Sunday, October 13, 2019

Episode 118: British Capture Stockton and Lee

Last week, we followed the race across New Jersey as the British pushed Washington’s Continentals across the State in a matter of weeks.  The Continental Army could not mount a stand against the advancing British and Hessian force, bu at least avoided capture.  As the British swept across New Jersey, they swept up many soldiers and civilians who were considered traitors.  Today, I want to take a look at two of those prisoners, Richard Stockton and Charles Lee.

Richard Stockton

Richard Stockton was a New Jersey native.  His Quaker family had lived in Princeton for generations.  Richard attended the local College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University) and later became a trustee of the school.  He took a break from practicing law in New Jersey, to travel to Britain, where among other things, he had an audience with King George III to thank him on behalf of the College of New Jersey for his role in repealing the Stamp Tax.

Richard Stockton
(from Princeton Art Museum)
After his return to New Jersey, Stockton served on the Provincial Council for the colony and as a judge.  Most people label Stockton a political moderate.  Like most colonists, he was not crazy about Parliament’s taxes, but at the same time was not leading the charge toward revolution.  New Jersey appointed him to serve at the Second Continental Congress.  There, he voted against independence.  After it passed, he signed the document anyway.

Stockton then ran for the Presidency of the new independent state of New Jersey.  He lost to William Livingston by one vote and kept his position as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  When the British invaded New Jersey, like most leading Patriots, he packed up what valuables he could and abandoned his family home.  As a signer of the Declaration, he was a target.  He already knew the story of fellow signer Francis Lewis of Long Island.  British regulars had burned Lewis’ house and imprisoned his wife.

Instead of heading to Pennsylvania though, Stockton moved to a friend’s home in Monmouth county.  This was behind enemy lines, but it was an out of the way country estate.  I guess Stockton thought no one would come looking for him there.  If so, he was wrong.  The British had hoped that a show of strength in the area would encourage many locals who still wanted to be loyal to the King, to join the cause.

Although the numbers were not as large as Howe had hoped, a great many colonists did volunteer to support the regulars.  Once such regiment of Tory New Jersey volunteers got a tip about Stockton’s location.  They sent a force to arrest him.  Most accounts of the arrest indicate they treated him very harshly, forcing him to walk all the way to the British camp at Amboy (modern day Perth Amboy) through rivers and without proper winter clothing.  Stockton arrived in Amboy in terrible condition.  There, officials put him in chains and threw him in jail.  He spent about a month there enduring hardships similar to captured soldiers.

Stockton’s Release

Given Stockton’s position as a gentleman, many patriot leaders were aghast at his treatment.  The Continental Congress demanded investigations and wanted to protest the treatment if found to be true.  But by the time these complaints reach the British, Stockton was already on his way home.

Gen. Howe's Amnesty Proclamation
(from National Park Service)
The terms of his release are controversial to this day without clear and convincing evidence on either side.  According to one story, Stockton accepted General Howe’s offer of amnesty, swore allegiance to the King and went home.  Other accounts say that Howe simply pardoned him and he returned home.  The distinction is a big one for Stockton’s reputation.  If he really accepted amnesty and swore loyalty to King George, he would be considered a traitor to the patriot cause.  If Howe simply paroled him, he would be like a great many other officers who were honor bound to remain neutral until exchanged for a prisoner of equal rank.

The strongest piece of evidence that I have seen that Stockton did not take amnesty is that General Howe submitted a list of neary 5000 names to London of those who had accepted amnesty.  Stockton’s name was not on the list, and Howe noted that no important people had accepted amnesty.  Howe certainly would have included and indeed highlighted Stockton’s name had he been on that list.  Stockton also was investigated by a New Jersey Committee of Safety about a year later on suspicion of being a Tory.  At that time, he affirmed his loyalty to the Patriot cause.  If he had received a note of amnesty, he would have had to give it to the committee, though he gave them nothing.

There is also a case that Stockton did accept amnesty. It begins with a note from a British officer on December 29, 1776 in Amboy where Stockton had been a prisoner.  It says that Howe had granted Stockton a full pardon and that he was entitled to the return of property, including a horse and saddle that the Tories had taken from him.  The British also never made any attempt to exchange Stockton for a British prisoner of equal value, something they almost certainly would have done if he was on parole.

