The “Military Crimes” of Charles Lee

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Washington called a council of war on June 17, the day before Clinton was to evacuate Philadelphia. Lee, partially through his position as senior general and partially through his ability to talk faster, louder, and longer than anyone else, dominated the discussion. His overbearing opinion was probably delivered in the spirit of a letter that he had written shortly before to the president of the Continental Congress: “I am persuaded (considering how he [Washington] is surrounded) that he cannot do without me.” Lee emphatically denounced the idea of attacking Clinton. He argued that with the French in the war the Americans had nothing to gain and everything to lose by risking a general engagement. From a purely strategic point of view it was hard to disagree with this reasoning, and in written opinions all the general officers except Anthony Wayne recommended nothing more daring than “a partial stroke” at the retreating British.

But as Clinton lumbered across New Jersey with a supply train some twelve miles long, he was a very tempting target. Washington called another council of war on [une 24. Once more Lee vehemently opposed a fight, protesting that instead he would like to build “a bridge of gold” to speed the British across the Hudson to New York. This time there were signs of far more resistance to Lee’s ideas among the other general officers. Wayne reiterated his desire to attack. The Marquis de Lafayette urged a blow by a strong detachment on the British baggage train or rear guard. But Lee’s obstinacy blunted these more aggressive opinions, and the council broke up agreeing to avoid a general engagement and merely to send 1,500 men “to act as occasion may serve, on the enemy’s left flank and rear.” Colonel Alexander Hamilton snorted that “the result … would have done honor to the most honorable body of midwives and to them only.” That night Washington received a private letter from Major General Nathanael Greene, a man whose opinions he respected. “People expect something from us and our strength demands it,” Greene wrote. “I am by no means for rash measures but we must preserve our reputations and J think we can make a very serious impression without any great risk and if it should amount to a general action, I think the chance is greatly in our favor.”

This was the voice of a new American confidence talking—a voice that Lee lacked the inclination to hear. Nor did he understand the full significance of Greene’s comment about the people’s expectations. Throughout the winter at Valley Forge, Washington and his supporters had fought off an attempt to replace him as Commander in Chief with Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga. This so-called Conway Cabal—named after one of the chief schemers, the Irish-French general Thomas Conway—was in retrospect a pitifully fumbling affair, a battle of pygmies against a giant. But Washington and the men around him took it very seriously.

Washington soon demonstrated his own inclination by sending the stipulated 1,500 men under Brigadier General Charles Scott to worry Clinton’s left flank and by detaching Daniel Morgan with 600 riflemen to harass the right. The next day he added 1,000 men under Anthony Wayne and told them to link up with Brigadier General William Maxwell’s New Jersey brigade of 1,300 men, supported by some 800 militia, who were already hanging on the British rear. To co-ordinate these detachments, he placed Lafayette, wholehearted supporter of an attack, in command.

At first Charles Lee agreed to let Lafayette take charge. The job, he said, called for “a young volunteering general.” But when he saw that the force amounted to some 5,000 men, he changed his mind. It would, he told Washington, “have an odd appearance” if he as senior major general permitted one of his juniors to take command of what amounted to almost half the American army. With considerable reluctance, Washington agreed to the change.

On the morning of June 27 Lee took charge of the American advance forces. By now it was clear that the British were marching to embark at Sandy Hook, taking the shortest possible land route across New Jersey. In another day—or two at the most—they would be beyond reach. Clinton had divided his 11,000-man force into three main divisions: 5,000 moving at the head of the supply train; behind it, 4,000 under Clinton’s immediate command; and a rear guard of 2,000 elite foot soldiers and cavalry under Lord Cornwallis. On June 27, the British camped around the straggling village of Monmouth Court House. On June 28, at 4 A.M. , the advance guard and baggage train resumed the march.

The sun rose that morning with a promise of ferocity in its glow. By 10 A.M. , when Lee moved out with his men to deliver his “partial stroke,” the sandy countryside, dotted with patches of scrub pine and cut by deep ravines, was a ninety-six-degree oven.

The events of the next few hours resulted in a soon-famous encounter on the field between Washington and Charles Lee, and in Lee’s court-martial for disobedience and for a “disorderly and shameful retreat.” The story emerges dramatically from the testimony of the witnesses who began taking the stand on that not-yet-certified Independence Day of 1778.

The Judge Advocate General was twenty-eight-year-old John Laurance, a well-trained New York lawyer and son-in-law of Lee’s old friend Alexander McDougall. Under the Articles of War, Laurance was responsible for questioning both prosecution and defense witnesses. The defendant also had the right to crossexamine freely, and it soon became clear that Lee would exercise that right strenuously.