Revolutionary War Series: Volume 15

DATE May – June 1778

Introduction

Volume 15 of the Revolutionary War Series covers 1 May to 30 June 1778, a period that includes the Continental Army’s last weeks at Valley Forge, the British evacuation of Philadelphia, and the Battle of Monmouth Court House. It begins on a high note, with GW’s army at Valley Forge, Pa., celebrating news of the recent signing of an alliance between the United States and France. GW announced the treaty of alliance to his army on 5 May. On the next day he ordered a formal military parade to honor the occasion, followed by a grand party hosted by the commander in chief in a pavilion erected at the center of camp. GW had no intention, however, of allowing his troops to become complacent. “I very much fear,” he wrote to Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall on 5 May, “that we, taking it for granted that we have nothing more to do because France has acknowledged our independency and formed an alliance with us, shall relapse into a state of supineness and perfect security.” Once the celebrations were over, he redirected his attention to the business of winning the war.

One of GW’s first priorities was completing the army reform that had begun that January with the visit of a Continental Congress camp committee to Valley Forge. On that occasion GW had submitted to the committee a lengthy memorandum (GW to a Continental Congress Camp Committee, 29 Jan. 1778) detailing his ideas on a partial overhaul of army structure and administration. Congress spent much of the spring debating his proposals, and on 27 May it finally passed a resolution creating a new general military establishment that laid out the composition of regiments of infantry, artillery, and cavalry, detailed the structure of the provost and engineering departments, and prescribed rates of pay and methods of promotion (JCC, 11:539–43). This reform did not solve all of the army’s problems—other resolutions were required, for example, on half pay and pensions—but it went a long way toward answering GW’s greatest concerns.

Training the Continental Army was another task that occupied GW in May 1778. Much of this work was carried out under the leadership of the new inspector general, Major General Steuben, who issued “Instructions on Training Soldiers” in regular lessons to his brigade inspectors and, where necessary, drilled the troops himself (see General Orders, 4 May, n.1). The benefits of the training were almost immediately apparent. On 18 May, GW sent Major General Lafayette with a detachment of 2,200 infantry and some scouts and Indians to Barren Hill, just northeast of Germantown and about twelve miles from Valley Forge. GW intended for this force to observe the British and harass them if they evacuated Philadelphia, as now seemed increasingly likely. Gen. William Howe soon learned of the movement and ordered out troops to surprise and capture Lafayette and this force. Lafayette, however, was alert, and in a deft night march exhibiting an efficiency and discipline never before possessed by the American army, he extricated his force from the British trap and returned safely to Valley Forge (see GW to Lafayette, 18 May, and its associated notes).

GW spent much of his time in late May and early June considering the probable British route of evacuation from Philadelphia. That they would in fact evacuate he had no doubt—the changes wrought in the strategic situation by the entry of France into the war demanded that the British consolidate their land forces in North America, and American scouts and spies confirmed British preparations to leave the city—but GW remained uncertain whether they would leave by sea or land. Moreover, if they left by land it was unclear what route they would take across New Jersey. All he could do was to wait and draw up plans for every probable contingency (see GW to Charles Lee, 30 May–18 June). With action increasingly imminent, Martha Washington, who had spent the winter at Valley Forge, departed for Mount Vernon on 9 June.

The evacuation of Philadelphia began on the morning of 18 June, as the British army, now under the command of Gen. Henry Clinton, crossed the Delaware River at Cooper’s Ferry and marched east-northeast across New Jersey toward an intended rendezvous with British transport ships at Sandy Hook. GW had previously ordered a force of about fifteen hundred militia and light infantry under Maj. Gen. Philemon Dickinson and Brig. Gen. William Maxwell into New Jersey to observe the enemy, and he now directed them to disrupt and harass the British advance. The remainder of his army of about twelve thousand broke camp and began leaving Valley Forge that afternoon. The Continentals crossed the Delaware at Coryell’s Ferry on 20–22 June and marched east to Hopewell, N.J., on 23 June. At the insistence of his general officers, GW followed the British at a respectful distance as they continued eastward through Monmouth County. On 24 June, however, encouraged by Lafayette and Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, GW overrode the objections of his other general officers and decided to send a detachment of 4,000 men forward to shadow the enemy more closely and seek opportunities for attack. GW initially placed this detachment under Lafayette, but Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, who had been exchanged from captivity a few months before, reconsidered his initial refusal to command a force whose formation he opposed and demanded the right to lead it on the basis of seniority. GW relented and allocated more troops to Lee as he sent him forward to join Lafayette. With approximately 5,600 troops including Continentals and militia, Lee commanded what was no longer a detachment, but half the American army.

