Charles Lee was one of the most talented American military leaders in the War for Independence, but his erratic performance and loutish behavior forever tarnished his considerable contributions.
Lee was born in England to Irish parents. His father was a colonel in the British army and enrolled his son in a Swiss military school. Young Lee was commissioned as an ensign in the army at age 12. Three years later he entered regular service in his father’s regiment.
During the French and Indian War, Lee was assigned to the American colonies, where he was counted among the survivors of Braddock’s disastrous defeat in 1755, sharing his good fortune with comrades George Washington, Horatio Gates and Thomas Gage. Later in the conflict Lee purchased a military command in the Mohawk Valley, where he casually married a Mohawk woman and was adopted by the tribe. His unpredictable behavior and violent temper earned him the name of “Boiling Water” among the natives. Lee was a gangly man whose unhandsome face was dominated by a huge nose — a tempting target for caricaturists of the day. Despite an excellent education and a record of great achievement, he felt throughout his life the need to inflate his reputation with long-winded accounts of his adventures. He disliked most people, but made exceptions for fellow soldiers and prostitutes. His closest companions were dogs; he was nearly always surrounded by a pack of ill-trained hounds and his prized Pomeranian. His vanity led him to buy expensive tailored uniforms, but he seldom bothered to have them cleaned. Some of his contemporaries preferred the smell of the dogs to that of Lee himself.
Lee was badly wounded in the attack on Ticonderoga in 1758, but recovered in time to participate in the campaigns at Niagara and Montreal. He returned to England in 1760 before being assigned to Portugal, where he served under John Burgoyne. Like many career soldiers of the era, Lee sought employment in foreign armies during peacetime. He served twice in the Polish army and hoped to parlay that experience into a lucrative appointment from George III. During a face-to-face meeting with the king, who declined to offer the desired command, Lee rebuked the monarch and swore that he would never give the king an opportunity to break another promise. An embittered Lee became enmeshed in Whig politics and retired to America on half pay in 1773.
From the beginning of his new life in the colonies, Lee was an outspoken radical. He aligned himself with the emerging patriot cause and became an early advocate of a separate colonial army. After hostilities commenced, Lee’s pride was slighted when the less experienced Washington was appointed commander of the American forces. Thanks to the support of the Adams cousins in Massachusetts (and encouraging words from Washington), Lee was made a major general and third in the line of command.
Following initial service at the siege of Boston, Lee was given command of the Southern Department in March 1776. His assignment was to protect Charleston, the most important port in the South, from a sea-based British force under Sir Henry Clinton. Hostilities in that theater commenced in June. The patriot forces succeeded in holding a fortified position on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor. Lee emerged from the successful defense with a heightened reputation, despite the fact that much of the credit rightly belonged to Colonel William Moultrie. Both were honored by Congress for their efforts.
In the fall of 1776, Lee was summoned north to assist Washington in his attempts to stem the Continental Army’s string of defeats. The grim military prospects did not prevent Lee from securing an advance payment of $30,000 from Congress. That sum equaled uncollectible debts owed him in England and was used to purchase an estate in Virginia. Despite his successes, controversy began to develop around Lee’s military conduct. He served admirably at White Plains (October 1776), but after receiving a separate command, he was lethargic in responding to Washington’s calls for assistance. Lee also began correspondence with Joseph Reed, the army’s adjutant general, and members of Congress in which he repeatedly expressed strong reservations about Washington’s military abilities. Some have speculated that Lee wanted to see his superior defeated so that he could take command.
In December 1776, Lee left his army to spend the evening in White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The attractions were food, drink and the charms of one of the establishment’s resident women. Accompanied by only a small guard, Lee was surprised the next morning by the arrival of a British party under Benastre Tarleton, a former comrade who had sworn an oath in a London club to track down and decapitate Lee. Following a brief skirmish during which escape routes were cut off, a humiliated Lee was taken prisoner and removed to New York City. Lee's unexpected capture was the cause of great celebrations at the British headquarters and officers there predicted a swift end to the conflict. A night of careless lust had allowed the British to capture the enemy’s most able general and their most despised traitor.
Washington was distraught with the loss of his difficult subordinate and attempted to arrange a prisoner exchange. The Americans, however, held no high-ranking British captives and the effort failed. While in confinement, Lee drafted a battle plan for the British and received excellent treatment in return. He was provided with a comfortable three-room suite, food, wine and a personal servant. However, no effort was ever made by his captors to implement the war plan. Lee was released in an exchange in the spring of 1778, in the wake of the major British defeat at Saratoga the previous fall.
Lee reported to Washington at Valley Forge in May. When word was received of the impending British withdrawal from Philadelphia, Lee argued vigorously for allowing Clinton to depart unimpeded, leading some of his critics to question his judgment and others his loyalty. Washington chose to shadow the retreating British across New Jersey and hoped to engage them before they reached Middletown. Lee was chosen to lead an attack against the rear guard of the British force near Monmouth Court House. In action occurring on June 28, 1778, Lee’s failure to perform resulted in a battlefield tongue lashing from an irate Washington, who personally halted the American retreat and helped to re-form the battle line. A day-long struggle ensued. Neither side emerged as the clear victor, but the British retreated under cover of night.
Lee was deeply stung by Washington’s words and sent two letters demanding an apology from the commander and a court-martial to clear his name. Lee was found guilty of disobeying orders and insubordination and was removed from service for one year. This verdict was upheld by Congress in December 1778. Lee retired to his Virginia estate where he wrote letters attacking Washington and the Congress. He was officially dismissed from the army in 1780.
Lee's frequent criticisms of Washington offended many of the general’s loyal supporters, including aide John Laurens, who challenged Lee to a duel. In the ensuing encounter, Lee was slightly wounded in the initial exchange of shots and only the intercession of Laurens’ second, Alexander Hamilton, prevented further engagement. Lee’s injury, however, prevented him from accepting a similar challenge from Anthony Wayne.
Lee later moved to Philadelphia and lived in obscurity until his death in a tavern in October 1782. His passing revived considerable public interest in his career. Washington and a host of other dignitaries attended the funeral. Lee’s will stipulated that he not be buried in a churchyard, explaining that “I have kept so much bad company when living that I do not choose to continue it when dead.”
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