Hero of Stony Point - James Barnes

Rear Guard Fighting and Monmouth

During the long, hard winter at Valley Forge, amid all the sufferings resulting from hardship and official neglect, such preparations as were possible for soldierly efficiency were constantly in progress. Most conspicuous, perhaps, among these was the engagement of Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian general of high reputation, who, from generous interest in the cause of American liberty, had freely offered his services to help train the army. Although without friends or connections in this country, and wholly ignorant of the English language, he cheerfully worked at the difficult task of drilling and training the raw troops in Washington's romp in the manual of arms and the maneuvers familiar to the armies of Europe. He is credited with promoting singular efficiency in bayonet work—some have said that he introduced the bayonet to the American army, which seems to be untrue, as it was an inheritance from their British ancestry. But he is to be credited, undoubtedly, with originating much of the efficiency displayed by the troops in the succeeding campaign. Such men as Stenben, Lafayette, and our own Wayne, who continued working and fighting for an ideal, even in the face of all the discouragements heaped up by nature and by human rascality, are as bright and shining lights in the midst of otherwise cheerless prospects. Why can not the noble examples of such heroic characters oftener excite the reverence and emulation of the rest of the world? They were men, indeed!

We have learned already of Wayne's untiring efforts to secure from Congress, as well as from the Government of Pennsylvania, relief for the sufferings of his soldiers. We have read of the specious promises, pompons excuses and shifty evasions of public duty, not only on the part of the inglorious and useless Mease, but even from those who stood higher and much better in official life. But, as if all his labors had been in vain, and all his protests and petitions unheard, we read in a letter from Wayne to Sharp Delany, under date May 13, 1778, the following piteous appeal:

"For God's sake give us, if you can't give us anything else, give us clean linen that we may be enabled to rescue the poor, worthy fellows from the vermin which are devouring them . . . .Some hundreds we thought prudent to deposit some six feet under ground, who have died of a disorder produced by a want of clothing. The whole army at present are sick of the same disorder, but the Pennsylvania line seem to be the most infected. A pointed and speedy exertion of Congress or appointing another doer [doctor T] may yet remove the disorder, which once done I pledge my reputation we shall remove the enemy. For T would much rather risk my life and honor and the fate of America on our present force neatly and comfortably uniformed than on double their number covered with rags and crawling with vermin. But I am determined not to say another word on the subject."

Even Anthony Wayne had at last reached the limit of his patience with official incompetence and the criminal neglect of the brave men under him. He vowed to say no more upon the subject, and no more did he say. His soldiers went forth in rags to meet a well-disciplined and thoroughly equipped army, and, thanks almost wholly to the inspiration of their brave commander, did more than their duty.

Until nearly the middle of June the army remained in camp, availing themselves of such reliefs to their sufferings as were occasionally afforded. At the same time the able-bodied were constantly drilling and maneuvering under the direction of Steuben and other drill masters. In the meantime only an occasional light skirmish had occurred with the enemy, notably one in the middle of May, in which a strong British force from Philadelphia attempted to flank and surround a detachment of about 2,500 men, sent under Lafayette to occupy the city, upon their expected evacuation. The Americans escaped without losses, but their rear guard, backed by a troop of Oneida Indians, put the enemy to flight with some serious damage.

The long-expected evacuation of Philadelphia occurred on June 18th, when the entire British army, under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, crossed the Delaware River below Gloucester, and took its march to the eastward through New Jersey. The forces, in excellent condition, after a winter of ease and comfort in the city, consisted of about 12,000 men, and were followed by a baggage train twelve miles long. Three days later Washington, with his entire command, crossed the Delaware above Trenton, and proceeded to cautiously follow the enemy, with a view either to dispute his passage of the Raritan River, or of cutting off his baggage train. For a considerable distance he paralleled the British line of march, sometimes at a distance of only a few miles. Finally he held a council of his generals to fix upon a method of attack. As usual, the majority of these people were in favor of a "Fabian policy," as it were, or a continuation of extreme caution in any moves to attack so powerful a body. Only Wayne, supported in this case by General John Cadwalader, and partially by Generals Greene and Lafayette, advocated an immediate and vigorous attack. Washington, as on several other occasions, rejected the advice of his other officers, and adopted that given by Wayne; determining to attempt a surprise on the enemy's rear guard, so as to harass the baggage train, and capture as much of it as possible. He accordingly asked Wayne to outline his plan in a letter to himself, and followed the advice given in all of the main details.

