Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
H. E. Marshall

The Battle of Monmouth—The Story of Captain Molly

W HILE the Americans were learning endurance in the hard school of Valley Forge the British were having a gay time in Philadelphia. The grave old Quaker town rang with song and laughter as never before. Balls and parties, theatricals and races, followed each other in a constant round of gaiety. And amid this light-hearted jollity Howe seemed to forget all about the war.

Had he chosen he could easily have attacked Valley Forge, and crushed Washington's perishing army out of existence. Or if he grudged to lose men in an attack, he might have surrounded the Americans, and starved them into submission. But he did neither. He was too comfortable in his winter quarters, and had no wish to go out in the snow to fight battles.

Those in power in England had long been dissatisfied with Howe's way of conducting the war. Time and again he had seemed to lose his chance of crushing the rebellion and now this idle and gay winter in Philadelphia seemed the last straw. Such bitter things indeed were said of him that he resigned his commission, and went home, and the supreme command was given to General Clinton.

Now that France had joined with America, Britain was in a very different position than before. She could no longer afford to send out large armies such as Howe had been given to subdue the colonies. For she had to keep troops at home to protect Great Britain from invasion. She had to send ships and men all over the world, to repel the attacks of the French on her scattered colonies and possessions. Clinton therefore was left with only an army of about ten thousand. And with this force he was expected to conquer the country which Howe had been unable to conquer with thirty thousand.

Clinton knew that his task was a hard one. He saw that the taking of Philadelphia had been a mistake, and that from a military point of view it was worthless. So he decided at once to abandon Philadelphia, and take his army back to New York. And on the morning of the 18th of June the British marched out. Before dusk that same day the Americans marched in. A few days later Congress returned, and the city settled back to its quiet old life once more.

It was no easy task for Clinton to cross New Jersey in grilling summer weather, with a small force, an enormous baggage train, and Washington hanging threateningly about his path, harassing him at every step. That he did accomplish it brought him no little renown as a soldier.

For some time, following the advice of his officers, Washington did not make a general attack on the British. But near the town of Monmouth he saw his chance, and determined to give battle.

General Lee had by this time been exchanged, and was now again with Washington's army as second in command, and for this battle Washington gave him command of an advance party of six thousand men. With him were Anthony Wayne and Lafayette.

On the morning of the battle Lee's division was in a very good position. It seemed as if the British might be surrounded with ease, but when Wayne and Lafayette were about to attack Lee stopped them.

"You do not know British soldiers," he said to Lafayette. "We are certain to be driven back. We must be cautious."

"That may be so, General," replied Lafayette, "but British soldiers have been beaten, and may be so again. At any rate, I should like to try."

But for answer, Lee ordered his men to retreat.

At this Lafayette was both angry and astonished, and he hurriedly sent a message to Washington, telling him that his presence was urgently needed.

The soldiers did not in the least know from what they were retreating, and they soon fell into disorder. Then suddenly Washington appeared among them. He was white to the lips with wrath.

"I desire to know," he said, in a terrible voice, turning to Lee, "I desire to know, sir, what is the reason—whence arises this disorder and confusion?"

Lee trembled before the awful anger of his chief. He tried to make excuses. Then Washington's fury knew no bounds. He poured forth a torrent of wrath upon Lee till, as one of his officers who heard him said, "the very leaves shook on the trees." Then halting the retreating troops, he formed them for battle once more. Later in the day meeting Lee he sent him to the rear.

Soon the battle was raging fiercely. Some of the hottest fighting took place round the American artillery, which was commanded by General Knox. The guns were doing deadly work, yet moving about coolly amidst the din and smoke of battle, there might be seen a saucy young Irish girl, with a mop of red hair, a freckled face, and flashing eyes. She was the wife of one of the gunners, and so devoted was she to her husband that she followed him even to battle, helping him constantly with his gun. His comrades looked upon her almost as one of the regiment, and called her Captain Molly, and she wore an artilleryman's coat over her short red skirt, so that she might look like a soldier.

Captain Molly was returning from a spring nearby with a bucket full of water, when her husband, who was just about to fire, was killed by a shot from the enemy. The officer in command, having no one to take his place, ordered the gun to be removed.

Molly saw her husband fall, heard the command given, and she dropped her bucket and sprang to the gun.

"Bedad no," she cried. "I'll fire the gun myself, and avenge my man's death."

It was not the first time that Molly had fired a gun. She was with her husband at Fort Clinton, when it was taken by the British. As the enemy scaled the walls the Americans retreated. Her husband dropped his lighted match, and fled with the rest. But Captain Molly was in no such haste. She picked up the match, fired the gun, and then ran after the others. Hers was the last gun fired on the American side that day.

Now all the long day of Monmouth she kept her gun in action, firing so skilfully and bravely, that all around were filled with admiration, and news of her deeds was carried through the army. Even Washington heard of them.

Next day he ordered her to be brought to him, and there and then he made her a sergeant, and recommended her for an officer's pension for life. But now that her husband was dead Molly's heart was no longer with the army. Soon after the battle of Monmouth she left it, and a few years later she died.

All through the long summer day of pitiless heat the battle raged. Again and again the British charged. Again and again they were thrown back, and at length were driven across a ravine. Here Washington would have followed, but the sun went down, and darkness put an end to the fight.

Washington, however, was determined to renew the battle next day, and that night the army slept on the field. He himself slept under a tree, sharing a cloak with Lafayette. But the battle was never renewed, for during the night Clinton marched quietly away. When day dawned he was already too far off to pursue, and at length he got safely into New York.

This was the last great battle to be fought in the northern states, and a few weeks later Washington took up his quarters on White Plains. There for nearly three years he stayed, guarding the great waterway of the Hudson, and preventing the British from making any further advance in the north.