The “Military Crimes” of Charles Lee

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In Clinton’s opinion, retreat had been Lee’s only hope. His “whole corps would probably have fallen into the power of the King’s army if he had made a stand in front of the first defile, and not retreated with the precipitancy he did.” But the Britisher wrote, of course, out of an unshakable conviction of the total superiority of his regulars over the Americans—a prejudice that Lee unfortunately shared. The skill and ferocity with which the Americans fought off the British attacks once the two armies joined make Clinton’s claims seem overconfident and cast some doubt on Lee’s fears about the unfavorable terrain.

At any rate, Clinton’s view was of no avail to Lee in 1778. Without a word of comment, Washington passed the transcript of the trial and its verdict to Congress to be either confirmed or rejected. Here Washington had all the heavy artillery. Even before the trial began, John Laurens had written several letters to his father, the president of Congress, accusing Lee not only of misconduct but of disloyalty. By the time Lee’s aide Evan Edwards reached Philadelphia, intending to urge congressmen to his commander’s support, the current of public opinion was running so strongly against Lee that the mortified Edwards wrote to him: “Matters have been so cursedly represented in this place that I have been almost mobb’d in defending you—ten thousand infamous lyes have been spread that I never heard before to byass the minds of the people against you.”

When Congress dallied through the fall without coming to a decision, Lee took his case to the newspapers once more. On December 3, the Pennsylvania Packet published a three-column blast from Lee’s pen insisting that the military court had made no effort to find out just what orders Washington had given him before Monmouth. He lauded American troops but carefully mentioned only victories won by them under commanders other than Washington. He then mentioned a number of resounding Washington defeats and wondered how they could be explained, granted the bravery and ability of the lower American ranks.

Two days later, Congress voted two to one to confirm the verdict of the court-martial. When he heard the news, Lee (according to one story) looked at his favorite dog, Mr. Spada, and cried: “Oh, that I was that animal that I might not call man my brother.” Earlier he had written to another anti-Washington officer, Aaron Burr, announcing that he was going to retire to Virginia “and learn to hoe tobacco, which I find is the best school to form a consummate general.”

But Lee stayed on in Philadelphia for a while, doing his utmost to make trouble. He urged his friend Gates to resign before Washington’s partisans devoured him too; he badgered Congress for money to salvage his debt-encumbered Virginia properties. He fought a paper duel with Baron von Steuben over the German’s testimony in the trial and a real duel with John Laurens, who had decided that Lee’s reflections on Washington’s character called for vengeance. With Hamilton as a second on one side and Evan Edwards backing Lee, the two men blazed away at each other on the edge of a wood near Philadelphia; Lee received a superficial wound in the stomach.

Finally, totally frustrated and almost bankrupt, Lee drifted back to Virginia, where he lived in the crudest poverty on his undeveloped estate, Prato Rio. He continued to stir up trouble wherever he found a willing partner. On June 7 he sent to William Goddard, printer of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser , a set of “whacking queries”—twenty-five so-called questions, almost all of them assaults on Washington. Goddard printed them anonymously on July 6; two days later, an angry mob forced him to reveal that Lee was the author of the attack and to promise an apology for having slandered Washington.

This was Lee’s next-to-last gasp. At the end of his year’s suspension from the army, Congressman James Forbes of Maryland offered a resolution “that Major General Charles Lee be informed that Congress have no further occasion for his services in the Army of the United States of America.” The resolution was voted down by a narrow margin. Lee’s reaction was true to form. In a fury he dashed off a letter: “Congress must know little of me if they suppose that I would accept of their money since the confirmation of the wicked and infamous sentence which was passed upon me.” The resolution for Lee’s dismissal was then reintroduced, and this time it carried.

Thus ended Charles Lee’s connection with the American Revolution. He died in 1782 on a trip to Philadelphia, still bitterly convinced that Washington and his idolaters had deliberately destroyed him. There is just enough truth in the idea to make more than a few historians sympathetic to Charles Lee. On the testimony of the court-martial, the honest verdict probably should have been a hung jury.

But another verdict of history that Lee would have found just as galling is certainly clear from the trial. In spite of all his ostentatious talk and military scholarship, Charles Lee was not a great general. His total failure at Monmouth to reconnoiter the terrain; his indecision and hesitation, which allowed Clinton to outmaneuver him; his failure to inspire either confidence or co-operation in his subordinates—all these mark him as a third-rate leader of men. At Monmouth, George Washington was not only the commanding general, he was the real leader of the American Revolution. The men around him knew it. But Charles Lee chose to learn it the hard way.