General Charles Lee: Patriot or Poltroon? (A Military Scandal of the American Revolution)

October 28, 1776. General George Washington’s Continental Army lost the battle at White Plains, New York. The army had spent the past nine months battling British General William Howe and losing every engagement including New York City. Now, the Continentals were forced to retreat again, to North Castle Heights north of White Plains.

General Charles Lee

Washington moved his army across the Hudson River to New Jersey and left his second-in-command, General Charles Lee in North Castle Heights with a brigade. A month later, two American forts on the shores of the Hudson fell to the British. With British General Charles Cornwallis following his troops, Washington requested Lee cross the Hudson and join forces with him. Lee declined the request.

On November 28, after informing the Continental Congress that he would remain to “annoy, distract, and consequently weaken [the enemy] in a desultory war”, Lee responded to Washington’s repeated requests. Then, he made a mistake. On December 12, with his bodyguards, servant, and pack of little dogs, Lee left his encampment and stopped at a tavern three miles away at Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The following morning a party of British dragoons, galloped toward the tavern. They shot out all the windows and forced Lee to surrender. Lee’s capture spread like wildfire.

A Hessian captain wrote: We have captured General Lee, the only rebel general whom we had cause to fear.

Charles Lee was born in Cheshire, England in 1731 or 1732 into a genteel family and received an excellent education. He came to North America and fought for the British army in the French and Indian War. When the war was over, he returned home and became a soldier of fortune. He moved to North America in 1773. The Patriots hailed him as a military expert. Because he was better educated and had more military experience than other officers, Lee hoped he would be named commander in chief of the Continental Army. Instead, Congress chose George Washington. Lee was selected as a major general and resigned his commission with the British army.

Lee had a dark side. He was slovenly, used foul language, sarcasm, and insults, and criticized his superiors. On the other hand, he was a composed, brilliant and courageous leader in battle.

Engraved caricature of Charles Lee with his dog, Spada

After his arrest at Basking Ridge, Lee was held in captivity in New York City. In February 1777, feeling that Congress had abandoned him and that the Americans had no chance to win the war, he submitted a secret military plan to General William Howe, commander of all British forces in America. There is no evidence that Howe read the plan. Lee also offered to mediate the return of America to the British Crown by requesting that Congress send a delegation to meet him. These acts could have been interpreted as treason.

Charles signed a parole in April 1778 preventing him from reentering American military service until a formal prisoner exchange was finalized. He rode to York, Pennsylvania, where Congress sat, to promote a new military plan. He objected to the Continental Army’s training to face British regular soldiers on the field of battle, which Lee called the “European Plan.” He claimed “only a plan of defense, harassing and impeding can alone succeed.”

When he arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Washington enthusiastically greeted him. But Lee was critical of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian officer who had arrived in America to train the troops. Furthermore, Lee was unfamiliar with many officers and out of touch with the much improved Continental Army.

On June 18, the Continental Army left Valley Forge, to follow the British army evacuating Philadelphia. General Sir William Howe had resigned and returned to England. General Sir Henry Clinton was given command of all British forces in America. His army marched across New Jersey toward New York with a twelve mile long baggage train.

George Washington

Washington sent detachments to harass Clinton’s rearguard including Generals William Maxwell, Charles Scott, and Colonel Daniel Morgan. These men formed the vanguard of the Continental Army under the young Marquis de Lafayette. Washington offered the command to Lee, but Lee thought the small size of the detachment was beneath his experience. When the detachment grew to 3,700 with the addition of General Anthony Wayne’s men, Lee changed his mind.

By June 26, Clinton’s army was halted at Monmouth Court House. At a June 27 council of war, Washington failed to give Lee clear orders. The commander in chief ordered an attack without specifying a general engagement, but said the rest of the army would come up in supporting distance of Lee. Lafayette asked Lee if he had a plan of attack. Lee replied he had none and thought it would be “better for the service to act according to circumstances.”

Lee’s troops marched on the morning of June 28 in increasingly intense heat through a landscape dotted with farms, orchards and crossed with fields and morasses. Lee received conflicting intelligence about Clinton’s movements: the army was retreating; they were threatening Lee’s flanks;  the main body of the British army that constituted Clinton’s first division was still at Monmouth. In actuality, the baggage train and Clinton’s division had marched off to the east and left General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ rear guard near Monmouth.

