Sunday, December 27, 2020

ARP181 West Point Chain

After the defeat and surrender of Burgoyne’s northern army at Saratoga, the threat to upstate New York diminished greatly.  The British abandoned Fort Ticonderoga without a fight and retreated back to St. Jean.  General Gates reported finding the fort had been destroyed and abandoned in November 1777.  

West Point

Even after the British abandoned Ticonderoga, General Guy Carleton still commanded a British force at Quebec.  General Henry Clinton still commanded a force in New York City, but neither had a force large enough to try to succeed where Burgoyne had failed.  The Continentals did not know if the British might make another attempt to take control of the Hudson River the following year.

In the months following the American victory at Saratoga, the Continentals began assembling an army led by General Lafayette to invade Quebec.  However, the lack of sufficient soldiers and supplies led to the mission being abandoned before it even got started.  Also that spring, the Americans debated an attack on Philadelphia or New York City.  Of the two, New York still had far fewer British defenders.  However, the presence of the British Navy around New York still made it a difficult battlefield for the Americans.

General Washington kept his main focus on the British Army in and around Philadelphia.  Upstate New York became less of a focus for everyone.  Congress left General Gates in overall command of New York, even though Gates was serving as the head of the Board of War by this time, and spent the winter and early spring of 1778 near Congress in York.

Israel Putnam Loses Command

In upstate New York, General Israel Putnam served as the commander in the field.  Gates’ overall command was again a bit of a touchy issue because Putnam was more senior to Gates and therefore outranked him.  Everyone seemed to recognize, however, that Putnam was not a strong commander.  His command in upstate New York was because no one expected large-scale combat in that area.  Gates, despite his role in the Conway Cabal, still probably had the best reputation after his victory at Saratoga.

In December 1777, Washington directed Putnam to focus on building river obstructions along the Hudson River.  Although Putnam spent part of the winter back home in Connecticut, he did focus what he could with his army on building new Hudson River defenses.  The biggest obstacle for Putnam was that, just like the soldiers in Valley Forge, his men were starving, and did not have sufficient clothing and blankets to work outdoors over the winter.

Israel Putnam

Others, however, thought that Putnam himself simply was not up to the job.  New York Governor George Clinton wrote to General Gates that same month to say that, while Putnam was certainly a brave soldier, he was not up to the task of building river defenses.

Remember that in October 1777 British General Henry Clinton had launched a raid from New York city, capturing Forts Montgomery and Clinton on the Hudson River.  Putnam had been in charge of the area including those forts.  In November, Congress demanded in inquiry into the defense of those forts, and why it had failed. Washington put off the matter that winter as he was struggling with the difficulties at Valley Forge and dealing with the Conway Cabal that threatened his command of the army.

About five months later in March 1778, Washington was able to turn his attention to Putnam and begin the Congressionally-mandated inquiry.  He relieved Putnam of his command while the inquiry against him proceeded.  Washington’s letter to Putnam is almost apologetic, saying that whether the charges were “well or ill-grounded,” that they “must be indulged.”  It seemed that New Yorkers were refusing any support for the project as long as Putnam remained in command.  To resolve this, Washington put General Alexander McDougall in command of the region.

The court of inquiry would eventually absolve Putnam of any failures of command.  It found that the loss of the forts was the result of a lack of manpower, mostly because almost all available soldiers had been sent to support General Gates’ army at Saratoga at the time of Clinton’s attack.  Despite the acquittal, Putnam did not regain his command.  Instead, Washington requested that he go back to his home state of Connecticut to recruit more soldiers for the coming campaign.

Planned River Defenses

Before Putnam left command, he identified several locations along the Hudson River to build defenses.  His successor, General McDougall took up right where Putnam left off.  The Americans identified four locations along the river where they should build obstructions and establish defenses.

Hudson Valley Defenses
This was not the first attempt to build defenses.  As early as 1775, patriots planned for ways to prevent a British fleet from making its way upriver into the Hudson Valley from New York City.  That was why places like Forts Montgomery, Clinton, and Constitution existed along the river.  The patriots had even constructed a chain across the river at Fort Montgomery in 1776 in order to block ships.  That chain proved a disaster.  When they first deployed the 600 yard chain across the river, it broke from just the strain of the river current.  After a repair and second deployment, it broke again.  

They gave up for the winter, figuring the ice would do a better job of preventing any boats from sailing up the river than their chain did.  Finally, in April 1777, they once again deployed the chain at Fort Montgomery.  When the British sailed up to the river in October, the chain proved to be only a minor nuisance.  After the British captured Fort Montgomery, they could take their time cutting the chain, then sail upriver to Fort Constitution, and then further upriver to burn Kingston, New York.

For the new defenses that they hoped would be in place for 1778, the Americans turned to European engineers for their expertise.  They turned to Louis Lesliaix de la Radiere, a French captain who had received a Continental Commission as lieutenant colonel of engineers in July 1777.  After his appointment to the Hudson River project in the fall, Congress promoted him to full colonel.

De la Radiere wanted to build the new large chain near Forts Clinton and Montgomery, close to where the old chain had been deployed.  Everyone else on the project, including the Governor of New York and General Putnam, wanted the chain further upriver near Fort Constitution.  At that point a natural bend in the river would force any ships to slow down and turn.  The width of the river was not as great there, meaning the chain did not have to be as long.

