Charles Lee Full Biography
I was a high ranking American officer in the Revolution best remembered for being courtmartialed for my role at the Battle of Monmouth. I was born February 6, 1732 in Cheshire, England in a military family and when a teenager, joined my father’s regiment in 1747. By the age of 20, I was a lieutenant and during the French and Indian War I served on Braddock’s unfortunate expedition to western Pennsylvania in 1755 and afterward fought in several major campaigns. In 1763, I retired from the British army to become a “soldier of fortune” and attained the rank of major general while serving the King of Poland. In 1773 I decided to settle in America and established a large farm in western Virginia. I sided with the colonists in their quarrel with England and the Continental Congress named me third senior general, behind Washington and Artemas Ward.
People said I was outspoken, slovenly in my personal habits, coarse in language, and that I smelled because I often slept with my hunting dogs. One distinguished historian has written, “To understand Lee in depth, a psychiatrist instead of a historian is probably required.” In many ways, though, I was misunderstood in my time and afterwards. Some of my ideas were actually quite advanced, such as my belief that the American Revolution was part of an evolving universal fight for human freedom. I fought for greater democracy, freedom of conscience, individual liberties, human rights, and formal education for women. I also believed that military service on behalf of one’s country should be an obligation of citizenship. I opposed creating the Continental Army and believed that militia could win the war because it could be used to keep the enemy constantly off balance by fighting petite guerre in the expansive territories of the colonies and prevent the British army from coming together in a large force to fight a European style battle.
I achieved several successes in 1775 and 1776 and was widely respected for my military abilities, receiving the thanks of Congress for my successful defense of Charleston in 1776. However, after these initial successes, and having a fort in New Jersey renamed Fort Lee in my honor, my associations with New Jersey over the next two years brought the low point of my career. During the retreat from New York I disagreed with Washington’s orders to me on how to withdraw across New Jersey, so I did not respond promptly. Some people believe I was actually waiting for Congress to remove Washington from command and give me the job.
When I finally came to New Jersey, British troops captured me at Basking Ridge on December 13, 1776 while I spent the night away from my command at Widow White’s tavern. My captors treated me with the proper respect and, unknown to Washington, I reportedly fraternized with high ranking officers and shared my views on how to defeat Washington’s army.
I was exchanged in April 1778 and rejoined Washington’s army as it prepared to leave Valley Forge for the campaign that led to Monmouth. In councils of war I argued against engaging the British, but when a battle neared, I asserted my seniority to take command of the advance guard from Washington’s favorite, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Leading my troops into action at Monmouth on the morning of June 28, 1778, I knew little about my officers and troops and had not scouted the terrain east of Monmouth Court House. I was unable to keep firm control of my troops, and found my command driven into a retreat towards Englishtown. Washington met me while my troops were retreating and let me know his dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms.
I helped stabilize a covering force while Washington brought up the main part of the army, but he relieved me of command for the rest of the day. I brashly sent a letter to Washington complaining of the treatment I had received and demanded a court martial to clear my name. The proceedings lasted about six weeks, moving from town to town as the army marched towards New York. I served as my own attorney and the evidence presented at the trial provides one of the best primary sources for interpreting the battle. In the end I was convicted on all counts: disobedience of orders, “misbehavior before the enemy …, by making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat,” and disrespect to General Washington in two recently written letters.
I was removed from command for 12 months and went home to my estate in western Virginia. I was never recalled to command. I died in Philadelphia on October 2, 1782 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Christ Episcopal Church cemetery in Philadelphia, although I asked in my will not to be buried in a churchyard.
Mazzagetti, Dominick. Charles Lee: Self Before Country. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
Papas, Philip. Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Shy, John W. “Charles Lee: The Soldier as Radical,” In George A. Billias, editor, George Washington’s Generals and Opponents, Their Exploits and Leadership. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994, 20-53.