The “Military Crimes” of Charles Lee

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The President, Members and Judge Advocate being sworn: The Judge Advocate prosecuting in the name of the United States of America, the Court proceed to tlie trial of Major-C,eneral Lee, who appears before the Court, and the following charges are exhibited against him:

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

Secondly: For misbehaviour before the enemy on the same day, making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat.

Thirdly: tor disrespect to the Commander-in-C’Jiief, in two letters dated the 1st of July and the 28th of June.

 

The date was July 4, 1778. In the fields outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Continental Army of the United Slates of America was celebrating the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but the atmosphere in the large room of Widow Voorhees’ White Hart Tavern was anything but jolly. A stern major general, four grim-eyed brigadier generals, and eight solemn colonels heard these devastating accusations against a man who a short week before was widely considered, by both friend and foe, the most brilliant soldier in the American army. Major General diaries Lee was second in rank only to George Washington. In more modern terms, the situation could perhaps be paralleled by George Marshall’s courtmarlialling Dwight Eisenhower at the height of World War II or Ulysses Grant’s bringing charges against William Tccumseh Sherman on the eve of his march through Georgia. Either of these imaginary events would have won major historical attention. Yet the court-martial of Charles Lee has been strangely forgotten.

 

From the vantage of the comfortable historical privilege of hindsight, it is easy to say that a dash between Charles Lee and George Washington was inevitable. Temperamentally they were opposites. Washington made a habit of saying as little as possible; he had no pretensions to being either an intellectual or a military genius. Lee never stopped talking and considered himself—with some justification—both a military and a political theorist of the first rank. Though he could relax with intimates, Washington, like most conservatives, valued dignity and decorum. Lee valued neither. His uniform was invariably slovenly, and his conversation was sprinkled with phrases that made gentlemen wince and ladies blush. His constant company was a pack of dogs who shared his table, lus bed, and his headquarters. Compounding these idiosyncrasies was an astonishing physical ugliness. He was thin and reedy, and his hands and feet were unusually small. His face was lean, dark, and bony, with an underslung jaw and a nose so long that for a time he was nicknamed Naso.

Yet this self-confessed eccentric dazzled a number of Americans when he arrived in the restless colonies in 1773 and immediately made it clear that he was heart and soul with the revolutionary cause. His credentials were impressive. He knew America, having fought with distinction as an officer in the 44th Regiment during the French and Indian War (he was adopted by the Mohawks, who nicknamed him lioiling Water). With liritish troops in Portugal, he had helped England’s traditional ally resist a Spanish invasion and performed brilliantly as second in command to Brigadier (»eneral John liurgoyne. Thereafter, he had served as a soldier of fortune in the Polish and Russian armies, winning the more or less honorary title of major general. AVeIl educated, Lee spoke French fluently, handled Latin and Greek with ease, and could quote military experts from Xenophon to Frederick the Great.

From the moment lie plunged into the dispute between the colonies and the mother country, Lee played an extremist’s role. Aside from his temperamental instability, which some biographers think he inherited from an eccentric mother who all but ignored him as a boy, Lee nursed an almost pathological hatred of George JlI and the men around him, because he had never won the advancement he felt he deserved for his exploits against the French and the Spanish. He called America the “last and only asylum” of liberty, bought land in Virginia near the estate of another ex-British army officer, Horatio Gates, and travelled up and down the eastern seaboard hobnobbing with such American leaders as Samuel Adams in Boston, Alexander McDougall in New York, and Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia. He used his fluent pen to demolish an influential conservative, Dr. Myles Cooper, president of King’s College (now Columbia University). Jn “A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans,” Cooper had argued that the colonists could not possibly hope to withstand the power of the professionally trained British army. Lee ridiculed this notion with a dazzling combination of mockery and military examples. His pamphlet was widely reprinted and did much to diminish the awe Americans felt for the supposedly invincible British regulars.

When the war finally broke out, Lee was one of the four men considered for the supreme command of the American army. His British birth finally disqualified him, but more than a few delegates to the Continental Congress insisted that the future of the Revolution depended on Lee’s becoming Washington’s second in command. The prevailing opinion about Washington and Lee at this time can be glimpsed in a letter written by Elbridge Gerry saying that Washington would be acceptable as a commander of the army besieging the British in Boston, but that a “regular” general was also required to give the volunteers the training they so desperately needed.