transferred to the South.


1Fiske, Vol. II, p.54. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIII p. 283-288. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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