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

The Battle of White Plains

On October 19, 1776, after being delayed by a clash with Massachusetts Colonel John Glover and his men at Pelham Bay, British General William Howe and his army camped at New Rochelle, New York. Howe was waiting for supplies and 8,000 Hessian reinforcements under the command of General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.  The British intended to launch a maneuver that would encircle and defeat General George Washington’s army at Harlem Heights.

Washington was aware of the British advance. He sent General Charles Lee on a scouting mission north. Lee returned with the advice that the army move to White Plains because it was more defensible and contained a supply depot.

Rufus Putnam
Rufus Putnam

Colonel Rufus Putnam (General Israel Putnam’s cousin) was sent on a reconnaissance mission to discover the British position and determine how soon they might reach White Plains.

Putnam returned with disturbing intelligence of Howe’s proximity to White Plains. In response, Washington hasten the American army’s lugubrious retreat north along the west bank of the Bronx River. He dispatched Putnam with orders to Lord Alexander Stirling, whose troops were furthest north, to immediately march to White Plains.

The Continental Army arrived at White Plains ahead of Howe’s army. It provided time for Washington’s men to construct their defenses. Washington established his headquarters at the Elijah Miller House on October 23, and chose a defensive position that he fortified with two lines of entrenchments. The trenches were situated on raised terrain, protected on the right by the swampy ground near the Bronx River, with steeper hills further back as a place of retreat. The American defenses were 3 miles long. Beyond that, across the Bronx River on the right, was Chatterton’s Hill, which commanded the plain over which the British would have to advance.

Washington sent the Maryland and Delaware forces, as well as some Connecticut regimentals and some militia to Chatterton’s Hill to join an isolated outpost held by Colonel Alexander McDougall. There approximately 2,000 men began constructing fortifications.

Chatterton-Hill
Chatterton’s Hill

During this time, General Howe’s army proceeded north to Mamaroneck where they paused for another four days to reconnoiter the roads and terrain around White Plains. On the morning of October 28, Howe ordered his entire force, 13,000 strong, forward to White Plains to attack the American lines. Howe took General Henry Clinton’s advice (which was a rare occurrence) and proceeded in several columns, with Clinton leading the one farthest right whose task would be to outflank the Americans while they fought the British on the left.

When Washington heard the British were advancing he said to his officers, “Gentlemen, you will repair to your respective posts and do the best you can.” His officers holding the lines included generals William Heath, John Sullivan, and Charles Lee. Then, Washington called for a detachment of 1,500 men under General Joseph Spencer to confront the British vanguard. Joseph Plumb Martin and Benjamin Tallmadge were among them.

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Benjamin Tallmadge

The detachment crossed the Bronx River and waited behind stone walls for the enemy. They became engaged with the Hessians pouring a destructive fire into the Hessian ranks until they found that they were about to be flanked. The Americans retreated across the river and ascended the hill.

battleofwhiteplainsmap

The British advanced and began firing field pieces across the river at the American lines.  The Americans returned fire. Smoke from artillery and shot filled the air.

Howe detached several thousand of his men and twelve pieces of artillery to attack Chatterton’s Hill. The British attack was organized with Hessian regiments leading the assault. Colonel Johann Rall was to charge the American right, while a Hessian battalion under Colonel Carl von Donop was to attack the center. When they reached the river, British grenadiers charged across and pressed on up the steep and heavily wooded hill. They became targets of their own artillery which had ignited the dry autumn leaves and branches. The Hessians followed charging through the burning fields. They held their cartridge boxes above their heads to keep them from exploding.

battle-white-plains The Americans fired canister and grape into the oncoming enemy. The Royal Artillery responded with solid shot. The Americans repelled the first wave of attack as they poured musket fire into the approaching enemy. Rall’s Hessians rallied and taking heavy casualties, fought up the southern side of the hill. Rall’s charge scattered the militia and they “fled in confusion,” Colonel John Haslet of the Delaware troops reported. This exposed the American right flank.

The British pelted the Marylanders and the Delaware Regiment with a “very heavy fire of their artillery and musquetry for about half an hour.” Reinforcements arrived, but the Marylanders and Delaware men were forced to withdraw. “The Americans overpowered by their numbers, were compelled to save themselves, as best they could,” recalled Marylander Captain Samuel Smith.

Washington ordered a fighting withdrawal with the 1st Delaware Regiment guarding the rear. The Continental Army continued their retreat to North Castle, New York. Both sides suffered significant casualties. The high  price (in casualties) the British army paid for the hill was enough to discourage further aggression on General Howe’s part.

