Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER IX.

SIR Henry Clinton[note 28] had no sooner assumed the command in chief, than he began to prepare for the evacuation of Philadelphia, which was readily effected with his maritime assistance. Having put on board his ships every thing too heavy and cumbrous for land transportation, with the superfluous baggage of his army, he passed the river from the city, on the 18th of June, completely prepared for the difficult retreat it became his duty to undertake.

Washington, early apprised of the intended movement, gradually drew near to the Delaware, in the vicinity of Corryell’s ferry, waiting for the unequivocal demonstration of the enemy’s intention, before he ventured to leave Pennsylvania. In the mean time, he collected his scanty means of water transportation to the points on the river most convenient for his passage, and prepared himself for quiet movement. The restoration of the metropolis of the Union, to its rightful possessors, was as unimpressive in its general effect on the American mind, as had been its relinquishment to sir William Howe some months before. Congress, who had left it with some precipitation, on the approach of the enemy, assembled at York Town, one hundred miles west of the city, where having continued to hold its session, that body now returned to Philadelphia.

The loss of towns began to be properly understood in America: experience more and more illustrated, the difference between the same events in our thinly settled country, and the populous regions of Europe.

Clinton pursued his retreat slowly, betraying no symptoms of precipitation, but rather indicating a disposition for battle. Such conduct on his part was wise, and worthy of the pupil of prince Ferdinand. Having reached Mount Holly, he pointed his march to Brunswick: whether this was the route preferred by him, or such demonstration was made only to throw Washington more to his left, and further distant from the route he ultimately took, and which perhaps was that of his original choice, remains unascertained. It appears evidently from the movements of the American general, that he accredited the demonstrations made by his enemy towards Brunswick, never, however, putting himself too far to the left, should Clinton suddenly turn towards South Amboy or the heights of Middletown—the only lines of retreat left, should that to Brunswick be relinquished. Washington passed the Delaware three or four days after Clinton had crossed that river, and was nearer to either point of retreat, than was the British general. The Fabius of America, made up, as has been before observed, of great caution with superior enterprise, indulged the most anxious desire, to close with his antagonist in general action. Opposed to his wishes was the advice of his general officers: to this, he for a time yielded; but as soon as he discovered that the enemy had reached Monmouth court-house, not more than twelve miles from the heights of Middletown, he determined that he should not escape without a blow. He therefore selected a body of troops, and, placing them under the order of the marquis de la Fayette, (a French nobleman, whose zeal to acquire renown in arms had brought him to the tented fields of America) directed that officer to approach close to the foe, and to seize any advantageous occurrence for his annoyance, himself following with the main body in supporting distance. The marquis was young, generous, and brave; and, like most of his brother generals, yet little versed in the art of war. It was certainly a high trust to be confided to the young and captivating foreigner, though afterwards well justified by his conduct throughout the war. Nothing is more dangerous than to hang with an inferior force upon a gallant enemy, never disinclined to draw his sword, and watchful to seize every advantage within his reach. Soon after Fayette moved, a second corps was ordered to join him; and the united body was placed under the command of major general Lee, for the express purpose of bringing on battle, should the enemy still continue in his position at Monmouth court-house. In this officer was combined long and varied experience, with a profound military genius. He held too, not only the peculiar confidence of the commander in chief, but that of congress, the nation, and the army. On approaching Englishtown, a small village seven miles from the court-house, where sir Henry continued in his camp, he learned, that the enemy, having held back the elite of his army, was determined to cover Kniphausen, who, charged with the care of the baggage, was on his march to the heights of Middletown. Here he received orders from Washington to strike at the British rear, unless “strong reasons” forbade it; at the same time advising him of his approach to support him. 1778 June 28th. Continuing to advance, he discovered the enemy in motion. Clinton, having perceived various bodies of troops moving on his flanks, and apprehending that the column with his baggage might be grossly insulted, if not seriously injured, wisely resolved, by a forward movement, to check further pursuit. Cornwallis, who led the van troops, advanced upon Lee. This officer, concluding that he should most effectually answer the object of Washington by drawing the enemy to him, thus inducing the foe to expend his bodily strength, while he saved that of the American army, in a day of uncommon heat, instantly began to retrograde; to take which step he was additionally induced by discerning that the corps on his flank, under brigadier Scott, had repassed the ravine in his rear. This country abounds with defiles of a peculiar sort: the valleys are cut by small rivulets with marshy grounds, diflicult to man and horse, and impossible to artillery, except in particular spots. Such was the one in Lee’s rear, which Scott had passed. Persevering in his decision to join, rather than recal Scott, he continued to retire, making good his retreat without injury, and exposing his person to every danger. At this moment Washington came up, and finding his orders disobeyed, required explanation from general Lee with warmth. Unhappily Lee took offence at the manner in which he had been accosted, and replied unbecomingly, instead of entering into that full explanation, which his own honor, duty to his superior, and the good of his country, demanded. Such conduct in an inferior officer could not be brooked; and met, as it merited, marked disapprobation. As soon as Lee perceived it proper to deviate from his instructions, he certainly ought to have advised the commander in chief of such deviation, with the reasons which produced it. Thus acting he would probably have received commendation; and a combined attack, founded upon the full representation of the relative state of himself and the enemy, might have led to the happiest result.