Lee’s attack on the British rearguard.

At 10:00 a.m., Lee’s forces crossed the Middle Morass and began to skirmish with the enemy’s rear guard. Suddenly, Clinton’s first division reversed course and turned to attack the Patriots. Clinton ordered Cornwallis to turn Lee’s right flank. At the sight of this, American Generals Charles Scott and William Maxwell and some artillery pulled back without Lee’s orders.

As Washington came up with the main army, he was informed there was “some confusion” in Lee’s ranks. A fifer walking the road was asked whether he served in the Continental Army. He responded yes and said that the Continental troops that had been advancing were now retreating. The first columns of retreating troops straggled past. When they were asked the reason for the retreat, none had an answer. An aide to Maxwell said Washington “was exceedingly alarmed, finding the advance corps falling back upon the main body, without the least notice given to him.”

Washington fumed with anger. He spotted Lee and the two rode to meet one another. Washington demanded, “I desire to know, sir, what is the reason for this disorder and confusion?”

“Washington Rebuking Lee at Monmouth” by John Ward Dunmore 1908

Lee stammered, “Sir? Sir?” expecting “congratulation and applause” for avoiding a crushing defeat. He said that he had never supported the attack on Clinton’s rear guard in the first place.

Washington eventually calmed down and returned Lee to the battle. At dusk, hostilities ceased. Clinton’s army moved away early the next morning. The most confusing battle of the American Revolution was a draw.

Lee was furious over Washington’s treatment of him. In the post-battle discussions, Washington was praised although it can be argued that his performance at Monmouth was lacking (that is another discussion for another time). Lee believed he was not being credited for his decision to retreat, which in his view saved his detachment from annihilation. He sent Washington a strong letter of complaint, with threats and insults knowing it would likely be made public. He insulted and blamed others calling them “wicked persons” and “dirty earwigs.” Washington found his language “highly improper” and declared Lee would have his forum. In a second letter, Lee demanded a court-martial so he could clear his name. Washington obliged.

The court-martial began on July 4, 1778 in New Brunswick, New Jersey presided over by General Lord Alexander Stirling. The charges pending were:

First, for disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June, agreeable to repeated instructions.

Second, for misbehavior before the enemy on the same day, by making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat.  

Third, for disrespect to the commander in chief in two letters dated the 1st of July and the 28th of June.

Lee served as his own defense council. He called thirteen witnesses. The prosecution, Judge Advocate General Colonel John Laurance called twenty-eight. The witnesses included Washington’s aide, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, Lee’s aide, Captain John Mercer, generals Scott, Maxwell, Wayne, Lafayette, and Knox. At the court-martial, Lee offered as his defense: he had been unreasonably provoked.

The court found Lee guilty on all counts except a shameful retreat. He was sentenced to one year suspension from the Continental Army. The verdict was passed to the Continental Congress for a final decision. Although Lee had supporters in Congress such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and Richard Henry Lee, the verdict was upheld. After Lee’s sentence expired, the Congress permanently dismissed him from the Continental Army.

Charles Lee died destitute on the evening of October 2, 1782 at the Sign of the Conestoga Wagon tavern in Philadelphia accompanied by his two little dogs and his faithful Italian servant, Giuseppe Minghini.

American Revolution enthusiasts usually rank General Charles Lee’s conduct near the top of the list with the despised, traitorous General Benedict Arnold. However, Lee has his apologists just as Arnold  does. Had Charles Lee been unjustly and unfairly treated? Historians and Revolutionary War lovers have and will continue to argue the question.

How do I feel about General Charles Lee? He is a character in my historical fantasy series of the American Revolution, Angels and Patriots, just as Benedict Arnold is. I see neither man as a pure villain, but both men let their vanity lead them to bad decisions, something many, many people have done since the dawn of man.


Resources:

Engraved caricature of Lee from vol. 3 of The Diaries of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978. p.299).

McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

Lender, Mark Edward and Stone, Garry Wheeler. Fatal Sunday University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Print.

McBurney, Christian. George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee in the Revolutionary War Savas Beatie, 2020. Print

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