Stockton returned to his home in Princeton where he left all public office.  He resigned as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  After his health returned, he took up the private practice of law. He died four years later from cancer without revealing fully what he may have done to obtain release from capture.

Charles Lee in New Jersey

Probably an even more famous prisoner resulting from the British invasion of New Jersey was General Charles Lee.  At the time, Lee was the third ranking commander in the Continental Army, behind only Washington and Artemas Ward.  Since Ward was in Boston and months away from resigning due to poor health, many were looking at Lee to replace Washington as commander.  Washington had just lost New York and New Jersey.  Many felt he just wasn’t up to the job.  Lee, had far more military experience.  Leaders on both sides considered him far and away the best military mind the Continental Army had.

Gen. Charles Lee
(from Wikimedia)
As I discussed last week, ever since the fall of Forts Washington and Lee in November, and the capture of thousands of prisoners of war, Washington had been requesting, but not ordering, General Lee to bring his army down to join with Washington so they could face the British force led by General Cornwallis.

Lee kept finding one excuse after another to stay in New York.  His correspondence to Washington indicated that his men were unfit to travel, and that he would be better off being in a position to attack the British rear once Cornwallis moved south in pursuit of Washington.

Finally, in early December, General Lee crossed into northern New Jersey.  Even so, he showed little inclination to join Washington near Philadelphia.  Washington continued to send a stream of ever increasingly desperate and more insistent letters to Lee, hoping that the combined armies could mount a defense of Philadelphia, an attack that Washington thought was imminent.  Instead, Lee kept insisting it would be better for him to retain his independent command in North Jersey.  His army remained camped for a week, with no apparent inclination to join Washington.

In truth, Lee seemed to be waiting for Washington’s army to be captured, or for Washington himself to make some sort of reckless stand and be killed.  At that point, Lee expected to become Commander and would rescue America from defeat. He had spent the last few weeks writing letters to undermine Washington to other generals, Continental Congress delegates, and other influential leaders.  Given circumstances, many seemed inclined to follow him.

White's Tavern, where Lee was captured
On December 12, an overconfident Lee left his army camped in a frozen field while he tried to get a good night’s rest at a nearby tavern.  He did not take any of his regular aides with him.  Instead, he had only a handful of officers, including two French officers.  One of them, Virnejoux, had received a commission as captain in the Continental army a couple of months earlier.  The other, French. Lt. Col. Boisbertrand, had just gotten a two year leave from the French Army and had travelled to America in search of a commission.  American privateers had seized his ship off the Massachusetts coast.  After Boston patriots learned of his wish to join the army, they gave him some travel money and told him to go to Philadelphia for a commission.  Along the way, Boisbertrand met up with Lee.  He decided to stay with Lee for now and worry about the paperwork of getting a commission later.  Aside from those officers, Lee had only a small guard of about thirty soldiers.

That evening, General Horatio Gates, sent Major James Wilkinson with a letter to General Washington asking for clarification on how to reach Washington’s army.  Washington had reached out to both Gates and Lee, trying to get reinforcements to defend Philadelphia.

For reasons I still do not entirely understand, Major Wilkinson instead went to see General Lee that night and gave the letter meant for Washington to Lee.  According to Wilkinson’s Memoirs, when he found out Washington had crossed into Pennsylvania, and learned that Lee was nearby, he went to Lee instead, to get instructions on where Gates’ troops should go next.  I’m not clear on whether Wilkinson was simply so naive that he didn’t realize that Washington and Lee were pursuing different strategies, or whether he just decided that Washington was done for and he wanted to get in good with Lee.

One reason to suspect Wilkinson’s motives was that he would prove to be a quite the weasel later in life.  Decades later, he would command the US army, and would be an active participant in the conspiracy that resulted in the trial of Aaron Burr for treason in 1807.  Wilkinson saw the conspiracy was going to get exposed, and turned on Burr to save himself.

But that is a whole different story that is decades away.  At this time, Major Wilkinson was standing in for his boss, General Gates in contact with General Lee.  The two generals, both former officers in the British regulars, seemed to be highly critical of Washington’s leadership and both thought the cause was probably lost.  Since Wilkinson arrived in the middle of the night, Lee told him to get some rest and they would talk more in the morning.  Lee spent most of the next morning, still not dressed, and trying to enjoy a leisurely breakfast while drafting a response for Gates.  That draft was highly critical of Washington.  Lee stated that Washington had forced him to move into territory overrun with Tories and the cause was probably lost.

