Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778

views updated

Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778

Defendant: Charles Lee
Crimes Charged: Disobedience of orders; misbehavior before the enemy; disrespect to the commander in chief
Chief Defense Lawyer: No Record
Presiding Officer: Lord Stirling
Chief Prosecutor: No Record
Court: No Record
Place: Brunswick, New Jersey
Date of Trial: July 4-August 12, 1778
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Suspension from the army for one year

SIGNIFICANCE : The court martial of George Washington's second-in-command at a crucial stage in the War of Independence was the culmination of a tense relationship between the two men and ended General Charles Lee's military career.

Charles Lee was born in Cheshire, England, in 1731 and followed his father in embarking on a military career. He was with British troops on the North American continent as a young officer and was badly wounded at Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. In the 1760s he was a member of several expeditionary forces in Europe. He returned to America in 1773 with the British army, but soon sided with the patriots, resigned his commission, and enthusiastically embraced the causes of liberty and independence. Lee remains a perplexing figure, and the question of his ultimate loyalty is still controversial. To some of his contemporaries he appeared highly educated, clever, and a brilliant military strategist; to others he seemed boorish, slovenly, and possibly a charlatan. What is beyond dispute is that he was eccentric, ambitious, fiercely independent, and intemperate.

In June 1775 Charles Lee was one of three former British officers appointed to the rank of major general by the Continental Congress, at the same time that, for political rather than military reasons, it appointed George Washington to be commander in chief. Washington's relative lack of military experience was well known, particularly in fighting the kind of warfare that was anticipated against British troops. Lee was considered the foremost military expert serving in the American army, and he made no secret of his contempt for Washington's military abilities. General Lee acquitted himself well during 1775 and 1776, at the seige of Boston, the defense of New York, and particularly in his supervision of the defense of South Carolina and Georgia, but he became more outspokenly critical of Washington. In December 1776, possibly due to his own recklessness and a desire for female companionship, and after failing to comply with an order from Washington to withdraw, he was captured by the British at Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He was held in close confinement for more than a year before Washington arranged for his release in a prisoner exchange. Lee immediately rejoined the army at Valley Forge in May 1778.

Lee's Retreat at Monmouth

The events which led to General Lee's court-martial occurred the following month. Lee continued to be critical of Washington's tactics, arguing that the American soldiers lacked the discipline and experience to successfully engage the British in conventional warfare, and that they should therefore rely on what would now be called guerilla operations. On June 26, 1778, Washington decided to send an advance guard to attack the rear of the British forces under Sir Henry Clinton at Monmouth, New Jersey. Lee disagreed with the plan and at first declined the command, but then changed his mind. He advanced with his detachment across rough terrain that had not been reconnoitered and made contact with the British rear, but Clinton reacted quickly and enveloped the American right flank. Lee then ordered a retreat. When this news was brought to George Washington, some five miles away, he rode quickly to Lee's detachment and accosted General Lee angrily. An altercation occurred between the two men. There is no entirely reliable account of what exactly was said, but this has been reported to be the only occasion on which Washington was heard to swear in public, and he is said to have called Lee a "damned poltroon" (a craven coward, or worthless wretch). After this Washington took command of the battlefield, regrouped the troops and counterattacked the British. The fighting continued until dark, and the next morning the British troops were found to have retreated out of reach.

Lee Goads Washington

There are indications that Washington had no intention of taking any further action over the incident, but Lee forced the issue by writing a note to Washington, using language considered by the standards of the day to be inappropriate, and demanding an apology for the language Washington had used in addressing him during their encounter the previous day. Washington replied, politely but firmly indicating his displeasure. This further enraged General Lee, who wrote a second note demanding a court of inquiry. Washington's patience was exhausted, and he responded by having General Lee arrested and courtmartialled.

Lee's Trial

The presiding officer of the court was Lord Stirling, and the court sat from time to time over several weeks between July 4 and August 12 as the Continental army continued to march. Three charges were specified against General Lee as violations of the Articles of War (the precursor of the current Uniform Code of Military Justice):

  1. Disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy, despite repeated instructions to do so.
  2. Misbehavior before the enemy, in making an unnecessary, disorderly, and "shameful" retreat.
  3. Disrespect to the commander in chief in two letters written after the action.

General Lee presented his own spirited defense, characterized by at least one contemporary observer as "masterly," in which he attempted to demonstrate that any other action than the retreat he ordered would have put the British at a great advantage and thus risked the destruction of the entire army. He was supported by some of his officers, with whom he was apparently a popular commander. The court-martial, however, returned a verdict of guilty on all charges, except that in returning the verdict they omitted the word "shameful" from the second count. The sentence was that he be suspended from his command for a period of one year. Some have noted that, given the seriousness of the charges, the penalty was relatively light. Lee was by no means alone in his critical assessment of George Washington as a military strategist, contrary to the image that popular history has bestowed upon him. In view of the light sentence, there has been speculation that Lee might have been acquitted on the first two counts, or that they would not have been brought at all, were it not for the provocation that Lee himself presented through his letters.

Lee became a recluse, living in squalor with his dogspoodles, which had accompanied him on his campaigns. He continued to write abusive letters to the Congress about George Washington. As a result, he was challenged by a friend of Washington to a duel, in which he was wounded, and in 1780 the Continental Congress dismissed him from the army. He died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia in 1782.

Some 80 years after Lee's death, papers were discovered showing that while he was held prisoner by the British between December 1776 and early 1778 he had discussed military plans to defeat the patriots with General Howe, then the commander of the British forces. To some this has seemed to be proof that Lee was, in fact, a traitor. To others it only demonstrates that he was an eccentric soldier of fortune, fascinated with military strategy as an intellectual exercise. In any case, this was not a factor in his court-martial, and the most widely held view is that he ruined his own career by his unwillingness or inability to temper his criticism of his commander in chief, and not because of disloyalty or military incompetence.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

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

Stryker, W. S. The Battle of Monmouth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1927.

About this article

Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778

Updated About content Print Article


Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778