Charles Lee

views updated May 29 2018

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. □

Lee, Charles

views updated May 29 2018

Lee, Charles

LEE, CHARLES. (1731–1782). Continental general, soldier of fortune. England-Virginia. He was educated at schools in England and Switzerland, entering his father's regiment as an ensign in 1746 while still enrolled as a student. About 1748 he joined the Forty-fourth Foot, where he was able to purchase a lieutenant's commission in May 1751. He was on Braddock's expedition (1755) and then went to the Mohawk Valley where he purchased a captain's commission (1756). Adopted by the Mohawks and given the name of Ounewaterika (Boiling Water), he "married" the daughter of a Seneca chief; Lee's Indian wife bore him two children. During Abercromby's attack on Ticonderoga (7 July 1758) he was badly wounded, but he rejoined his regiment for the capture of Niagara and Montreal. He spent the winter of 1760–1761 in England. On 10 August 1761 he was appointed major of the 103rd Regiment and the next year served with real distinction under Burgoyne in Portugal, advancing to major and serving with the local rank of lieutenant colonel. He was retired on half pay in November 1763 when his regiment was disbanded. In 1765 Lee became a soldier of fortune in the Polish army, where he came to be on intimate terms with King Stanislaus Poniatowski. He was promoted to major general in 1767. The next two years he spent in England, where he devoted his time to horses and criticism of the government. He returned to Poland in 1769, fought against the Turks, and was invalided home the next year.


In 1773 he went to America, where he immediately aligned himself with the revolutionary element. Scenting great possibilities for personal advancement, he urged Patriot leaders to raise an army, and in May 1774 he started buying an estate in Berkeley County, Virginia (later West Virginia), "with the specific motive of recommending himself, as a landowner, to the Continental Congress" (Van Doren, p. 30). Lee already had speculated in land, holding patents to twenty thousand acres in both New York and East Florida and ten thousand more on Prince Edward Island.

The half-pay British lieutenant colonel (promoted in 1772) not only had military experience but was a good pamphleteer and an articulate speaker. Many influential Americans came to look on him as a valuable acquisition, and when Congress appointed him major general on 17 June 1775, he was subordinate only to Washington and Artemas Ward. Since acceptance of this commission would lead to confiscation of his English estates and because he had not yet paid for his property in Virginia, Lee waited until Congress promised compensation for his property losses before he wrote British authorities about discontinuing his half pay.


After serving in the Boston siege, where "his dirty habits and obscenity gave offense" but where he was "endured for what he was supposed to know," Lee was detached in January 1776 and directed to raise volunteers in Connecticut for the defense of New York City (Freeman, vol. 3, p. 373b). He reached the city on 4 February, having been delayed while laid up with the gout. On the 17th he was ordered by Congress to succeed Philip Schuyler in the northern department, but on 1 March a counterorder sent him to command the southern department.

On 7 October 1776 Lee was back in Philadelphia. He had received the thanks of Congress on 20 July for his service at Charleston, and on his return to the city Congress advanced him thirty thousand dollars to pay for his Virginia property. He reached Washington's army in time for the Battle of White Plains in New York on 28 October and was left at Peekskill with some of the best American troops when the main army went south for the New Jersey campaign. When Washington called for him to rejoin the main army on the retreat to the Delaware, Lee reacted in such a way as to raise suspicion that he hoped for Washington's defeat so that he could be appointed to succeed him. On 24 November 1776, Lee wrote a letter to Washington's secretary, Joseph Reed, sharply criticizing Washington as indecisive, which Washington innocently opened by mistake. Although Washington's reaction insofar as Reed was concerned was one of personal hurt rather than official outrage, he realized he would have to be on guard against the "fickle" Englishman. On 9 December, Lee wrote William Heath that in his opinion, Washington really did not need his support on the Delaware and went on to say: "I am in the hopes here [at Morristown] to reconquer (if I may so express myself) the Jerseys." He had just penned and dispatched to Gates the famous letter that said, "entre nous a certain great man is damnably deficient" when he was captured at Basking Ridge on 13 December 1776.


Germain ordered Lee returned to England for trial as a deserter, but Howe—who thought Lee had resigned his half pay before joining the enemy—did not comply. As a prisoner in New York, Lee conducted himself in such a way as to be accused of treason. What he really hoped to accomplish, however, was a peaceful settlement of the war; he was no Benedict Arnold. On 29 March 1777 he submitted his plan for ending the rebellion by an offensive that would "unhinge the organization of the American resistance" by gaining control of the middle colonies—Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (Anderson, pp. 221-222). The British apparently paid little attention to the strategic advice of this former officer.

