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Profile - Major Monroe

James Monroe (1758-1831) left college as a teenager to fight in the Revolutionary War, during which he was so severely wounded that he almost died. He served with such distinction that George Washington said Monroe had ". . . in every instance, maintained the reputation of a brave, active, and sensible officer."

President Monroe came from a family of Scottish origin that had settled in Virginia in the mid-1600s. A family tradition held that the president’s six times great-grandfather and his five times great-grandfather, George Munro and George Munro, Jr., were both killed fighting in the Scottish ranks against the English at the Battle of Pinkie on September 10, 1547. More certainly, his great-grandfather Andrew fought in the Susquehanna Indian War of 1644-1645, and then went to England to serve as an officer during the English Civil War, fighting for King Charles I at the Battle of Preston (August 17-19, 1648).

On the eve of the Revolutionary War, James Monroe was a 17-year old student at William and Mary College. As tensions with Britain rose, the young men of the college formed a militia company, purchasing their own weapons. In June of 1775 James and with his company helped the capture of the governor’s palace at Williamsburg, ousting the British governor and seizing ammunition that had been stored there. On September 28th of that year, Monroe joined the 3rd Virginia, a Continental Regiment, as a cadet. The regiment spent nearly a year in training and on local duty in Virginia, during which time James was promoted to lieutenant. In August of 1776 the 700-strong 3rd Virginia marched north to join Washington’s army around New York City. While the regiment was on the march, Washington’s army suffered a series of disastrous defeats on Long Island and Manhattan (August-September). The 3rd Virginia arrived on September 12th, just in time to take part in the retreat, fighting in the Battles of Harlem Heights (September 16th) and White Plains (October 28th). Following a long retreat across New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, the regiment took part in Washington’s famous Christmas counterattack across the Delaware; Monroe is the officer holding the flag in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware”.

At the Battle of Trenton (December 26th), Monroe, by then a lieutenant, and Maj. William A. Washington (the general’s nephew) led a charge up King Street that resulted in the capture of two brass cannon. During this charge both men were seriously wounded. Monroe took a musket ball in the shoulder that severed an artery. Had it not been for the prompt attention of a physician he would have died from loss of blood. As the surgeon had to leave the musket ball in his shoulder, for the rest of his life Monroe walked with his left side thrust somewhat forward. Nevertheless, he was back on duty within about two months.

When he was 18 years and 10 months old, Monroe was promoted to captain. No suitable command was available for him at the time, however, so he became an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling. In this capacity James fought at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown (September 11th and 22nd, 1777). With the rest of the army Monroe suffered through the terrible winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. He later performed important reconnaissance missions during the Monmouth Campaign and in operations in the Hudson Valley in 1778. Later that year, by then a major, Monroe was briefly involved in a project to offer freedom to slaves who would volunteer to fight, but the plan was frustrated by pro-slavery interests.

At the end of 1778, Monroe requested a discharge and resumed his studies at William and Mary. In 1780 he was appointed the Virginia Military Commissioner to the Southern Army. In this capacity, Monroe, on 22, reported to the state government on military developments in Georgia and the Carolinas and helped arrange for supplies and equipment to be sent to the army. Later that same year he was appointed colonel of a militia regiment raised for coast defense. Although he several times sought to return to active duty with the Continental Army, Monroe remained in this post until elected to the state assembly in 1782. This ended his military service during the Revolution. 

After the Revolution Monroe had a varied career in politics. He served in Congress, as an ambassador, and as governor of Virginia. In 1811 President James Madison appointed Monroe Secretary of State, in which capacity he served until 1817. In addition to his duties as Secretary of State, during the Second British War (1812-1814), Monroe often provided useful advice on military policy, organization, and strategy, and twice wore a second hat as Acting Secretary of War. During his first tour as Acting Secretary (December 1812-February 1813), he proposed an increase in number of major generals, which was acted upon. Monroe also proposed that nine military districts be established, each with a distinct commander, responsible for operations within his territory, a measure that was also adopted. But Congress rejected the his proposals for a sweeping reform of Army's staff and administration, to include a single general-in-chief, possibly because President Madison may have wanted to give the job of general-in-chief to Monroe. 

Monroe’s proposal to have a single general-in-chief was a good one. It would have ended much of the squabbling over seniority among the many generals in the army, which had contributed greatly to the poor showing of American forces during the war. Moreover, Monroe would have been a good choice for the job, as he seems to have grasped the essence of what was the optimal American strategy. For three years the U.S. had wasted its efforts in attempting offensives against Canada on four widely separated fronts; eastwards and northwards from Michigan and Ohio, and from New York westwards across the Niagara River and northwards against Montreal.  Monroe realized that the correct strategy was to take Montreal. Capturing Montreal would have severed the lines of communication between the main British bases, at Quebec and Halifax, and points further west. This would have made operations further west unnecessary, as British garrisons would wither on the vine, as it were. But Monroe never got a chance to implement this strategy.

Despite his high government office, during the British attack on Washington in August of 1814, Monroe personally undertook several reconnaissance patrols, mounted on horseback and armed with pistols and a saber. Unfortunately, he also found time to meddle in arrangements for the defense of the city, and may have actually contributed to the American defeat at Bladensburg (August 24, 1814), which permitted the British to capture Washington; what with President Madison poking his nose into defense arrangements, as well as Monroe, Maj. Gen. William H. Winder, commanding the defending forces, remarked to an aide, “I am but the nominal commander.” During Monroe’s second tour as Acting Secretary (September 1814-March 1815), he pushed through a number of important reforms, bringing some order to the chaos that prevailed in the War Department, and even managed to get Congress to initiate a draft, but these had little effect on the outcome of the war, which ended in late 1814. 

By the end of the war, Monroe had gained an enormous reputation as an efficient, able administrator. As a result, he was elected President in 1816, and in 1820 was reelected unanimously, the only person other than George Washington to have had this distinction. 

Militarily, Monroe’s presidency was remarkably quite. Aside from the First Seminole War (1817-1818) the Army saw little active service, and the Navy only undertake some anti-piracy operations in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean and in anti-slavery operations off the coast of Africa. 

Upon leaving office, Madison lived quietly in retirement until his death.

President Monroe had two daughters. The younger, Marie Hester Monroe, married her first cousin, Samuel L. Gouverneur. Their son, Samuel Laurence Gouverneur, Jr. served in Mexican War as a 2nd Lt. in the 4th Artillery, earning a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for gallantry at Contreras and Churubusco. He later served as U.S. Consul in Foo Chow, China, where his daughter, Rose de Chine Gouverneur, was born. She married Rosewell Randall Hoes, who was a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy, and served in the Spanish-American War, ending his career as a captain.

Neither of Monroe’s two brothers seems to have served. His nephew, also James Monroe graduated from West Point in 1815. The younger James Monroe spent 17 years in the army, and even served overseas with the Navy during the Second Barbary War (1815), taking part in the capture of the Algerian frigate Mashouda in a sea battle. In 1832 he retired due to illness. Returning to his native Virginia, he entered politics and rose to colonel in the state militia.

 


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