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Major General Charles Lee

Lee, Charles
February 6, 1732
Cheshire, England
October 2, 1782
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Lee was born in Cheshire, England, the son of General John Lee and Isabella Bunbury (daughter of Sir Henry Bunbury, 3rd Baronet). {Allegedly Charles Lee was a 1st cousin seven times over of Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley}. By the age of twelve, he was already commissioned as an ensign in the British Army. Lee served under Major General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War along with fellow officers George Washington, Thomas Gage, and Horatio Gates. During this time in America, he married the daughter of a Mohawk Indian chief. From the Mohawks he received the bynames "Boiling Waters" and "The Spirit That Never Sleeps." He then went back to Europe to serve as a colonel under Major General John Burgoyne in Portugal and Poland. He moved up quickly: he was next commissioned as an aide-de-camp with the rank of Major General under the Polish king Stanislaus II. Upon returning to Britain, he was not wanted in the army, and so he moved back to the colonies in 1773.

When it started to look like war was inevitable, Lee volunteered his services to the colonies. He expected to be named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, being the most experienced candidate. On the other hand, he was born in Britain, somewhat eccentric, slovenly in appearance, coarse in language, and perhaps most damning of all, he wanted to be paid: by joining the rebellion, he forfeited all his properties in England, and wanted to be compensated. Washington, on the other hand, was sober, steady, calm, and best of all, would work without pay, asking only that the Continental Congress should cover his expenses. Washington also was a good political choice: a southern commander to pair with a primarily New England fighting force. Washington received the appointment, and Lee was offered the subordinate rank of major-general. He was often considered second in command of the colonial forces, although Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward, who was not in good health, officially held this position.

Lee also received various other titles: in 1776, he was named Commander of the Canadian Department, although he never got to serve in this capacity. Instead, he was appointed as the first Commander of the Southern Department. He served in this post for 6 months, until he was recalled to the main army.

Toward the end of 1776, Lee's animosity for Washington began to show. During the retreat from Fort Washington and Fort Lee, he dawdled with his army, and intensified a letter campaign to convince various Congress members that he should replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Around this time, Washington accidentally opened a letter from Lee to Col. Reed, in which Lee condemned Washington's leadership and abilities, and blames Washington entirely for the dire straits of the army. Although his army was supposed to join that of Washington's in Pennsylvania, Lee set a very slow pace. On the night of December 12, Lee and a dozen of his guard inexplicably stopped for the night at White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, some 3 miles from his main army. The next morning, a British patrol of 2 dozen horse found Lee writing letters in his dressing gown, and captured him. He was eventually regained by colonial forces in exchange for Gen. William Prescott.

Lee is most infamous for his actions during the Battle of Monmouth. Washington ordered him to attack the retreating enemy, but instead Lee ordered a retreat. He retreated directly into Washington and his troops, who were advancing, and Washington dressed him down publicly. Lee responded with "inappropriate language," was arrested, and shortly thereafter court-martialed. Lee was found guilty and relieved of command for a period of one year.

It is not clear that Lee made a bad strategic decision; he believed himself outnumbered (he was: British commander Gen. Sir Henry Clinton had 10,000 troops to Lee's 5,440), and retreat was reasonable. But he disobeyed orders and he publicly expressed disrespect to his commander.

Lee tried to get Congress to overturn the court-martial verdict, and when this failed he resorted to open attacks on Washington's character. Lee's popularity plummeted. Col. John Laurens, an aide to Washington, challenged him to a duel, in which Lee was wounded in the side. He was released from duty on January 10, 1780. He retired to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he died on October 2, 1782.

Treachery may have been the reason for Lee's retreat at the Battle of Monmouth. While he was held prisoner by British Gen. Sir William Howe in March 1777, Lee drafted a plan for British military operations against the Americans. At the time, he was under threat of being tried as a deserter from the British Army, because he hadn't resigned his British commision as lieutenent-colonel until several days after he accepted an American commision. The plan in Lee's handwriting was found in the Howe family archives in 1857.
Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, across from Fort Washington, was named for him.

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