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Charles Lee

Charles Lee

British-born General Charles Lee (1731-1782) joined the forces of George Washington's Continental Army in 1775. His capture by British troops a year later and his retreat during the Battle of Monmouth, which led to a court-martial and removal from the army, prompted historians to question both his military ability and his allegiance to his adopted country.

One of the most puzzling and ambiguous characters in American military history, Charles Lee served as third in command in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Captured only a year into the war while staying at a New Jersey tavern and imprisoned for 18 months, he later compromised an attack by General George Washington's army by retreating during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Haunted by growing disapproval due to his outspoken criticism of Washington, Lee was court-martialed and subsequently suspended from the army.

No Fixed Allegiance

Of Irish heritage, Lee was born in Dernhall, Cheshire, England, on January 25, 1731. His father, a former colonel in the British Army, encouraged his son's interest in the military and enrolled Lee in a Swiss military school in 1744. An ensign from the age of 14, Lee was sent to the American colonies during the French and Indian War and in 1755 served in British General Edward Braddock's 44th Regiment. This regiment contained several officers who would go on to shape history, among them George Washington, Horatio Gates, and Thomas Gage. Unlike his colleagues, Lee flouted convention with his unkempt appearance and his coarse demeanor, although he was known to quote from Latin scholars when the occasion suited him. Known for his bouts of drunkenness and vulgar language, Lee was rarely seen without his train of dogs. He said dogs, unlike men, were faithful. In 1756, while in northern New York, he was adopted into a Mohawk tribe, entered what he considered a non-binding union with the daughter of Seneca tribal leader White Thunder, and was given the name Ounewaterika, or "Boiling Water," referring to his quickness to anger.

His life with the Mohawks was brief. In July 1758 Lee was back under British command and serving in the 44th Regiment under General Abercromby during the unsuccessful British attack on Fort Ticonderoga. Wounded during battle, he was sent to Long Island to recover. He disagreed with his surgeon on proper treatment of his wounds and whipped the doctor, who later tried to kill him. Lee's brash, impetuous nature frequently got him into trouble.

In 1759, Lee and the 44th Regiment fought French forces at Fort Niagara. He served under General Amherst during the siege and capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760. Spending the winter in England, he was promoted to the rank of major in the 103rd Regiment. On August 10, 1761, he became a major in the 103rd Regiment of the British Army. The following spring, he was a lieutenant colonel when he accompanied an expeditionary force to Portugal under Major General John Burgoyne.

With Great Britain once again at peace, Lee saw no future as an officer on half-pay in the British Army. Lee traveled to Warsaw in March 1765 and gained the confidence of Poland's King Stanislaus. However, a trip to Turkey caused him to rethink this career move. After becoming snowbound in the Balkans and then surviving a deadly earthquake in Constantinople in May 1776, Lee returned to the relative safety of England. He spent the next two years penning sarcastic essays critical of the British crown and lived off his gambling winnings. When civil war broke out in Poland he returned to aid King Stanislaus and was commissioned a general in the Polish army. During a campaign in Turkey in late 1769 Lee became ill and was sent to the Mediterranean to recover. During 1771 he alternated between England and France, but he was discontented with the political situation in both nations.

Joined American Cause

Excited by the growing spirit of the Enlightenment, Lee desired to fight on behalf of liberty, and he enlisted in the cause of the American patriots after returning to the American colonies in 1773. Making a home in current-day West Virginia, he attacked efforts at reconciliation between colonists and the British crown in the pamphlet Strictures on a Pamphlet, entitled "A Friendly address to All Reasonable Americans." His enthusiastic support of the colonial cause gained him the admiration of Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and Samuel and John Adams. His military experience made him a valuable asset to the newly formed Continental Army. In December 1774, Lee traveled to Mount Vernon and Washington's side. After war broke out in 1775, he renounced his commission in the British Army. Artemas Ward was named first major general and Lee became second major general in Washington's Continental Army, a commission Lee accepted on June 17, 1775.

A month later, Lee accompanied Washington to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and fought during the siege of Boston under General Ward. The following March, the Continental Congress ordered Lee south to fight British troops in Virginia and North Carolina as head of the army's Southern department. On June 4, 1776, Lee arrived in Charleston and assumed command of the South Carolina troops, making his headquarters in nearby Williamsburg. Unenthusiastic about the post, he anticipated a retreat. Colonel William Moultrie had other ideas, and repulsed the British naval force from his position at Fort Sullivan on Sullivan's Island. While Lee and Moultrie both received commendations for their actions, Moultrie was considered primarily responsible for the victory.