Exchanged in April 1778, Lee complained to Congress about the promotion of others while he was a prisoner, and on 20 May he was greeted at Valley Forge by officers still unaware of his double-dealing. In the Monmouth campaign of June 1778 he had his first test as a field commander, and in the opinion of most observers he failed it miserably. Washington sternly reprimanded him on the battlefield but otherwise was willing to let the matter rest; Lee himself, however, his "vanity grievously wounded" and his abilities and even courage questioned, angrily defended his own part and "inveighed against Washington's tactics" (ibid., pp. 228-229). Casting prudence to the wind, he wrote an impertinent letter to Washington demanding a court of inquiry at the same time that Generals Anthony Wayne and Charles Scott reported that Lee's actions on the field had been highly improper. Thus, the resulting Lee court-martial was brought on not by his performance in the battle but by his conduct afterward.

The charges of "disobediance of orders," "misbehaviour before the enemy … by making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat," and "disrespect to the commander in chief" astonished and outraged Lee, and despite a valiant effort to defend himself, he was found guilty and sentenced to be suspended from army command for one year (ibid., pp. 228-239). During his trial he cast aspersions that nearly led to a duel with Wilhelm Steuben. After his "Vindication" appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet of 3 December 1778, he was called out and slightly wounded by Colonel John Laurens; the wound was enough to keep him from accepting a challenge from Wayne. By July 1779 he was back at his estate in the Shenandoah, where he "bred horses, enjoyed the company of his dogs, and attempted farming" (Fisher, vol. 2, p. 194). When his year of suspension from command expired, Lee heard a rumor that Congress intended to dismiss him. Although it is doubtful that such an action was under serious contemplation, the letter he addressed to the delegates on this matter was so offensive that on 10 January 1780 Congress did in fact dismiss him from the service. Two days later he left his home and moved to Philadelphia, where he died in 1782.


"An enigma Lee was—and still is," wrote Douglas S. Freeman in 1951, the same year John R. Alden published General Charles Lee: Traitor or Patriot?, a study that completely revised the image of this strange but able and much-maligned man. Although Alden wrote that Lee's "personality remains partly cloaked in mystery," he reveals much about his subject. Lee was a man of contrasts, Alden wrote. For example, he was capable of "fervent friendships, and vast hatreds"; "neither ascetic nor saintly"; "vain and ambitious" but conscious of his shortcomings; "enamored of money, but careless about it." As an intellectual he anticipated Tom Paine but fell short of Edmund Burke, yet he "displayed frequent flashes of brilliance" (pp. 305-306).

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Boston Siege; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Heath, William; Lee Court Martial; Monmouth, New Jersey; New Jersey Campaign; New York Campaign; Reed, Joseph; Schuyler, Philip John; Scott, Charles; Wayne, Anthony; White Plains, New York.


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

Anderson, Troyer. The Command of the Howe Brothers during the American Revolution. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Fisher, Sydney George. The Struggle for American Independence. 2 vols. Philadelphia and London: Lippincott, 1908.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1948–1957.

Lee, Charles. The Lee Papers. 4 vols. New York: New York Historical Society, 1872–1875.

Shy, John W. "Charles Lee: The Soldier as Radical." In George Washington's Generals. Edited by George A. Billias. New York: Morrow, 1964.

Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution. New York: Viking, 1941.

                      revised by Frank E. Grizzard Jr.

Lee, Charles

views updated May 29 2018


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.

Lee, Charles

views updated May 29 2018

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

Lee, Charles

views updated May 18 2018

Lee, Charles

LEE, CHARLES. (1758–1815). Officer in Virginia navy. Virginia. Brother of "Light-Horse Harry" and Richard Bland Lee, Charles Lee was born at Leesylvania and entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1770, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1775. There he was commended for "application and genius." From 1777 to 1789 he appears to have served as a "naval officer of the South Potomac," after which he became customs collector at Alexandria, serving to April 1793. From 1793 to 1795 Lee represented Fairfax County in the Virginia General Assembly. He handled much of Washington's legal work after the Revolution, and Washington chose him to replace Edmund Randolph as U.S. attorney general in November 1795, a post he held until 1801. He was named judge of one of the new circuit courts by President Adams, serving as one of the so-called "midnight judges" until Congress in 1802 repealed the Judiciary Act under which he had been appointed. With the fall of the Federalists his political life ended, and he went into private law practice. (He had been admitted to the bar in June 1794.) A friend of John Marshall, he frequently appeared before the Supreme Court and took part in Marbury v. Madison (1803). He was a defense lawyer in the impeachment of Judge Chase (1805) and in the trial of Aaron Burr (1807). Lee spent the last years of his life at his home near Warrenton in Fauquier County.

SEE ALSO Lee Family of Virginia.

                       revised by Frank E. Grizzard Jr.

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