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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
Among several minor prosecution witnesses who followed Tilghman, the most damaging to Lee was Brigadier General William “Scotch Willie” Maxwell, who testified that Lee did not even know on which wing his brigade was posted. Baron von Steuben, no friend of Lee’s guerrilla ideas, said he had seen “great disorder.” The French volunteer officer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, future architect of the nation’s capitol, said that Lee had told him he had “orders from Congress and the General-in-Chief not to engage.” On cross-examination, Lee asked L’Enfant if he thought that meant he intended “not to engage at all, or not to engage but in a particular manner.”
“I understood that you intended not to engage at all,” L’Enfant answered. He said that on the attack of a mere two hundred British, Lee had ordered a general retreat.
The Judge Advocate General now placed in the record two letters Lee had written to Washington as evidence to support the third charge—of “disrespect to the Commander-in-Chief.” These underscore one of the principal ironies of the case. Apparently Washington had had no intention of court-martialling Lee. But after sulking for a day, Lee had fired off a long letter declaring that Washington’s “singular expressions” on the battlefield had implied that Lee “was guilty either of disobedience of orders, of want of conduct, or want of courage.” He demanded to know “on which of these three articles you ground your charge, that I may prepare for my justification … to the army, to the Congress, to America, and to the world in general.” Although he insisted he had “the greatest respect and veneration for General Washington,” Lee was convinced that “some of those dirty earwigs who will forever insinuate themselves near persons in high office” had poisoned Washington’s mind against him.
Washington had replied with a very cutting letter, denying that he had used any “singular expressions” and listing the charges against Lee in savagely formal terms. Lee had blazed back a reply, vowing that he was looking forward to the “opportunity of shewing to America the sufficiency of her respective servants” and warning the Commander in Chief not to let “the tinsel dignity” of office “offiscate the bright rays of truth.”
By now the army and the court-martial board had crossed the Hudson and were meeting in Peekskill, New York. On July 19, Lee launched his counter-attack by summoning to the stand his aide John Francis Mercer. A headstrong, extremely positive young Virginian, later a foe of the Constitution, Mercer was wholeheartedly dedicated to Lee. According to him, Scott and Wayne had retreated without orders, thereby unhinging Lee’s entire battle plan. “Did I not express a great deal of indignation when you informed me that all the troops [Wayne’s men] had left the woods?” Lee asked.
In response to another Lee question, Mercer painted a most uncomplimentary picture of Alexander Hamilton’s state of mind. He told how Hamilton, after Washington had exchanged severe words with Lee, had ridden up and cried: “I will stay here with you, my dear General, and die with you; let us all die here rather than retreat.” Lee, Mercer said, “answered him very coolly, to observe you [Lee] well, to see whether you were discomposed. … Colonel Hamilton made answer that he thought you possessed of yourself to a very high degree.” Mercer himself pronounced Lee “exceedingly composed.” After describing how he had ridden up and down the entire battlefield, he avowed, “I did not see any troops that were in disorder in the course of the day. … All the troops that I saw were in perfect good order, as far as the heat of the weather would permit.”
Mercer’s testimony indicated the general pattern of the trial: just as Washington’s aides had uniformly tried to discredit Lee, Lee’s aides would uniformly contradict them. One novelty, however, was a deposition from a civilian, Mr. Peter Wikoff, who was “perfectly acquainted with that part of the country where the action had happened on the s8th of June last.” Wikoff told how Lee “begged me to conduct his troops under cover of some wood, for he could not make them stand in a plain or open field so well as in the woods.… I then pointed out to him a wood and eminence adjoining, which General Lee approved of, and begged me to lead his troops on and shew them the place which I did. The eminence was the very piece of ground His Excellency General Washington afterwards formed his army on.”
The court now adjourned to give Lee a chance to prepare his summation. He wrote it out and spent several days polishing it. This was probably a mistake: the final tone was much too literary to move a group of tough soldiers.
Lee began by insisting that the verbal order he had received from Colonel Meade on June 28 had been discretionary. Lee recalled it as: “The General [Washington] expects you will find means of engaging the enemy, if no powerful consideration prevent you.” Lee put special stress on his battlefield discovery of “the great ravine” that cut across the entire plain before Monmouth Court House and had only a single bridge across it. It was the sort of terrain, he said, that might have proved fatal to the Americans had it not been taken into consideration. Compounding this problem, Lee maintained, was the barrage of contradictory intelligence he had received after beginning his advance. Some scouts told him the enemy had marched, others that they had not moved a step from Monmouth Court House. He then narrated how his plan to nip off the British rear guard between the Wayne and Lafayette columns was wrecked by the swift British shift to the offensive.