Radiere’s view was overruled and construction began at Fort Constitution.  Radiere began the work, but complained so much about the site and the project that he asked to be relieved after a few months.  He returned to Washington’s army for a new assignment.

The engineering work then fell to a new officer, Colonel Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish officer who most recently had been responsible for the American defenses at Saratoga and who had also been a part of the project to lay a chain across the river at Fort Ticonderoga a year earlier.

Rufus Putnam

To further support the effort, Washington ordered Colonel Rufus Putnam to join the project. Rufus’ grandfather was a cousin of General Israel Putnam. Rufus grew up in Massachusetts and served in the French and Indian War.  He joined the Siege of Boston with his militia unit right after the battle of Lexington and Concord.  When the Continental Army was formed, Putnam received a commission as a lieutenant colonel.  

Rufus Putnam
Putnam earned his engineering cred by setting up the Dorchester Heights defenses in one night.  This forced the British to evacuate Boston in early 1776.  After that, General Washington assigned Putnam to work on the defenses at New York.  In December 1776, his military career faltered when Congress rejected his plan to form a corps of engineers.  

Some sources say that Putnam resigned his commission and returned home to Massachusetts.  In his memoirs, Putnam does not mention resigning.  He says that he simply returned home to Massachusetts to recruit more volunteers for the army.  In late 1777, following Burgoyne’s invasion of New York, Putnam once again offered his services to the Continental Army.  He led two regiments during the battle of Saratoga.  

Although he was not directly involved in building the defenses at Saratoga, Putnam does say that he had discussions with Kościuszko about those defenses.  So the two officers probably began to develop a relationship during the Saratoga Campaign.

Bernard Romans

Putnam, Kościuszko, and others favored a chain across the Hudson River at Fort Constitution because it was a narrow point in the river with two right angle turns.  The hills around the river caused winds to shift suddenly.  So for sailing ships, it was a difficult maneuver even without any defenses.  Crews would have to slow down and tack their sails to make the turns and navigate the shifting winds.  The first effort to create defenses there went to Bernard Romans in 1775.

Tadeusz Kościuszko
Bernard Romans was a Dutch-born colonist who had moved to upstate New York during the French and Indian War.  He married and settled into the Dutch-speaking community there.  He worked as a surveyor and a cartographer, a job that took him all over North America, including extensive work in the Floridas.

By 1773 though he was back to living in upstate New York.  As the population divided into loyalist and patriot camps, Romans decisively sided with the patriots.  He traveled to Boston where he was present during the Boston Tea party.  He traveled throughout New England where, among other things, he developed relationships with many patriot leaders.  

Because of his engineering experience, the patriot legislature in Connecticut sent Romans in 1775 to Fort Ticonderoga to assist with its capture.  While Colonel Allen and Arnold had already taken the fort by the time he got there, Roman took his soldiers south to capture Fort George.  Like Ticonderoga, the fort surrendered without a fight.  Afterward, Romans returned to Ticonderoga and assisted Benedict Arnold with assessing the guns and ammunition captured there.  

As it became clearer that all out war was underway, New York patriots focused on the need to fortify the Hudson River.  The Continental Congress recommended Romans to the New York Commissioners.  They gave him the job of surveying the river, selecting key locations for fortifications, and building those fortifications.

Romans, working with several other locals, selected Martelaer's Rock as the site to build a fort.  This was a rocky island in the Hudson river.  He set about building Fort Constitution, which later resulted in the island becoming known as Constitution Island.  Romans began work on the fort there, which became a pretty considerable defensive fort, with four bastions and 70 cannons.  

By the end of 1775, many were questioning the choice of the site, and the cost of the fort construction. Although the site on Constitution Island made a land assault on the fort difficult, it also was not the high ground.  Across the river, a rocky point stood far above Fort Constitution, making it an obvious place to launch an artillery attack on the fort.

Disputes between Romans and the New York Commissioners resulted in Romans traveling to Philadelphia to shore up support for his leadership of the project.  Congress did not want to overrule the New York Commissioners and so reassigned him to captain of artillery and sent him off to participate in the Quebec campaign.

Hudson Forts

After Romans’ departure, Fort Constitution fell into neglect.  Many of the cannons and other resources were redeployed downriver where the Continentals focused on Forts Clinton, Montgomery, and Independence.  The British expedition under General Clinton destroyed those forts in 1777, then made its way up to Fort Constitution.  With only a token garrison, the soldiers at Fort Constitution fled without a fight. The British destroyed the fort.  From there, they continued upriver to burn the town of Kingston before withdrawing back to New York City.  For more on this assault, see episodes 164 and 166.

Sketch of West Point
In January 1778, the Americans once again began rebuilding defenses in the area, first under Louis de la Radiere and then under Rufus Putnam and Tadeusz Kościuszko.  The men rebuilt Fort Constitution, a little smaller than originally planned, but capable of delivering fire against any ships attempting to make their way around the curve in the river.

To protect Fort Constitution from the high ground on the western side of the river, they built Fort Arnold, named after General Benedict Arnold.  For obvious reasons, this fort would later be renamed Fort Clinton.  However, having established that fort, it became obvious that there was even higher ground to the west that could be used to capture Fort Arnold.  To prevent that, the team constructed a third fort known as Fort Putnam, named for its builder, Rufus Putnam.  Fort Putnam would be the largest fort and would hold the largest garrison in the protection of the other forts.

