April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
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
The President, Members and Judge Advocate being sworn: The Judge Advocate prosecuting in the name of the United States of America, the Court proceed to tlie trial of Major-C,eneral Lee, who appears before the Court, and the following charges are exhibited against him:
First: For disobedience of orders, in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June, agreeable to repeated instructions.
Secondly: For misbehaviour before the enemy on the same day, making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat.
Thirdly: tor disrespect to the Commander-in-C’Jiief, in two letters dated the 1st of July and the 28th of June.
The date was July 4, 1778. In the fields outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Continental Army of the United Slates of America was celebrating the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but the atmosphere in the large room of Widow Voorhees’ White Hart Tavern was anything but jolly. A stern major general, four grim-eyed brigadier generals, and eight solemn colonels heard these devastating accusations against a man who a short week before was widely considered, by both friend and foe, the most brilliant soldier in the American army. Major General diaries Lee was second in rank only to George Washington. In more modern terms, the situation could perhaps be paralleled by George Marshall’s courtmarlialling Dwight Eisenhower at the height of World War II or Ulysses Grant’s bringing charges against William Tccumseh Sherman on the eve of his march through Georgia. Either of these imaginary events would have won major historical attention. Yet the court-martial of Charles Lee has been strangely forgotten.
From the vantage of the comfortable historical privilege of hindsight, it is easy to say that a dash between Charles Lee and George Washington was inevitable. Temperamentally they were opposites. Washington made a habit of saying as little as possible; he had no pretensions to being either an intellectual or a military genius. Lee never stopped talking and considered himself—with some justification—both a military and a political theorist of the first rank. Though he could relax with intimates, Washington, like most conservatives, valued dignity and decorum. Lee valued neither. His uniform was invariably slovenly, and his conversation was sprinkled with phrases that made gentlemen wince and ladies blush. His constant company was a pack of dogs who shared his table, lus bed, and his headquarters. Compounding these idiosyncrasies was an astonishing physical ugliness. He was thin and reedy, and his hands and feet were unusually small. His face was lean, dark, and bony, with an underslung jaw and a nose so long that for a time he was nicknamed Naso.
Yet this self-confessed eccentric dazzled a number of Americans when he arrived in the restless colonies in 1773 and immediately made it clear that he was heart and soul with the revolutionary cause. His credentials were impressive. He knew America, having fought with distinction as an officer in the 44th Regiment during the French and Indian War (he was adopted by the Mohawks, who nicknamed him lioiling Water). With liritish troops in Portugal, he had helped England’s traditional ally resist a Spanish invasion and performed brilliantly as second in command to Brigadier (»eneral John liurgoyne. Thereafter, he had served as a soldier of fortune in the Polish and Russian armies, winning the more or less honorary title of major general. AVeIl educated, Lee spoke French fluently, handled Latin and Greek with ease, and could quote military experts from Xenophon to Frederick the Great.
From the moment lie plunged into the dispute between the colonies and the mother country, Lee played an extremist’s role. Aside from his temperamental instability, which some biographers think he inherited from an eccentric mother who all but ignored him as a boy, Lee nursed an almost pathological hatred of George JlI and the men around him, because he had never won the advancement he felt he deserved for his exploits against the French and the Spanish. He called America the “last and only asylum” of liberty, bought land in Virginia near the estate of another ex-British army officer, Horatio Gates, and travelled up and down the eastern seaboard hobnobbing with such American leaders as Samuel Adams in Boston, Alexander McDougall in New York, and Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia. He used his fluent pen to demolish an influential conservative, Dr. Myles Cooper, president of King’s College (now Columbia University). Jn “A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans,” Cooper had argued that the colonists could not possibly hope to withstand the power of the professionally trained British army. Lee ridiculed this notion with a dazzling combination of mockery and military examples. His pamphlet was widely reprinted and did much to diminish the awe Americans felt for the supposedly invincible British regulars.
When the war finally broke out, Lee was one of the four men considered for the supreme command of the American army. His British birth finally disqualified him, but more than a few delegates to the Continental Congress insisted that the future of the Revolution depended on Lee’s becoming Washington’s second in command. The prevailing opinion about Washington and Lee at this time can be glimpsed in a letter written by Elbridge Gerry saying that Washington would be acceptable as a commander of the army besieging the British in Boston, but that a “regular” general was also required to give the volunteers the training they so desperately needed.
