Book review: Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle, by Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).
The Battle of Monmouth, fought in New Jersey on June 28, 1778, between the American and British armies, has been the subject of several books, all of which have contributed to some degree to understanding the engagement. However, it is no exaggeration to state that Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone’s Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle, surpasses all of the previous works and deserves recognition as the definitive account of the campaign and Battle of Monmouth. Utilizing a vast quantity of documentary evidence along with the latest battlefield archaeology, Lender and Stone have produced a highly detailed description of the battle, and equally important, have situated it within the larger context of contemporary events, demonstrating that the causes and results of the action were far more important than previously recognized. In fact, Lender and Stone argue that the Battle of Monmouth was essential in solidifying George Washington’s position as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army for the remainder of the war.
Beginning with an assessment of the military situation in the months leading to the battle, the authors assert that for the Americans, the most important element was the beleaguered situation of General Washington. Following his defeats in the 1777 Pennsylvania campaign and amid the struggles of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, many members of Congress and some army officers began to doubt Washington’s capabilities as commander-in-chief, and privately considered replacing him with the victor of Saratoga, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. This alleged “Conway Cabal” (named after Maj. Gen. Thomas Conway, one of Washington’s critics, although Lender and Stone identify Pennsylvania congressman and Continental Maj. Gen. Thomas Mifflin as having played the largest role in urging that Washington be replaced), probably never existed in a formal sense. Nevertheless, the authors note that Washington, his devoted aides, and loyal generals became convinced that there was indeed a plot to remove him. While Washington succeeded in maneuvering through the dangerous political situation, he also recognized that he needed to defeat the enemy on the battlefield to prove his effectiveness as a commander. When the British army withdrew from Philadelphia, Washington welcomed the opportunity to engage the royal forces and silence his critics.
Lender and Stone, making every effort to provide a balanced account, also assess the difficult position of British general Sir Henry Clinton. Newly appointed to command, Clinton’s first major task was to carry out London’s order to evacuate Philadelphia, a withdrawal that demoralized the army and the Loyalists. Clinton, too, sought a battle during his retreat, hoping that a victory over at least part of the Continental Army would restore British morale and weaken his opponent. The authors trace in great detail the movements of both armies during the days before the battle, and also examine the attempts of the New Jersey militia to delay the British march and the efforts of the British to counter this harassment.
Both generals got the battle they desired, but on the American side, the situation was complicated by the presence and role of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, Washington’s second-in-command. Lee had been captured by the British in December 1776 and had only recently been exchanged; some of his contemporaries and later historians believed that he had turned traitor during his captivity. As commander of the American vanguard with discretionary orders to attack the British, Lee quickly found himself facing a British counterattack on unfavorable terrain. Learning that some of his troops had already withdrawn without orders, Lee ordered a retreat to a better defensive position. During this maneuver, Washington arrived on the field and admonished Lee for withdrawing, although the authors make clear that the encounter between the two generals, while heated, was not the harsh confrontation frequently described. Lender and Stone note that Washington actually ordered Lee to conduct a delaying action while the main army deployed, and that Lee did so effectively.
After a detailed discussion of the battle, in which the Continental Army occupied the high ground where Lee had intended to place his troops and then withstood British attacks, the authors examine the consequences for both sides. They argue that although the fighting ended in a tactical draw, Washington’s aides and supporters succeeded in portraying Monmouth as an American victory, and in the process restored Washington’s reputation and insured his retention of command. Lee’s court-martial and eventual dismissal from the army further strengthened Washington’s position. The authors treat Lee with commendable fairness, asserting that he was not a traitor nor was his performance during the battle incompetent. Instead, they attribute his troubles to his quarrelsome personality and quest for vindication from an officer corps that was hostile toward him. For British general Clinton, the battle was a disappointment. While he succeeded in getting his supply train to New York without loss, his army suffered significant casualties but failed to defeat the Continentals. The result further damaged morale among his troops as well as the British public.
The authors also delve into other aspects of the battle, asserting that the evidence is inconclusive regarding the effects of Inspector General Friedrich Steuben’s training in improving the Continental Army’s battlefield performance. They explore the Molly Pitcher legend and conclude that in actuality there were probably several women who filled the “Molly Pitcher” role during the battle. They also point out that Monmouth was not, as commonly believed, the last major engagement in the northern theater; that distinction belongs to the battles at Connecticut Farms and Springfield, New Jersey, in June 1780. Such thoroughness is typical of the book, yet there are a few minor flaws. The authors’ information regarding the strength of British infantry companies is inaccurate, and they also omit any mention of Lt. Col. Henry Lee’s defense of Charles Lee’s conduct at Monmouth in the former’s postwar memoirs (the two Lees were not related). The inclusion of Henry Lee’s solidly argued defense of Charles Lee would have strengthened the authors’ own assessment of the general. However, these are minor flaws, unlikely to be noticed except by a handful of specialists in the field.
Overall, Fatal Sunday’s engagingly written, expertly contextualized account of the Monmouth campaign will be as appealing to general readers as it will to scholars, and this volume deserves a place on the bookshelf of everyone interested in the American Revolution.