An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Charles Lee, and his strife with George Washington

Aug 4, 2020 by

Charles Lee (general) - Wikipedia
Charles Lee

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Born in England, Charles Lee lived in North America at the start of the American Revolution. When and where exactly was he born, and how did he come to the colonies?

In a manner similar to that of a number of George Washington’s other generals, Charles Lee was born in Great Britain—specifically, in the English community of Darnhall, on February 6, 1732. Lee’s father held a high rank in the British Army, and his family’s affluence allowed Lee to attend school in Switzerland. While there, he learned a number of languages. When he turned 14, Lee came back to England and enrolled in the King Edward VI School in Suffolk. He did not remain there long, however, as a year later his father paid to have him commissioned as an ensign in the British Army. Not surprisingly, Lee became a member of his father’s regiment. Four years later, his father died, and Lee then used his own money to purchase the higher rank of lieutenant for himself.

In 1754, his regiment received orders to sail to North America after news of the outbreak of hostilities between the French and Virginians reached Great Britain. Lee and his regiment became a part of General Edward Braddock’s campaign to capture Ft. Duquesne, which the French had constructed on the site of present-day Pittsburgh.

Interestingly, other participants in that campaign included future American generals George Washington, Daniel Morgan, and Horatio Gates. After Braddock’s bloody repulse, the British high command transferred the remnants of Lee’s regiment to upstate New York to coordinate with Native American tribes allied with the British. Soon thereafter, he bought himself a commission as a captain.

After his stay in the Mohawk Valley, in 1757, Lee participated in a failed British campaign to capture the French fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island. A year later, Lee and his regiment took part in an assault on Fort Carillon. Lee suffered a wound, and the attack proved unsuccessful. After recuperating for nearly a year, Lee returned to duty in time to participate in the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga, and in 1760 he and his regiment helped force the surrender of the French garrison defending Montreal. While that event essentially ended combat between the French and the British in North America, fighting continued in Europe, and Lee received orders to report for duty in Portugal.

There he fought bravely, especially earning praise for his conduct at the Battle of Vila Velha. In another interesting coincidence, John Burgoyne, who would surrender a combined British-Hessian army at Saratoga in October of 1777, served as Lee’s commander at Vila Velha. A major when the conflict ended in 1763, Lee soon realized that he had little chance of receiving another promotion as things stood within the British military. To improve his chances for advancement, Lee went to Poland to serve as a military advisor to the Polish king in 1765. Two years later, he returned to England, but found his prospects for promotion no brighter. When Poland became embroiled in the Russo-Turkish War, Lee made his way back to that country, and served as a major general. This earned him a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the British Army, but despairing of ever receiving another promotion, Lee decided to resign his commission and move to North America in 1773.

  1. How did he first get involved in the American Revolution?

When Lee arrived in what is now West Virginia, he found many of his fellow settlers very dissatisfied with their relationship to the British government. Interested in both gauging the depth of this anger and acquainting colonial leaders with his agreement with their grievances, Lee traveled throughout the colonies for the next few months. This effort by Lee paid immediate dividends after the battles of Lexington and Concord. When the Second Continental Congress convened in May of 1775, it quickly took up the subject of who to appoint as the commander of Patriot forces, and Lee’s name immediately surfaced.

A number of the representatives thought Lee had the requirements to receive command, but felt that the honor should go to someone born in the colonies. In addition, Lee’s personality proved repugnant to a number of the representatives. As a result, Washington became the commander, and Congress appointed Lee as a major general, third-in-command of the American Army. When Artemis Ward retired in early 1776, Lee became Washington’s second-in-command.

  1. Tell us about some of his victories and exploits, and on the other hand, some of his disasters.

Upon receiving his initial appointment from Congress, Lee journeyed to Boston to join the army. While stationed there, Lee received notification from Congress that it had appointed him to command the American Army’s Canadian Department. Whether because of the deteriorating situation there or a more pressing need elsewhere, Congress rescinded its original order, choosing instead to give him command of the Southern Department. When Lee arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in early June of 1776, he learned of an impending British operation to capture the city.

In the next few weeks, under his direction fortifications sprang up around the harbor, including an installation that became known as Fort Moultrie. Fearing that the soft wood and sand that comprised its outer walls could not withstand a bombardment from British naval guns, Lee recommended that the defenders abandon the fort. Civilian authorities countermanded this request—fortuitously for the Americans, as the fort played the most prominent role in repelling the British assault on June 28.

Although his strategic vision almost doomed the American cause at Charleston, he received great acclaim as the defender of the city. Ordered to rejoin Washington’s army, Lee arrived after the British had routed the Americans at the Battle of Long Island. Apparently, this further convinced Lee of his superiority over Washington as a military leader. Any doubt of this that Lee had left ended when Washington chose to keep 3,000 troops in a fortification (ironically, named Fort Lee in his honor) on the Hudson River that the British captured with little difficulty.

As Washington retreated out of New York City and through New Jersey, Lee kept forces under his direct command at a distance from the main body of the American Army. Lee later defended his actions on a tactical basis, but most historians believe that Lee chose to remain separate from Washington to show his personal distain for his commander. Situating his force near Morristown, New Jersey, Lee then decided to move his headquarters to a nearby tavern. There, on December 12, 1776, a well-coordinated British cavalry raid captured Lee. He would remain a prisoner of the British until exchanged for Major General Richard Prescott in April of 1778.

  1. As we all know, personality differences often occur and contribute to one’s downfall. What do we know about this individual’s personality and his clashes with Washington?

