Basking Ridge, New Jersey

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Basking Ridge, New Jersey

BASKING RIDGE, NEW JERSEY. 13 December 1776. Charles Lee's capture. Having finally decided to comply with Washington's repeated orders to march south and join him, Major General Charles Lee had crossed the Hudson and had reached a point a few miles south of Morristown, New Jersey, by late afternoon on 12 December. The troops went into bivouac, but Lee chose to spend the night three miles from camp at the tavern of Widow White near Basking Ridge with a small group (including guards) of about twenty men. That same afternoon Charles Lord Cornwallis, thirty miles south at Pennington, New Jersey, sent Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt with thirty of his light horse to locate the rebel force in his rear. Early on the 13th, after a halt at Hillsborough, Harcourt headed for Morristown. Four or five miles from Basking Ridge, a Loyalist gave them the location of Lee's main body, and within a mile of Lee's billet they captured two sentinels who, under threat, informed them that Lee was at the tavern with a small guard. Uncertain whether to credit this intelligence, Harcourt ordered Cornet Banastre Tarleton and two men to observe from a small hill; Tarleton soon sent back a prisoner who confirmed the information.

On the morning of the 13th, Lee had ordered his troops forward at about 8 o'clock but had delayed his own departure to do some paperwork. He had scarcely finished his famous "entre nous" (just between us) letter to Gates when, about 10 A .M., Harcourt's patrol attacked from two sides. Lee's surprised guard was routed with a loss of two killed and two wounded. After about fifteen minutes' resistance, Lee came out to surrender to Harcourt, who had been his subordinate in Portugal, and was allowed to wait for a coat to be sent out. He then was carried off with one of his officers, the Sieur de Boisbertrand, who had received a sword wound on the head while trying to escape out the back door. Another French volunteer, Captain de Vernejoux, along with James Wilkinson, who had come with dispatches from Gates to Washington, and Lee's aide Major William Bradford, escaped because the British did not search the house. Although Sullivan sent out a rescue party, Harcourt got his prisoner safely to Brunswick.

Except for the propaganda value of capturing one of the ranking Continental generals, the incident had little practical significance. Sullivan led the troops south in time to participate in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, and it could be argued that keeping Lee out of everyone's hair until the spring of 1778 actually improved the Continental army.

SEE ALSO Cornwallis, Charles; Tarleton, Banastre; Wilkinson, James.


Alden, John Richard. General Charles Lee: Traitor or Patriot? Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951.

                          revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.