American Revolution: Major General Charles Lee

Charles Lee during the American Revolution
Major General Charles Lee. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Major General Charles Lee was a controversial figure who predominantly served during the American Revolution (1775-1783). A veteran of the British Army, he first gained combat experience in North America during the French & Indian War (1754-1763) before seeing fighting on the Continent. With the conclusion of that conflict, Lee later obtained a commission as a major general in the Polish Army before emigrating to the American colonies in 1773. 

With the beginning of the American Revolution, he offered his services to the Continental Congress. Given a commission, Lee's prickly demeanor and substantial ego brought him in to frequent conflict with his superiors. Clashing with General George Washington, he was relieved during the Battle of Monmouth Court House and later dismissed from the Continental Army.

Early Life and Career

Born February 6, 1732 in Cheshire, England, Lee was the son of Major General John Lee and his wife Isabella Bunbury. Sent to school in Switzerland at an early age, he was taught a variety of languages and received a basic military education. Returning to Britain at age fourteen, Lee attended the King Edward VI School in Bury St. Edmonds before his father purchased him an ensign's commission in the British Army.

Serving in his father's regiment, the 55th Foot (later 44th Foot), Lee spent time in Ireland before purchasing a lieutenant's commission in 1751. With the beginning of the French & Indian War, the regiment was ordered to North America. Arriving in 1755, Lee took part Major General Edward Braddock's disastrous campaign which ended at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9.

French & Indian War

Ordered to the Mohawk Valley in New York, Lee became friendly with the local Mohawks and was adopted by the tribe. Given the name Ounewaterika or "Boiling Water", he was permitted to marry the daughter of one of the chiefs. In 1756, Lee purchased a promotion to captain and a year later took part in the failed expedition against the French fortress of Louisbourg.

Returning to New York, Lee's regiment became part of Major General James Abercrombie's advance against Fort Carillon in 1758. That July, he was badly wounded during the bloody repulse at the Battle of Carillon. Recovering, Lee took part in Brigadier General John Prideaux's successful 1759 campaign to capture Fort Niagara before joining the British advance on Montreal the following year.

Interwar Years

With the conquest of Canada complete, Lee was transferred to the 103rd Foot and promoted to major. In this role, he served in Portugal and played a key part in Colonel John Burgoyne's triumph at the Battle of Vila Velha on October 5, 1762. The fighting saw Lee's men recapture the town and win a lopsided victory that inflicted around 250 killed and captured on the Spanish while only sustaining only 11 casualties.

With the end of the war in 1763, Lee's regiment was disbanded and he was placed on half-pay. Seeking employment, he traveled to Poland two years later and became an aide-de-camp to King Stanislaus (II) Poniatowski. Made a major general in the Polish service, he later returned to Britain in 1767. Still unable to obtain a position in the British Army, Lee resumed his post in Poland in 1769 and took part in the Russo-Turkish War (1778-1764). While abroad, he lost two fingers in duel.

To America

Invalided back to Britain in 1770, Lee continued to petition for a post in the British service. Though promoted to lieutenant colonel, no permanent position was available. Frustrated, Lee decided to return to North America and settled in western Virginia in 1773. There he purchased a large estate near lands owned by his friend Horatio Gates.

Quickly impressing key individuals in the colony, such as Richard Henry Lee, he became sympathetic to the Patriot cause. As hostilities with Britain looked increasingly likely, Lee advised that an army be formed. With the Battles of Lexington and Concord and subsequent beginning of the American Revolution in April 1775, Lee immediately offered his services to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Joining the American Revolution

Based on his prior military exploits, Lee fully expected to be made the commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army. Though Congress was pleased to have an officer with Lee's experience join the cause, it was put off by his slovenly appearance, desire to be paid, and frequent use of obscene language. The post instead was given to fellow Virginia, General George Washington. Instead, Lee was commissioned as the army's second-most senior major general behind Artemis Ward. Despite being listed third in the army's hierarchy, Lee was effectively second as the aging Ward had little ambition beyond overseeing the ongoing Siege of Boston.

Charleston

Immediately resentful of Washington, Lee traveled north to Boston with his commander in July 1775. Taking part in the siege, his gruff personal behavior was tolerated by other officers due to his prior military accomplishments. With the arrival of the new year, Lee was ordered to Connecticut to raise forces for the defense of New York City. Shortly thereafter, Congress appointed him to command the Northern, and later Canadian, Department. Though selected for these posts, Lee never served in them as on March 1 Congress directed him to take over the Southern Department at Charleston, SC. Reaching the city on June 2, Lee was quickly faced with the arrival of a British invasion force led by Major General Henry Clinton and Commodore Peter Parker.

