On June 26, 1778, British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton’s army, en route from Philadelphia to New York, first arrived in Monmouth Court House, now known as Freehold. With the entry of France into the American Revolution on the side of the rebels, the British wanted to consolidate their forces within their strongholds in New York City and in the southern U.S., and so evacuated Philadelphia. Wealthy loyalists and officers’ families traveled by Royal Navy ships, leaving Clinton’s army to march on foot across enemy territory in New Jersey to reach safety.
General Clinton’s army, 12,000 strong, was comprised of many different kinds of units. In addition to regular British army redcoat units, there were also numerous units comprised of American loyalists who were fighting for the king. For example, Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe led the Queen’s American Rangers, with 454 soldiers; 129 men served in the 2nd Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers; 17 men were with the 3rd Battalion of N.J. volunteers, and another 211 Americans comprised Lt. Col. John Van Dyke’s New Jersey Volunteers unit. Clinton’s army also included a unit of 49 freed American slaves called the Black Pioneers who served as woodcutters and bridge-builders to help the British make their way across mostly rural central New Jersey.
Some of the members of these American loyalist units fighting for the king were former residents of Monmouth County. In the months after fighting broke out between Americans and the British in 1776, Patriots and Loyalists in Monmouth County took turns confiscating property, conducting raids, and clashing in ever way possible. Freehold initially had a number of prominent and active Loyalists among its residents, who briefly controlled the village. Continental Army troops eventually broke up the Loyalists in the area, forcing many to flee to Sandy Hook, which the British Army controlled for the entirety of the Revolution. The area around the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was a tent city that became known as Refugeetown. Former wealthy landowners and ordinary townspeople alike lived there, as did runaway slaves, Continental Army deserters, and all of their families.
Clinton’s army completed its evacuation of Philadelphia on June 18, and proceeded up through Haddonfield, Mount Holly and Moorestown before reaching Allentown in Monmouth County on June 24. The following day, they headed toward Freehold.
The British marchers endured harsh conditions on their trip. Mosquitoes, blistering heat and humidity, the constant harassment by local militia, having to traverse swamps and morasses…the troops were exhausted by this point, and having reached the high grounds around Freehold, were set for a brief rest.
At this point, Clinton’s army was 12 miles from the heights of Middletown, one day’s march. This high ground would have been essentially unassailable, and Clinton’s men, once there, would have an easy time making the final trip down to Sandy Hook, and by boat to New York. What everyone expected was a quick rest in Freehold, and then the completion of their mission.
But Clinton remained in Freehold for two full days. His correspondence clearly indicates he felt the men needed rest. But he also was receiving constant intelligence and updates from Loyalists across the state, who were keeping an eye on George Washington’s units as they began to converge on Freehold. Clinton had enjoyed great success against Washington in 1777, and while the numbers may have been roughly equal, no one on either side doubted that the British were the vastly superior and more experienced fighting force.
Washington’s army, however, had spent a brutal winter at Valley Forge learning to drill as discreet units, how to work with artillery, learning and practicing proven tactics, with the assistance of professional soldiers such as Major General Freidrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known to Americans as the Marquis de La Fayette. After narrowly surviving the winter, followed by months of constant drilling and training, the Continentals were spoiling for a fight, and Clinton was as well.
And fight they would, on June 28. But in the two days before then, something else was happening. Some historians have labeled it “The Sack of Monmouth Court House.”
The former Monmouth County residents who were now fighting for the king found themselves with a unique opportunity to exact vengeance upon their former neighbors and countrymen for having driven them from their homes, and deprived them of their property and liberty. Homes and businesses belonging to Patriots were put to the torch; women were raped, livestock and anything usable was confiscated, fertile planting fields were salted, all in a two-day orgy of cruel and violent retribution.
The toll of loss would have been much greater, but many Patriot families, knowing the British army was headed their way, fled their homes, drove their livestock into the woods, buried their silver in the ground or hid valuables in wells. Some joined up with militia units for protection; some men joined the Continental army, believing that British soldiers would not harm innocent women and children. This proved to be a disastrous error in judgment, as the harm came not from British, but primarily from fellow Americans.
British and Hessian generals, including Clinton, professed to be aghast at what happened on June 26, but took little action to stop it from continuing on June 27. One Hessian officer wrote, “every place here was broken into and plundered by the…soldiers. The church, which was made of wood and had a steeple, was miserably demolished;” the soldiers were “breaking and destroying everything.”
By the end of the 27th, “11 dwellings, assorted outbuildings and at least two businesses had been burned or otherwise destroyed,” according to Mark Edward Lender and Gary Stone Wheeler in their outstanding book on the Battle of Monmouth, Fatal Sunday. Only Patriots were targeted. Among those who lost everything were the village doctor, the blacksmith, and a tavern-keeper. Villagers returning after the battle found “the earth was strewn with dead carcasses, sufficient to have produced a pestilence.”
On June 28, the two armies clashed in the day-long Battle of Monmouth, considered a standoff by many. That night, Clinton’s army packed up and left Freehold under the cover of darkness, and the Continentals awoke after sleeping on their muskets on the field of battle to find the enemy long gone.
Washington’s army would move on to other campaigns. No other village was sacked as was Freehold during the Revolution. But after that outrage, the residents of Freehold and the rest of Monmouth County turned up the heat on the escalating civil war in the region. Patriots continued confiscating and selling off Loyalist properties, arresting people without charges and assessing fines, and removing them to prisons in Pennsylvania and Maryland, solely for their belief that American was better off under crown rule. Loyalists at Sandy Hook, including former slaves such as the infamous Colonel Tye, conducted raids into Monmouth County, arresting militia leaders, stealing guns, food and ammunition, burning homes and pillaging.
This constant retribution went on all the way until the very end of the Revolution. It did not begin with the Sack of Monmouth Court House, but the events of June 26 and June 27 surely served to significantly escalate the volatility and violence taking place county-wide.
Lender, Mark E., & Stone, Garry W. (2016). Fatal Sunday. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla.
Adelberg, Michael S. (2010). The American Revolution in Monmouth County: The Theatre of Spoil and Destruction. The History Press, Charleston, S.C.
Smith, Samuel S. (1975). The Battle of Monmouth. Pamphlet published January 1, 1975, New Jersey Historical Commission.