Charles Lee, a major general in the American revolutionary army, born at Dernhall, Cheshire, England, in 1731, died in Philadelphia, Oct. 2, 1782. He was the youngest son of John Lee, colonel of the 44th regiment in the British service, and is said to have held a commission in the army when 11 years of age. He received a tolerable education, and early prepared himself for his profession by studying the science of war. At 20 years of age he became a lieutenant in the 44th regiment, and in 1754 accompanied the troops sent to America, where during the next six years he saw considerable service. The 44th was one of the two European regiments which followed Braddock in his expedition to Fort Du-quesne, and at the disastrous battle on the Mo-nongahela Lee received his first practical experience of warfare. He found his way in safety to Philadelphia with the remnant of the British army, participated in the various indecisive movements of the campaigns of 1756 and 1757 as captain of a company of grenadiers, and in 1758 was present in the assault on Ticon-deroga, where he was severely wounded by a musket shot.
He subsequently traversed a large portion of the western frontier, and after the reduction of Fort Niagara and Montreal in 1760 returned to England, where he was promoted to a majority in the 103d regiment of foot. This regiment was disbanded in 1763, and Lee continued a major on half pay till 1772, when he was made a lieutenant colonel on half pay, which was the highest rank he ever attained in the British service. In 1762 he accompanied the British army sent to Portugal to protect the frontiers of that country from the incursions of the Spaniards, and while in the brigade of Gen. Burgoyne distinguished himself by a brilliant night attack upon a Spanish post near the old Moorish castle of Villa Velha, which the commander-in-chief, Count Lippe, described as "a very gallant action." But notwithstanding this testimonial to his bravery, and others equally complimentary from the king of Portugal and influential friends, his promotion lagged. Various reasons have been assigned for this, the most probable being the freedom with which he discussed ministerial plans respecting America, and in general his severe strictures upon persons in authority.
He was by nature impulsive, restless, opinionated, and overbearing, and his unhappy temper interfered on many occasions with the advancement to which his talents in reality entitled him. The Mohawks, into whose tribe he was adopted during his residence in America, aptly named him Ounewaterika, "Boiling Water." Wearied with the inactive life of a half-pay officer, he visited the continent with recommendations from his former commander, was well received by Frederick the Great, and at Warsaw was appointed by King Stanislas Augustus one of his aides-de-camp, an office of honor, however, rather than employment. In the latter part of 1766 he returned to England, bearing a letter of recommendation from Stanislas Augustus to George III., and made urgent attempts to obtain promotion, or at least a military command. His meddling disposition again interfered with his advancement; and in consequence of some sarcasms directed against the military character of Gen. Townshend and Lord George Sackville, he found the door of promotion shut against him. The disappointment attending the ill success of this attempt rankled in his breast and affected his whole subsequent career.
Returning to Poland in 1769, he was made a major general in the Polish service, subsequently served for a short time in the Russian army in a campaign against the Turks on the Pruth, and for a year or two pursued a restless, wandering life through southern Europe. In Italy he fought a duel with a foreign officer, in which the latter was killed; and in the course of his life he became involved in many similar affairs, from which his courage and address generally enabled him to escape unharmed. In 1773 he was again in England with a temper soured by ten years' unavailing struggle for preferment, venting his spleen against the ministry in squibs and newspaper articles full of irony and sarcasm, and systematically opposing every project emanating from government. He had some reputation as a political writer, and, according to Thomas Rodney of Delaware, confessed to that gentleman in 1773 that he was the author of the letters of Junius. Upon this statement and other circumstances an attempt was subsequently made by Dr. Thomas Girdlestone to prove that Lee and Junius were identical. It has been supposed by some that his vanity induced him to claim the letters as his own.
The threatening aspect of affairs in America meanwhile suggested to him a sphere of action in which his hatred of ministerial oppression might find a wider sympathy than at home; and in the summer of 1773 he left England for ever, arriving in New York in October. His reputation as a caustic writer on the liberal side in politics, and to a certain degree as a general of European experience and renown, caused his arrival in the country to be hailed as an acquisition to the patriotic cause. During 1773-4 he travelled extensively through the colonies, cultivating the acquaintance of prominent whigs, vigorously upholding with pen and tongue the claims of the people, and expressing both in his correspondence and conversation great enthusiasm for freedom. Writing to Gates, an old fellow campaigner in America, under date of May 6, 1774, he says: " For my own part, I am determined (at least I think I am) not to be slack in whatever mode my service is required." In the same year he wrote his "Strictures on a Pamphlet entitled ' A Friendly Address to all Reasonable Americans,' " in reply to Dr. Myles Cooper, a tory clergyman of New York; this was one of the ablest of his literary performances, and was widely circulated, and read with avidity by all classes.