It is telling that Lee noted that the area was thick with Tories, since it made his decision to leave his army miles away and stay at an isolated tavern, especially foolhardy.  Lee received multiple visitors overnight, so it became public knowledge where he was staying.  I don’t think it requires the benefit of hindsight to realize that local Tories would discover Lee’s position, away from the protection of his army, and that they would relay that information to the regulars.

Charles Lee Captured

That is what happened.  A few days earlier, British Lt. Col. William Harcourt volunteered to ride out with the cavalry to gain intelligence on Lee’s army.  The twenty-four British dragoons on this mission were rightfully feared.  They had a habit of killing people on sight if they suspected them of being rebels.  One of the Cornets in this force was Banastre Tarleton who would gain infamy later in the war for his practice of murdering the wounded on the battlefield and other harsh tactics against the local citizenry.  Both Harcourt and Tarleton had boasted that they would kill or capture the traitor Lee.  Aside from being considered the best officer in the Continental Army, many British soldiers took offense at Lee’s betrayal of his comrades by joining the rebels.  Harcourt’s dragoons had actually served under Lee at a battle in Spain during the Seven Years War.

Capture of Charles Lee (from British Battles)
Several conflicting accounts describe how the British tracked down Lee, but it appears to be combination of tips from Tories, as well as intelligence from captured patriots who were threatened with death if they did not reveal Lee’s position.

Harcourt’s dragoons reached the White Tavern around 10:30 AM.  They surprised the sentries, who they either killed or chased away. Lee found himself in the tavern with only Wilkinson, Lee's aide Major William Bradford, and the two French officers.  A brief firefight ensued, during which the French Col. Boisbertrand fled out the back door.  The British saw him run. Tarleton rode him down down and forced his surrender.

Harcourt threatened to burn down the tavern with everyone in it unless Lee surrendered.  After a few minutes, Lee and Bradford, who was wounded, walked out the front door.  They surrendered and asked to be treated like gentlemen.  Virnejoux and Wilkinson remained in the house, hidden from view.

The British dragoons were in a hurry, they knew that Continental reinforcements from the main army could arrive any minute and capture all of them.  Their target was Lee, who they had in custody.  Lee requested his hat and cloak. Bradford agreed to go back into the house and get them.  After going into the house, he put on a servant’s hat and cloak, took Lee’s hat and cloak to the front door, put them down and then scurried back inside.

The British, however, did not bother to search the house nor do anything else that might lengthen their stay at the tavern.  They had Lee and Boisbertrand as prisoners on horseback and decided to race back to the British lines rather than waste more time scouring the tavern for a few lesser prisoners.  The entire incident at the tavern lasted only about 15 minutes.

As soon as the British left, Wilkinson, Bradford, and Virnejoux rushed back to the Continental camp with the news of Lee’s capture.

Lee Captured at White's Tavern
(from Revolution Trilogy)
Harcourt’s dragoons, along with their prisoners sped back to Hillsborough where several companies of regulars would support against any rescue party.  The troop had to fight its way through a few sentry points but made it to safety back to British lines with their prisoners.

The British initially held Lee under close guard.  Lee demanded to write to General Howe. When he did, Howe returned his letter unopened and addressed to Lt. Col. Lee.  By using Lee’s British rank, Howe was implying that we was a deserter and that he could be hanged as such.  Howe wrote to London to confirm whether or not Lee had properly resigned his commission and whether he should be treated as a deserter.  In the meantime, he held Lee under heavy guard and refused to offer him parole.

Harcourt the officer who captured Lee, returned to England where over the next few years, would become an Earl after his older brother died childless, become Aide-de-Camp to the King, and receive promotion to major general before the end of the war.  After the war, he would also receive a knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and become one of the very few British officers ever to rise to the rank of Field Marshal.