Captured by the British

In September 1776, after the British withdrawal from the southern colonies, Lee was ordered to return to the main army, now stationed in New York and New Jersey. He expressed reluctance to rejoin Washington after learning that threatening maneuvers by British General Howe had forced a colonial retreat. He believed he would be more effective and gain more notoriety as head of a "rogue" unit that engaged the British using guerilla tactics. However, Lee eventually followed orders and headed into New Jersey. On December 12, 1776, he took quarter at White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, two miles from where his 4,000-member detachment encamped, and the following day sent a terse letter to General Horatio Gates, referring to Washington by noting that "a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties."

Camped less than four miles away, British troops led by Lieutenant General Cornwallis discovered Lee's whereabouts. Soon after writing his letter to Gates, Lee was captured by Colonel Harcourt. General Lee was "hurried off in triumph," Continental Army Captain James Wilkinson later recalled in his memoirs, "bareheaded, in his slippers and blanket coat, his collar open, and his shirt very much soiled from several days' use."

Lee was taken to New York and imprisoned. An order to return him to England for trial as a deserter was rescinded by British General Howe, who knew of Lee's resignation. Washington attempted to secure Lee's release through a prisoner exchange, but he had no captives of similar rank with which to bargain, and Lee remained in British custody for almost 18 months. During this time Lee appears to have wavered in his allegiance to his adopted country. In 1858 a document titled "Mr. Lee's Plan, 29th March 1777" was discovered; it advised Howe on a way to defeat the Continental Army. While some historians have argued that Lee's plan was an attempt to mislead the British commander, in the light of his later activities his loyalty remains in question.

After Burgoyne's defeat at the Battle of Saratoga, Lee was exchanged for recently captured Major General Richard Prescott and released in April 1778. After a quick trip to Congress to complain about his lack of promotion during his capture, Lee traveled to Valley Forge and by late May had rejoined his command.

The Battle of Monmouth

Throughout his involvement in the Revolutionary War, Lee earned a reputation as a loose cannon, a recalcitrant officer resentful of taking orders from Washington, whom he believed to be of lesser ability. His actions in June 1778 during the Monmouth campaign cemented this reputation and led to the end of his military career.

Washington was determined to attack the British during their retreat from Philadelphia to New York, and he overtook General Henry Clinton and his 11,000 British regulars near New Freehold, New Jersey, near Monmouth Court House. The Battle of Monmouth provided Washington with the chance for a much-needed victory. While generals Nathanael Greene, Wayne, and the Marquis de Lafayette urged a full assault, Lee argued against such an approach. Put in command of the main flank supporting the advance force led by General Wayne, he was suddenly confronted by more soldiers than he had anticipated. Informed by a scout of an area to his rear that would be easily defended, Lee began to retreat, forcing Wayne to fall back. Washington quickly reformed the regiments of Greene, Stirling, and Wayne into a second formation that successfully stalled the British until dark, while General von Steuben assumed command of Lee's forces.

Washington's words to Lee on the battlefield were not recorded, but they were severe enough that Lee immediately demanded an apology. Two days later he sent the commander-in-chief a critical letter that angered Washington. Further correspondence between the two men resulted in Lee's request for a court of inquiry so that he could prove his case. On July 4 Lee's court martial began, with General Stirling presiding, and on August 12 he was found guilty of disrespect to his commanding officer, disobedience, and leading a disorderly and unauthorized retreat. His punishment, one year's suspension, was eventually sanctioned by Congress on January 10, 1780, although colonial leaders expressed regret at the loss of a commanding officer during wartime. As Eric Ethier reported in American History, when Lee heard the decision of Congress to approve his suspension, he pointed to one of his dogs and said, "Oh, that I was that animal, that I might not call man my brother."

Lee sent repeated letters to congressmen, members of the military, and the press attacking the character of Washington and complaining of mistreatment by the Continental Congress. After reading Lee's defamatory "Vindication," published in the Pennsylvania Packet on December 3, 1778, Colonel John Laurens challenged Lee to a duel over his slanderous remarks about Washington's character. In the duel, Lee was wounded and could not fight a second duel requested by General Wayne.

In July 1779 Lee returned to his home in Virginia, remaining there for two years before moving to Philadelphia. He died of pneumonia in a tavern on October 2, 1782. Up to the time of his death he continued to express animosity toward Washington as a "puffed up charlatan." In Lee's last will and testament he asked that he not be buried in a churchyard. "I have kept so much bad company when living," he wrote, "that I do not choose to continue it when dead." Despite these wishes, Lee was buried at the cemetery at Christ Church, Philadelphia. Though he had been unpopular only months before, his funeral was attended by Washington, members of the Continental Congress and the assembly of Pennsylvania, the minister of France, and other officers of distinction.


Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, editors, The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Bonanza, 1983.

Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.

Langguth, A. J., Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Sparks, Jared, Lives of Charles Lee and Joseph Reed, Little, Brown, 1846.

Stryker, William Scudder, The Battle of Monmouth, Houghton, 1896.

Wilkinson, James, Memoirs of My Own Times, A. Small, 1816.


American History, October 1999. □

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Lee, Charles


Charles Lee served as attorney general of the United States from 1795 to 1801 under presidents george washington and john adams.

Lee, born in 1758 in Leesylvania, Virginia, descended from a prominent English family. His earliest known ancestor, Lionel Lee, received a title and estate from William the Conqueror. The Lee line in the United States traced back to 1649, when Richard Lee, a member of Charles I's privy council, emigrated to help settle the Virginia colonies. Prior to the American Revolution, six of Richard Lee's descendants served simultaneously in the governing body known as the Virginia House of Burgesses; one of those descendants was Charles Lee's father, Henry Lee II.

Lee's father was a well-educated farmer with extensive landholdings in Virginia. His mother, Lucy Grymes Lee, had been admired and courted by George Washington prior to her marriage. In fact, Lee's mother continued to cultivate Washington's interest long after her marriage—and it was largely owing to her influence that Lee's brother, Henry Lee III (a future general and statesman, and father of General Robert E. Lee) and Lee himself were able to advance far and fast in their chosen careers.

Lee probably followed his brother to the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton). From the beginning, he was interested in the law. He completed his legal studies in Philadelphia under Attorney Jared Ingersoll, and he was admitted to the bar in about 1780. As a young lawyer, he served as a delegate to the continental congress, and he was a member of the Virginia Assembly. But Lee also maintained his family's tradition of military service. He served as chief naval officer of the District of the Potomac for more than a decade. He resigned in December 1795, when he was appointed attorney general of the United States by President Washington.

When Lee's predecessor, Attorney General william bradford, died suddenly in August 1795, Washington was faced with the difficult task of appointing the nation's third attorney general in just six years. The position had little to recommend it. It was a part-time job with no staff, little power, and many demands. Because Lee felt duty bound to repay Washington for years of family support and patronage, he honored Washington's request to take the job. He served as attorney general for the balance of Washington's term and for the entire Adams administration—from December 10, 1795, to February 18, 1801.

The role of the attorney general in Lee's time was to conduct all the suits in the Supreme Court in which the United States was a party, and to give advice and opinions to the president and Congress when requested. Because few suits had made their way to the High Court through the nation's fledgling court system, Lee did not spend much time trying cases. Some of his time was occupied with administrative responsibilities: once in office, his first order of business was to finish a task started by Bradford, the establishment of a fee schedule for compensating federal judicial officers. The vast majority of Lee's time was spent writing opinions that would help to shape the direction of the evolving government.

The nation's first investigation of a federal judge took place in 1796 when the House of Representatives considered a petition to impeach Ohio territorial judge George Turner for criminal misconduct. Given the difficulty of conducting a long-distance impeachment proceeding, Lee was asked if there was another way to address the complaint against Turner. Lee's opinion that "a judge may be prosecuted … for official misdemeanors or crimes … before an ordinary court" cleared the way for the high court in Ohio to settle the matter.

In the 1790s, it was commonly believed that insulting or defaming a representative of a foreign government was punishable by international law. But when Adams asked Lee if the United States could bring a libel action against the editor of Porcupine's Gazette for an allegedly defamatory article about a Spanish ambassador, Lee's opinion anticipated the free speech concerns of such a prosecution. Lee conceded that foreign representatives were due the respect of the U.S. citizenry, but he also noted that "the line between freedom and licentiousness of the press [had] not yet been distinctly drawn by judicial decision."

In another international matter, Lee was asked to render an opinion in a volatile extradition dispute. Jonathan Robbins was charged with murder on board a British ship. British authorities wanted him bound over to face the charges, but he fought extradition, claiming that he was a U.S. citizen who had been imprisoned on the ship. Lee and secretary of state Timothy Pickering argued that the treaty governing extradition did not apply to crimes committed on the high seas; thus, President Adams was under no obligation to surrender Robbins. The president disagreed with his advisers and delivered Robbins to the British authorities. Adams's decision was extremely unpopular with the public, and his actions may have contributed to the defeat of his party in the subsequent presidential election.