The freedom with which he avowed his sentiments did not fail to arouse the suspicions of the British ministry; and his presence in Boston during the summer of 1774, where he associated with the leading patriots, induced Lord Dartmouth to warn Gen. Gage to " have an attention to his conduct, and to take every legal method to prevent his effecting any of those dangerous purposes he is said to have in view." He was present at Philadelphia during the session of the first continental congress, animating its members by his own zeal; and about the same time, as if to identify himself completely with the colonists in their impending struggle with the mother country, he purchased an estate of 2,400 acres in Berkeley co., Va., in the neighborhood of his friend Gates. Congress having determined after the combats at Lexington and Concord to organize a continental army, Lee was, on June 17, 1775, appointed the second major general, ranking after Gen. Artemas Ward, then first in command of the New England troops encamped around Boston. Though disappointed in not receiving a higher command, to which in the opinion of many his efforts in behalf of the colonies as well as his military talents and experience entitled him, he accepted the appointment, first, however, in a letter to the British secretary at war, resigning his commission in his majesty's service, and declaring his readiness to serve the king whenever called upon "to act against the enemies of his country or in defence of his just rights and dignity." Although he was accustomed to refer to this act of his life as one which involved the confiscation of his property in England, it is proper to remark that after a conference with a committee appointed at his own request, in which he unfolded his pecuniary circumstances, congress undertook to indemnify him for any loss he might sustain by entering into their service, and subsequently advanced him $30,000 for that purpose.
Early in July, in company with Washington, he arrived at the camp at Cambridge, and formally entered the service, " a soldier of fortune," says Irving, "indifferent to the ties of home and country, drawing his sword without enthusiasm, more through resentment against a government which had disappointed him, than zeal for liberty or for colonial rights." During the summer and autumn he held command of the left wing of the American army posted on Winter hill, sustaining his reputation as a military authority, although his manners were far from agreeable, and the opinion began to gain strength that personal ambition was his main incentive in embarking in the cause of the colonies. In November, 1775, he visited Newport, R. I., for the purpose of erecting works of defence, gratifying his hatred of tories while there by making them take a "tremendous oath" to support the authority of congress; and in February, 1776, he was sent on a similar mission to New York, whence in March he departed for Virginia to take command of the southern department.
After organizing the military defence of that colony, he marched in the latter part of May toward Charleston to meet the forces which it was apprehended were to be landed from the British fleet under Sir Peter Parker. He arrived in the city June 4, and at once reported it " utterly defenceless." The fort then building on Sullivan's island he particularly objected to, predicting that it could not hold out half an hour, and calling it a "slaughter pen;" and he endeavored, though unsuccessfully, to persuade Gov. Rutledge to abandon it. During the memorable defence of the work by Col. Moultrie, June 28, he took no measures to support the garrison, and, instead of supplying them with ammunition when their stock was exhausted, counselled them to spike their guns and retreat. Nevertheless, much of the credit of the successful defence of Charleston was ascribed to him, and he returned to the north in the autumn with an enhanced military reputation, and an exaggerated notion of his own importance to the American cause. He was now, by the resignation of Gen. Ward, first major general, occupying the second rank in the army; and many persons, contrasting his presumed successes in the south with the recent defeat on Long Island, began to consider him the main hope of the American arms.
On Oct. 14 he joined the camp on Harlem heights, and with his customary good fortune received the credit of advising the evacuation of New York island and the retrograde movement by which the plans of Howe for surrounding the American army were defeated, although the chief features of the plan had been determined upon a month previous. His division covered the retreat of the American army over King's bridge; and after the passage of Washington into New Jersey, he was left in Westchester county, in the neighborhood of New York, in command of a force of 7,000 men. The possession of a separate command flattered his vanity, and, impressed with the idea of attacking New York, or assailing the rear of the enemy, or performing some other exploit equally brilliant, he lingered week after week in Westchester, notwithstanding urgent appeals from Washington to join him in New Jersey; and after crossing the Hudson at Haverstraw, Dec. 2-4, he pursued his march southward with equal dila-toriness. Being "in hopes to reconquer the Jerseys," he moved in a road about 20 m. west of the British army, and, disregarding the directions of Washington, awaited the opportunity which he expected would soon present itself to make an independent demonstration on the enemy's flank.
On the morning of Dec. 13, while quartered with his aides and a small guard at White's tavern, Basking-ridge, about three miles from his army, which was left under the command of Gen. Sullivan, he was surprised and captured by a party of British light horse under Col. Harcourt, who had received intelligence of his movements from a tory of the neighborhood. After a brief resistance Lee surrendered himself, according to the British accounts, in the most cowardly manner, and was hastily mounted behind one of the troopers, and carried away at full speed to the British camp at New Brunswick, whence about three hours afterward the booming of cannon proclaimed the exultation of the enemy at the capture of the "American Palladium," as Lee was styled by them. Notwithstanding the unfavorable suspicions which the circumstances attending his capture have provoked, there seems no reason to believe that he was then acting a treacherous part, or that he was guilty of any graver offence than negligence or disobedience of orders.