The guy I feel sorriest for in this story is Colonel Boisbertrand.  Since the French officer had not received his Continental commission before being captured, the British did not recognize him as a prisoner of war.  They held him in a New York prison for a time, then shipped him to London.  He sat in prison for a couple of years before finally escaping in 1778 and returning to France.  There, he found that the French government had taken away his commission for overstaying his two year leave, never mind that he was a prisoner and could not return.  Neither the Americans nor the French offered him another commission.  He never served again, and I’m not sure what happened to him.

The big story though was Lee.  For many on both sides, Lee’s capture was considered more important than the capture of 3000 Continentals at Fort Washington.  Many thought Lee really was the only hope for the Continental Army.  With his capture, Washington would never be able to lead the army to victory.  Some top British officers predicted his capture would soon result in a complete surrender of the Continental army and an end to the rebellion.

Washington Braces for a Final Blow

Washington himself seemed devastated by the loss. Despite Lee’s insubordination, Washington shared the consensus view that Lee was one of the Army’s most valuable leaders.  In hindsight, of course, the capture was probably a miracle.  Lee’s capture ended any talk of him replacing Washington.  It also meant that General John Sullivan now took control of the army under Lee’s command and began moving them to Philadelphia as Washington had ordered.  Although it felt like a loss, Lee’s capture actually marked the beginning of a turnaround for Washington.

Washington continued to soldier on, still trying to consolidate his forces and make plans to confront the enemy.  He did not display any evidence of defeatism in his correspondence with officers or Congress, but on December 18, did confide in a letter to his brother Samuel that with enlistments coming to an end, he might not have an army to continue the war:
“I have no doubt but that General Howe will still make an attempt upon Philadelphia this Winter—I see nothing to oppose him in a fortnight from this time...  In a word my dear Sir, if every nerve is not straind to recruit the New Army with all possible Expedition I think the game is pretty near up”
Washington was also fortunate in that the British had no intention of attempting to take Philadelphia that winter.  It seems like it would have been relatively easy given the condition of the defenses.  The ever cautious Howe decided to consolidate his gains for the year.  He returned to New York with most of his army settling into comfortable winter quarters in and around New York.  Howe left a series of outposts throughout New Jersey to secure the colony and to continue taking oaths of allegiance from the local citizenry.  He still held out hope that Washington’s army might dissolve away over the winter and prevent any need for another bloody battle.

Whatever the justification, the Continentals seemed pleasantly shocked that the British would once again pull back rather than capture Philadelphia.  Many British officers were appalled at Howe’s orders.  Letters back to London indicate a flood of frustration that Howe never seemed to want to let his army finish off the Americans so they could go home.  As commander though, Howe had the final word and put his army into winter quarters, expecting an end to fighting for the year.

Next week: I’m going to step away from New Jersey to cover the patriot attempt to capture Fort Cumberland in Nova Scotia.  Also, the British capture Newport, Rhode Island to use as a winter port for the navy.

- - -

Next Episode 119: Fort Cumberland (Nova Scotia) and Newport, RI

Previous Episode 117 Retreat Across New Jersey

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Further Reading


Letter from Hortio Gates to George Washington Dec. 12, 1776 (carried by Wilkinson to Lee):

Bell, J.L. “The Martyrdom of Richard Stockton” Boston 1775 Blog, Sept. 4, 2008:

Wiener, Frederick “The Signer Who Recanted” American Heritage Mag., June 1975:

Dacus, Jeff “Charles Lee: The Gift of Controversy” Journal of the Am. Rev. Dec. 2013:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Collins, Varnum L. A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton in 1776-1777; a contemporary account of the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Princeton Univ. Library, 1906.

Drake, Samuel A. The Campaign of Trenton 1776-77, Lee and Shepard, 1899.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book) or see below in "books worth buying" section.

Stryker, William Battles Of Trenton And Princeton, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1898.

Wilkinson, James Memoirs of My Own Times, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1816.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019

Dwyer, William The Day Is Ours: How a Ragged Rebel Army Stood the Storm and Saved the Revolution,  Viking, 1983.

Fischer, David Hackett Washington’s Crossing, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. The Long Retreat, The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey 1776, Upland Press, 1998.

Mazzagetti, Dominick Charles Lee: Self Before Country, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2013 (book recommendation of the week).

McBurney, Christian M. Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott, Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2014.

McBurney, Christian M. Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders, McFarland, 2016.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Papas, Phillip Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee, NYU Press, 2014.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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