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An Inexplicable Charm
(June 28, 1778)
And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment . . . informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.
The air smelled like rotten eggs. The gunsmoke had settled since the end of the fighting, but its sulfurous stench hung on in the hot, humid atmosphere. To the officers of the Continental Army, it was a further reminder of an opportunity lost, thanks to the bungling (some said it was treachery) of Major General Charles Lee.
This was the aftermath of the Battle of Monmouth Court House, June 28, 1778, among the hills and hollows of central New Jersey.
More than 700 men, about half Continentals and half redcoats and Hessians, were missing or lay scattered, wounded or dead, across the sprawling battlefield. It had been the longest action of the war, over nine hours, and one of the largest. For the Americans it was also the most frustrating day’s work of the whole struggle for independence. A chance to strike a real blow against the enemy, by mauling his rear guard on its retreat across New Jersey, had been thrown away, or so the American officers believed.
As night fell over the ghastly scene, the Americans did not know that the British were already planning to creep away. They muffled the wheels of their wagons, abandoned their dead and many of their wounded, and themselves were soon abandoned by hundreds of deserters. When the sun rose the next morning — to produce another savagely hot, suffocating day with temperatures in the upper nineties — the Continental Army would hold the field. According to the customs of war, that made the Americans the winners.
The last cannonade ended at about five in the afternoon. The major generals ordered their brigade commanders to round up stragglers, reorganize their troops, and place them in defensive positions. Men fanned out to plunder the dead and to retrieve American and British wounded and take them to the rear. That night everyone who had fought collapsed on the ground. Soldiers and officers alike were exhausted, not so much by the fighting as by the brutal heat — many of the casualties on both sides had fallen to sunstroke and thirst rather than gunfire.
The division commanders trudged toward headquarters, which meant wherever the commander in chief happened to be. He was atop a steep rise overlooking the scene of the last stages of the action. One of them was Nathanael Greene, a sturdy, fighting Quaker and the army’s most dependable major general.
Greene found the commander in chief as dusk was turning into dark. General George Washington was asleep on a cloak spread on the ground. The boy, Major General Lafayette, lay curled up beside him, also asleep on the general’s cloak.
The middle-aged man and the teenage boy had met less than a year before, at the end of another hot, stifling day — Philadelphia in August. In the months since, they had drawn together like two orphans in a storm, which had first blown over them in different places — one in the Old World, the other in the New — in 1775.
The Quaker soldier shared the opinion of the American commanders that this day would have gone better if the original plan had been followed. The young, aggressive Lafayette should have remained in command of the advance force rather than being superseded by Lee. Washington should not have been forced to charge onto the scene and take personal command. Instead, Lafayette’s energies had been wasted. Washington had found a disaster in the making and turned it into, at best, a tactical draw.
But any regrets about what might have been were banished by the touching scene before him, Washington and Lafayette asleep together. Having watched the attachment grow between these two over the months, Greene also found the youngster endearing. He had once told his wife that the boy was irresistible, owing to “an inexplicable charm.” Nothing could be more charming, in these grisly, stinking surroundings, than this affectionate, familial picture — not so much two exhausted soldiers as a father and son sharing the innocent comfort of sleep.
Greene spread his own cloak under a nearby tree, vowing to drive off anyone who might disturb the slumbering pair. But the day and battle just past proved to be too much even for his iron constitution. Sleep soon settled over him, as it already had over Washington and Lafayette, together in peace amid the madness of war.
From the book Adopted Son by David A. Clary Published by Bantam Books; January 2007;$27.00US/$34.00CAN; 978-0-553-80435-5
Copyright © 2007 by David A. Clary
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