Next, the problem was that further to the west, there was even higher ground which might be used to threaten Fort Putnam.  There, the engineers built yet another outpost, simply known as Redoubt #4 to prevent any attack from there on Fort Putnam.  Collectively, the forts on the western side of the river became known as West Point.

The Chain

The defenders did not simply want to rely on artillery and the natural river bends to deter any enemy naval advances upriver.  To block passage, they constructed a large chain across the river.  I’ve already mentioned the relative lack of success of other chains.  This one, the defenders hoped, would be different by making it even larger and stronger.

West Point Chain

The officer in charge of constructing the Chain was Captain Thomas Machin.  The captain was an English-born engineer who specialized in metallurgy and canal-building.  In 1772, his employer sent him from England to New Jersey to inspect a copper mine.  Machin opted to stay in the colonies and settled in Boston.  He supported the patriots and obtained a commission in the Continental Army.  He had been working on the Hudson River defenses since 1776 and had been responsible for the Fort Montgomery chain which had proven to be a disaster.

Even so, Machin had the most experience in the area and was ready for another try.  This new chain would have to span 600 yards.  Each link was made of iron bars that were more than two square inches thick and weighed over 100 pounds each.  The total weight of the chain was over 180 tons.

Fortunately, the colonies had a large iron industry. At the time the war began, the colonies were producing 30,000 tons of iron each year, roughly 14% of worldwide production.  Production of the chain went to a local New York forge run by Peter Townshend.  If you are of a certain age might make you ask Who? But no relation.  The forge was over thirty miles away.  When asked if he could get the links overland to the fort, over poorly marked roads Townsend assured them that “I can see for miles” and to further doubt, he told them “you better, you bet.”  To concerns that the chain might break like the one at Fort Montgomery, Townsend assured them that “we won’t get fooled again.”  When asked about whether his young workers were up to the task he told them they were “talkin’ bout my generation,” that these were “rough boys,” and that “the kids are alright.”  Ok, I’ll stop now.

The individual links had to be drawn on ox-drawn sleds to New Windsor, upriver from West Point.  From there, they were floated down on rafts and assembled together on site.  Once in place, the chain rested on rafts to keep it afloat.  Each raft was over fifty feet long and twelve feet wide.  A series of ropes and pulleys allowed operators to adjust the chain as needed.   Large stone filled boxes served as anchors on each side of the river to hold the chain in place.

By April 1778 the hundreds of men working to build and move the chain had it in place across the Hudson River.  A long barrier was built about 100 yards south of the chain to slow down any ship that might try to build up enough speed to break through the chain.  The entire process took only about eight weeks from conception to completion.

If a ship had to pass upstream the team could lower a portion of the chain to create a gap.  To prevent any destruction from winter ice, the team would have to pull in the chain each winter and then redeploy it in the spring.  As such, it would take a team of hundreds of men to maintain it.  Artillery batteries sat right along shore to fire on any ships and prevent any direct assault on the coasts where the chain was anchored.  These shore batteries were in turn protected by the series of forts sitting just above them.

West Point Garrison

General Samuel Parsons served as the first fort commander.  He oversaw the building project from almost the beginning.  He would serve until General Benedict Arnold took command of the fort in the summer of 1780.

View of West Pont from Constitution Island
Over the first three years, the garrison worked to build and improve the defenses.  Kościuszko remained head engineer for several years, working directly on the defensive features of the fort complex.  He would be stationed there until 1780 when he transferred to the southern theater.

George Washington considered West Point to be a critical lynchpin of Continental defenses.  He made it his headquarters in June of 1779 and remained there for several months before moving south to Morristown, New Jersey.

The total size of the garrison was considerable.  It varied over the course of the war, but at times was over 3000 soldiers.  As such, West Point was generally considered to be an impregnable defensive point on the Hudson River which the British would not be able to pass again.  The chain would remain in place for the remainder of the war.  The British would never again attempt to make their way up the Hudson River from New York City.

I mean, the only way the British might have a chance would be if they bribed the West Point commander and convinced him to turn over the fort and the garrison in exchange for a large sum of money and perhaps a commission in the British regular army.  But what are the chances of that happening?

Next week, we return to Philadelphia as General Howe prepares to turn over command to General Henry Clinton.

- - -

Next Episode 182 Occupied Philadelphia 

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Further Reading


Levine, David Hudson Valley Chain:

Sambaluk, Nicholas Michael. “Making the Point—West Point’s Defenses and Digital Age Implications, 

Cubbison, Douglass Historic Structures Report: The Hudson River Defenses at Fortress West Point 1778-1781.” The Cyber Defense Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 2017, pp. 141–154. JSTOR,

Great Chain at West Point:

“To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel La Radière, 13 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Israel Putnam, 13 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from George Clinton, 5 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General Israel Putnam, 16 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bannerman, Francis History of the great iron chain: laid across the Hudson River at West Point in 1778, by order of General George Washington, New York: Military War Museum, 1900.

Coxe, Macgrane The Sterling furnace and the West Point chain; an historical address delivered at Sterling Lake, New York, Priv. print. [by the De Vinne press], 1906.

Putnam, Rufus The Memoirs of Rufus Putnam and Certain Official Papers and Correspondence, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1903.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Diamant, Lincoln, Bernard Romans: Forgotten Patriot of the American Revolution, Harbor Hill Books, 1985. 

Diamant, Lincoln, Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution, Fordham Univ. Press, 2004. 

Haiman, Miecislaus Kosciuszko in the American Revolution, Boston, Gregg Press, 1972.

