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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Did George Washington Swear During the Battle of Monmouth?

The Library of America’s current Story of the Week is George Washington’s account of the Battle of Monmouth. Part of the conflict’s behind-the-scenes lore, which Washington only glancingly mentions, is the cowardice and incompetence of General Charles Lee, who had been given command of the forces for the attack. Although details of warfare are always hazy, both on the scene and in retrospect, one of the more contentious points among historians and Revolutionary War buffs seems to be whether Washington, who famously prohibited the use of profanity by his troops, actually swore at Lee.

In his landmark biography of Washington, Ron Chernow summarizes a few contemporary recollections of Washington’s reaction when he encountered Lee abandoning the field:
“You damned poltroon,” Washington rejoined, “you never tried them!” Always reluctant to resort to profanities, the chaste Washington cursed at Lee “till the leaves shook on the tree,” recalled General [Charles] Scott. “Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since.” Lafayette said it was the only time he ever heard Washington swear. “I confess I was disconcerted, astonished, and confounded by the words and the manner in which His Excellency accosted me,” Lee recalled.
Still, during the decades after the war—and even until the present day—there has been no consensus of what Washington may have actually said to Lee. In 1900, a “new” eyewitness account (albeit delivered secondhand across the span of two sixty-year generations) surfaced in the magazine of the Daughters of the Revolution. At a dinner party in 1840, a Major Jacob Morton, then eighty years old, claimed to have been at the scene and acknowledged that Washington looked “like a thunder cloud before the lightning flash,” but he vehemently denied that the general used any inappropriate language.

But perhaps an unnamed professor of divinity quoted in Franklin Ellis’s A History of Monmouth County (1885) said it best: “If ever any body did have an excuse for swearing it was Washington at the battle of Monmouth.”

Related LOA volume: George Washington: Writings

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