This communication was neglected; and Lee was ordered into the rear, while the army moved on to battle. The action shortly after commenced; the day was remarkably sultry; and the American army considerably fatigued by its previous march.

The battle was, nevertheless, contested with peculiar keenness, and ceased in the evening as if by mutual consent. The American general determined to renew it in the morning, while sir Henry Clinton was as determined to avoid it.[note 29]

Judging from the official statements which were published, the loss was trifling and not very unequal; but the “stubborn fact” of burying the dead, manifests a great error in the report made by sir Henry Clinton to his government. He rated his dead and missing at one hundred and eighty-eight; whereas, we buried on the field of battle two hundred and forty-nine. Both sides claimed the victory, as is commonly the case when the issue is not decisive. Without doubt, sir Henry Clinton obtained his object, security from further molestation, and the completion of his retreat. This, however, was effected not in the usual style of conquerors, but by decamping in the night, and hastily joining Kniphausen, who had reached the heights of Middletown, near to the place of embarkation, and secure from assault. It must be admitted, on a full view of the action, that the palm of victory clearly belonged to Washington, although it was not decisive, nor susceptible of improvement.

Having rested his army a few days in the position of Middletown, the British general embarked in the transports waiting his arrival, and soon reached New York. Washington, after paying his last respects to the brave dead, and tenderly providing for the wounded, moved by easy marches to the Hudson, comforting, by every means in his power, his faithful troops, and once more took his favorite position near the western shore of that river, which was always considered by him as the point of connexion to the two extremes of the Union.

Major general Lee was arrested upon sundry charges, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be suspended from his command in the army for one year. The effect of which was, that the veteran soldier who had relinquished his native country, to support a cause dear to his heart, became lost to that of his adoption, and soon after lost to himself; as the few years he survived seem to have been passed in devotion to the sway of those human tormentors, envy and hate. The records of the court-martial manifest on their face the error of the sentence; and it is wonderful how men of honor and of sense could thus commit themselves to the censures of the independent and impartial. If general Lee had been guilty of all the charges as affirmed by their decision, his life was forfeited; and its sacrifice only could have atoned for his criminality. He ought to have been cashiered and shot; instead of which the mild sentence of suspension, for a short time, was the punishment inflicted. The truth is, the unfortunate general was only guilty of neglect in not making timely communication of his departure from orders, subject to his discretion, to the commander in chief, which constituted no part of the charges against him. This was certainly a very culpable omission; to which was afterwards added personal disrespect, where the utmost respect was not only due, but enjoined by martial law, and enforced by the state of things: two armies upon the very brink of battle, himself intrusted with the direction of an important portion of one of them, for the very purpose of leading into action, to withhold the necessary explanations from his chief, and to set the example of insubordination by his mode of reply to an interrogatory, indispensably though warmly, put to him, merited punishment. But this offence was different, far different from “disobedience to orders,” or “a shameful retreat;” neither of which charges were supported by testimony; and both of which were contradicted by fact.

Soon after sir Henry Clinton’s return to New York, the first result of the alliance concluded during the preceding winter at Paris, between the United States and his most christian majesty, announced itself in decisive operations on the part of the French monarch.

Admiral d’Estaing sailed from France in the beginning of the summer, for the American coast, to cooperate with the American army; and would have arrived in time to stop lord Howe in the Delaware, as was intended, had not his voyage been greatly retarded by the unusual continuance of contrary winds. The arrival of the fleet of our ally, though unproductive of the immediate effects expected, the destruction of the enemy’s fleet in the Delaware, gave birth to new and interesting enterprises; the relation of which, not coming within the scope of this work, must necessarily be omitted. In the cursory survey taken, my single object has been, to present to the reader a lucid and connected statement of those transactions which bear in any degree upon the southern war, either by their own relation, or by their introduction of characters, destined to act principal parts upon that theatre.

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