Resources:

O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington’s Immortals New York: Grove Press, 2016. Print.

Schecter, Barnet. The Battle For New York New York: Walker & Company, 2002. Print.

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

Heath, William. Edited by William Abbatt. Memoirs of Major General William Heath New York: William Abbatt, 1901. Print.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island

The Siege of Boston began on April 19, 1775 after British troops retreated to Boston following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. With American artillery retrieved from Ft. Ticonderoga staring down at the town from Dorchester Heights, British General William Howe evacuated his troops and several thousand loyalists from Boston on March 17, 1776.

British army forces in North America were primarily tied up with the siege; therefore, the British planned an expedition to the southern colonies seeking bases of operations where they had more control. British General Henry Clinton was to travel to Cape Fear, North Carolina, where he would join with largely Scottish Loyalists raised in the North Carolina backcountry, and a force of 2,000 men from Ireland under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.

clinton
General Henry Clinton

In January 1776, John Rutledge, a member of the Continental Congress, delivered information of the British plans to move into South Carolina. Rutledge organized defenses to be established on Sullivan’s Island to defend the city from an incursion by the British. Sullivan’s Island was a strategically suitable place to construct a fort, because it was a geographic shield to Charleston Harbor. Vessels sailing into Charleston had to cross Charleston Bar, which consisted of submerged sand banks south of the city.

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Colonel William Moultrie

Colonel William Moultrie and his 2nd South Carolina Regiment began building the fort on Sullivan’s Island in March 1776. The fort, named Fort Sullivan at the time, was planned as a square redoubt, with bastions at each corner. The construction was of an inner and an outer wall, made with palmetto trunks up to a height of twenty feet, with the sixteen-foot space between the walls filled with sand.

Clinton left Boston on January 20 and arrived at Cape Fear, North Carolina on March 12, expecting to find the European convoy already there. He met with the royal governors of North and South Carolina and learned that the recruited Scottish Loyalists had been defeated at Moore’s Creek Bridge two weeks earlier.

British Admiral Peter Parker’s fleet, which sailed from England with the Irish and General Cornwallis on board, encountered extreme difficulties crossing the Atlantic. Battered by storms and high seas, the first ships of the fleet did not arrive at Cape Fear until April 18, and Cornwallis did not arrive until May 3. After several weeks there,  Clinton, Cornwallis and Parker concluded that Cape Fear was not a suitable base for further operations.

parker
Admiral Peter Parker

Parker sent some of his fleet on scouting expeditions up and down the coast, and reports on the partially finished condition of the Charleston defenses were sufficiently promising that the decision was made to go there. By the time the British flotilla arrived off Charleston at the end of May 1776, the fort on Sullivan’s Island was unfinished, but was sufficiently advanced to provide a substantial defense to the city.

Congress had appointed General Charles Lee to command the Continental Army troops in the southern colonies. Lee arrived in Charleston shortly after the British fleet anchored outside the harbor, and he took command of the city’s defense. On seeing the uncompleted fort, he recommended that it be abandoned, describing it as a ‘Slaughter Pen’. Acting on Colonel Moultrie’s advice, Rutledge refused to leave the fort.

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General Charles Lee

Arriving there in early June, British troops were landed on Long Island (now called Isle of Palms), near Sullivan’s Island. The intent was that these troops would wade across the channel (now known as Breach Inlet) between Long and Sullivan’s, which the British believed to be sufficiently shallow to do so, while the fleet bombarded Fort Sullivan. General Lee responded to the British landing with several defensive actions.

troop-disposition

General Clinton encountered the first major problem of the attack plan on June 17. An attempt to wade the channel between the two islands established that part of the channel was at least shoulder-deep, too deep for troops to cross even without the prospect of enemy opposition.

On June 26, the British repositioned at Five Fathom Hole, ready for the assault. On the morning of June 28, 1776 at around 9:00 am, a British ship fired a signal gun indicating all was ready for the attack. Less than an hour later, nine warships had sailed into positions facing the fort.

Fleet-after-battle

A plan of the fort was prepared by an officer of the Royal Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James after the battle. The plan showed 28 pieces of artillery in Fort Sullivan.  One is described as a mortar and the rest as being 32 and 26 pounders. If James was correct the British ships were heavily out-gunned by Fort Sullivan.

The largest British ship, HMS Bristol, carried twenty-two 24 pounder guns, twenty-two 12 pounder guns and other smaller cannon. HMS Experiment carried the same size and number of guns. The British frigates deployed nothing larger than 9 pounders.

