Charles Lee 

 

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Charles LeeLee, CHARLES, military officer ; born in Dernhall, Cheshire, England, in 1731; was the son of a British officer, and entered the army at a very early age, having held a commission when eleven years old. At twenty he was a lieutenant in the 44th Regiment, and accompanied the troops sent to America in 1754, where he saw considerable service during the ensuing six years. His regiment participated in the battle on the Monongahela, where Braddock was defeated. That was Lee's first practical experience of warfare. He served in the campaigns from 1756 to the conquest of Canada in 1760, when he returned to England with a captain's commission, and was promoted to major of the 103d Regiment, which was disbanded in 1763, and Lee continued a major on half-pay until 1772, when he was made lieutenant-colonel on half-pay. He had served with distinction in Portugal, but was not promoted in rank, probably because of the sharpness and volubility of his tongue concerning the shortcomings of his superior officers. On visiting the Continent after he was put on the half-pay list, he was made an aide-de-camp of King Stanislaus of Poland. He went to England in 1766, where he failed in his attempts to obtain promotion, and returned to Poland, where he was made a major-general, and afterwards served a short time in the Russian army. Finally, Lee made his way to America, where he claimed to be the author of the Letters of Junius.

He was boastful, restless, impulsive, quarrelsome, egotistical, ironical in expression, and illiberal in his judgment of others. His restlessness caused the Mohawks, who adopted him, to give him a name signifying "boiling water." He espoused the cause of the American republicans, and when the Continental army was organized he was chosen second major-general under Washington, which he accepted on condition that the Congress should advance him $30,000 as indemnity for any losses he might sustain by confiscation of his property in England.

Washington Rebukes Lee

George Washington Rebukes General Charles Lee at Monmouth

Through his boasting he became extremely overrated by the Americans of all classes. He was simply an unprincipled and utterly selfish soldier of fortune. His censoriousness, and his jealousy of George Washington, whose position he aspired to, made him very mischievous, and finally he played the part of a traitor to the cause, without actual discovery of proof (though always suspected) until many years afterwards. Made a prisoner in New Jersey late in 1776, he was not exchanged until early in 1778. His behavior at the battle of Monmouth in June of that year caused Washington to address him sharply. Offended at the words, Lee wrote a disrespectful letter to the commander-in-chief on the day after. Dissatisfied with Washington's reply, he wrote a still more disrespectful one. Lee was arrested and tried by court-martial for disobedience of orders; for having made an unnecessary, shameful, and disorderly retreat; and for disrespect to the commander-in-chief in the two letters. He defended himself with much ability. The court acquitted him of a part of the charges, but found him guilty of the rest, and sentenced him to be suspended from service in the army for one year. The Congress confirmed the sentence.

He then retired to his estate in Virginia, where he wrote Queries, Political and Military, the design of which was to cast a slur upon the character and military conduct of Washington. In a rude cabin of one apartment and little furniture he lived "more like a hermit than a citizen of the world," surrounded by his dogs and his books. Just as his time of suspension had expired he heard that Congress was about to deprive him of his commission, when, in a fit of anger, he wrote an abusive letter to the President, and his immediate dismissal from the army was the consequence. Wearied of solitude, he visited Philadelphia in the fall of 1782, with a view to making sale of his estate. There he was attacked by fever, and died within five days (October 2, 1782), exclaiming in his last moments, "Stand by me, my brave grenadiers!" In his will, after bequeathing his "soul to the Almighty and his body to the earth," he directed that his remains should not "be buried in any church or churchyard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist meeting-house; for," he said, "since I have resided in this country, I have kept so much bad company when living that I do not choose to continue it when dead." He was buried in Christ Church-yard, Philadelphia, with military honors.

When, in June, 1776, the British were about to attack Fort Sullivan, in the harbor of Charleston, Lee, who had been sent south to take command of troops there, went to the fort, and, after a brief inspection, declared it not tenable for "half aim hour." It was "a slaughter-pen." He proposed to Governor Rutledge to withdraw the garrison from the fort without striking a blow. Rutledge refused, and Lee contented himself with giving several orders for preparing for a retreat. A better soldier than he commanded the garrison. It was the brave and calm Colonel Moultrie, who was unmoved by the evidences of alarm in the mind of the boastful Lee. Had the will of the latter prevailed, the fort, city, and province would undoubtedly have fallen into the hands of the enemy.

Lee, having received his $30,000 indemnity from Congress, was anxious for peace. At Annapolis, on his way north, be promised to use his great influence in bringing about a reconciliation, and whenever he found willing and sympathizing listeners in Pennsylvania and New Jersey he was free in his denunciation of the Americans for continuing the contest. He was decidedly opposed to independence. At Princeton, in a communication to Congress, he proposed to that body to authorize an offer to open a negotiation with Lord Howe on his own terms. Finding that he could not persuade the Americans to submit to become slaves, he performed treasonable acts with a hope of accomplishing his ends. He wrote to Congress from Perth Amboy (October 12, 1776) that Howe would not attack Washington, but would infallibly proceed against Philadelphia; and he sought to weaken the Continental army by dividing it, by inducing Congress to order Washington to send a part of his army to Trenton. At that very moment Howe was moving against Washington.

