Book Review

Lender, Mark Edward, and Garry Wheeler Stone. Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle. Campaigns and Commanders, Volume 54. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

Ironically a book focused on a battle turns into a book about leadership and the politics of command. While Lender and Stone present a meticulously researched and innovatively depicted description of the Battle of Monmouth, their central thesis is the battle may have been a tactical draw but as a result of the battle, Washington eliminated his two principal challengers, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates and firmly secured leadership of the Continental Army.

The core of Lender and Stone’s book is a minute-by-minute description of the Monmouth battle, which occurred while the British army transited New Jersey to reposition its forces from Philadelphia to New York City in 1778. During this march, both generals wanted to engage the enemy. Henry Clinton, the newly appointed senior commander of British forces in America desired a successful engagement to wipe away any hints of a British retreat from Philadelphia. George Washington sought even a small victory to bolster his reputation after the previous years losses around Philadelphia and to cement his position as overall Patriot commander.

Both got their wish at a hot, dusty central New Jersey crossroads called Monmouth Court House.   While there have been previous, well-written accounts of the battle, the authors uniquely weave strategic analyses and micro-histories into a riveting battle account. The authors provide some interesting observations on the battle including:

  • British commander Sir Henry Clinton acted more like a junior officer galloping around the battlefield, leading individual small unit fighting.
  • Unlike most other battles, the Patriots enjoyed adequate supply of food, weapons and ammunition.
  • In the largest cannon battle of the war, the American artillery performed well and inflicted heavy losses on the British.
  • The British lost more soldiers to desertion during the march across New Jersey than in the battle.
  • Key patriot units, such as Col. Morgan’s Continental Rifle Regiment and Morris County militia did not even participate in the battle depriving Washington force superiority.
  • While the British were marching across New Jersey, weather delayed French Admiral D’Estaing’s fleet in crossing the Atlantic. If not delayed, the numerically superior French Navy could have bottled up the British in Philadelphia or trapped Clinton on Sandy Hook leading to a “Yorktown-like” victory. Losing a second British army in successive years might have ended the war in five years sooner.

In addition, to interesting aspects of the battle, Lender and Stone expose many myths about the battle including:

  1. Monmouth was a Patriot victory – While Washington’s staff and other supporters touted Monmouth as a big victory, it ended in a tactical draw. The Continental Army held the battlefield but the British were not defeated and were able to safely continue their march across New Jersey.
  2. Monmouth changed the strategic situation – Many observers have posited that after Monmouth, the British were destined to lose their North American colonies. However, British resolve was not broken and they continued to aggressively contest the rebellion by focusing on the southern colonies.
  3. Monmouth was the last battle in the north – While it might have been the last battle directly between two senior commanders (Washington and Clinton), the battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield (June 7 and 23, 1780) were the last large unit battles of the war in the north.
  4. Washington and Lee had an unduly harsh verbal exchange – Col. Charles Scott’s representation of heated words between Lee and Washington met on the battlefield is overblown. Much of the harshness between the two emerged after the battle.
  5. Charles Lee ineptly and cowardly led the van and disobeyed orders – Although Lee like others, made some mistakes during the battle, he effectively led the vanguard and put Washington in a position to check the British advance and claim a measure of victory. This is the authors’ most controversial conclusion. They posit that because of Lee’s unlikeable character, contemporaries and historians want to believe bad things about his generalship and battlefield performance.
  6. Von Steuben’s drill was critical to the Continental Army’s performance – There were several individual instances of the effective of Von Steuben’s drill such as the ability for “picked men” who never drilled together to operate together effectively, most of the Continental Army’s maneuvers during the battle were defensive in nature and did not rely on his drill and manual. The authors conclude that while helpful in a few instances, Von Steuben’s drill did not impact the battle’s outcome.
  7. Molly Pitcher was Mary Hays – The author thoroughly researched the legend of Molly Pitcher. They believe that Mary Hays was not “the” Molly Pitcher and likely there were multiple women who brought water to the artillerists and any of which could be seen helping. The authors’ conclude that there should be a statue to the Molly Pitchers.
  8. Citizen soldiers fought the battle of Monmouth – In the 19th Century, historians spun the battle as between the citizen soldiers (militia) and the Red Coats. This is not true as most of the fighting was borne by the Continental Army and not the Patriot militia. This was done to glorify the citizen soldier, but is not historically accurate.

Lastly, Lerner and Stone provide several interesting and innovative features in their book. Unlike most Revolutionary War accounts and providing a feeling of being on the battlefield, the authors provide a chronological account of the battle with specific estimated times (such as 1:35 pm) for major actions in the battle. Further they effectively combine historical and archeological findings to interpret the battle. The maps are excellent including depicting lines of cannon fire, a novel use of maps, which further highlights the central role of artillery in the battle. While appendices are usually dry and wonkish, I recommend reading them first to gain an overview timeline of the events leading up to and including the battle of Monmouth, and to understand the Rebel and British Orders of Battle. Another unique book feature is a Unit Index for those interested in tracing the activities of specific military units throughout the battle.

I strongly recommend Fatal Sunday both as comprehensive and engaging account of the Monmouth campaign as well as a model on how to write a book about a military conflict for aspiring authors. It is the best description of the battle of Monmouth available to date and is a compelling account of how Washington and his supporters used its aftermath to secure Washington’s leadership as Commander in Chief. As the authors point out, vanquishing Washington’s contenders was the most important outcome, not whether the Rebels or the British could claim victory.

For other books on the battle of Monmouth, click on this link: