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Charles Lee

Charles Lee: Self Before Country

Dominick Mazzagetti
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hjc1c
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    Charles Lee
    Book Description:

    Dominick Mazzagetti presents an engaging account of the life of Charles Lee, the forgotten man of the American Revolution. History has not been kind to Lee-for good reason. In this compelling biography, Mazzagetti compares Lee's life and attributes to those of George Washington and offers significant observations omitted from previous Lee biographies, including extensive correspondence with British officers in 1777 that reflects Lee's abandonment of the Patriots' cause.

    Lee, a British officer, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and a critic of King George III, arrived in New York City in 1773 with an ego that knew no bounds and tolerated no rivals. A highly visible and newsworthy personality, he quickly took up the American cause and encouraged rebellion. As a result of this advocacy and his military skills, Lee was granted a commission as a major general in the Continental Army and soon became second-in-command to George Washington. He helped organize the defense of Boston, designed defenses for New York City, and commanded the force that repelled the British attack on Charleston.

    Upon his return to New York in 1776, Lee was considered by some leaders of the Revolution to be an alternative to George Washington, who was in full retreat from British forces. Lee's capture by the British in December 1776 put an end to that possibility. Lee's subsequent release in a prisoner exchange in 1778 and return to an American command led to a dramatic confrontation with Washington on the battlefield at Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778. Washington chastised Lee publicly for ordering an unnecessary retreat. Lee suffered the ignominy of a court-martial conviction for this blunder and spent the remaining years to his death in 1782 attacking Washington. Although few doubted Lee's loyalty at the time, his actions at Monmouth fueled speculation that he switched sides during his imprisonment.

    A discovery years after his death completed Lee's tale. In 1862, a researcher discovered "Mr. Lee's Plan," a detailed strategy for the defeat of the American rebels delivered to British General William Howe while Lee was held in captivity. This discovery sealed Lee's historical record and ended all further discussion of his contributions to the American Revolution. Today, few people even realize that Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, was named in his honor.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6238-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  5. CHAPTER 1 THE FATEFUL CHOICE
    (pp. 1-9)

    George Washington’s physical presence alone gave him the aura of command. At six feet two inches tall, he towered over many of the other delegates in Philadelphia, just as he had at the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, Virginia. He stood erect and carried himself with confidence. John Adams, who dominated the debates in and outside of the chamber in which the Continental Congress was meeting, stood at only five feet seven inches tall. He discovered early in his work that Washington did not need to dominate the debates to gain the respect of his peers. Sure knowledge on those...

  6. CHAPTER 2 LEE’S “AMERICAN EXPEDITION”
    (pp. 10-24)

    Great Britain’s on again, off again war with France heated up in 1753 when the French in North America moved into the Ohio River Valley and began constructing forts. This disputed territory separated the French settlers in Canada and the British settlers in the colonies. The extending French military presence unnerved not only the British settlers on the adjacent frontiers in Pennsylvania and Virginia, but throughout the colonies. Fighting erupted almost immediately between French and British colonials, even though the two European governments preferred to posture for some time. Once Great Britain declared war in 1756, land and sea forces...

  7. CHAPTER 3 LEE’S EUROPEAN EXPERIENCE
    (pp. 25-37)

    Charles Lee did not linger on the memories of his “American Expedition.” He left North America sometime in 1760, no doubt with the hope and expectation that he could secure advancement in the British military. His uncle, Sir William Bunbury, suggested in a 1759 letter that the prospect existed: “We wish you to come again amongst your friends, and probably some change might be procured as well as advance on this side of the water if you desire it.”¹ Filled with a knowledge of North America and tested as a soldier in the field, Charles Lee returned home with expectations....

  8. CHAPTER 4 PERSONALITY AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
    (pp. 38-61)

    Without question, Charles Lee’s personal and political opinions and his overwhelming desire to express his opinions cut short any chance he had of advancement in the British military after 1764, a time when officers were many and positions few. Lee’s apologists could maintain that he chose principle over advancement if, indeed, his writings and his opinions demonstrate a principle that is proved worthy. But what great tenets did he espouse or defend in England other than simply “the rights of man” and the obligation to oppose tyrants? And could Charles Lee distinguish a just king from a tyrant?

    In fact,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 A “LOVE AFFAIR” WITH AMERICA
    (pp. 62-78)

    At some point in the summer of 1773, Charles Lee decided to leave England for New York. His correspondence leading up to this decision is missing, or nonexistent, leaving his motives unclear. Perhaps he was bored with the amusements of the European continent. Perhaps his outspoken political opinions made remaining in England uncomfortable. Perhaps he at last realized that his fortune was better tied to the zealots in the thirteen rebellious colonies than laid at the door of the British ministry. Most likely, however, he had time on his hands, and it seemed a suitable occasion to review his holdings...

