Patterico's Pontifications


George Washington Rallies the Troops

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:49 pm

[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.”


26 Responses to “George Washington Rallies the Troops”

  1. A funny anecdote about the Washington and Charles Lee encounter from Richard Brookhiser’s book Founding Father:

    Appearing on the field, [Washington] asked Lee the cause of “all of this disorder and confusion.” Lee stammered; then, according to one account, Washington swore “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.”

    The soldier who “remembered” this profanity had not actually been there. . .

    JVW (54fd0b)

  2. Very nice summary of the Battle of Monmouth. You’re a good historian and a good writer, JVW.

    nk (1d9030)

  3. But I do wish people would go easier on the poor Hessians. Their masters may have been mercenaries in every sense of the word, but the poor soldiers themselves were literally plowboys who had been rounded up (conscripted is too mild) by their Prince or Furst or whatever and sold to the British like indentured servants with the money going to the aforementioned Prince not to them.

    nk (1d9030)

  4. George Washington’s Expense Account is still the most insightful book and look into the mind and motivations of President Numero Uno.

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  5. But I do wish people would go easier on the poor Hessians.

    There’s a whole lot of truth to that. Of course one of the attractions of military life back then was the chance to see something beyond the small clump of land where your ancestors were trying to make a living, or the squalid and filthy part of the urban metropolis that you called home. And about 5,000 of those Hessians were fortunate enough to stay here after the war, so they probably managed to improve their lot in life.

    And thanks for the compliment. This is probably my favorite post of the year to write.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  6. appreciate the post, JVW.
    Love me some George Washington.

    mg (8cbc69)

  7. Thank you for these Washington posts, JVW. I enjoy them immensely!

    felipe (023cc9)

  8. JVW
    Do you have a couple favorite books about George Washington?

    mg (8cbc69)

  9. IANAJVW, but I found George Washington’s War by Bruce Chadwick a very interesting and enjoyable Washington-centric look at the revolution and how it molded our first president.

    The almost identically-named classic game by my old friend Mark Herman puts you in command of the Continental (or British) Army, and includes both military and political events while highlighting the war’s asymmetric nature. It’s an excellent entry-level historical game (the original version is the only wargame I ever convinced my mom to play…). Currently between printings, but easy to find on Ebay.

    Dave (1bb933)

  10. Thanks for this post.

    Patterico (115b1f)

  11. But I do wish people would go easier on the poor Hessians.

    “Eh, yer brudder blows bubble-gum!”

    Dave (1bb933)

  12. Anyone watch the six-part miniseries Washington on the History Channel last weekend? It aired over three nights on Feb. 16, 17 and 18. I missed it, because I thought it would debut this weekend, on his birthday. From what I’ve read, it’s a documentary that combines dramatic retellings of Washington’s life, his rise through the military, and his ascendency to president, mixed with interviews of prominent historians and current political figures. I have no idea what Bill Clinton and Colin Powell could possibly add to the discussion on the first and greatest president, but they are included in the interviews.

    I’m wondering if the miniseries was any good. So if any of you watched it, I’d like your take on it. This is the 2020 version, not a remake of the 1884 miniseries, which I thought was pretty good.

    Also, while were on the subject, a few years ago HBO produced a miniseries on John Adams. That to me is the best film version of colonial life and the American Revolution. It’s got the whole cast of characters–Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Franklin, and of course Adams, as the series is of course centered around his life. Very highly recommended, as it takes you through all the events, from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to Adams’s election. And it’s very well produced and historically accurate.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  13. Excellent Post! Charles Lee was either very unlucky or very incompetent. Captured by the British in December 1776 because he dawdled when crossing NJ with his troops. He wasn’t paroled back to the Continental army till May 1778. And then in June he gets defeated and then in July court-martialed.

    rcocean (1a839e)

  14. The book I linked above covers Washington’s struggles with the Continental Congress and his other generals in quite a bit of detail. He had to beg the state governments and continental congress for supplies, men and money almost continually, so he had to pick his battles with politically connected generals like Lee and also Gates carefully.

    Dave (1bb933)

  15. JVW
    Do you have a couple favorite books about George Washington?

    Yeah, a bunch of them. If you want to slog through four volumes, the Flexner set is not surprisingly considered to be the best of the best. I confess that I have not tackled that set myself, though I thought Flexner’s one-volume biography was very good and obviously more accessible. I am also a fan of Douglas Southall Freeman’s one-volume biography, though you also have the option of working through his original seven-volume opus too. Washington Irving also had his five-volume set distilled into a single volume which is quite good as well.

    For more contemporary takes, I really like Richard Norton Smith’s book about Washington’s Presidency. For the full life of Washington, Joseph Ellis’s biography is very good, and I have heard good things about Ron Chernow’s book which won the Pulitzer, though I haven’t yet read it.

    I’m also a fan of having on-hand a volume or two of the great man’s own writings, so for that I would recommend both the volume of his papers edited by W.B. Allen or the volume that the Library of America published some years ago.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  16. Thanks for the Chadwick recommendation, Dave. I’ll have to check that one out.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  17. Anyone watch the six-part miniseries Washington on the History Channel last weekend?

    Unless it is brand new, I think I saw it a few years back, though I don’t remember it being six parts. I’ll have to look that up and see if it is the same one that I recall. Thanks for the heads up on that.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  18. Ah, sorry Gawain’s Ghost, you already answered my question. I will definitely track this down and let you know next year if I think it is any good.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  19. Well, it is a new six-part miniseries that aired in two-hour episodes over three nights. I missed it, because I thought it was going to debut on Washington’s birthday, not at the start of President’s Week.

    I just wanted to know if anyone if anyone watched it, so I could determine if it’s worth watching.

    I still say the HBO miniseries on John Adams is excellent.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  20. OK, so this is the series titled Washington and narrated by Jeff Daniels, right? For some reason I am having trouble finding much information online about it, but I do see that I have access to the first three episodes on demand via my cable service so I will try to check it out. Thanks again for letting me know.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  21. Ugh, Doris Kearns Goodwin is involved as a producer, and Bill Clinton is one of those people interviewed about the life and legacy of Washington. Maybe I’ll skip it after all.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  22. thanks for those titles JVW and Dave.

    mg (8cbc69)

  23. Flexner is the Gold Standard for GW’s biographies. But Douglas Southall Freeman wrote an excellent 6 volume Biography.

    rcocean (1a839e)

  24. Well, JVW, I was just wondering if anyone bothered to watch the new miniseries, and I wanted to to know what their take on it was. I’ve only seen a couple of commercials and read a few summaries, but no critical reviews. I was just asking whether anyone had seen it and could give an informed comment, so that I could determine if it was worth watching or not.

    I was thinking of maybe doing a binge on Netflix or Amazon, or waiting for the replay on History, but if it’s now worth watching, I’d rather tune into some other show.

    From what little I’ve read, this documentary isn’t worth the time. Does anyone recommend it it?

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  25. I was thinking of maybe doing a binge on Netflix or Amazon, or waiting for the replay on History, but if it’s now worth watching, I’d rather tune into some other show.

    I think I can probably get a good sense of its value from watching the first episode. I’ll try to do that late tonight, and I’ll leave a comment here on what I think.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  26. It turns out that I can’t get it play through my cable service’s on demand, so I’ll have to try and watch it some other way. But sorry I cannot provide an opinion on it for you as I had hoped to do.

    JVW (54fd0b)

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