The “Military Crimes” of Charles Lee


In response to questions by the court, Lafayette said he had seen no sign of Lee having “any general compact plan” and said that “the orders for retreating came from General Lee,” adding that “there was a great confusion and contrariety in the orders, and a complaint amongst the troops on account of it.” Finally, perhaps most important, “the number of the enemy did not appear to be equal to ours.” Yet Lafayette admitted, “I thought that intelligence had been received that all the British army were coming upon us.”

Two days of further testimony threw little more light on the events of June 28, and on July 6 the court adjourned while the army marched toward the Hudson. In the meantime Lee did not help his cause by sending to the New Jersey Gazette an open letter in which he spoke bitterly of the “atrocious attack” being made upon his conduct and went on to describe the dubious action at Monmouth as “a very handsome check” to the British, achieved by a “retrograde manoeuvre of near four miles … fighting in a variety of places—in the plain and in the woods—by advancing and retreating, the enemy were at last fairly worn down.” Anthony Wayne, writing to a friend a few days later, said that this letter “savors of insanity or flows from worse sources.”

On July 13, with the court now sitting in Paramus, New Jersey, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens was sworn. A son of Henry Laurens, the president of the Continental Congress, this darkly handsome young aide was, like his father, totally devoted to George Washington. He told of having delivered a letter from Washington to Lee on June 28 promising the support of the entire army in the ensuing action. Lee, Laurens said, had read the letter, hesitated, confessed he did not really know what to say, and continued his retreat. Laurens thought that “General Lee seemed to be a good deal embarrassed and that his orders [to his subordinates! were indistinct.”

“Were you ever in an action before?” asked Lee, no doubt in his most condescending manner.

“I have been in several actions,” Laurens snapped. “I did not call that an action, as there was no action previous to the retreat!”

Laurens was followed by Alexander Hamilton, who told how he had gone forward on Washington’s orders to reconnoiter the country between the main army and Lee’s detachment. He met Lee and his men in full retreat, “issuing out of a wood … in two or three small columns. …” He said the men “were in themselves in tolerable good order, but seemed to be marching without system or design, as chance should direct.” Lee gave his orders, Hamilton said in answer to a question from the Judge Advocate, “under a hurry of mind.”

Obviously irked, Lee barked, “Did you not express in the field an idea diametrically reverse of my state of mind?”

In reply, Hamilton gave a hint of the talent for elegant circumlocution that later advanced his career as a lawyer:

I said something to you in the field expressive of an opinion that there appeared in you no want of that degree of self-possession, which proceeds from a want of personal intrepidity. I had no idea in my present evidence of insinuating the most distant charge of this nature, but only to designate that there appeared a certain hurry of spirits which may proceed from a temper not so calm and steady as is necessary to support a man in such critical circumstances.

Several of Washington’s other aides then confirmed that Lee had appeared to be in a confused state of mind at Monmouth and that his troops behaved in corresponding fashion. One told of asking Lieutenant Colonel William Smith, John Adams’ son-in-law, why they were retreating. Smith said he had no idea; “that they had lost but one man.”

Next two more of Washington’s aides, James McHenry and Tench Tilghman, described Washington’s confrontation with Lee. Tilghman told how they were leading the main army down the road from English-town, worried because they had had no word from Lee, when a fifer told them that the Americans were in full retreat. Washington became so angry that he ordered the boy put under guard. But the news was soon confirmed when they encountered two stumbling, half-exhausted regiments, worn out not by fighting but by running in the ferocious heat. Moments later Lee himself arrived with his panting column behind him. “General Washington rode up to him with some degree of astonishment, and asked him what was the meaning of this,” Tilghman testified.

General Lee answered … “Sir, Sir?” I took it that General Lee did not hear the question distinctly.

Upon General Washington’s repeating the question, General Lee answered, that from a variety of contradictory intelligence, and that from his orders not being obeyed, matters were thrown into confusion, and that he did not chuse to beard the British army with troops in such a situation. He said that besides, the thing was against his own opinion.

General Washington answered, whatever his opinion might have been, he expected his orders would have been obeyed, and then rode on toward the rear of the retreating troops.

The upshot, as everyone at the trial knew, was that Washington had successfully rallied the retreating Americans, who—under his leadership—had made a skillful and determined stand against several British assaults and had ended the Battle of Monmouth in a draw.