Hubbard, Robert E. General Rufus Putnam: George Washington's Chief Military Engineer and the "Father of Ohio",  2020

Storozynski, Alex  The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution,  Thomas Dunne Books, 2009.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

ARP180 John Paul Jones Raids Whitehaven

France’s decision to enter the war with Britain drastically changed the landscape for the Americans in Europe.  Up until that time, the American diplomats and naval officers had to dance around French efforts to keep the peace with Britain, while at the same time, trying to provoke as much trouble as possible. 

Britain finally declared war on France after France signed the Treaty of Alliance.  Once they were at war, American warships could unleash unrestricted warfare against Britain, and use French ports for repairs and safe harbor.  Of course, the declaration of war also meant that the British fleet would be on high alert and would dominate the waters around Britain against any potential enemies.

John Paul Jones

One of those enemies was a young man seeking to make a name for himself in the Continental Navy, by the name of John Paul Jones.  Since Jones later becomes affectionately known as the father of the US Navy, we should take a moment to understand where he came from.

John Paul Jones

John Paul was born to a Scottish family near the border between England and Scotland. His family surname was Paul.  He added Jones later, for reasons I’ll address in a moment.  His father was a gardener on a large estate, although a more accurate modern title would be landscape architect.  He managed the construction and maintenance of large elaborate gardens for a wealthy lord.  John Paul had no interest in the family business, and wanted to become an officer in the British Navy.  Unlike the army, British naval commissions were possible for commoners and did not require a family fortune.  They did, however, require connections, which the Paul family did not have. 

Merchant Seaman

Instead, at age thirteen, Paul signed aboard a merchant vessel.  His enthusiasm and an understanding of mathematics encouraged one of the officers to teach him some maritime navigation skills.  Ordinarily officers did not want sailors to understand navigation.  They might be more likely to mutiny if they did not need the officers to get home.  But Paul was clearly destined to be more than a sailor.

After serving on several ship’s crews on trips to the Americas, Paul got his big break when the ship’s captain and first mate aboard the John died from yellow fever while returning from the West Indies.  Paul successfully navigated the ship home and was rewarded by the owners by giving him command of the ship.  It was 1768 and Paul was only 21 years old. 

Legal Troubles

Paul got a reputation as a strict and fastidious ship’s captain.  Merchant captains at the time often resorted to violent force to control their crews.  Corporal punishment was common.  On one voyage to the West Indies, Captain Paul had cause to have a carpenter’s mate by the name of Mungo Maxwell flogged.  While the ship was in Tobago, Maxwell filed a complaint against Paul for assault and abuse.  A local admiralty court held that the beating was reasonable and acquitted Paul.  Maxwell then left the ship to take another ship back to Scotland.

Paul also returned to Scotland with his cargo.  Upon arrival, the sheriff met him and arrested him.  Maxwell had died on his return voyage.  His family believed his death was the result of Paul’s flogging, and wanted him arrested for murder.

Paul was able to obtain bail and returned to Tobago to get a copy of the Admiralty Court’s verdict there.  He also obtained the testimony of the captain of the ship on which Maxwell had died.  The captain testified that Maxwell had died from a “fever and low spirits” not from the flogging.  Paul eventually got the charges dismissed.

A couple of years later, Paul found himself back in the West Indies, facing another problem crew.  Paul’s cargo had spoiled and he was unable to pay his crew.  Several sailors broke into the ship’s store of liquor, got drunk and violent, and demanded their pay.  One of the larger sailors came after Paul with a club.  Paul grabbed a sword from his cabin and after being backed up by the crewmember, ran the man through, killing him.

This time, Paul did not trust the legal system to acquit him.  The dead man was a local on the small island and had a great many friends.  Instead, taking the advice of his own friends, Paul abandoned his ship and found passage on another ship bound for Virginia.  He arrived there, on the run and almost broke, in 1774.  He adopted the name Paul Jones in order to avoid anyone looking for a fugitive murderer named John Paul.

Continental Navy

Jones attempted to start a new life in America.  His older brother had moved to Virginia years earlier, but had died before John’s arrival.  Jones made new connections, relying in part on his Masonic membership as an introduction.  He eventually settled in Philadelphia.  When war broke out in 1775, Jones probably could have gotten a lucrative position running a privateer vessel. But instead, he wanted a commission in the new Continental Navy.

The Providence
Thanks to the patronage of Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, the Marine committee offered Jones the command of the Providence, a smaller ship in the new fleet.  Jones rejected the offer out of a concern that he was inexperienced with the type of sail that ship used.  He later said that he regretted that refusal.  Instead, Jones took an assignment as lieutenant aboard the larger Alfred, which was Commodore Esek Hopkins’ flagship.  The Alfred was a relatively new ship built as a merchant ship in 1774.  Its owner, Robert Morris who served on the Marine Committee, sold the ship to the navy in 1775. Captain Dudley Saltonstall captained the Alfred.   Saltonstall was an experienced merchant captain, who was also the brother-in-law of Silas Deane.

As lieutenant, Jones sailed the Alfred to the Bahamas for the raid I discussed in Episode 84.  I mentioned in that episode that on the return trip, the fleet encountered the British warship Glasgow but was unable to capture it.  Commodore Hopkins took great criticism for that failure. One of his critics as John Paul Jones.  Although he tried to be respectful to his commander, Jones made clear that the leadership during the mission was definitely lacking.  He wrote to a member of the Marine Committee in Congress about both Commodore Hopkins and Captain Saltonstall.

