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The “Military Crimes” of Charles Lee
Hardly had the dust settled at Monmouth when a major general was court-martialled for misbehavior in action. And something else was at stake: George Washington’s prestige
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
First came Brigadier Generals Charles Scott and Anthony Wayne. Scott was a tough, stocky Virginian who had fought as a noncommissioned officer with Washington on the ill-fated Braddock expedition and had distinguished himself at Trenton and Brandywine Creek. He had also headed the list of nine brigadiers who had protested to Congress the promotion of Thomas Conway to major general at the height of the intrigue. Wayne, whose courage in attack would earn him the nickname Mad Anthony, was equally tough and aggressive. Two days after the battle they had written a joint letter to Washington accusing Lee of retreating without warning and leaving them in a perilous position. Their letter had played no small part in bringing on the court-martial.
Scott told of asking Lee for orders as they began the march: “General Lee said he had none.” Crossexamining, Lee asked Scott if Washington’s orders meant that they were to attack the enemy regardless of whether the British were a slight covering party “or whether the greater part of the flower of their troops, as it turned out?” Scott stubbornly insisted, “I understood we were to have attacked the enemy at all events.”
When Wayne testified, Lee asked him the same question and got the same answer. In reply to another question, Wayne went even further than Scott, bluntly declaring that from Washington’s conversation with Lee before the battle it was clear—to Wayne at least —that the Commander in Chief was ready to bring on a general action.
Next came the testimony of Washington’s aides. Lieutenant Colonel Richard K. Meade told how on the morning of June 28 Washington had sent him with a verbal message to Lee ordering him to put his troops in motion, leaving his packs behind, and to bring on an attack as soon as possible. Meade said that Lee had complained bitterly of conflicting intelligence and had protested that he already had sent one unit forward in obedience to an earlier Washington command, and he considered it to be in grave danger. Cross-examining, Lee asked Meade if he thought Washington had wanted to bring on a general action. Meade’s reply was unwaveringly affirmative.
A man now testified who, Lee sensed, was one of his genuine enemies: brash, twenty-three-year-old Alexander Hamilton. He instinctively disliked Lee and had no sympathy whatsoever for his ideas about a people’s war. Immediately after the battle, Hamilton had written to Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey that “the finest opportunity America ever possessed [has] been fooled away by a man in whom she has placed a large share of the most ill-judged confidence … I mean General Lee. This man is either a driveler in the business of soldiership or something much worse.”
Hamilton backed up Scott, Wayne, and Meade, declaring his conviction that “General Washington’s intention was fully to have the enemy attacked on their march, and that the circumstances must be very extraordinary and unforeseen, which, consistent with his wish, could justify the not doing it.”
“Did you, either by letter to me, or in conversation with me, communicate this idea of General Washington’s intention as fully and clearly as you have done it to the Court?” Lee asked.
“I do not recollect that I ever did,” Hamilton admitted.
Next came the Marquis de Lafayette, about Hamilton’s age, wearing the epaulets of a major general. The boyish, sandy-haired French nobleman had been in the United States for thirteen months by this time and had acquired fluent English and a son’s adoration for George Washington. He too had played a leading role in defeating the Conway Cabal, but unlike Hamilton, he did not see Lee as a similar threat to Washington’s authority. His testimony was reluctant and more than a little vague. He described having marched out with Lee that morning “as a volunteer.” Under orders from a Lee aide, he led part of the American column in an attempt to strike the British left flank. Some of his troops having come under fire of British artillery, he began organizing them to charge the battery; then he looked behind him and saw the rest of Lee’s force retreating. So instead of attacking, he fell back too and found Lee near Monmouth village, ordering “that the troops should take post farther back.” No sooner had they formed than Lee was told that the enemy was attacking his left flank, and he ordered another retreat. “While this was doing,” Lafayette testified, “General Washington arrived.”
Judge Advocate Laurance now asked Lafayette a blunt question. “Did the troops under the command of General Lee, to your knowledge, make any attack on the enemy the 28th of June?”
“I cannot say that I saw them make any attack on the enemy,” Lafayette replied.
Lee promptly asked: “If any attack had been made … were you in a position [to] have seen it?”
“No,” Lafayette admitted. He also admitted that early in the day, as they maneuvered to cut off what they hoped was the enemy rear guard, Lee had said: “My dear Marquis, I think those people are ours.”
Lee then asked him a question that he was to repeat again and again. “Did you observe in my voice, manner, appearance, air or countenance, that I was in the least disconcerted, or whether, on the contrary, I was not tranquil and cheerful?”
“It seemed to me by your voice and features,” Lafayette said, somewhat ambiguously, “you were then as you are in general.”