[guest post by JVW]
Today, the two-hundred-eighty-eighth anniversary of the birth of George Washington, we celebrate the life of the Indispensable Man, first among our Founding Fathers. This has become a site tradition since I began guest blogging here. Here is a brief archive of past Washington’s Birthday posts:
2015 – George Washington’s Birthday
2016 – George Washington Quiets the Rebellion
2017 – George Washington Fears for His Country’s Future
2018 – George Washington Agrees to Serve Another Term
2019 – George Washington Goes Back to His Farm
By the spring of 1778, the American War for Independence was into its third year, and participants could be forgiven for believing that the conflict was thus far largely a stalemate. True, the Continental Army had two Christmases ago made a bold crossing of the Delaware River and attacked and routed mercenary Hessian armies and British regulars at both Trenton and Princeton, and then during the previous summer the ragtag group perpetually on the brink of disbanding had rallied to win a decisive victory at Bemis Heights near Saratoga, killing roughly seven percent of the British forces and capturing the rest. But His Majesty’s troops still held New York and Philadelphia, the two largest cities in America, and the Continental Army was recovering from a brutal winter in Valley Forge, perpetually underfunded and continually subject to desertion.
But the Americans would receive two breaks in the first four months of 1778: in early February a treaty of alliance between the United States and France was signed in Paris (word of the alliance would reach North America by May), and in April General William Howe received word that His Majesty George III had granted his request that he be relieved of command and replaced by Henry Clinton. Believing that the French Navy would target New York City, General Clinton was instructed by Whitehall to send British troops from Philadelphia to reinforce New York as well as to evacuate Loyalist families. This would set the stage for a summer battle which — though not decisive — would do much to enhance the legend of General George Washington.
In June of that year, General Washington sent General Charles Lee and his men to engage and harass the rear guard of Clinton’s army as it made its way along Monmouth Road through New Jersey. The Redcoats camped near the Monmouth Courthouse in present-day Freehold Borough (the future hometown of Bruce Springsteen). On the morning of the sweltering hot summer day of June 28, the order was dispatched to Lee’s army, camped in Englishtown about four miles away from Clinton’s troops, to move southeast and attack, while Washington made plans to move his larger army towards Monmouth for support. But Lee, who was opposed to shadowing Clinton’s army from the beginning and who by and large felt that his Commander-in-Chief was incompetent, complained of conflicting intelligence reports and refused to engage the enemy, choosing instead to fallback in the direction of Washington’s advancing army once the British began aiming cannon-fire in his direction. Confused as to why he was not hearing the sound of troop skirmishes ahead, General Washington became furious when he began to cross paths with retreating men under Lee’s command. Encountering Lee and his staff a short time later, Washington lit into his subordinate with language that few before had ever heard from the great man’s lips.
At the same moment Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, sensing the disorganization and confusion among the rebel enemy, had ordered the rear-guard troops under his command to attack the fleeing Continentals. After dressing down Lee, Washington had precious few moments to rally the dispirited troops, exhausted after marching on a day when the temperature reached one hundred degrees. He ordered Lee to remain in that location and form his men in a defensive position, then rode into the fray to rally his troops to repel the attack. As Alexander Hamilton would later write of his mentor, “His coolness and firmness were admirable. He instantly took measures for checking the enemy’s advance, and giving time for the Army, which was very near, to form and make proper disposition.” During this key moment it was later reported that Washington rode within thirty yards of the British troops, calmly giving orders as bullets and artillery flew all about him. Due to the exertion and the stifling heat, Washington would have his horse fall over dead as he rode about the lines. Fortunately for the Americans, the heat was oppressing the British and Hessian soldiers too, and they soon departed the field. Though the British would continue on their way to New York, their armies had lost 245 men (60 of them dead from heat stroke) with 170 wounded while the Americans lost fewer than half that number (including 37 dead from heat stroke) with 130 wounded.
In a chaotic environment, George Washington’s bravery and fortitude had delivered his men a military draw but a psychological victory, continuing the momentum that had begun at Saratoga the previous summer. At the same time he managed to rid himself of a rival — Charles Lee was soon to be court-martialed — who had been undermining the Commander-in-Chief since the start of the war. Washington had, in the words of the Marquise de Lafayette, “arrest[ed] fortune with but one glance.” Hamilton would later declare, “I never saw the General to such advantage.” Writing to his brother John Augustine Washington on the second anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Great Man described the previous week’s battle as “a glorious and happy day.”