Following that raid, Congress commissioned several more ships.  After the captain of the Providence moved to a larger ship, Congress gave command of the Providence to Jones.  This time, he accepted.

With his own command, Captain Jones spent the summer of 1776 around Long Island, New York, transporting soldiers and escorting merchant ships as the British fleet prepared for its invasion that fall.  

Later, he sailed down to the West Indies, capturing several British merchant ships and dodging much larger British warships.  In the fall, he sailed northward around Nova Scotia, to avoid the hurricane season to the south.  There, he captured several more prizes.  

However, unlike privateers, Jones was interested in more than prizes. He raided the fishing village of Canso, destroying a fishery and taking on additional sailors.  He also captured sixteen fishing ships, six of which he was able to sail back to New England.  

Jones also received word that more than one hundred American prisoners were being used as slave labor on the coal pits on Cape Breton.  He tried to organize a fleet to rescue them.  He was given the Alfred and the Hampden, along with his own ship the Providence.  However, he could not find enough crew to sail all three.  Initially, he put his crew aboard the larger Alfred and sailed off along with the Hampden, leaving the Providence behind.  After the captain of the Hampden crashed his ship on rocks, the ships returned to leave the Hampden for repairs and departed again aboard Alfred and Providence.

As he sailed north in November, he encountered an American privateer vessel called the Eagle, a search of the ship turned up two deserters from the Continental Navy.  Jones took the two men, as well as twenty others as punishment for hiding the deserters.  Later, they captured a valuable British transport ship.  By this time though, it was mid November and sailing off the coast of Canada was pretty miserable in wooden unheated ships.  One night the Providence simply turned around and sailed for home, leaving Jones on the Alfred on his own.

Jones pressed on, although the crew of the Alfred was getting more mutinous each day.  The Alfred captured three more ships carrying coal for the British, and learned that the prisoners at Cape Breton were already gone.  Jones sent the coal ships to New England and raided Canso once again to destroy an oil warehouse there.  

On his return the Alfred and her prize ships encountered a British warship.  Since it was almost dark, Jones put a lantern on the Alfred and sent the prize ships in another direction.  As he hoped, the British followed his ship and allowed the prizes to escape.  Jones then outran the British who gave up the chase after another day.

Winter in Boston

When Jones finally returned to Boston in late December, he had another greeting.  The sheriff had a complaint for his arrest.  The owner of the Eagle had lodged a complaint for the sailors that he had kidnapped at sea.  Jones drew his sword on the sheriff and made clear that he would not be arrested.  He did, however, agree to remain in town.  Jones filed a countersuit against the owner for inducing sailors to desert the navy.  Eventually the courts threw out both suits.

In the meantime though, Jones had a more important fight.  In October, Congress had issued its seniority list of navy captains.  Jones was number 18 of 24 on the list, behind many men he regarded as inferiors.  Jones did not learn about the list until January 1777.  Jones had taken command of the Providence in May 1776, but only as “acting captain.”  When he took command of the Alfred in August, the Marine Committee had written on the back of his commission that he had been made captain in August.  While in Boston, he met with John Hancock and requested his commission be rewritten to reflect that he had become a captain in May when he took command of the Providence.  When he got his commission back the day before he was to leave Boston, he discovered his commission date was listed as October 10, then Congress drew up the seniority list.  Jones was understandably upset, but could not do anything about it.

Command of the Alfred went to a more “senior” captain, and Jones spent several months in Boston without a ship.  There, he got involved with one of the local masonic lodges, and struck up a friendship with Phillis Wheatley, the former slave who had become a well known poet.  Jones fancied himself a poet as well, and the two enjoyed an exchange of poetry.  It is unclear if there was a romantic relationship, although some have speculated that there was.

Travel to France

In May 1777, Congress ordered Jones to make his way to France.  There, the American Commissioners had contracted to build several larger warships and he would finally be given a respectable command.  However, a disagreement with the captain who was supposed to take him to France delayed his departure. Finally in June, Congress granted Jones command of the twenty gun ship Ranger and he sailed for France.  However, when he arrived in Portsmouth in July, he found that his ship had been stripped by a more senior navy captain.  Jones had to refit the Ranger, which proved difficult given the lack of supplies.  

It was not until November that the Ranger finally made its way out to sea.  As it crossed the Atlantic, it discovered a merchant fleet.  The men sailed toward the ships, hoping for some prizes, only to discover that they were under the protection of the 74 gun Invincible.  Jones wisely pretended to be part of the merchant fleet until dark, then quietly slipped away.

French salute the Ranger on its arrival
Finally, in early December, Jones reached France.  There, he found more frustration.  The British had threatened the Amsterdam ship-builder who was building his ship, that it would suffer the consequences if it turned over the ship to the Americans.  Instead, France purchased the ship.  Jones made his way to Paris and then to Passay awaiting a command.  While there, he befriended Edward Bancroft, who served as a secretary to the American Commissioners.  You may recall from earlier episodes, that Bancroft was also a British spy.

Also over the winter, Jones had the Ranger re-outfitted with better rigging and had other improvements. In April, 1778 the Ranger set sail.  By this time, France and Britain were at war.  There was no longer the need to play diplomatic games to satisfy French officials.  Jones planned to sail up the Channel between England and Ireland, looking to cause as much fear and chaos as he could.  Unlike earlier raids, though, Jones was not just after shipping.  He wanted to conduct raids on the British mainland as well.

