British-born General Charles Lee (1731-1782) joined the forces of George Washington's Continental Army in 1775. His capture by British troops a year later and his retreat during the Battle of Monmouth, which led to a court-martial and removal from the army, prompted historians to question both his military ability and his allegiance to his adopted country.
One of the most puzzling and ambiguous characters in American military history, Charles Lee served as third in command in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Captured only a year into the war while staying at a New Jersey tavern and imprisoned for 18 months, he later compromised an attack by General George Washington's army by retreating during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Haunted by growing disapproval due to his outspoken criticism of Washington, Lee was court-martialed and subsequently suspended from the army.
No Fixed Allegiance
Of Irish heritage, Lee was born in Dernhall, Cheshire, England, on January 25, 1731. His father, a former colonel in the British Army, encouraged his son's interest in the military and enrolled Lee in a Swiss military school in 1744. An ensign from the age of 14, Lee was sent to the American colonies during the French and Indian War and in 1755 served in British General Edward Braddock's 44th Regiment. This regiment contained several officers who would go on to shape history, among them George Washington, Horatio Gates, and Thomas Gage. Unlike his colleagues, Lee flouted convention with his unkempt appearance and his coarse demeanor, although he was known to quote from Latin scholars when the occasion suited him. Known for his bouts of drunkenness and vulgar language, Lee was rarely seen without his train of dogs. He said dogs, unlike men, were faithful. In 1756, while in northern New York, he was adopted into a Mohawk tribe, entered what he considered a non-binding union with the daughter of Seneca tribal leader White Thunder, and was given the name Ounewaterika, or "Boiling Water," referring to his quickness to anger.
His life with the Mohawks was brief. In July 1758 Lee was back under British command and serving in the 44th Regiment under General Abercromby during the unsuccessful British attack on Fort Ticonderoga. Wounded during battle, he was sent to Long Island to recover. He disagreed with his surgeon on proper treatment of his wounds and whipped the doctor, who later tried to kill him. Lee's brash, impetuous nature frequently got him into trouble.
In 1759, Lee and the 44th Regiment fought French forces at Fort Niagara. He served under General Amherst during the siege and capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760. Spending the winter in England, he was promoted to the rank of major in the 103rd Regiment. On August 10, 1761, he became a major in the 103rd Regiment of the British Army. The following spring, he was a lieutenant colonel when he accompanied an expeditionary force to Portugal under Major General John Burgoyne.
With Great Britain once again at peace, Lee saw no future as an officer on half-pay in the British Army. Lee traveled to Warsaw in March 1765 and gained the confidence of Poland's King Stanislaus. However, a trip to Turkey caused him to rethink this career move. After becoming snowbound in the Balkans and then surviving a deadly earthquake in Constantinople in May 1776, Lee returned to the relative safety of England. He spent the next two years penning sarcastic essays critical of the British crown and lived off his gambling winnings. When civil war broke out in Poland he returned to aid King Stanislaus and was commissioned a general in the Polish army. During a campaign in Turkey in late 1769 Lee became ill and was sent to the Mediterranean to recover. During 1771 he alternated between England and France, but he was discontented with the political situation in both nations.
Joined American Cause
Excited by the growing spirit of the Enlightenment, Lee desired to fight on behalf of liberty, and he enlisted in the cause of the American patriots after returning to the American colonies in 1773. Making a home in current-day West Virginia, he attacked efforts at reconciliation between colonists and the British crown in the pamphlet Strictures on a Pamphlet, entitled "A Friendly address to All Reasonable Americans." His enthusiastic support of the colonial cause gained him the admiration of Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and Samuel and John Adams. His military experience made him a valuable asset to the newly formed Continental Army. In December 1774, Lee traveled to Mount Vernon and Washington's side. After war broke out in 1775, he renounced his commission in the British Army. Artemas Ward was named first major general and Lee became second major general in Washington's Continental Army, a commission Lee accepted on June 17, 1775.
A month later, Lee accompanied Washington to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and fought during the siege of Boston under General Ward. The following March, the Continental Congress ordered Lee south to fight British troops in Virginia and North Carolina as head of the army's Southern department. On June 4, 1776, Lee arrived in Charleston and assumed command of the South Carolina troops, making his headquarters in nearby Williamsburg. Unenthusiastic about the post, he anticipated a retreat. Colonel William Moultrie had other ideas, and repulsed the British naval force from his position at Fort Sullivan on Sullivan's Island. While Lee and Moultrie both received commendations for their actions, Moultrie was considered primarily responsible for the victory.