The Americans sincerely deplored his loss, and upon learning that he was regarded by his captors as amenable to British military law as a deserter, congress at once adopted retaliatory measures, and ordered five Hessian field officers and Lieut. Col. Campbell to be taken into close custody, to await the fate of Lee. In consequence of the firm stand taken by congress, Gen. Howe advised the British ministry to countermand their first instructions that Lee should be sent to England for trial, and to allow him to be considered a prisoner of war. A reluctant consent having been obtained, he was, in December, 1777, put upon parole, and treated with the consideration usually bestowed upon prisoners of rank. During the period that his fate was involved in uncertainty, his interest in the colonial cause seems to have yielded to solicitude for his personal safety; and the evidence is now strong that for the purpose of securing this end he was willing to betray his adopted country. From a recently discovered document in Lee's handwriting, indorsed by Henry Strachey, secretary to the royal commissioners, Lord and Sir William Howe, as "Mr. Lee's Plan," it appears that on March 29, 1777, he submitted to the British commander a project for the reconquest of America, the chief feature of which was the concentration of forces at Annapolis and Alexandria for the purpose of cutting off communication between the northern and southern states; the result of which would be, that while the advance of Burgoyne from the north would give sufficient occupation to New England and New York, Howe could overwhelm the American army in New Jersey, thus "unhinging and dissolving the whole system of defence." Upon this document, the authenticity of which is deemed incontrovertible, an elaborate paper, entitled "The Treason of Charles Lee," was read before the New York historical society by George II. Moore in June, 1858, and afterward separately published.
The mysterious expedition of the Howes with the British fleet southward in the summer of 1777, it is supposed, may be explained by a reference to this plan; and Lee's request to congress, during his captivity, to be permitted to communicate to a committee of their body matters of interest to the public and to himself, may be in like manner referred to his desire to be of service to the crown in reopening negotiations with congress. In May, 1778, he was exchanged for Gen. Prescott, and joined the American camp at Valley Forge, where he received the command of a division. In the general council of officers held in the succeeding month he strongly opposed the project of attacking the British army on their march from Philadelphia through New Jersey; and he subsequently commanded the advance at the battle of Monmouth, June 28, after formally resigning the post to Lafayette. His wilful conduct on this occasion in ordering a retreat by which the day was nearly lost, against the express command of Washington, who was hurrying forward to his support with the main body of the American army, was the occasion of an outbreak of anger on the part of the commander-in-chief which was long remembered by those who witnessed it.
Some, who had noted Lee's opposition to any project for attacking the enemy, were led to suspect that he was secretly aiding them by endeavoring to procure a defeat of the Americans. It appeared afterward that his division, consisting largely of militia, had been unexpectedly attacked by the whole rear guard of the British army, and that some little confusion at first prevailed in the American ranks; but after putting the most favorable construction upon his conduct, it is impossible to absolve him from the charge of irresolution and negligence unworthy of a commanding officer. Such was substantially the verdict of the court martial convened to examine into his conduct at Monmouth, who also found him guilty of writing disrespectful letters to the commander-in-chief, and sentenced him to suspension from any command in the army for one year. He was not prepared for this sentence, having expected from the ingenuity and ability of his defence to be triumphantly acquitted; and during the delay of congress to affirm it, his naturally irascible temper betrayed him into frequent acts of imprudence, which only increased the feeling of suspicion and dislike with which he was beginning to be regarded.
For the disparaging manner in which he spoke of Washington he was challenged by Col. John Laurens, one of the latter's aides, and was wounded in the side by a pistol ball in the duel which ensued. Congress having ratified his sentence, he retired to his estate in Virginia, where he wrote for the "Maryland Journal" his "Queries, Political and Military," the drift of which was to cast a slur upon the character and military conduct of Washington. He inhabited a house rudely and hastily constructed, without partitions, and almost without the necessary furniture, where, surrounded by his dogs, of which he was immoderately fond, and his books, he lived " more like a hermit than a citizen of the world." The divisions of the apartments were marked by lines of chalk, which he claimed was an improvement upon walls. The term of his suspension had just expired when a rumor reached him that congress designed to deprive him of his commission. In a sudden fit of anger he despatched to the president of that body an insulting note, the result of which was his immediate dismissal from the service. He soon wearied of the life of a planter, and in the autumn of 1782 visited Baltimore and Philadelphia with a view of negotiating for the sale of his estate.
In the latter place he was attacked by a fever of which he died within five days, exclaiming in the delirium of his last moments: " Stand by me, my brave grenadiers." With characteristic eccentricity he directed in his will that his body should not be interred in any church or church yard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist church. He was, however, buried in the cemetery of Christ church, whither his remains were attended by a large concourse, including many whom his wayward conduct had not entirely alienated, and who gratefully remembered his early efforts for colonial freedom, and his occasional generous acts and impulses. His memoirs have been written by Edward Langworthy, by his kinsman Sir Henry Bunbury, and by Jared Sparks in his "Library of American Biography."