The plan of action adopted was that a detachment of about 5,000 men under the command of General Charles Lee and Marquis de Lafayette was ordered to hang on the enemy's rear, and attack him as soon as possible in the morning; the remainder of the army being held in reserve to support this detachment, in case of repulse. For, as Wayne confidently asserted in his letter to Washington, the "enemy dare not pursue success, lest they be drawn into some difficulty from which it would not be easy for them to extricate themselves."

The appointment of Charles Lee to lead this attack was, if possible, nearly the greatest error that could have been committed at the time. His sole apparent qualification for the service was that he had been appointed by some order of official favoritism to the rank of a major general. But such soldierly qualities as he may have possessed were exceeded by his laggard methods and his personal animosities. The latter evil trait was well demonstrated when, on the morning of the battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778), he ordered Wayne to proceed with a detachment of 1.200 men and attack the British left r6ar.

"This, Sir, is a post of conspicuous honor, worthy of so brave an officer as yourself, and I trust that you will acquit yourself worthily in the performance of the duties which it implies," was his supercilious address to Wayne.

That he may have hoped that the "honor" involved would also mean Wayne's permanent removal from all military activity, thus relieving the army for all time of "so noisy and boisterous a fellow" [as he had often characterized him], is strongly suggested by his own behavior. Instead of remaining with the balance of his division to support Wayne's men, he almost immediately withdrew, greatly to the disgust of his own command, and to the exasperation of Washington himself, who promptly ordered him court-martialed. In his attempted defense, this "caitiff," as Wayne would probably have called him, had he been speaking to intimates, sought to accuse Wayne of disobedience to orders, and to besmirch the characters of several other prominent officers. The result was that he was promptly challenged to duels by Wayne, by Colonel John Laurens, and by the brave and soldierly Steuben himself. But, enough of Lee; his record is part of history.

Wayne went forward with joy [to his death, as Lee probably supposed], and promptly engaged the rear of the enemy. His attack was met by a body of American Tories, known as Simcoe's Rangers, who made a furious charge upon the Pennsylvania regiment commanded by Colonel Richard Butler, a devoted friend of Wayne's, and his constant companion in arms until the end of the war. Butler's men fired a tremendous volley of musketry, which threw their assailants into disorderly retreat, but the advantage could not be followed up, because of the lack of cavalry. At this juncture the main body of the British rear began to advance, a force estimated at about 2,000 men, which was rapidly increased by new detachments from the front. This was the condition in which Lee was to have supported Wayne, in order to prevent the annihilation of his command. But Lee failed him, he was already withdrawing his men to a safe distance. Nothing remained for Wayne, therefore, but to follow him ignominiously. At the old Tennent Church, on the road to Freehold, Lee met Washington, who, as reported, was "angry beyond restraint." That Lee's career was not terminated on the spot was due, undoubtedly, to the fact that Washington was just and humane, even in "anger unrestrained." However, it is reported that the usually calm Washington used stormy language.

As events proved, Lee's stupid or intended blunder endangered not only Wayne and his men, but also General Washington himself, and narrowly escaped exposing the entire army to an assault in force by the enemy that might have led to a great disaster. Washington had barely more than fifteen minutes to meet the onslaught of the British forces which had faced about and were beginning to move in his direction. Even in that brief period, however, his masterly qualities as a general were demonstrated. Hastily calling to Wayne, who had just come up, he ordered him to take two regiments and check the assault of the enemy. These troops were drawn up in an orchard flanked on either side by hills, upon which artillery was quickly mounted, to enfilade the advancing British. Under Wayne's command at this time were three regiments of the Pennsylvania Line, one from Maryland and another from Virginia. These sufficed to hold the position until the main body of the army, summoned from the rear by Washington, had arrived. They met the rushes of the English grenadiers, the best regiments in the service, first from the right of Wayne's position, then from the left, but were repulsed on both attempts by the withering volleys of musketry and the constant fire of the field guns.

