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Renegade Revolutionary

Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee

Phillip Papas
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 410
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  • Book Info
    Renegade Revolutionary
    Book Description:

    In November 1774, a pamphlet to the People of America was published in Philadelphia and London. It forcefully articulated American rights and liberties and argued that the Americans needed to declare their independence from Britain. The author of this pamphlet was Charles Lee, a former British army officer turned revolutionary, who was one of the earliest advocates for American independence. Lee fought on and off the battlefield for expanded democracy, freedom of conscience, individual liberties, human rights, and for the formal education of women.Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Leeis a vivid new portrait of one of the most complex and controversial of the American revolutionaries. Lee's erratic behavior and comportment, his capture and more than one year imprisonment by the British, and his court martial after the battle of Monmouth in 1778 have dominated his place in the historiography of the American Revolution. This book retells the story of a man who had been dismissed by contemporaries and by history. Few American revolutionaries shared his radical political outlook, his cross-cultural experiences, his cosmopolitanism, and his confidence that the American Revolution could be won primarily by the militia (or irregulars) rather than a centralized regular army. By studying Lee's life, his political and military ideas, and his style of leadership, we gain new insights into the way the American revolutionaries fought and won their independence from Britain.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-5121-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In November 1774, a pamphlet addressed to the people of America was published in Philadelphia and reprinted in other major cities in the colonies and in London. It forcefully articulated American rights and liberties and allayed the fears of many colonists of British military power. The pamphlet contended that the crisis that had unfolded between Britain and America since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 was not simply a dispute between a mother country and her colonies. Instead, it was part of the ongoing universal struggle for human freedom. To further their cause, Americans needed to...


    • 1 Colonel Lee’s Son
      (pp. 17-28)

      On a cold, blustery December day in 1731, Colonel John Lee and his wife Isabella welcomed their last child into the world. The Lees must have viewed the birth of their son Charles with an equal measure of joy and trepidation, for death had visited their home all too frequently. Five of the six children who came before Charles had died; only this boy and his older sister Sidney would survive to adulthood.¹

      The two young Lees entered a world of status and privilege. Since the thirteenth century, Lees had been living in Cheshire, enjoying the comfortable life of gentry....

    • 2 Early Encounters and Life Lessons on the American Frontier
      (pp. 29-41)

      Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Charles Lee was enjoying the waters at the English spa resort of Bath when he received news that the 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot had been called up for active service in America. “I fancy you have hear’d,” he wrote to Sidney, “that our Regiment is order’d to Virginia.” The immediacy of the deployment forced Lee to cancel a planned visit to see her. “I hope you won’t attribute it to any want of affection towards you, if I leave Europe without seeing you,” he lamented, “but I am afraid that the hurry and confusion of my...

    • 3 An Ambitious Officer
      (pp. 42-62)

      “We expect very soon to attack Tikenderoga,” Lee told Sidney, “so that in a very little time you must expect to hear of our either striking or receiving a great blow.”¹ In June 1758, 26-year-old Captain Charles Lee and the 44th Regiment were at a staging area on the southern end of New York’s Lake George, near the remnants of Fort William Henry. The 44th was attached to the largest army assembled in America: 16,000 regulars and provincials were commanded by Major General James Abercromby, who had replaced John Campbell, Lord Loudoun, as commander of British forces in North America...


    • 4 Absolute Power Is a Serpent
      (pp. 65-79)

      Thirty-two-year-old Charles Lee hurriedly made plans in early December 1764 for his trip to Poland, where he hoped to find military employment and repair his damaged reputation.¹ Lee’s quest for employment in the Polish military was not an anomaly for an eighteenth-century British officer. During peacetime, when opportunities for promotion were scarce, many British officers obtained military commissions abroad. Heads of state who sought to develop their militaries often gave commissions to experienced officers from other nations, usually at a higher rank than they had held in their respective militaries. Historian Janice E. Thomson writes that “the practices of hiring...

    • 5 The Brutality of Love and War
      (pp. 80-92)

      Lee had emerged from his first trip to Eastern Europe a political radical. His next foray into the region would transform him into a military radical. Although Lee had seen and experienced the brutality of war in North America and Portugal, nothing could have prepared him for the slaughter he would witness in Eastern Europe, where unconventional tactics more than conventional strategies shaped warfare. Many of Lee’s contemporaries continued to support highly disciplined battalions and linear formations as the proper model for conducting wars, but Lee saw things differently. His interest in unconventional methods of warfare, which had initially taken...

    • 6 The Greatest Son of Liberty in America
      (pp. 93-113)

      On August 16, 1773, Lee boarded the brigLondonin the southern English port of Falmouth, bound for New York. Traveling with him were his former schoolmate Major William Butler, fellow 44th Regiment officer and friend Major William Dunbar, his personal attendant Giuseppe Minghini, and his black Pomeranian Spado. Looking back, Lee could see Britain fading in the distance; looking ahead, he saw the promise of America on the horizon. Arriving in New York, Lee lodged with Thomas Gamble, a merchant who had served with him in the 44th. Lee’s October 8th arrival coincided with the escalation of protests in...

    • 7 The Dogs of War
      (pp. 114-134)

      The military entourage crossed the Delaware River and traversed the Trenton Road in a driving rainstorm, arriving that evening at New Brunswick, New Jersey, where lodgings had been reserved for them. The next morning, they pushed on toward Boston. In town after town, farmers and shopkeepers, men and women, and young and old lined the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the men who would play an important role in shaping their destinies. But would their destinies include an independent America? In the summer of 1775, no one knew the answer. Lee was the exception. He was confident that...