While the British were desolating New Jersey (November, 1776), and Washington, with his handful of troops, was powerless to prevent them, Lee, with a large reinforcement, persistently lingered on the way. He had been urged by Washington, when the retreat from Hackensack began, to join him, but he steadily refused. Now the commander-in-chief entreated him to obey. Philadelphia was in danger, and the chief wrote, "Do come on; your arrival, without delay, may be the means of saving a city." Lee continued to persistently disobey every order of the chief. His reputation was at its zenith. The Americans were infatuatedóa delusion which, in the light of subsequent history, seems very strange. He was aiming at the chief command, and he did all he dared, by insinuations and false reports, to disparage Washington in the estimation of the Congress and the people. With unparalleled insolence (which was not rebuked), he wrote to Dr. Rush, a member of Congress: " Your apathy amazes me; you make me mad. Let me not talk vainly: had I the power, I could do you much good, might I but dictate one week. Did none of the Congress ever read Roman history?" His letters at that juncture show his predetermination to disobey orders and act as he pleased with the troops which had been entrusted to him.

On the morning of December 13, 1776, Lee was captured at an inn at Baskingridge, New Jersey, where he was lodging, nearly 3 miles from his army. Lee had just finished a letter to General Gates, in which he had spoken disparagingly of Washington, when Colonel Harcourt, at the head of a British scouting party, surrounded the house and made him a prisoner. He had gone out of the house, on hearing a tumult, unarmed, bareheaded, in slippers, without a coat, in a blanket-cloak, his shirt-collar open, and his linen much soiled, and gave himself up. In this plight he was hurried, on horseback, to the camp of Cornwallis, at New Brunswick, and was sent by him to New York.

The conduct of General Lee at several periods during the war was inexplicable. He was disappointed in not being made the commander-in-chief of the Continental forces, and continually showed a censorious spirit towards Washington and others which were injurious to the service. His abilities were greatly overrated, and later in the conflict there were thoughtful men who regarded his profession of devotion to the American cause with suspicion. In 1775 he corresponded with Burgoyne, his old commander in Europe, while in Boston. In the summer of 1776, when at Charleston, he tried to induce Colonel Moultrie to abandon Fort Sullivan when it was attacked by land and water. In the autumn of that year he persistently disobeyed the orders of Washington to join the army, with a large force under his command, while it was retreating before Lord Cornwallis, and he was taken prisoner at a house far away from his camp, in New Jersey, under very suspicious circumstances. A letter which he had just written to Gates contained disparaging remarks on Washington's military character. His tender treatment by Howe, who at first regarded him as a deserter from the British army, was a matter of wonder; and when, after he had been exchanged and had rejoined the army at Valley Forge (1778), he was required to take the oath of allegiance with some other officers, he at first refused. His persistence in opposing any interference with the march of Clinton across New Jersey, and his extraordinary conduct on the field at Monmouth, could not be explained by any reason excepting incapacity or treachery. Indeed, Washington was warned against Lee the night before that battle by a Virginian captain who believed him to be treacherous. Three-fourths of a century after his death a document was found among Sir William Howe's papers endorsed "Mr. Lee's Plan, 29th March, 1777," in the handwriting of Henry Strachy, Howe's secretary. The writing within was in Lee's own hand, and it embodied a plan of operations by the British fleet and army which it was thought was best calculated to insure the subjugation of the colonies. It was upon this plan that Howe acted in going to the Chesapeake in the summer of 1777, instead of up the Hudson River to assist Burgoyne, and so ruined the latter general. This document cast a flood of light upon the character and conduct of Lee during the Revolution, and proved beyond cavil that he was a traitor to the cause which he professed to serve. This document and circumstantial evidence of his treason are given in a small volume by George H. Moore, LL.D., entitled The Treason of Charles Lee.

Through false pretensions,- as well as misrepresentations and misapprehensions, the Americans had unbounded confidence in Lee, and many were in favor of making him commander-in-chief of the Continental army at the time Washington was appointed. Indeed, he expected the honor, and was disappointed and surprised because he did not receive it. He had been in military training from his boyhood, and represented himself as well versed in the science of war. He was better understood in England. "From what I know of him, "wrote Sir Joseph Yorke, then British minister at The Hague, " he is the worst present which could be made to any army." And so he proved to the Americans. He was selfish in the extreme. Soured against his government, he had sought employment anywhere as a mere military adventurer. He was continually seeking intimate relations with British officersówriting to Burgoyne, Sir Henry Clinton, and othersówhile ostensibly fighting against them in favor of the American cause. Even while disobedient, quarrelsome, and inefficient, the Americans did not lose faith in him, nor suspect that in his movements during the flight of the army under Washington from the Hudson to the Delaware (1776), and in his movements at the battle of Monmouth, he was seeking to betray them. But such was the case.

 

 

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