The “Military Crimes” of Charles Lee


Lee was undoubtedly the man Congress had in mind for this task. Artemas Ward of Massachusetts was nominated as a sop to New England’s pride, but when ill health soon forced Ward to retire, Lee became the senior major general. He served with distinction throughout the siege of Boston, then went south to lead the garrison at Charleston against a British attack in June, 1776.

Later in the summer, with Washington and his army reeling under a series of defeats around New York, Congress ordered Lee to hurry to his support. He played a leading role in persuading Washington to retreat from Manhattan Island and gave good advice at the Battle of White Plains. But the British capture of Fort Washington and its nearly 3,000 men caused Lee to lose almost all faith in Washington’s military ability. As the American Commander in Chief retreated through New Jersey, Lee, left in Westchester County with half the army, corresponded with Adjutant General Joseph Reed, who also had nearly given up on Washington. “I do think it is entirely owing to you that this army & the liberties of America so far as they are dependant upon it are not totally cut off,” Reed wrote. Lee accepted the compliment and agreed that “eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the man of the best parts if curs’d with indecision.”

When Washington summoned Lee to join him in New Jersey a few weeks later, Lee proceeded to act as if he were running a private war. He disobeyed orders repeatedly, even telling one correspondent he was ready to commit “a brave, virtuous kind of treason” to rescue the Revolution. He moved at a snail’s pace through New Jersey, attempting to use his small force to revivify local resistance, which had collapsed at the sight of Washington’s headlong flight beyond the Delaware. As late as December 8, 1776, lie was still in central New Jersey, telling his Commander in Chief, “The Militia in this part of the Province seem sanguine. If they could be assured of an army remaining amongst ‘em, I believe they would raise a considerable number.” But Washington had no sympathy with Lee’s concept of all-out guerrilla war and again ordered him to cross the Delaware and join the main army. Lee lingered four days more, writing to his old comrade Horatio Gates,”… entre nous a certain great man is most damnably deficient.” The morning after he expressed this low opinion of Washington, Lee was captured by a British cavalry patrol. For eighteen months he was a prisoner of war, most of the time living in comfort, trailing dinners and witly pleasantries with British army friends in New York.

Exposed to such a prolonged view of the immense effort Great Britain was making to subdue the colonies, Lee altered what had been one of his basic beliefs at the beginning of the war—that it would not last more than a lew months because “Great Britain cannot stand the contest.” At one point, he actually submitted to the British high command a plan for ending the war with a minimum of bloodshed, by transferring operations to the central colonies of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Exchanged in the spring of 1778, he lobbied in Congress on behalf of the British peace commission headed by Lord Carlisle, which offered repeal of most of the laws that had prodded the colonies into rebellion. But the Americans were no longer interested in accommodation, and Lee was told to stick to his soldiering. So he returned to an army that had just endured the agony of Valley Forge. The battles of Brandywinc Creek and Germantown had been fought without him. Although neither of these clashes had been an American victory, they had done much to make professional soldiers out of the men who survived them. Months of hard drilling under Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben had likewise emboldened the American high command into thinking that their soldiers could stand against the best of the British regulars.

Lee resumed his position as ranking major general with a distinctly opposite opinion. He presented to Washington and Congress a well-reasoned plan lor a purely guerrilla war. “Jl the Americans are servilely kept to the European Plan,” he wrote, “they will make an Awkward Figure, be laugh’d at as a bad Army by their Enemy, and defeated in every Rencontre which depends on manoeuvres.” He insisted that the idea “that a Decisive Action in lair Ground may be risquée! is talking Nonsense.” Instead, he recommended moving the army west of the Susquehanna and the capital to Pittsburgh if necessary.


These ideas struck Washington and his generals as more than a little quaint. The British, far from preparing to strike a hammer blow at the American army, were in a state of near panic. Thanks largely to the capture of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, France had entered the war. A French lleet was en route to America, and the new British commander—fat, fussy Sir Henry Clinton—had been ordered to evacuate Philadelphia and concentrate his army at New York. The question before the American high command was not one of retreat and reorganization, but of whether the revived Continental Army should let Clinton go unmolested or attempt to strike a blow while the British were strung out in a vulnerable line of march.