Captured by the British
In September 1776, after the British withdrawal from the southern colonies, Lee was ordered to return to the main army, now stationed in New York and New Jersey. He expressed reluctance to rejoin Washington after learning that threatening maneuvers by British General Howe had forced a colonial retreat. He believed he would be more effective and gain more notoriety as head of a "rogue" unit that engaged the British using guerilla tactics. However, Lee eventually followed orders and headed into New Jersey. On December 12, 1776, he took quarter at White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, two miles from where his 4,000-member detachment encamped, and the following day sent a terse letter to General Horatio Gates, referring to Washington by noting that "a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties."
Camped less than four miles away, British troops led by Lieutenant General Cornwallis discovered Lee's whereabouts. Soon after writing his letter to Gates, Lee was captured by Colonel Harcourt. General Lee was "hurried off in triumph," Continental Army Captain James Wilkinson later recalled in his memoirs, "bareheaded, in his slippers and blanket coat, his collar open, and his shirt very much soiled from several days' use."
Lee was taken to New York and imprisoned. An order to return him to England for trial as a deserter was rescinded by British General Howe, who knew of Lee's resignation. Washington attempted to secure Lee's release through a prisoner exchange, but he had no captives of similar rank with which to bargain, and Lee remained in British custody for almost 18 months. During this time Lee appears to have wavered in his allegiance to his adopted country. In 1858 a document titled "Mr. Lee's Plan, 29th March 1777" was discovered; it advised Howe on a way to defeat the Continental Army. While some historians have argued that Lee's plan was an attempt to mislead the British commander, in the light of his later activities his loyalty remains in question.
After Burgoyne's defeat at the Battle of Saratoga, Lee was exchanged for recently captured Major General Richard Prescott and released in April 1778. After a quick trip to Congress to complain about his lack of promotion during his capture, Lee traveled to Valley Forge and by late May had rejoined his command.
The Battle of Monmouth
Throughout his involvement in the Revolutionary War, Lee earned a reputation as a loose cannon, a recalcitrant officer resentful of taking orders from Washington, whom he believed to be of lesser ability. His actions in June 1778 during the Monmouth campaign cemented this reputation and led to the end of his military career.
Washington was determined to attack the British during their retreat from Philadelphia to New York, and he overtook General Henry Clinton and his 11,000 British regulars near New Freehold, New Jersey, near Monmouth Court House. The Battle of Monmouth provided Washington with the chance for a much-needed victory. While generals Nathanael Greene, Wayne, and the Marquis de Lafayette urged a full assault, Lee argued against such an approach. Put in command of the main flank supporting the advance force led by General Wayne, he was suddenly confronted by more soldiers than he had anticipated. Informed by a scout of an area to his rear that would be easily defended, Lee began to retreat, forcing Wayne to fall back. Washington quickly reformed the regiments of Greene, Stirling, and Wayne into a second formation that successfully stalled the British until dark, while General von Steuben assumed command of Lee's forces.
Washington's words to Lee on the battlefield were not recorded, but they were severe enough that Lee immediately demanded an apology. Two days later he sent the commander-in-chief a critical letter that angered Washington. Further correspondence between the two men resulted in Lee's request for a court of inquiry so that he could prove his case. On July 4 Lee's court martial began, with General Stirling presiding, and on August 12 he was found guilty of disrespect to his commanding officer, disobedience, and leading a disorderly and unauthorized retreat. His punishment, one year's suspension, was eventually sanctioned by Congress on January 10, 1780, although colonial leaders expressed regret at the loss of a commanding officer during wartime. As Eric Ethier reported in American History, when Lee heard the decision of Congress to approve his suspension, he pointed to one of his dogs and said, "Oh, that I was that animal, that I might not call man my brother."
Lee sent repeated letters to congressmen, members of the military, and the press attacking the character of Washington and complaining of mistreatment by the Continental Congress. After reading Lee's defamatory "Vindication," published in the Pennsylvania Packet on December 3, 1778, Colonel John Laurens challenged Lee to a duel over his slanderous remarks about Washington's character. In the duel, Lee was wounded and could not fight a second duel requested by General Wayne.
In July 1779 Lee returned to his home in Virginia, remaining there for two years before moving to Philadelphia. He died of pneumonia in a tavern on October 2, 1782. Up to the time of his death he continued to express animosity toward Washington as a "puffed up charlatan." In Lee's last will and testament he asked that he not be buried in a churchyard. "I have kept so much bad company when living," he wrote, "that I do not choose to continue it when dead." Despite these wishes, Lee was buried at the cemetery at Christ Church, Philadelphia. Though he had been unpopular only months before, his funeral was attended by Washington, members of the Continental Congress and the assembly of Pennsylvania, the minister of France, and other officers of distinction.
Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, editors, The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Bonanza, 1983.
Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Langguth, A. J., Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Sparks, Jared, Lives of Charles Lee and Joseph Reed, Little, Brown, 1846.
Stryker, William Scudder, The Battle of Monmouth, Houghton, 1896.
Wilkinson, James, Memoirs of My Own Times, A. Small, 1816.
American History, October 1999.