Lee was undoubtedly the man Congress had in mind for this task. Artemas Ward of Massachusetts was nominated as a sop to New England’s pride, but when ill health soon forced Ward to retire, Lee became the senior major general. He served with distinction throughout the siege of Boston, then went south to lead the garrison at Charleston against a British attack in June, 1776.
Later in the summer, with Washington and his army reeling under a series of defeats around New York, Congress ordered Lee to hurry to his support. He played a leading role in persuading Washington to retreat from Manhattan Island and gave good advice at the Battle of White Plains. But the British capture of Fort Washington and its nearly 3,000 men caused Lee to lose almost all faith in Washington’s military ability. As the American Commander in Chief retreated through New Jersey, Lee, left in Westchester County with half the army, corresponded with Adjutant General Joseph Reed, who also had nearly given up on Washington. “I do think it is entirely owing to you that this army & the liberties of America so far as they are dependant upon it are not totally cut off,” Reed wrote. Lee accepted the compliment and agreed that “eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the man of the best parts if curs’d with indecision.”
When Washington summoned Lee to join him in New Jersey a few weeks later, Lee proceeded to act as if he were running a private war. He disobeyed orders repeatedly, even telling one correspondent he was ready to commit “a brave, virtuous kind of treason” to rescue the Revolution. He moved at a snail’s pace through New Jersey, attempting to use his small force to revivify local resistance, which had collapsed at the sight of Washington’s headlong flight beyond the Delaware. As late as December 8, 1776, lie was still in central New Jersey, telling his Commander in Chief, “The Militia in this part of the Province seem sanguine. If they could be assured of an army remaining amongst ‘em, I believe they would raise a considerable number.” But Washington had no sympathy with Lee’s concept of all-out guerrilla war and again ordered him to cross the Delaware and join the main army. Lee lingered four days more, writing to his old comrade Horatio Gates,”… entre nous a certain great man is most damnably deficient.” The morning after he expressed this low opinion of Washington, Lee was captured by a British cavalry patrol. For eighteen months he was a prisoner of war, most of the time living in comfort, trailing dinners and witly pleasantries with British army friends in New York.
Exposed to such a prolonged view of the immense effort Great Britain was making to subdue the colonies, Lee altered what had been one of his basic beliefs at the beginning of the war—that it would not last more than a lew months because “Great Britain cannot stand the contest.” At one point, he actually submitted to the British high command a plan for ending the war with a minimum of bloodshed, by transferring operations to the central colonies of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Exchanged in the spring of 1778, he lobbied in Congress on behalf of the British peace commission headed by Lord Carlisle, which offered repeal of most of the laws that had prodded the colonies into rebellion. But the Americans were no longer interested in accommodation, and Lee was told to stick to his soldiering. So he returned to an army that had just endured the agony of Valley Forge. The battles of Brandywinc Creek and Germantown had been fought without him. Although neither of these clashes had been an American victory, they had done much to make professional soldiers out of the men who survived them. Months of hard drilling under Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben had likewise emboldened the American high command into thinking that their soldiers could stand against the best of the British regulars.
Lee resumed his position as ranking major general with a distinctly opposite opinion. He presented to Washington and Congress a well-reasoned plan lor a purely guerrilla war. “Jl the Americans are servilely kept to the European Plan,” he wrote, “they will make an Awkward Figure, be laugh’d at as a bad Army by their Enemy, and defeated in every Rencontre which depends on manoeuvres.” He insisted that the idea “that a Decisive Action in lair Ground may be risquée! is talking Nonsense.” Instead, he recommended moving the army west of the Susquehanna and the capital to Pittsburgh if necessary.
These ideas struck Washington and his generals as more than a little quaint. The British, far from preparing to strike a hammer blow at the American army, were in a state of near panic. Thanks largely to the capture of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, France had entered the war. A French lleet was en route to America, and the new British commander—fat, fussy Sir Henry Clinton—had been ordered to evacuate Philadelphia and concentrate his army at New York. The question before the American high command was not one of retreat and reorganization, but of whether the revived Continental Army should let Clinton go unmolested or attempt to strike a blow while the British were strung out in a vulnerable line of march.
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.
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.”