Around noon the frigates SphinxSyren, and Actaeon were sent on a roundabout route, avoiding some shoals, to take a position from which they could enfilade the fort’s main firing platform and also cover one of the main escape routes from the fort. However, all three ships grounded on an uncharted sandbar, and the riggings of Actaeon and Sphinx became entangled in the process. The British managed to refloat Sphinx and Syren, but Acteon remained grounded.

Sullivans-Island-1776

At the fort, Moultrie ordered his men to concentrate their fire on the two large man-of-war ships, Bristol and Experiment, which took hit after hit from the fort’s guns. Chain shot fired at Bristol eventually destroyed much of her rigging and severely damaged both the main- and mizzenmasts.

Admiral Parker eventually sought to destroy the fort’s walls with persistent broadside cannonades. This strategy failed due to the spongy nature of the palmetto wood used in its constructions; the structure would quiver, and it absorbed the cannonballs rather than splintering. The exchange continued until around 9:00 pm, when darkness forced a cessation of hostilities, and the fleet finally withdrew out of range. The following morning, the British, unable to drag the grounded Acteon off the sandbar, set fire to the ship to prevent her from falling into enemy hands.

The flag that flew over the fort during the battle was created by Colonel Moultrie when he was ordered to take over Fort Johnson on James Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina in 1775. It was the first United States flag flown in the south.Ft_Moultrie_FlagMoultrie designed a blue flag with a white crescent moon in the canton with the word “Liberty” on the moon. Keeping with this theme, Moultrie’s South Carolina regiments wore blue uniforms with a silver crescent on their caps and the words “Liberty or Death.” Moultrie chose the design to honor his soldiers and continued the tradition of using the crescent as a symbol of resistance to tyrannical rule.

During the battle, the pole holding up the Fort Moultrie Flag was broken by a cannon shot and the flag fell down outside the fort. Sergeant William Jasper, risking death from the bullets and cannon balls flying all around him, allegedly cried, “We cannot fight without a flag!” He replanted the flag on the walls of the fort, earning him a place of renown in the American Revolution. Sgt-Jasper

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island was a decisive American victory over the British. The outcome on Sullivan’s Island would prevent other British efforts in Charleston for over three more years, and it revived the American spirit. The pride of victory at Sullivan Island was initiative for more Americans to support the break from Great Britain, because the victory was achieved against all odds.

Fort Sullivan was renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of Colonel William Moultrie’s success in defending Charleston. Today, the flag of the State of South Carolina is based on the Fort Moultrie Flag. south-carolina-flagIt is exactly the same as the original, except that the word “Liberty” is removed from the crescent and it has a Palmetto Tree added in the center of the blue field. The Palmetto Tree was added by the state during the Civil War. Several variations appeared during that time, but the version with the palmetto added, to represent the palmetto logs that were used at Fort Moultrie, is the one that survived as the official flag of South Carolina.

I visited Fort Moultrie recently. The following pictures are from my camera.

William Moultrie was promoted to Brigader General after the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. He died in 1805 at the age of 74 and was buried outside Charleston, in the family cemetery on his son’s property at Windsor Hill Plantation. The exact location of his body was unknown until 1977 when it was found by archeologists. On June 28, 1978, the remains of this Revolutionary War hero and early leader in South Carolina history were reinterred on Sullivan’s Island near the water at the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center. Today, William Moultrie’s grave is marked by a flagpole and a tombstone enclosed by iron fencing.

The fort that stands today reveals no traces of the fort that defended Sullivan’s Island. The original fort fell into decay and was rebuilt in 1798. It too suffered from neglect and was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. However, Fort Moultrie was rebuilt for the third time. By 1809, a new brick fort stood on Sullivan’s Island.

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Fort Sumter is across the harbor from Fort Moultrie

After South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, Fort Moultrie was abandoned for the stronger Fort Sumter across the harbor. The fort was modernized several times and was used as a defense in WWI and WWII. It was maintained until 1947. The fort fell into decay once again. In 1960, South Carolina transferred Fort Moultrie to the National Park Service as a unit of Fort Sumter National Monument.

Resources:

https://www.britishbattles.com/war-of-the-revolution-1775-to-1783/battle-of-sullivans-island/ 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Sullivan%27s_Island

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/fort-moultrie-flag.html

http://totallyhistory.com/battle-of-sullivans-island/

Click to access William_Moultrie.pdf

Fort Moultrie pamphlet available at the visitors’ center (Fort Sumter National Monument South Carolina) issued by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior


My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two