When an ancestor's blue-colored utterances make it into the history books, the family genealogist owes it to posterity to give the episode its due. One of my Ogden ancestors - two brothers who were officers in the New Jersey Continentals during the American War of Independence - is said to have answered a request by one of Washington's staff officers for an explanation of the collapse of the advanced wing at Monmouth Court House with an exasperated oath, followed by the memorable line; "Sir, they are fleeing from a shadow!" A fine sentiment, and perfectly in the keeping of the character of either Colonel Matthias Ogden of the 1st New Jersey, or Brigade Major Aaron Ogden, his brother and my direct ancestor. But which of these swore a blue streak for posterity, and how was the incident recorded?
Various 19th century histories relate the episode differently and manage to make almost as great a muddle of things as the confused battle itself. Joel Tyler Headley's Friendship's Memorial (1853) appears to be wrong in two points, as it ascribes the question to Washington himself, and credits the reply, prefaced by "a terrible oath", to someone named Osgood instead of Ogden. Henry Beebe Carrington's (1897) Washington, the Soldier reports that two of Washington's aides, Harrison and Fitzgerald, encountered Major (Aaron Ogden) who replied to their question "with an explicative." Everett Titsworth Tomlinson's The Boys of Old Monmouth (1898) says that it was Colonel (Matthias) Ogden who responded to one of Washington's aides "in a towering passion."
So which Ogden was it? Aaron Ogden was himself a staff officer on that day, acting as Assistant A.D.C. to General Alexander "Lord Stirling" who commanded the left wing of the Army, but carrying orders all over the battlefield. Matthias Ogden was commanding Maxwell's Brigade, which included his own regiment and was part of the advanced wing. This was the wing of the army that was retreating when Washington sent his aides forward to discover what was happening.
Robert Hanson Harrison was a senior secretary to Washington, and his memory of the events of this day would be in particular demand afterward, for the officer in charge of the advanced wing, Maj. General Charles Lee, was subsequently courtmarshalled and cashiered over his mismanagement of his command. John Fitzgerald was another secretary and aide-de-camp. If these were the two sent by Washington as indicated above, they would have been the ones to record what Ogden said, and it is most likely that they met Matthias and not Aaron Ogden.
A number of historians agree. Stryker's The Battle of Monmouth (2006) says that Matthias Ogden called out "in great anger" to Harrison; "by God, they are fleeing from a shadow." Wheeler's The Ogden Family in America (1907) quotes the most colorful account of this profane profundity: "with the fierce wrath of the lion disdaining his chains, when interrogated by Colonel Harrison as to the cause of the retreat, answered with great apparent exasperation; 'By G-d, sir, they are fleeing from a shadow!'"
So it seems that Harrison is indeed the source, and Matthias Ogden the cussing colonel. And indeed, in the courtmarshall proceedings, Harrison's testimony provides confirmation:
"I then proceeded down the line, determined to go to the rear of the retreating troops, and met with Colonel Ogden. I asked him the same question, whether he could assign the cause, or give me any information why the troops retreated. He appeared exceedingly exasperated, and said; 'By God! They are fleeing from a shadow!"
With such (quite literally) damning testimony, Charles Lee was finished as a commander. Harrison went on to be one of Washington's six original appointments to the Supreme Court, though illness prevented him from serving. He died in 1790, followed just a year later by Matthias Ogden who was stricken by Yellow Fever.
"By God!" is a comparatively mild oath, even in Ogden's day. Whatever choice words may have salted his speech beyond this were tactfully omitted in the accounts by Washington's staff. He was not the only one who was "exceedingly exasperated" on that day, and his curses were said to have been eclipsed by those uttered by his Commander in Chief when he rebuked General Lee on the field. What Washington may have said in a great temper can only be surmised, but there is no record of any phrase leaving his lips quite so memorable as "fleeing from a shadow."