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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Lee and Washington at Monmouth

By Washington Irving (1783–1859)

[From Life of George Washington. 1855–59.]

ARRIVING on the heights of Freehold, and riding forward with General Wayne to an open place to reconnoitre, Lee caught sight of a force under march, but partly hidden from view by intervening woods. Supposing it to be a mere covering party of about two thousand men, he detached Wayne with seven hundred men and two pieces of artillery, to skirmish in its rear and hold it in check; while he, with the rest of his force, taking a shorter road through the woods, would get in front of it, and cut it off from the main body. He at the same time sent a message to Washington, apprising him of this movement and of his certainty of success.

Washington in the meantime was on his march with the main body, to support the advance, as he had promised. The booming of cannon at a distance indicated that the attack so much desired had commenced, and caused him to quicken his march. Arrived near Freehold church, where the road forked, he detached Greene with part of his forces to the right, to flank the enemy in the rear of Monmouth Court House, while he, with the rest of the column, would press forward by the other road.

Washington had alighted while giving these directions, and was standing with his arm thrown over his horse, when a countryman rode up and said the Continental troops were retreating. Washington was provoked at what he considered a false alarm. The man pointed, as his authority, to an American fifer, who just then came up in breathless affright. The fifer was ordered into custody to prevent his spreading an alarm among the troops who were advancing, and was threatened with a flogging should he repeat the story.

Springing on his horse, Washington had moved forward but a short distance when he met other fugitives, one in the garb of a soldier, who all concurred in the report. He now sent forward Colonels Fitzgerald and Harrison, to learn the truth, while he himself spurred past Freehold meeting-house. Between that edifice and the morass beyond it, he met Grayson’s and Patton’s regiments in most disorderly retreat, jaded with heat and fatigue. Riding up to the officer at their head, Washington demanded whether the whole advanced corps were retreating. The officer believed they were.

It seemed incredible. There had been scarce any firing—Washington had received no notice of the retreat from Lee. He was still almost inclined to doubt, when the heads of several columns of the advance began to appear. It was too evident—the whole advance was falling back on the main body, and no notice had been given to him. One of the first officers that came up was Colonel Shreve, at the head of his regiment; Washington, greatly surprised and alarmed, asked the meaning of this retreat. The colonel smiled significantly—he did not know—he had retreated by order. There had been no fighting excepting a slight skirmish with the enemy’s cavalry, which had been repulsed.

A suspicion flashed across Washington’s mind, of wrong-headed conduct on the part of Lee, to mar the plan of attack adopted contrary to his counsels. Ordering Colonel Shreve to march his men over the morass, halt them on the hill beyond and refresh them, he galloped forward to stop the retreat of the rest of the advance, his indignation kindling as he rode. At the rear of the regiment he met Major Howard; he, too, could give no reason for the retreat, but seemed provoked at it—declaring that he had never seen the like. Another officer exclaimed with an oath that they were flying from a shadow.

Arriving at a rising ground, Washington beheld Lee approaching with the residue of his command in full retreat. By this time he was thoroughly exasperated.

“What is the meaning of all this, sir?” demanded he, in the sternest and even fiercest tone, as Lee rode up to him.

Lee for a moment was disconcerted, and hesitated in making a reply, for Washington’s aspect, according to Lafayette, was terrible.

“I desire to know the meaning of this disorder and confusion,” was again demanded still more vehemently.

Lee, stung by the manner more than the words of the demand, made an angry reply, and provoked still sharper expressions, which have been variously reported. He attempted a hurried explanation. His troops had been thrown into confusion by contradictory intelligence; by disobedience of orders; by the meddling and blundering of individuals; and he had not felt disposed, he said, to beard the whole British army with troops in such a situation.

“I have certain information,” rejoined Washington, “that it was merely a strong covering party.”

“That may be, but it was stronger than mine, and I did not think proper to run such a risk.”

“I am very sorry,” replied Washington, “that you undertook the command, unless you meant to fight the enemy.”

“I did not think it prudent to bring on a general engagement.”

“Whatever your opinion may have been,” replied Washington, disdainfully, “I expected my orders would have been obeyed.”

This all passed rapidly, and, as it were, in flashes, for there was no time for parley. The enemy were within a quarter of an hour’s march. Washington’s appearance had stopped the retreat. The fortunes of the day were to be retrieved, if possible by instant arrangements. These he proceeded to make with great celerity. The place was favorable for a stand; it was a rising ground, to which the enemy could approach only over a narrow causeway. The rallied troops were hastily formed upon this eminence. Colonels Stewart and Ramsey, with two batteries, were stationed in a covert of woods on their left, to protect them and keep the enemy at bay. Colonel Oswald was posted for the same purpose on a height, with two field-pieces. The promptness with which everything was done showed the effects of the Baron Steuben’s discipline.

In the interim, Lee, being asked about the disposition of some of the troops, replied that he could give no orders in the matter; as he supposed General Washington intended he should have no further command.

Shortly after this, Washington, having made all his arrangements with great despatch but admirable clearness and precision, rode back to Lee in calmer mood, and inquired, “Will you retain the command on this height or not? if you will, I will return to the main body, and have it formed on the next height.”

“It is equal to me where I command,” replied Lee.

“I expect you will take proper means for checking the enemy,” rejoined Washington.

“Your orders shall be obeyed; and I shall not be the first to leave the ground,” was the reply.

A warm cannonade by Oswald, Stewart, and Ramsey, had the desired effect. The enemy were brought to a stand, and Washington had time to gallop back and bring on the main body. This he formed on an eminence, with a wood in the rear and the morass in front. The left wing was commanded by Lord Stirling, who had with him a detachment of artillery and several field-pieces. General Greene was on his right.

Lee had maintained his advanced position with great spirit, but was at length obliged to retire. He brought off his troops in good order across a causeway which traversed the morass in front of Lord Stirling. As he had promised, he was the last to leave the ground. Having formed his men in a line, beyond the morass, he rode up to Washington. “Here, sir, are my troops,” said he, “how is it your pleasure I should dispose of them?” Washington saw that the poor fellows were exhausted by marching, counter-marching, hard fighting and the intolerable heat of the weather: he ordered Lee, therefore, to repair with them to the rear of Englishtown, and assemble there all the scattered fugitives he might meet with.