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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
Thereafter, as Lee saw it, it was simply a question of where to make a stand. Thanks to Wikoff, he had found the right place behind the great ravine and had, he asserted, practically disposed for battle all the troops under his command when Washington rode up. He swore it had never been his intention to make “a general retreat.” He had simply fallen back to the best position he could find.
“So far at this time from conceiving ourselves as beaten or disgrac’d … I really thought,” Lee said, “taking into consideration all circumstances, the various contradictory and false intelligence, disobedience or mistakes in some officers, precipitancy in others, ignorance of the ground, want of cavalry —that it was the flower of the British army we had to deal with … I really thought the troops entitled to the highest honor; and that I myself, instead of thundering charges brought against me, had merited some degree of applause from the General and the Public.” It was not so much Washington’s censorious words that insulted him, Lee explained, but “the manner in which he expressed them [which] was much stronger and more severe than the expressions themselves.”
Examining various aspects of the prosecution’s evidence, Lee struck hard at Wayne. “I do not mean to deprecate the value of General Wayne (I believe him to be a most thoroughly brave man) but I cannot help observing, that from the moment he took command of the advanced corps he seem’d to think the whole executive duties of the day transferr’d to him, and that he had nothing to do but make demands for any number of troops he thought proper to dispose of.” As for the court’s tendency to stress the numbers of the enemy, Lee protested that “as every General makes it his business to conceal his forces [as] much as possible, the visible part of the opponent army is often the least.” He said he had originally estimated that the British numbered 2,000 but that it had soon become apparent that “their whole army, or at least their whole flying army” was in the field.
Lee now returned to the point that seemed to annoy him more than anything else—Hamilton’s assertion that Lee had been a victim of “hurry of spirits.” He reiterated what his aide had already suggested, that it was Hamilton who had been “much flustered and in a sort of frenzy of valour.” How was it, Lee asked, that only Hamilton and Laurens had seen agitation when “every other gentleman who had an opportunity of observing me that day” had seen the contrary?
Finally, Lee attempted to dispose of the third charge, disrespect. He asked every member of the court “to substitute himself for a moment in my place, and then to ask his own breast, if instead of the congratulation and applause he had expected, he had been received with slight and reproach, he does not think it possible to write a letter in such or stronger terms than mine, without being actuated by an unruly and contumacious spirit?” Lee avowed his love and respect for “His Excellency.” But when Washington’s reply brought “thundering charges … against me, comprehending the blackest military crimes of the whole black catalogue, I was more than confounded, I was thrown into a stupor.…”
The black-and-white pattern of the testimony made it clear to the members of the board that they were being forced to choose between Lee and Washington. The specter of “faction,” which had scarcely been exorcised by the defeat of the Conway Cabal, was again haunting the army. They debated for three days, considering “the defendant’s will and intent as well as his acts” according to military law. On August 12, the board sonorously announced its verdict. Lee was guilty on all counts, but the word “shameful” was deleted from the second charge, which was altered to read, “Guilty of … making an unnecessary, and in some few instances a disorderly retreat.” The penalty more than anything else revealed the court’s sense of embarrassment over the whole affair. Lee was suspended from the army for one year. This was practically an admission of the political nature of the verdict. If the court had really taken seriously its verdict of guilty on the first two charges, the appropriate penalty would have been death before a firing squad.
Is it possible, in the light of history, to reach a more objective verdict? As in most attempts to court-martial an officer for conduct on the field in the midst of a war, there were crucial missing witnesses—the men who had fought on the other side, particularly the enemy Commander in Chief. Except for an official summary report, no British statements on Monmouth appeared for almost 150 years. Then, in 1925, certain papers of Sir Henry Clinton became available, including a careful analysis of that battle.
Clinton completely substantiates Lee’s claim that the “whole flying army” was in the field. Hearing “from Lord Cornwallis … that the enemy began to appear in force … I caused the whole rear guard to face about and return back,” Clinton wrote. Quickly divining Lee’s flanking scheme, Clinton “came immediately to the resolution of pressing the enemy’s advance guard so hard as to oblige the officer commanding it to call back his detachments from my flanks to its assistance.” This soon worked, and then, seeing Lee with his back to the great ravine, Clinton decided to risk a general engagement and threw in everything he had, hoping to crush the American detachment before Washington came up. Even if the main army arrived, Clinton reasoned, “Had Washington been blockhead enough to sustain Lee, I should have catched him between two defiles.”