Ironically, when the British captured Lee, they interrupted him in the process of writing a letter to Horatio Gates about Washington’s failures as a general. This stands to reason, as since the start of the American Revolution Lee had believed that he outclassed Washington as a military leader in every respect.

One could argue, as Lee’s defenders have done, that he had seen none of the tactical and strategic brilliance that Washington would display in the Trenton-Princeton campaign before his capture on December 12, 1776. But, on the other hand, Lee had seen Washington’s superb leadership qualities in the aftermath of Braddock’s defeat, when the young Virginian had ably mounted a rear-guard action to save the remnants of the British force.

Lee’s haughtiness therefore seems based more on his massive ego than on the actual evidence at hand. Surprisingly, even though Washington learned of Lee’s condescension towards him, Washington tried to remain on cordial terms with his subordinate. As we shall see, Lee’s actions in 1778 finally made it impossible for Washington to continue to tolerate his second-in-command’s insubordination.

  1. What is the old saying” Old soldiers never die-they just fade away”?  How does this relate to General Lee?

After his parole, Lee returned to Washington and reported for duty in May of 1778. From all accounts, he looked at the ragged condition of the soldiers at Valley Forge of further proof of Washington’s incompetence as a military leader.

A month later, as the British began preparations to evacuate Philadelphia, Lee learned that Washington planned to attack the British column as it moved through New Jersey on its way to New York City. According to military protocol, Washington gave direct command of the assault to Lee as the second-in-command. Having only seen Washington’s army as it retreated after losing the Battle of Long Island and in its disheveled state at Valley Forge, Lee immediately found fault with Washington’s plan, and declined to lead the attack. Unfazed by his refusal, Washington then gave command of the operation to the Marquis de Lafayette.

Considering this a slight, Lee then changed his mind, and agreed to lead the attack, and on the morning of June 28, 1778, he led a force of 4,500 soldiers forward into battle at Monmouth Court House. Initially pleased with the progress his troops made, Lee quickly saw his operation begin to fall apart. Either because he honestly thought the British had legitimately gained the upper hand on the battlefield or because of his low estimation of the soldiers he commanded, Lee then ordered his men to retreat. Ready to move the bulk of the army into battle as Lee’s attack disrupted the British retreat, Washington became perplexed when he heard the sound of battle getting closer to, rather than further from, his position.

Riding forward, Washington found his army retreating. Confronting Lee, Washington asked for an explanation of the withdrawal. Lee offered excuses, but Washington, displaying a temper rarely seen during the war, furiously ordered Lee to the rear and took personal command of all the troops on the battlefield. Displaying the superb training that Baron von Steuben had given them at Valley Forge, the American soldiers stopped their retreat, reformed, and held their positions for the rest of the day. Most generals in Lee’s position would have simply thanked their lucky stars that their army had averted a catastrophe, and would lay low until the anger over their actions had subsided.

Instead of adopting that sensible strategy, Lee chose to write a letter to Washington, stating that he had saved the American Army from a disaster by retreating. Moreover, he insisted that Washington needed to give him an apology for maligning his conduct during the battle. Having reached the limits of his patience, Washington informed Lee that he would request a formal inquiry into Lee’s conduct. That caused Lee to demand a court martial, which found Lee guilty on three counts, and suspended him from the army for a year. Incredibly, when Lee returned to the army in 1779, he complained to a wide range of people about how shabbily Washington had treated him.

A lieutenant colonel on Washington’s staff took umbrage with that criticism, and challenged Lee to a duel. Lee suffered a non-life threatening wound, something that would have convinced many individuals to stifle their criticisms. But Lee, who had lost two fingers in a duel in Poland years earlier, chose instead to raise the stakes, taking his argument to Congress. Finding his letters insulting, Congress removed him from the American Army in 1780, thus ending his military career.

  1. What were his later years like, and when and where was his buried?

After his dismissal from military service, Lee went back to live on his acreage in present-day West Virginia. In 1782, he made a journey to Philadelphia. While in that city, he developed a high fever, and died on October 2, 1782. He was buried in Philadelphia. Lee had lived long enough to realize that the British surrender at Yorktown the previous October had all but guaranteed American independence, but not long enough to actually see the Treaty of Paris signed.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about this general, who seemed to be insubordinate at times?

Although he died at the age of fifty, Charles Lee managed to lead a life filled with many fascinating twists and turns. Brave enough to distinguish himself in battle and face death in two duels, Lee also possessed an arrogant self-confidence that seems totally misplaced. Furthermore, questions have emerged about his loyalty to the American cause, as in the 1850s a librarian discovered a letter that seems to suggest that while a British prisoner, he offered them advice on how to crush the American cause. Moreover, some historians believe that the ease with which the British captured him in December of 1776 suggests that he himself may have tipped the British off to his location, giving himself an “honorable” exit from a cause seemingly on its last legs.

In an interesting twist, some historians have suggested that Lee’s enemies inside the American Army may have supplied that bit of intelligence to the British to get rid of him. Lastly, few would know that Charles Lee had a distinction that no other of Washington’s generals could claim. While serving during the French and Indian War in upstate New York, Lee had immersed himself in the ways of the Mohawk Tribe, to the point that they gave him the name “Boiling Water.” And in a manner virtually unheard of at the time, Lee married the daughter of a Mohawk chief.

Apparently a woman of great beauty, she bore him twins. Sadly, little outside of comments by Lee and others on her attractive features and an account of the birth of his children, no evidence exists of what happened to either his wife or his children. One can only hope that someone can eventually uncover more information about these people lost to history!

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