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Men of the Revolution: 4. Charles Lee

May 2024
4min read
When British dragoons captured this brilliant and ambitious general, it put an end to his ambition to replace Washington as commander-in-chief.

One acquaintance nicknamed him Naso, for the long beak that dominated his dark, pinched face. Mohawk warriors, with whom he lived during the French and Indian War, called him Ounewaterika, or “Boiling Water”—a name that only partially suggested his disposition. And during the first year of the Revolution certain members of the Continental Congress regarded him as the greatest general in the world—the officer who should have led the American army had he not been an Englishman. A man around whom controversy swarmed like angry hornets, Charles Lee was a Jekyll-Hyde personality, a stormy character eaten with pride and ambition, brilliant, courtly, scholarly and at the same time uncouth, slovenly, and contentious.

The family into which he was born in Chester, England, a few months before George Washington’s birthday in 1732, had been gentry since the thirteenth century, and Charles, the seventh child—tall, bony, thin and ugly as a scarecrow —was educated in a manner befitting a son of the Enlightenment. Commissioned in his father’s regiment at the age of fifteen, he came to America in 1755 to fight the French and Indians, where he acquired a reputation for a violent temper and brutally frank opinions. Back in Europe, he was active in literary, theatrical, and political circles, condemned the government loudly, fought in Portugal, became an aide to King Stanislas of Poland (who made him a major general), and was increasingly on the outs with the ministry of George in, whom he called a “despicable and tho stupid at the same time not innoxious dolt.” Finally, he had enough of the Old World and sailed to America in 1773, where he rapidly met most of the men who were to assume importance in the Revolution and became, by the time hostilities broke out, a leading contender for commander of the Continental Army. But Congress had to have a native-born American, and to Lee’s chagrin, George Washington of Virginia received the appointment. Lee was named a major general, and it required no imagination to see that he was a perfect original. An acquaintance, Jeremy Belknap, described him as “an odd genius; full of fire and passion, and but little good manners; a great sloven, wretchedly profane, and a great admirer of dogs, —of which he had two at dinner with him, one of them a native of Pomerania, which I should have taken for a bear had I seen him in the woods.” By the fall of 1776 Lee had won acclaim for the defense of Charleston, he was on close or intimate terms with the important members of Congress, and he was the army’s favorite officer. This—coupled with the fact that Washington had presided over an unbroken series of disasters beginning with the loss of Long Island—gave rise to rumors that Charles Lee would supersede the Virginian in command of the army. Lee’s insatiable ambition and colossal vanity made it certain that he would seek the opportunity to do so, and when Washington divided his army after the Battle of White Plains and left Lee in Westchester while he retreated through New Jersey, Lee took his own good time about rejoining his commander. Meantime, he was carrying on a highly dubious correspondence with other officers, including Joseph Reed of Washington’s staff, to whom he complained of the Commander in Chiefs “fatal indecision of mind.” He wrote to various officials in New England, requesting recruits and supplies for his own army (he could expect little help from Washington, he told them) and observing that it was up to the military to save cause and country from the British and a bungling Congress. “There are times,” he stated, “when we must commit treason against the Laws of the State for the salvation of the State.”

Moving slowly across New Jersey to join Washington, despite repeated requests that he do so as quickly as possible, Lee made the great mistake of spending the night of December 12, 1776, about three miles from his army’s camp at a tavern in Basking Ridge, and was captured the next morning by a party of British dragoons. (The young cavalryman who took Lee was to gain notoriety on the battlegrounds of America as “Bloody” Tarleton; after escorting his “Noble Prisoner” to Brunswick, Tarleton, whose actual first name was Banastre, declared proudly that this “most miraculous Event” had “put an End to the Campaign.”) Lee was imprisoned for nearly two years, never knowing if he would be tried as a deserter from the British army, and to save his neck, submitted a plan to the enemy for ending the rebellion—a scheme that Americans did not learn about until seventy years after his death. He was finally exchanged, but at the Battle of Monmouth he inexplicably ordered a retreat and was later court-martialed and suspended for twelve months. His brilliant, merciless pen was his undoing: during the trial he cast aspersions on Washington and other officers that could not be forgiven, and when his year’s penance was up, wrote such an offensive letter to Congress that that body cashiered him from the service. In 1782, heavily in debt and still fulminating against Washington, whom he called a “puffed up charlatan … extremely prodigal of other men’s blood and a great oeconomist of his own,” he died in Philadelphia.

Lee’s capture effectively ended his career, and there is no saying what might have happened had that event not occurred. He had been chafing for months about his subordinate role, he had the bit in his teeth and was lining up allies for what appeared to be a final power struggle with Washington, and on the strength of their respective achievements to that moment, it is quite possible that the Virginian might have lost out. Had Lee instead of Washington received credit for the victories that came later, at a time when many Americans were seriously questioning Washington’s military capabilities, it is not easy to say what the consequences might have been then, or after the war’s end. For Lee was scornful of Washington’s considered habit of deferring to Congress, he had no use whatever for the principle of military subservience to a civilian government, and in hindsight it maybe asked whether the removal of this power-hungry egocentric from the center stage may not have been the luckiest possible break for the country.

Richard M. Ketchum

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