The British meanwhile continued to march, arriving at Monmouth Court House on 26 June in the midst of a brutal heat wave that had claimed the lives of dozens of redcoats and led to widespread straggling and desertion. Clinton’s troops rested there on the following day, while GW, who sensed a possibly final opportunity to fight the enemy slipping away, pressed Lee to push forward and attack without waiting for the rest of the army to join him. GW’s orders to Lee were imprecise, and Lee responded to them by ordering a general advance toward the enemy positions on the morning of 28 June, just as the British were preparing to leave Monmouth Court House. Lee’s advance at first caught the British by surprise, and some of his advance units were able to get among Clinton’s baggage train; but the redcoats quickly recovered and fended off Lee long enough to hustle their baggage off the field. General Cornwallis then formed up his troops for a counterattack, while Lee’s inept maneuvers left the American positions intermingled and in disarray. When the British advanced later that morning, they easily drove the Americans west toward Englishtown.

GW meanwhile hurried forward with the remainder of his army and encountered Lee and his fleeing troops a short distance west of Monmouth Court House. Berating the dejected Lee for failing to follow orders, GW stopped the retreat and formed a new line of defense. The remainder of the battle consisted of a series of closely fought encounters as Cornwallis attempted to dislodge the Americans from their positions. In this he failed, and with the fortuitous appearance of Greene with infantry and artillery in a strong position on their left, the British halted their attacks and withdrew. That night they withdrew east with the rest of Clinton’s army, marching to Sandy Hook and leaving GW and his army in possession of the battlefield. Clinton considered the battle a successful delaying action; GW, with equal certainty, declared it a glorious American victory (for a more detailed discussion of the battle, see Philemon Dickinson to GW, 28 June, source note). Its only bitterness came from the conduct of Lee, who in three letters to GW on 30 June complained of his treatment and demanded a court-martial. The volume concludes with GW resting his troops at Monmouth Court House while the British army boards transports and begins the evacuation from New Jersey to New York.

Jacket Essay

Volume 15 of the Revolutionary War Series documents a period that includes the Continental Army’s last weeks at Valley Forge, the British evacuation of Philadelphia, and the Battle of Monmouth Court House. The volume begins with George Washington’s army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, celebrating the new alliance between the United States and France. Washington joined in the festivities but did not become complacent, and as the celebrations ended he redirected his attention to winning the war. Over the next few weeks Steuben drilled the soldiers incessantly while Washington and Congress conducted a much-needed overhaul of the army’s structure and administration.

The benefits of the training became apparent on the evening of 19 May, when a large detachment under Major General Lafayette deftly evaded an attempted British entrapment at Barren Hill, Pennsylvania. Yet Washington had little time to ponder his troops’ new efficiency and discipline. The British evacuation of Philadelphia began on the morning of 18 June, as General Henry Clinton’s army crossed the Delaware River and marched east-northeast across New Jersey toward a rendezvous with British transport ships at Sandy Hook. The Continentals at first pursued at a respectful distance, but on 24 June Washington overrode the objections of some of his general officers and sent forward a detachment of 5,600 men under Major General Charles Lee to seek opportunities for attack. That opportunity came at Monmouth Court House on 28 June, in the midst of a brutal heat wave that claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers on both sides.

Lee’s attack at first caught the British by surprise, but General Cornwallis formed up his troops for a counterattack and easily drove Lee’s detachment from the field. Washington meanwhile hurried forward with the remainder of his army and encountered Lee and his fleeing troops a short distance west of Monmouth Court House. Berating the dejected Lee for failing to follow orders, Washington stopped the retreat and formed a new line of defense. The remainder of the battle consisted of a series of closely fought encounters as Cornwallis attempted and failed to dislodge the Americans from their positions. That night the British withdrew east with the rest of Clinton’s army, marching to Sandy Hook and thence sailing to New York, leaving Washington and his army in possession of the battlefield. Clinton considered the battle a successful delaying action; Washington, with equal certainty, declared it a glorious American victory.


Edward G. Lengel , ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 15, May – June 1778. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

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