As the British prepared to land, Lee worked to fortify the city and support Colonel William Moultrie's garrison at Fort Sullivan. Doubtful that Moultrie could hold, Lee recommended that he fall back to the city. This was refused and the fort's garrison turned back the British at the Battle of Sullivan's Island on June 28. In September, Lee received orders to rejoin Washington's army at New York. As a nod to Lee's return, Washington changed the name of Fort Constitution, on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson River, to Fort Lee. Reaching New York, Lee arrived in time for the Battle of White Plains.

Issues with Washington

In the wake of the American defeat, Washington entrusted Lee with a large portion of the army and tasked him with first holding Castle Hill and then Peekskill. With the collapse of the American position around New York after the losses of Fort Washington and Fort Lee, Washington began retreating across New Jersey. As the retreat began, he ordered Lee to join him with his troops. As the fall had progressed, Lee's relationship with his superior had continued to degrade and he began sending intensely critical letters regarding Washington's performance to Congress. Though one of these was accidentally read by Washington, the American commander, more disappointed than angered, did not take action.

Capture

Moving at a slow pace, Lee brought his men south into New Jersey. On December 12, his column encamped south of Morristown. Rather than remain with his men, Lee and his staff took quarters at White's Tavern several miles from the American camp. The next morning, Lee's guard was surprised by a British patrol led by Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt and including Banastre Tarleton. After a brief exchange, Lee and his men were captured.

Though Washington attempted to exchange several Hessian officers taken at Trenton for Lee, the British refused. Held as a deserter due to his previous British service, Lee wrote and submitted a plan for defeating the Americans to General Sir William Howe. An act of treason, the plan was not made public until 1857. With the American victory at Saratoga, Lee's treatment improved and he was finally exchanged for Major General Richard Prescott on May 8, 1778.

Battle of Monmouth

Still popular with Congress and parts of the army, Lee rejoined Washington at Valley Forge on May 20, 1778. The following month, British forces under Clinton began evacuating Philadelphia and moving north to New York. Assessing the situation, Washington desired to pursue and attack the British. Lee strenuously objected to this plan as he felt the new alliance with France precluded the need to fight unless victory was certain. Overruling Lee, Washington and the army crossed to New Jersey and closed with the British. On June 28, Washington ordered Lee to take a force of 5,000 men forward to attack the enemy's rearguard.

Around 8:00 AM, Lee's column met the British rearguard under Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis just north of Monmouth Court House. Rather than commence a coordinated attack, Lee committed his troops piecemeal and rapidly lost control of the situation. After a few hours of fighting, the British moved to flank Lee's line. Seeing this, Lee ordered a general retreat after offering little resistance. Falling back, he and his men encountered Washington who was advancing with the rest of the army.

Appalled by the situation, Washington sought out Lee and demanded to know what had happened. After receiving no satisfactory answer, he rebuked Lee in one of the few instances where he swore publicly. Replying with inappropriate language, Lee was immediately relieved of his command. Riding forward, Washington was able to rescue American fortunes during the remainder of the Battle of Monmouth Court House.

Later Career & Life

Moving to the rear, Lee promptly wrote two highly insubordinate letters to Washington and demanded a court martial to clear his name. Obliging, Washington had a court martial convened at New Brunswick, NJ on July 1. Proceeding under the guidance of Major General Lord Stirling, the hearings concluded on August 9. Three days later, the board returned and found Lee guilty of disobeying orders in the face of the enemy, misbehavior, and disrespecting the commander-in-chief. In the wake of the verdict, Washington forwarded it to Congress for action.

On December 5, Congress voted to sanction Lee by relieving him from command for one year. Forced from the field, Lee began working to overturn the verdict and openly attacked Washington. These actions cost him what little popularity he had remaining. In response to his assault on Washington, Lee was challenged to several duels. In December 1778, Colonel John Laurens, one of Washington's aides, wounded him in the side during a duel. This injury prevented Lee from following though on a challenge from Major General Anthony Wayne.

Returning to Virginia in 1779, he learned that Congress intended to dismiss him from the service. In response, he wrote a scathing letter which resulted in his formal dismissal from the Continental Army on January 10, 1780. Moving to Philadelphia later that month, Lee resided in the city until taking ill and dying on October 2, 1782. Though unpopular, his funeral was attended by much of Congress and several foreign dignitaries. Lee was buried at Christ Episcopal Church and Churchyard in Philadelphia.