One of the very few good things about living in New Jersey, if you’re a history and firearms buff like me, is that a very large portion of the revolutionary war was actually fought here. The Continental Congress (the American government as much as it was) was principally based in Philadelphia, and the British had their massive naval force based in and around the islands of New York City. Wedged between them, New Jersey was the perfect place for them to duke it out.
Some of that skirmishing was done no more than 5 minutes from my house and every year at this time, a bunch of people get together at the original location to recreate The Battle of Monmouth. The fight itself was in and around the sandy pastureland and orchards of Freehold New Jersey, and the location of much of the fighting is now a NJ State park. It’s a perfect spot for this kind of demonstration with great visibility for an audience in a vast natural amphitheatre on the exact site of one of the more serious skirmishes.
Originally American General Charles Lee was assigned by Washington to harass the British troops in their retreat from Philadelphia, but in his incompetence proved either unwilling or unable to do so. When Washington arrived later with supporting troops he found Lee’s command in disarray and in a disorganized and rapid retreat from the advancing British. Famous for his temper, Washington chewed off a fair sized chunk of Lee’s ear there on the road in full sight of Lee’s retreating troops. He then rode to the rear of the column, exposing himself to enemy fire, and personally organized and rallied the troops, halting their retreat and putting a halt to the British advance.
The actual losses in the battle were about 350 per side, and but since it was Washington’s forces that held the field it at days end, it was considered a victory. It was certainly a political victory for Washington and the other hero of the day his Inspector General Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who had been so marvelously effective at retraining the army during it’s time in Valley Forge. A statue of Von Steuben stands near the State Park visitor center today.
The battle is also famous for the participation of one “Molly Pitcher”, a camp follower and gunner’s wife, who took her husband’s place on the line when he was injured. Mary Hays McCauly had been running water to the troops in the 100+ degree heat of the battle. (It was so hot that day that both sides had as many casualties from the heat as the gunfire.) When her husband was injured she took his place on his artillery piece to keep it from being withdrawn for lack of manpower. Afterward she was issued a warrant as a non commissioned officer by Washington, and was thereafter widely hailed as Sergeant Molly.
As for the 2008 version of the battle, personally I was astounded both at the size and effort put into their presentation. Between the Regular Continental Army, the NJ Militia, and the British forces, all in historically correct period gear, there were several hundred combatants set up in two massive camps around the park. There were so many in fact, and they were so widespread, that it was hard to get a picture of them that would accurately reflect their numbers.
This image of the US forces marching into their position for the start of the battle is a good example of that. The columns were so long and spread out that at best you could hope to take a picture of 20% of them at any one time.
With just a bit of time to kill between the artillery demonstration and the actual battle, we wandered around a bit and stumbled upon the British commanding General and his staff who was apparently giving his horse a break from the heat.
As much as you may think this is kind of a geeky way to spend an afternoon, you really have to admire the dedication of these guys. Here they were wearing heavy wool uniforms in the NJ summer heat and 100% humidity, just so they can pretend to take a beating from a bunch of other guys also running around in too much clothing for the weather.
The level of detail and precision in their outfits was astounding, but the weak spot I look for is almost always the shoes. All but the most expensive footwear of the day was something less than comfortable, so most actors will usually cheat a little where their feet are concerned. Besides for most commoners in 1778 shoes were all cut symmetrically. There was no right shoe and left shoe, only “shoe”… the only difference was the foot you put it on. I looked carefully figuring they would all be taking short cuts, but sure enough many of these guys were wearing the real deal. You could tell because instead of the buckles starting in the instep and going out, both buckles would either go left or right. In my mind it was a tiny and impressive detail to get right.
And since it’s the firearms of the day that I know the most about, I fully expected to be rolling my eyes in that area as well, but again I was largely proven wrong. The British foot soldiers carried their standard firearm of the day the second model, short land pattern “Brown Bess” musket.
Several members of the Continentals carried these weapons as well, as was typical of their forces, but many also carried a combination of British and French fowling guns and a mishmash of other smoothbore guns from the period which had their stocks cut down to allow for the fitting of a bayonet lug. This was a common practice at the time, and even the mish-mashiness of it was period correct for the thrown together American Army of the day.
In one other breathtaking bit of accuracy, I even noticed one member of the militia who had rolled his ramrod tip from a bit of flat wire instead of a “store bought” solid welded tip. This was a common practice in the colonies where people had to sometimes make do with material shortages, but nothing I ever expected to see in a 2008 reenactment. There were other armament shortcuts taken here and there as well but far fewer than I counted on. For instance I saw one teen-age member of the NJ militia carrying a left handed, finely engraved Pennsylvania rifle with a swamped barrel and stocked in very high grade maple not too dissimilar from this one:
It was a certainly a beautiful gun, but would have been well beyond the means of a young militiaman in 1778. The Continentals did field their riflemen of course and rifles like that one might have been used. But for the most part they would have been crafted in a simpler fashion, more suited to the Spartan frontier life of the people who carried them. The gentry who might have been able to afford a gun like that would all be fighting as officers in that war.
And what was probably the most expensive detail of all, was that the British commanding officer even rode what looked to me like the correct breed of horse. He spent the battle on a slender black “Standard Bred” jumper, and even got a hearty cheer from the crowd when he vaulted a fence during the battle. The officers on both sides were on horseback as well, but they looked to my novice’s eye more like sturdy American quarter horses which while common today, were an unheard of breed in 1778.
It was lots of fun watching the fellas run back and forth in the heat and lining up to shoot with muskets and cannons, but there was no moment more stirring than when “his Excellency General George Washington” (as he was typically announced by the moderator) took to the field. The real Washington was supposed to be the tallest man in his army and the best horseman in North America. The actor who played that role may not have been quite as striking, but I think he did the general justice. The crowd just loved him.
It was hot, humid, crowded and noisy, but a lot easier on the spectators than the participants, and we found it very entertaining.
I spoke to people in the audience who came from as far as Massachusetts to see this battle. In fact, about half of the crowd seemed to be sporting accents that put their point of origin somewhere out of state. They seemed to be a dedicated bunch, and I felt just a little guilty that all we did to see it was to turn right at the first light before the mall.
And now having seen what an impressive display it is, I’d certainly do it again. I don’t know about a 10 hour drive up to Massachusetts, but I’d certainly have driven 2 hours or so and still feel like it was worth the trouble. And since they aren’t moving the State Park anytime soon, I’ll put it in my calendar and plan around it. Next year I think I’ll take a bit more time wandering the camps and talking to the people. They sell a bunch of 1770 handicrafts and toys for the kids. It’s a little slice of history…a sort of mobile Colonial Williamsburg with a mock battle in the middle. And even if you’re not a geeky history buff, it’s a nice way to spend an afternoon.