Lee Court-Martial

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Lee Court-Martial

LEE COURT-MARTIAL. 4 July-12 August 1778. Although Washington apparently had no intention of making an official issue of Charles Lee's poor performance at Monmouth on 28 June 1778, Lee sent Washington a letter on 30 June (misdated 1 July) that complained about the "very singular expressions" the commander in chief had addressed to him on the field, accused Washington of "cruel injustice" based on misinformation, and demanded "some reparation for the injury committed." Washington flared up at these personal reflections and promised Lee an official hearing. But Lee would not let it go at that and became even more reckless in two more letters written the same day (the first of these misdated 28 June), one of which accused Washington of being influenced against Lee by "some of those dirty earwigs who will forever insinuate themselves near persons in high office" (Smith, vol. 2, p. 1103). In response to Lee's request for an immediate court-martial, Washington informed him the same day that he was under arrest and that charges were forthcoming. General William Alexander was named president of the court that convened at Brunswick on 2 July, just five days after the Battle of Monmouth. The court brought three charges: (1) disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy on 28 June, as instructed; (2) misbehavior before the enemy on the same day by making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat; and (3) disrespect to the commander in chief in the letters Lee addressed to Washington.

The trial is of interest in revealing Lee's conduct at Monmouth. Though numerous witnesses testified that Lee demonstrated personal courage in the battle, the testimony of John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton established that Lee did not follow orders in moving to make contact, while testimony from William Maxwell, Charles Scott, and Anthony Wayne showed that Lee had no control over the ensuing action. Lee conducted his own defense but with little skill, doing nothing in cross-examination to discredit the evidence submitted against him. The court, which had moved with the army to Paramus, ended its hearing on 9 August and three days later found Lee guilty of all charges. It sentenced him to suspension from command for twelve months. On 16 August, Washington forwarded the case to Congress without comment for its review, but that body did not start its discussions until 23 October. Lee, meanwhile, went to Philadelphia, where he attempted to win support for his exoneration. On 5 December, Congress voted 15 to 7 to confirm the sentence.

Many of Lee's contemporaries and later scholars felt that, while the first two charges lacked credence, Lee's conduct after the battle bordered on lunacy. Lee's foolish pen brought on the trial and also ruined his excellent chances of having Congress disapprove the sentence of the court. In Philadelphia, Lee made the error of defending himself less than he abused Washington. Lee forced Congress to choose between him and Washington; it sided with the latter.

SEE ALSO Alexander, William; Hamilton, Alexander; Laurens, John; Lee, Charles (1731–1782); Maxwell, William; Monmouth, New Jersey; Scott, Charles; Wayne, Anthony.


Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Thayer, Theodore. The Making of a Scapegoat: Washington and Lee at Monmouth. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1976.

                         revised by Michael Bellesiles