Raid on Whitehaven

During his months in France, Jones had learned about the many American sailors held prisoner in Britain.   Most of them were from captured privateer ships and were held as criminals on charges of piracy.  Britain was not executing them out of fears that the Americans would retaliate with their prisoners.  But the men were being held in miserable condition.  Further, the navy desperately needed more sailors.

Jones concocted a plan to land near his childhood home on the Scottish border.  His first goal was to destroy the ships there, mostly smaller fishing vessels.  Next, he would sail across the inlet and kidnap the local laird.  As a peer, the British would likely trade many sailors for his return.  

First though, Jones had to convince his own crew.  Most of the men wanted to go after prizes, so they would get a share of the booty.  Kidnapping and destruction brought no profit.  Even Jones’ own first mate, Lieutenant Thomas Simpson was not happy.  The original plan when they had sailed from New England was that Jones would take command of a larger warship in France, and that Simpson would become captain of the Ranger.  When that larger ship did not materialize, Jones remained in command of the Ranger and Simpson remained first mate.  The New England officers and crew were not happy with this Scottish captain, who they saw as more interested in settling old scores in his hometown than seizing prizes.

After only a few days at sea, Jones’ crew mutinied and attempted to take over the ship.  Jones had received an advance tip from a loyal member of the crew.  The tipster let him know that while the officers did not participate in the mutiny, they agreed to make themselves scarce while it happened.  When the attack came, Jones was armed with a sword and pistol and was able to force the mutineers to back off.  He did not try to lock up or punish anyone for the incident, but tried to put it behind him and continue with the mission.

Before Jones reached Whitehaven, he got word from a local fisherman that the HMS Drake was nearby just across the Irish Sea.  Although the Drake was a larger ship with more guns, Jones hoped to sail up next to it at night, board her, and take the crew by surprise.  The Ranger sailed into the port at night.  Jones gave the order to drop anchor right next to the ship so they could board.  The man responsible to drop anchor did not do so until the ships were too far apart to board.  By the time they turned around to try again, the winds had shifted and dawn was approaching.  They opted to sail out to sea and escape rather than be discovered.  

Raid on Whitehaven
A few days later the Ranger reached Whitehaven, again under cover of darkness.  The crew landed in two longboats with the intention of burning the 200-400 ships and boats in the harbor.  The landing party surprised the guards at the fort and spiked the cannons.  The landing had taken longer than expected and the lanterns they planned to use to start the fires had run out of fuel.  The crew broke into a tavern to find more fuel.  Instead, the sailors opted to remain in the tavern and get drunk.

By the time they returned, it was almost dawn.  As the crew began to set a larger ship full of coal on fire, an alarm rang out in the village.  One of Jones’ crew was an Irishman who had signed up for the sole purpose of getting home.  Deciding he was close enough, the man slipped away from the landing party and started banging on doors to alert the locals to the burning ships in the harbor.  With the locals turning out, the crew had to jump back in their longboats and row back to the Ranger.

Once aboard, the Ranger sailed across the Firth for the final stop in Jones’ plan, to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk.  Jones went ashore with his crew.  Pretending to be a British press gang, Jones interrogated one of the locals.  It turned out that the Earl was not at home.    

Jones wanted to return to his ship, but his crew had other plans.  The crew, which still had captured nothing of value on the voyage, insisted on looting the Earl’s home.  Jones, in his later recollections, said he did not want to allow this, thinking it would harm his reputation.  At the same time, he also thought the crew might kill him and loot the home anyway if he refused.  Instead, he permitted the men to go to the home without him and to demand they turn over the family silver.  That is what the men did.  The Lady Selkirk, who was home at the time and pregnant, complied with their demands and turned over the silver.  Everyone returned to the ship and sailed away.

Next, Jones encountered the British warship Drake again, this time in open sea.  The British had 200 men aboard ship and hoped to board the Ranger and capture the ship and crew.  Jones was able to keep them at a distance as the two ships exchanged fire.  The British captain was killed and the ship eventually struck her colors.  

Jones took the ship as a prize.  He gave command of the Drake to Lieutenant Simpson as they went in search of other ships in the area.  Simpson, however, had no interest in this.  Instead, he sailed away for France, leaving the Ranger on its own.  Jones sailed after the Drake, eventually catching up with it back in France.

Back in France

Jones had Lieutenant Simpson thrown in jail and brought up on charges of insubordination.  Simpson reached out to John Adams, by this time in France as a member of the American delegation.  Adams supported his fellow New Englander.  He got Simpson released and the charges dismissed.  Adams’ account of the event was that Jones had Simpson arrested so that he could take all the glory for the mission.

Despite the failure to burn the fleet at Whitehaven, and the failure to capture the Earl of Selkirk, patriots celebrated the mission as a success for the capture of the British warship, the Drake.  Well, at least the French and Franklin celebrated the event.  The other two American delegates, Arthur Lee and John Adams mostly gave Jones a hard time over the treatment of his officers and for spending too much money on the crew.

They turned over the Ranger to the command of Captain Simpson.  Jones found himself in France awaiting command of a new ship.  It would be almost another year before Jones received a new ship to command.

Next Week we return to upstate New York to talk about the West Point chain.