    • 8 The Key to the Continent: New York
      (pp. 137-150)

      Lee started for New York on January 8, 1776, as heavy snows blanketed New England. He was escorted along the snow- and ice-covered roads by a group of Virginia riflemen until he reached New Haven, Connecticut, where he learned that an American expedition against Canada commanded by General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold had met a disastrous end at Quebec in late December.¹ The failure of the Canada expedition made Lee’s mission to defend New York more urgent, since the British would now be able to concentrate most of their forces on securing the city and eventually the whole...

    • 9 Angels of Indecision: Virginia
      (pp. 151-165)

      The Continental Congress’s decision to create the Southern Department was based on concerns that the southern colonies were extremely vulnerable to a British attack. The threat of a British invasion had caused southern delegates to demand Lee’s services for this department.¹ South Carolinian Edward Rutledge moved “to countermand Gen. Lee’s Journey to Canada send Him to command the Southern Colonies.” Rutledge’s motion passed, to the disappointment of the northern delegates who wanted Lee to remain in the North.² John Hancock informed Lee that in light of “the high Estimation the Members of the Congress have of your worth and abilities,...

    • 10 Lee’s Southern Glory
      (pp. 166-182)

      As Lee moved into North Carolina, British general Henry Clinton and his troops were at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, waiting for the arrival of a fleet from Europe carrying reinforcements that had been delayed by raging Atlantic storms. In February 1776, North Carolina militiamen had defeated a Loyalist army recruited by royal governor Josiah Martin at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge near the coastal town of Wilmington. The defeat of the Loyalists at Moore’s Creek Bridge convinced Clinton that he needed to make a bold move to solidify royal authority in the South. He set his...

    • 11 Lee’s Northern Disillusionment
      (pp. 183-198)

      When Lee arrived in Philadelphia in early October 1776 on his way to New York, he was greeted with great joy and elation. James Smith of Pennsylvania wrote to his wife Eleanor, “About half an hour agoe Genl Lee arrived here…. I … wished so ardently for it … & I am Confident he will be better than 10,000 men to our Army.”¹ Lee kept busy, meeting with John Hancock and several other delegates, writing reports about military affairs in the South, and attending dinner parties. Congress directed Lee to join Washington’s army at Harlem Heights in northern Manhattan Island.² The...

    • 12 The Idol of the Officers
      (pp. 199-214)

      On November 30, 1776, a private letter from Lee addressed to Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington’s aide-de-camp arrived at the Continentals’ headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Lee thanked Reed for his “most obliging flattering letter” of November 21, in which he had admitted that the events of the New York campaign had shaken his confidence in Washington’s abilities. “I do not mean to flatter nor praise you at the Expence of any other,” Reed told Lee, “but I confess I do think that it is entirely owing to you that this Army & the Liberties of America so far as they...

    • 13 The King’s Famous Prisoner
      (pp. 215-232)

      At New Brunswick, Lee sat in a small jail cell for more than a month. British officers gawked at him, one of them noting in his journal, “I could hardly refrain from tears when I first saw him, and thought of the miserable fate in which his obstinancy had involved him.”¹ Others were not as sympathetic. “I wish he was shot or hanged,” admitted Lieutenant Loftus Cliffe of the 46th Regiment of Foot.² Major Mungo Campbell, who thought that Lee was a “Traytor,” believed that he should be “tried as a Deserter.”³ And a British officer in Nova Scotia expressed...


    • 14 Monmouth
      (pp. 235-255)

      Lee immediately started for Valley Forge, stopping at York, where he unsuccessfully lobbied the Continental Congress for a promotion to lieutenant general, which would have given him equal rank with Washington.¹ Although Washington was well aware of Lee’s disregard for him as a commander and as a strategist, he still respected his advice. Unfortunately for Lee, the Continental Army had changed considerably during his sixteen months in captivity, as had the politics of the Continental Congress and of Washington’s headquarters. Lee would play an important role in the upcoming military campaign of 1778, but his acerbic nature and mercurial personality...

    • 15 Washington’s Scapegoat?
      (pp. 256-273)

      July 4, 1778, was a hot, steamy summer day. Lee sat behind the defendant’s table in a makeshift courtroom in a popular New Brunswick inn, waiting to hear the charges read against him. Outside, Continental soldiers celebrated the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by imbibing a double allowance of rum and cheering for “the perpetual and undisturbed Independence of the United States of America.”¹ Inside the courtroom, Judge Advocate General John Lawrence read the three distinct charges: “disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June agreeable to repeated instructions”; “misbehavior before the enemy...

    • 16 The Bitter End
      (pp. 274-292)

      By the spring of 1779, 47-year-old Charles Lee prepared to leave Philadelphia for Prato Rio, the country estate he had purchased in Hopewell, Virginia, in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains. He had grown weary of the petty squabbling that was taking place in Congress and among the Continental officer corps. It seemed to him that too many delegates were focused on personal influence and regional ambitions, while military officers scuffled for recognition, promotion, and political advantage. The climate of perniciousness that pervaded Philadelphia in 1779 must have reminded him of the jostling for recognition and the pretentiousness of the...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 293-362)
    (pp. 363-384)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 385-402)
    (pp. 403-403)