In response to questions by the court, Lafayette said he had seen no sign of Lee having “any general compact plan” and said that “the orders for retreating came from General Lee,” adding that “there was a great confusion and contrariety in the orders, and a complaint amongst the troops on account of it.” Finally, perhaps most important, “the number of the enemy did not appear to be equal to ours.” Yet Lafayette admitted, “I thought that intelligence had been received that all the British army were coming upon us.”
Two days of further testimony threw little more light on the events of June 28, and on July 6 the court adjourned while the army marched toward the Hudson. In the meantime Lee did not help his cause by sending to the New Jersey Gazette an open letter in which he spoke bitterly of the “atrocious attack” being made upon his conduct and went on to describe the dubious action at Monmouth as “a very handsome check” to the British, achieved by a “retrograde manoeuvre of near four miles … fighting in a variety of places—in the plain and in the woods—by advancing and retreating, the enemy were at last fairly worn down.” Anthony Wayne, writing to a friend a few days later, said that this letter “savors of insanity or flows from worse sources.”
On July 13, with the court now sitting in Paramus, New Jersey, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens was sworn. A son of Henry Laurens, the president of the Continental Congress, this darkly handsome young aide was, like his father, totally devoted to George Washington. He told of having delivered a letter from Washington to Lee on June 28 promising the support of the entire army in the ensuing action. Lee, Laurens said, had read the letter, hesitated, confessed he did not really know what to say, and continued his retreat. Laurens thought that “General Lee seemed to be a good deal embarrassed and that his orders [to his subordinates! were indistinct.”
“Were you ever in an action before?” asked Lee, no doubt in his most condescending manner.
“I have been in several actions,” Laurens snapped. “I did not call that an action, as there was no action previous to the retreat!”
Laurens was followed by Alexander Hamilton, who told how he had gone forward on Washington’s orders to reconnoiter the country between the main army and Lee’s detachment. He met Lee and his men in full retreat, “issuing out of a wood … in two or three small columns. …” He said the men “were in themselves in tolerable good order, but seemed to be marching without system or design, as chance should direct.” Lee gave his orders, Hamilton said in answer to a question from the Judge Advocate, “under a hurry of mind.”
Obviously irked, Lee barked, “Did you not express in the field an idea diametrically reverse of my state of mind?”
In reply, Hamilton gave a hint of the talent for elegant circumlocution that later advanced his career as a lawyer:
I said something to you in the field expressive of an opinion that there appeared in you no want of that degree of self-possession, which proceeds from a want of personal intrepidity. I had no idea in my present evidence of insinuating the most distant charge of this nature, but only to designate that there appeared a certain hurry of spirits which may proceed from a temper not so calm and steady as is necessary to support a man in such critical circumstances.
Several of Washington’s other aides then confirmed that Lee had appeared to be in a confused state of mind at Monmouth and that his troops behaved in corresponding fashion. One told of asking Lieutenant Colonel William Smith, John Adams’ son-in-law, why they were retreating. Smith said he had no idea; “that they had lost but one man.”
Next two more of Washington’s aides, James McHenry and Tench Tilghman, described Washington’s confrontation with Lee. Tilghman told how they were leading the main army down the road from English-town, worried because they had had no word from Lee, when a fifer told them that the Americans were in full retreat. Washington became so angry that he ordered the boy put under guard. But the news was soon confirmed when they encountered two stumbling, half-exhausted regiments, worn out not by fighting but by running in the ferocious heat. Moments later Lee himself arrived with his panting column behind him. “General Washington rode up to him with some degree of astonishment, and asked him what was the meaning of this,” Tilghman testified.
General Lee answered … “Sir, Sir?” I took it that General Lee did not hear the question distinctly.
Upon General Washington’s repeating the question, General Lee answered, that from a variety of contradictory intelligence, and that from his orders not being obeyed, matters were thrown into confusion, and that he did not chuse to beard the British army with troops in such a situation. He said that besides, the thing was against his own opinion.
General Washington answered, whatever his opinion might have been, he expected his orders would have been obeyed, and then rode on toward the rear of the retreating troops.
The upshot, as everyone at the trial knew, was that Washington had successfully rallied the retreating Americans, who—under his leadership—had made a skillful and determined stand against several British assaults and had ended the Battle of Monmouth in a draw.
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.
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.”
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.