Then came the most dramatic event of the terrible day. The "crack" regiments of the Guards were brought up, a corps renowned for bravery, dash and perfect discipline, and ordered to charge the American position. Their line was drawn up within a short distance of Wayne's front, and their Colonel, Henry Moncton, a brother of Lord Galway, and one of the most conspicuous and brilliant of the young aristocrats sent out to crash the "vile rebels" of America, as the English contemptuously termed those whom we call "patriots," delivered a stirring and eloquent address, appealing to their soldierly pride, their esprit de corps, their loyalty to the King, and other high and noble sentiments. He then commanded them to advance and carry the position at the point of the bayonet, and he himself, with courage worthy honor and renown, led them against the ragged men who had suffered the torments of hunger, cold and exposure, while be was safely housed in the hospitable city of Philadelphia. By all calculations of human probability, these splendid soldiers should have driven the "embattled farmers" in confusion before them, and discouraged the advance of re-enforcements from the American rear. They advanced at double quick, a formidable and terrifying array, confident of easy victory, and keyed to the uttermost in the performance of their duty. Wayne's men, who had heard almost every word of the Colonel's stirring speech and at least had seen his gestures, stood their ground, waiting until their would-be assailants were nearly upon them, and then opened their fire with murderous effect, The gallant British Colonel had made his last appeal on earth: he fell riddled with bullets, his face to the foe. Scores of his veterans fell around him, and still the Americans kept up their fire, dropping six men out of every ten at the murderously short range, and throwing the survivors into a confused rout. Some of the more intrepid, with touching bravery, tried vainly to advance far enough to rescue their commander's crumpled body, but even they could not weather the awful hail of the American musketry, and, at last, they were all gone, save only the dead and the desperately wounded, who could not move.

While Wayne's men were holding back the determined assaults of the British, Washington had had time to reform his army, and was advancing all along the line. A fierce cannonade was kept up on both sides, and many assaults were made upon the American positions, but the final result was that the British turned and fled at all points, leaving nearly 1,500 dead and wounded on the field.

Wayne's stand at Monmouth is one of the heroic events of history. It has been compared to the stand of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and is scarcely less conspicuous. In both eases a mere handful of brave and determined patriots withstood the seasoned warriors of a powerful army, their superiors in nearly every particular except in courage and steadfastness. In both cases, also, they repulsed their assailants with heavy losses, and with every circumstance of humiliation. Seldom has a warlike achievement been more enthusiastically acclaimed by all parties. Wayne became an idol with the people as he had always been among his troops. Only one voice among them all was raised in criticism of his performance, and that was the voice of General Charles Lee, who attempted to clear himself of the serious charge of disobeying orders by arguing the "temerity and folly, and contempt of orders of General Wain" [for so he spelled the name in his letter to Robert Morris], who, as he alleged, had audaciously provoked a battle with "the whole flower of the British army . . . amounting in all to 7,000 men." According to popular understanding of his orders, Wayne and Lee had been expressly commanded to do something closely resembling this very thing. Nor was Wayne guilty of any breach of discipline, as we must insist, even though, in Lee's words, his "folly" was manifested "in the most extensive plain in America, separated from our main body the distance of eight miles."

What Wayne began, rashly or not, on the plains of Monmouth, he and his men were amply prepared to complete, and they did complete it. As he wrote to Richard Peters some two weeks after the engagement:

"The victory of that day turns out to be much more considerable than at first expected. . . .By the most moderate computation their killed and wounded mast be full fifteen hundred men of the flower of their army. Among them are numbers of the richest blood of England. Tell the Philadelphia ladies that the heavenly, sweet, pretty Red Coats, the accomplished gentlemen of the guards and grenadiers have humbled themselves on the plains of Monmouth. The Knights of the Blended Rose and Burning Mount have resigned their laurels to rebel officers, who will lay them at the feet of those virtuous daughters of America who cheerfully gave up ease and affluence in a city for liberty and peace of mind in a cottage."

Even in the midst of his triumph, Wayne was still the humorist and the solicitous commander. To this spirited epistle he adds the following postscript: "We have not received the least article of clothing since you saw us at Mount Joy, and are now—naked."