  10. CHAPTER 6 FOREIGN OFFICERS IN SERVICE TO AMERICA
    (pp. 79-98)

    Charles Lee’s love affair with America was consummated on June 17, 1775 , when he was named a major general in the Continental Army. Lee did not stand alone as a former British officer named to a high post in the newly formed colonial armed forces. His good friend Horatio Gates was named adjutant general, and Richard Montgomery received a commission as a brigadier general. Both, like Lee, had served as officers in the British military. The remaining officers commissioned in June 1775—Philip Schuyler, Israel Putnam, David Wooster, Seth Pomeroy, William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Thomas, and Nathanael Greene...

  11. CHAPTER 7 AMERICA’S SOLDIER
    (pp. 99-119)

    George Washington and Charles Lee were both in Philadelphia in June 1775 to accept their commissions from the Continental Congress. Independence was more than twelve months away and not a foregone conclusion, but the American soldiers across from the British regulars in Boston needed more than Artemas Ward to bolster their confidence. Boston was under siege. Men had already died for the cause. If the Americans were to continue their opposition to king and Parliament, they needed officers to lead the men attempting to chase the British from the city that started the fight.

    Congress could delay a vote for...

  12. CHAPTER 8 REJOINING WASHINGTON
    (pp. 120-138)

    Charles Lee finished up his southern command shortly after the victorious defense of Charleston, South Carolina. And before he could do much damage to his burnished reputation. George Washington needed all the help he could get to drive the British from New York, or, more specifically, to keep from losing his army and the war in New York. Lee was called back in August 1776.

    In the days and weeks after Charleston, Lee pursued several causes. First of all, he made sure that all of his superiors and friends knew of the events in Charleston. He continued, quite correctly, to...

  13. CHAPTER 9 CAPTIVITY, BETRAYAL, EXCHANGE
    (pp. 139-152)

    Congress rejected Charles Lee’s demands for an audience in the first months of 1777. His reaction reflected the frustrations of a person who does not understand the rationale and a desperation at becoming marginalized. Unless he could return to the Continental Army quickly, the war might end without him in a leadership position, preferably on the winning side. Exchange was a possibility but not a viable option at the moment; the British were still working through their legal position relative to Charles Lee (traitor or prisoner of war?), and Washington did not have a comparable British officer to offer.

    Lee,...

  14. CHAPTER 10 MONMOUTH
    (pp. 153-178)

    As spring arrived in 1778, the war between Great Britain and its American colonies was about to enter a new phase. The Americans had suffered harsh cold and depravations in winter camp at Valley Forge but spent the time training and drilling to prepare for the spring campaign. The British, safely ensconced in Philadelphia during the winter, learned with the spring thaw that they now faced a new and more dangerous foe: France recognized the fledgling United States on February 6 and entered the war against its longtime enemy, Great Britain.

    The British high command in Philadelphia had hoped to...

  15. CHAPTER 11 COURT-MARTIAL
    (pp. 179-191)

    Washington, still glowing from the events of June 28 and engaged in writing to the Congress to announce his victory, had to take time to deal with this sticky personnel issue. Charles Lee would not sit quietly and wait for Washington to assess the situation. His impertinent letter demanded a response. Nor would Washington’s other officers stand by.

    Generals Wayne and Scott barely waited for the dust to settle on the field before writing to Washington to explain their actions that morning and to excoriate Lee: “We have taken the liberty of stating these facts, in order to convince the...

  16. CHAPTER 12 BITTERNESS, DESPAIR, AND DEATH
    (pp. 192-207)

    From the verdict of his court-martial on August 12, 1778, to his death on October 2, 1782, Charles Lee lived a lonely and bitter life. He devoted the totality of his being to two goals: proving himself innocent of the charges against him for his conduct at Monmouth and attempting to tear down the man he held responsible for his ignominy, George Washington. Lee failed on both counts.

    After the Continental Congress confirmed the verdict of the court-martial in December 1778, Charles Lee spent much of his time and energy developing an elaborate exposition of his view of events, not...

  17. EPILOGUE: A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY
    (pp. 208-212)

    In the short period from December 1773 to June 1778, Charles Lee held a prominent place in the hearts and minds of Americans arguing and fighting for their independence from Great Britain. His contributions to the political dialogue that justified the revolution bolstered the spirits and the courage of the patriots; his name figured prominently in every discussion about military readiness and military strategy. Any discussion of Lee’s life must begin with his role in the American Revolution. At various times during this period, Lee held center stage: in Congress, in New York City, in Charleston, in the controversy over...

  18. APPENDIX A JAMES WILKINSON, MEMOIRS OF MY OWN TIMES (1816): THE CAPTURE OF CHARLES LEE
    (pp. 213-216)
  19. APPENDIX B “MR. LEE’S PLAN—MARCH 29, 1777”
    (pp. 217-220)
  20. APPENDIX C WASHINGTON AND LEE’S BATTLEFIELD CONFRONTATION
    (pp. 221-224)
  21. APPENDIX D SHADES OF MONMOUTH
    (pp. 225-228)
  22. NOTES
    (pp. 229-252)
  23. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 253-260)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 261-271)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 272-272)