- - -

Next Episode 181 West Point Chain 

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Further Reading


Zellers-Frederick, Andrew A. “A Chink in Britain's Armor: John Paul Jones' 1778 Raid on Whitehaven" Journal of the American Revolution June 25, 2019:

Smith, John L. Jr. “The Complex Character of John Paul Jones and his Polite Home Invasion” Journal of the American Revolution, May 4, 2017:

Letter, John Paul Jones to Lady Selkirk, May 8, 1778:

USS Ranger After Whitehaven Raid:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Naval documents of the American Revolution, Vol 6, Vol 7, and Vol 8, Department of the Navy, 1964.   

Abbott, John S. C. Life of John Paul Jones, New York, Dodd, Mead and Co. 1898. 

De Koven, Anna The Life and Letters of John Paul Jones, Vol. 1, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. 

Honeyman, A. Van Doren Admiral Paul Jones, Plainfield, N.J. Honeyman & Co. 1905. 

Jones, John Paul Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Paul Jones, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1830.

Morison, Samuel Eliot John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography, Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. 

Paullin, Charles Oscar The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy and Its Achievements, The Burrows Brothers Co. 1906. 

Tooker, L. Frank John Paul Jones, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916. 

Walker, George Benjamin Life of Rear-Admiral John Paul Jones, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1876. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bowen Hassell, E. Gorden, Dennis Conrad, and Mark Hays Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters, Univ of the Pacific Press, 2004.

Fowler, William M. Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution, Charles Scribern’s Sons, 1976.

McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014.

Thomas, Evan, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, Simon & Schuster, 2003 (book recommendation of the week).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

AR-SP05 Christian McBurney - George Washington's Nemesis


In this special episode, I speak with author Christian McBurney about his new book George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War.  The book examines General Charles Lee’s alleged treason while a British prisoner of War, which never came to light during his lifetime.  It also examines Lee’s performance at the Battle of Monmouth, for which he did receive a court martial and lost his command.

Christian McBurney works as an attorney in Washington, DC.  In addition to his most recent book, he’s written at least four other books on the American Revolution, including “Kidnapping the Enemy” which looks at the capture and Prisoner exchange of Continental General Charles Lee and British General Richard Prescott.  Another book, “The Rhode Island Campaign” describes the first joint French-American effort during the war, attempting to capture the British post at Newport.

Mr. McBurney is also an active member of the American Revolution Round Table, has written numerous articles about the era, and also publishes a blog about Rhode Island History at

I spoke with him recently about General Lee and his new book and recorded our online conversation.


Michael J Troy: Christian McBurney. Welcome to the American Revolution podcast.

Christian McBurney: Thank you, Michael, very glad to be here.

MJT: We're here today to talk about your new book, George Washington's Nemesis, which is all about Major General Charles Lee, and his difficulty at the end of his military career during the American Revolution. What prompted you to write about Charles Lee? Why do you think he is so important to the story of the revolution?

CM: Well, I have a personal story of my own about why I addressed Charles Lee and that is, I started out wanting to write on American Revolutionary history, and had the good fortune of coming from Rhode Island, which had been very underserved in terms of recent history books.

So my first history book was The Rhode Island Campaign, The First French and American Joint Operations in American Revolution. So that was about the French and Americans trying to take over Newport from the British. It was the first time that they'd gotten together.  It could have ended the war like Yorktown, but didn't.  So I think the authoritative book on that. So then after I finished that, I said, Well, what do I do next? What was the other outstanding event in Rhode Island? 

It was the capture of Major General Richard Prescott.  He was captured by Americans crossing over Narragansett Bay in the middle of night.  They surrounded his house. He happened to be in a farmhouse in the middle of Aquidneck Island north of Newport. They grabbed him, spirited him away, without a shot being fired. Well, I couldn't just do a book on that. So I decided, Well, why did they capture him? They wanted to exchange Prescott for Charles Lee. 

And then I started learning about Charles Lee, what fascinating character he is. He was definitely the best educated of all American generals. He was the best writer, the sharpest wit. But on the other hand, he was also the most impulsive, and had a very short fuse. He was very good on the field. But most of the time, he was off the field. And he frankly was little crazy sometimes

MJT: His Indian nickname was “boiling water,” I believe.

CM: That's right. He was started out as a lieutenant colonel in the French and Indian War with the British Army. So substantial position. And he lived with the Iroquois for a while, and they called him “boiling water.” So they knew they had a good indication where he was like,

MJT: It always struck me that Charles Lee was a British regular, who had only very recently moved to the colonies before the war.   He had served all over the world, well, at least, you know, all through Europe and the Americas. To make him number two or number three in the Continental Army at the outset just seemed rather striking to me when they were fighting the regular army. And Charles Lee had all these friends and associates who is basically turning on and I'm wondering why the Congress is willing to put so much trust in a man like that.

CM: Well, they had a very great shortage of generals, senior officers. Who were a lot of the senior officers. They were former British officers like Horatio Gates, Richard Montgomery.  Charles Lee, he was a known radical revolutionary. So he did not like kings.  

He decided to move to America. And he said, you know, where there's a land of liberty, that's where I belong. He met with all the different radicals up and down the coast, Sam Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Rush. And he wrote a very influential pamphlet. Actually, it was more read than Common Sense. And that was that the American militia could defeat British regulars in battle. There was no mystery about it. The American militia, they were used to handling guns, that kind of thing. So he was an own radical revolutionary, a strong proponent, American that respects I think that makes it a little more understandable. And the fact that there were so few officers with experience to begin with,

MJT: That's true. I mean, it seemed like Washington, early in the war, really thought that Lee was one of the best officers he had, and maybe even thought he was better than Washington himself, certainly Lee thought he was better than Washington. 