"No act of Congress can extend the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court beyond the bounds limited by the Constitution."
—Charles Lee

In 1803 Lee represented William Marbury against President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state, james madison (marbury v. madison,

5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 [1803]). Marbury was appointed by Adams, Jefferson's predecessor, as a justice of the peace, but owing to the rush and confusion surrounding the eleventh-hour appointment, Marbury's commission had not been delivered. When Jefferson ordered Madison to withhold delivery of the commission, Marbury filed suit. Lee lost the case when the Supreme Court ruled that the act of Congress under which Marbury had been issued his commission was unconstitutional. Significantly, Marbury established the federal judiciary as the supreme authority in determining the constitutionality of law.

Four years later, Lee was more successful in his defense of statesman and former vice president aaron burr, who was tried and acquitted on charges of treason (a violation of the allegiance one owes to one's sovereign or to the state) (United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 2 [1807]). In 1806 Burr had traveled west to promote settlement of land in the Louisiana Territory. His intentions were suspect, and he soon found himself accused of treason for planning to initiate a separation of the western territories from the United States. Lee had been a longtime Burr supporter, and he took the case, winning an acquittal.

Lee died June 24, 1815, in Fauquier County near Warrenton, Virginia.

further readings

Baker, Nancy V. 1983. Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the Attorney General's Office, 1789–1990. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. 1993. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Nagel, Paul C. 1990. The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Wilson, James Grant, and John Fiske, eds. 1887. Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. 3. New York: Appleton.


Electoral College; Judicial Review.

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Lee, Charles

Charles Lee, 1731–82, American Revolutionary army officer, b. Cheshire, England. He first came to America to serve in the French and Indian War and took part in General Braddock's disastrous campaign (1755), in the unsuccessful campaign against Ticonderoga (1758), and in the capture of Montreal (1760). His duties as a British officer later took him to Portugal under Gen. John Burgoyne (1762) and to Poland. In 1773 he went to Virginia to live and became a supporter of colonial independence. At the start of the American Revolution his military experience won him a commission as major general in the Continental army. After directing the fortification of New York City early in 1776, he went to Charleston, S.C., and received credit for the successful defense of that city, despite his having advised William Moultrie to abandon the fort that saved the city. Returning to New York, he repeatedly disregarded General Washington's command to cross the Hudson River in the retreat after the battle of White Plains, in the hope that he could win a personal success and replace Washington as commander in chief. When he did cross he was captured (Dec. 13, 1776) by the British at Basking Ridge, N.J. As a captive he gave Gen. William Howe a plan for defeating the Americans, but his treason was not discovered. Lee was exchanged and joined Washington at Valley Forge (1778). At the battle of Monmouth (1778) he ordered a retreat of his forces and thus prevented an American victory. The rout was stemmed only by Washington, Baron von Steuben, and Nathanael Greene. A court-martial resulted in a year's suspension from command for Lee, who continued to criticize Washington abusively. In 1780 he was finally dismissed from service. His papers have been published by the New-York Historical Society (1872–75).

See biographies by J. R. Alden (1951) and S. W. Patterson (1958).

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Lee, Charles

Lee, Charles (1731–1782), British army officer, Revolutionary War general.Born in Cheshire, England, Lee fought in the French and Indian War, serving from Edward Braddock's ill‐fated campaign against Fort Duquesne to the 1760 conquest of Montréal.

Siding with America's revolutionaries, the politically radical Lee became the Continental army's third‐ranking general in 1775. He improved coastal fortifications and helped George Washington's army escape from a precarious position on Manhattan. A student of war and society, Lee advocated a mass guerrilla conflict because he believed that Americans, accustomed to liberty, lacked the discipline necessary to defeat professional soldiers in conventional battle.

Late in 1776, Lee's career began to deteriorate. Having lost faith in Washington and hoping to sustain popular resistance in New Jersey, he defied the commander in chief's orders to move his detachment west of the Delaware River. Captured and imprisoned, he submitted military plans to the British that could be construed as treasonous. Exchanged in April 1778, he commanded 5,000 Continentals at the Battle of Monmouth, where his decision to order a retreat resulted in an angry exchange with Washington. Lee demanded a court‐martial. Found guilty of disobedience, disrespect, and misbehavior before the enemy, he was suspended from the army for a year, then dismissed. His outspoken opposition to Washington, not incompetence or disloyalty, caused his downfall.
[See also Braddock's Defeat; Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Treason.]


John Richard Alden , General Charles Lee, Traitor or Patriot?, 1951.
John Shy , Charles Lee and the Radical Alternative, in Shy, A People Numerous and Armed, 1976.

Stuart Leibiger

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