Henry Beekman Livingston was a jerk. That is an undeniable fact. His terrible treatment of his wife, children, servants and slaves was well documented. His military career nearly came to an early end because of a personal dispute with another officer and it did end in what was essentially a temper tantrum.
He was also a hero of the Revolutionary War. At the Battle of Monmouth, the last major battle of the war fought in the north, Henry may have very well saved the entire army from a crushing defeat.
In the fall of 1777 the Revolution had achieved a great victory at Saratoga, in which Henry played no small part as the colonel of the 4th New York Regiment, but also a difficult defeat when the British army under General William Howe took Philadelphia. After a mission to New York City to deliver a scolding letter to General Henry Clinton for the raid into the Hudson Valley (that ended with the destruction of Clermont), Henry joined his regiment and the rest of the Continental Army in winter quarters at Valley Forge.
Henry’s men suffered that winter from a lack of food and clothing. Henry pleaded for both from Governor George Clinton and his brother Robert, the Chancellor. Unlike many of the army’s officers Henry stayed with his men all winter. Toward the end of the winter his entire regiment was moved out of their huts at the main camp and placed in tents because of rampant sickness. Henry himself fell sick.
As spring came Henry and his men’s health improved. They began to train under the direction of the recently arrived, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben (at right). In short they became professional soldiers.
In June of 1778 Henry Clinton, now commanding the main British Army, decided to abandon Philadelphia. George Washington decided to pursue him and make sure the British got back to New York City as quickly as possible. Before they marched the best officers and men in the army were chosen and formed into ad hoc battalions to serve as an advanced corps for the army under the command of General Charles Lee. Henry was given command of a battalion of 380 men.
After four days of marching in brutal heat Lee’s command finally made contact with the rear guard of the British Army on June 28, 1778. Lee gave the order to advance but almost immediately gave orders to retreat. Lee, had only recently been released from British custody having been captured in 1776, was at best to scared to risk a fight or at worst a traitor.[i] Many of the battalions fell apart as the men fled in a disorganized mob. Henry, however, held his men in line and led them in an organized retreat. This brought them under British fire but neither were the British able to pursue the retreating American army. Henry’s battalion major was killed. His lieutenant colonel succumbed to the heat.
The Marquis de Lafayette rode up with orders for Henry to take his men and screen the artillery the Americans had now brought up to fire on the British. Henry reluctantly took the “weak and faint” survivors of his already battered battalion into their new position. As Henry shouted encouragement to his men a British musket ball passed through his thigh. He remained on his feet though, either through sheet meanness or because he knew his battalion had no other officers who could command it.
Henry and his “picked men” stood their ground until a full 1/3, or around 127 of his original 380 men were dead, wounded or had collapsed from the heat. His force found itself flanked on both sides. Henry faced a rapid retreat, most likely unorganized and leaving the wounded to the dubious care of the British. Before he could give that fateful order though Washington appeared on the field with the main body of the American Army. The British army was soon driven off.
That evening as American troops were still harassing the last remnants of the British Army, Henry was given temporary command of General Enoch Poor’s brigade. He only lamented that they did not come into action again against the enemy as he would have taken “ample revenge”.
The Battle of Monmouth was over. The army was battered and bruised but Washington and his men held the field. They had proven that they could be trained to fight like professional soldiers and they had shown they could stand against the British Army.
Three days after the battle Henry wrote a letter to his brother Robert describing the battle as he saw it.[ii] It certainly reads more like a battle report to a superior officer than a letter to a brother. He closes by promising to write to the rest of the family when he has time and tells Robert he only wrote to him to prevent “their being annoy’d”.
All in all Henry Beekman Livingston did not have a good war. He frequently found himself in the thickest fights or under the most extreme conditions. It is entirely possible that his experiences in the war combined with his preexisting bad attitude contributed to his frequently brutal behavior after the war. Perhaps like the rest of his generation, he should be remembered as a full person, not simply a tenacious battlefield commander nor simply the pariah he became.
[i] Lee was probably a traitor. Information found in William Howe’s papers indicates that Lee gave the British a plan for beating the American Army.
[ii] A copy of this letter was obtained by from The David Library of the American Revolution. The original is in the Rutgers University Alexander Library.