This past Monday I had the opportunity to check a major historical site off my long list. I traveled to Maryland last weekend to participate in a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam in honor of the approaching 150th anniversary of that monumental engagement. The reenactment is not the subject of this post, although I will likely write about it at a later date.
I have, over the past couple of years, gotten in the habit of taking an extra day, the Monday after national reenactments, to engage in some historical wanderings in various states on my way home. It has, at this point, become a treasured past-time for me. I’ve written about some of these wanderings before. This time it was the site of the Battle of Monmouth (a key engagement during the American Revolution) near Freehold, New Jersey.
The Battle of Monmouth took place on June 28, 1778. It signified the end of the long Philadelphia Campaign which lasted roughly a year from the summer of 1777 to the summer of 1778. During this campaign, the British seized the American capital of Philadelphia and occupied it, forcing Continental Congress to flee to York, Pennsylvania. After unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the British from the capital, Washington moved his army to Valley Forge where they would spend a grueling winter. Considerable good came out of Valley Forge, however, in that the Continental Army drilled and trained with unprecedented vigor, aided by foreign veterans such as Baron Von Steuben of Prussia and the Marquis de Lafayette of France.
In May 1778, shortly after France declared that it would join the war on the side of the Americans, British General Henry Clinton was ordered to abandon Philadelphia and consolidate his troops with those back in occupied New York City. The redcoats would march across New Jersey to Sandy Hook and there they would be picked up by the British Navy.
The British departed Philadelphia on June 18, 1778. A retreating army presented a perfect opportunity for Washington to attack and he moved his army in pursuit. His subordinates disagreed on the strategy, though. Some, like General “Mad” Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania, urged an attack on the rear of the British force. Others, like English-born General Charles Lee (who desired Washington’s position as General-in-Chief), advocated a less aggressive course of simply harassing the British force as it retreated.
Ultimately, Washington decided to attack and placed Lee in command of a force of 4,000 men who would advance and engage the British rear-guard, slowing the enemy down and allowing Washington time to catch up with his full army of about 6,000 additional men. Lee, who did not have a good feeling about the plan in the first place, engaged the enemy along a road near Monmouth Courthouse.
Initially, Lee’s men stuck it out, fighting hard along a fence and hedgerow and resisting charges by British Marines. Eventually, though, they retreated from the hedgerow. It became a rout. Long story short, Washington arrived in the nick of time, rallied his retreating troops, pushed fresh regiments into the battle, and fought the British to a standstill. The redcoat column continued their march the next day and did escape to New York. But it was the first time the Continental Army fought it out toe-to-toe with the British without retreating. Although not technically a victory, it is regarded as one of Washington’s great achievements on the battlefield.
Arriving at the Monmouth Battlefield State Park, I was at first crestfallen to see that the visitors center was being rebuilt. It looks as though it will be a beautiful facility when it is finished. But that did me no good at the time. I nearly left, thinking that the park was probably inaccessible due to the construction. Still, I decided I would explore a little and, skirting around the construction on foot, I was rewarded by a remarkable vista. The site is probably the largest Revolutionary War battlefield park I have ever seen. Indeed, it rivaled many Civil War battlefields I’ve visited.
It was, however, rather in a state of neglect. This is not really surprising due to the construction. I’m sure when the new visitors center is open, the park will be spiffed up. But currently, it has gone more or less to hay. There was one mowed path which I followed to the infamous hedgerow. As I walked onto the battlefield, I felt unsettled. Just me in an enormous field. Not a soul in sight. The field went on and on, much further than I expected, up a long ridge to land that is, curiously, planted with various crops. None of them seemed to be doing very well. An entire nursery of young trees stood with shriveled, blackened leaves.
The whole atmosphere seemed to be one of abandonment, loneliness and eerie stillness. Almost as though I were walking onto a lost and forgotten battlefield. Yes, granted, I was there on a Monday. The visitors center was closed. It was early September when kids are back to school and people have just wrapped up vacations. I’m sure on a summer’s day, the place is busy with tourists. But not on that particular day. Just me and the ghosts.
And when I reached the hedgerow where the Continentals had made their brave stand, I did certainly have that sense that raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. As Civil War General Joshua Chamberlain wrote, “On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger…”
I spent more time there than I intended to, enjoying having a battlefield to myself. I walked the entire, vast area. I read what scant, faded signage there was, orienting myself as to where the lines stood, where an old parsonage had once been where Mad Anthony Wayne’s men had counterattacked and held until sunset. It was quite an experience.
Walking out, almost back to the visitor’s center construction and the parking lot, I came across a living soul. An older gentleman pushing a mountain bike. I normally keep to myself, but I was so pleased to see someone else visiting the site, I stopped to talk. He was quite a history-buff and we engaged in a lively conversation about military history ranging from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.
As the conversation wrapped up, he asked why a younger fella like me was so interested in history. I told him that I run a historical society. He smiled and said, “It’s because of guys like you that this country will continue to have history.” Or words to that effect.
He was being too kind. Still, the words really struck me. I walked onto that battlefield feeling disquieted, a little spooked, and somewhat depressed that the site seemed abandoned. I left feeling bolstered and with a sense of affirmation. It seemed so serendipitous that I confess I looked back as I walked away to make sure he was really there.