CM: Oh definitely.

MJT: But he had a very high reputation on both sides.  The British regulars thought Lee was an amazing general and many of the American officers did as well. 

CM: He was really key in the beginning of the war, because he helped in Boston, for example.  He helped train John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene. They were brigadier generals under him. And he did some other good things at the beginning of the war

MJT: He got popularity for the victory at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. But it seems like he won that battle by the fact that the other officers disobeyed, not disobeyed, but resisted his orders to retreat and abandon the fort that they eventually protected in Charleston Harbor. 

Gen. Charles Lee
CM: Well, it's true. They didn't listen to him. Actually, I think this is one of the most interesting of his campaigns because he was appointed by Congress to take command of Charleston.  It was known that Clinton and Sir Peter Parker's naval force were going to invade Charleston. So here comes Lee. He's the head of everything, supposedly. He tells Moultrie, this fort of palmetto logs gee its pretty good if British fight head on but it's not finished. There are no logs on the side so the British could easily come around the point and bombard all the troops and kill them all. He was right. But he didn't know that the British were going to get stuck on some sandbars.  They came, I guess, at low tide, so they weren't able to get around.

But before that happened, you know, instead of yelling and screaming, I'm the boss, you have to do what I say, he held back.  He realized that really going on here with the locals were making the defenses: Moultrie, Governor Rutledge, and he made some good suggestions. For example, on Sullivan's Island, he came up with an idea. Pontoons, would tie all these boats together so soldiers can run off if they need to. So I actually think he did a pretty good job there, not trying to overly assert himself. He did get a lot of credit for the win when it came to Congress, and he took that. 

MJT: He certainly did take the credit.  And what he said made sense. I mean, you're right before it wasn't finished, the whole back walls were missing. If the British had managed to get around behind them, they would have been wiped out.

So they were lucky that they disobeyed his orders and won nevertheless.  But then he came back to New York and the first thing he did there pretty much was call for another retreat from Manhattan Island.  Again, it made good military sense. 

CM: It did and Washington was kind of you know, this was early on for Washington. He was a little not confident of his own abilities. He really consulted with his senior officers, and there was a lot of uncertainty. New York City was a big prize.  They had stayed there, even though the city itself was invaded. They fought pretty well to battle Harlem heights. But now Howe had gone onto the mainland, Throgs Neck, was about to encircle them. Lee said, there's only one way out: Kingsbridge. You got to get over that bridge and retreat right away. And Washington actually really appreciated that kind of certainty.

MJT: Yeah, it made sense and it saved the army. But certainly Washington always seemed to want to err on being overly aggressive and Lee the voice of restraint, saying we've got to be realistic here, guys. 

The only thing I've always kind of wondered about was after they had retreated from New York and Washington was retreating across New Jersey and begging Charles Lee to come join him so they could make a final stand or something. And Lee held back and held back and held back. Do you think Lee was hoping Washington would be captured so that he could take over the command of the Continental Army and save the day?

CM: I do. And I wrote about this in Kidnapping the Enemy. I think he was actually Yeah, he hesitated sending the troops to Washington. I think he lost confidence in Washington as a leader. Washington lost battle of Long Island badly, the militia had run away. New York City was taken. Cornwallis pushed Greene easily out of northern New Jersey.  It didn't look good. I think Lee kind of said, Well, if the British get to Washington and defeat his army, maybe they'll make me number one, or co-number one, I really do think that was in his mind. But of, course, he never wrote it down.

MJT:  It made good sense, not to write something like that down.

CM: When it came to treason, he was careful.

MJT: Well, except after he became a prisoner, but we'll talk about that in a minute. A lot of the officers really had lost faith in Washington at that point. Horatio Gates abandoned Washington. And I think everybody was kind of scattering and thinking the end was really near for Washington and he managed to turn it around,

CM: Lee, one of his big faults was he never realized that Washington was the indispensable man.  Even though he might not have been a great tactician in the battlefield, it's almost like an Eisenhower.  You need someone to hold everyone together. The key to the American side was holding the Continental Army together. Washington was only one that could really do that.

MJT: Yeah, I don't think very many people appreciated that until after the war was over and they look back on it. But yeah, that's exactly right. So as part of the retreat from New Jersey, Lee gets captured. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? 

CM: Sure. He finally agreed to have his troops meet. Lee over to the Delaware River going very slow. And at one point, he was leading his troops. Sullivan was in the front of the army. He was in the back.  And he decided well, they're going to go on three more miles, camp there. There are no houses around. So I'm going to go to this tavern in Basking Ridge, get a good night's sleep. 

The problem in the Revolutionary War for a lot of people was that the civilians knew everything.  It was amazing what civilians knew. Word got around - Oh, the great Charles Lee is staying at you know, Widow White’s tavern. Well, some of those civilians were loyalists.  It just so happened that British dragoons sent a reconnaissance force under Earl Harcourt and Banastre Tarleton, just checking out to see where Lee's army was. Then they got this information from loyalists and changed their mission to capturing Lee.  They surrounded the tavern. There was a fierce firefight.  Two of Lee’s guards were killed, and Lee surrendered. So now he was a captive of the British and taken away to New York City and held in a two-room apartment. 

MJT: And that was a real concern for Lee. At least initially, it was unclear whether he would be charged as a traitor for deserting the British Army, and possibly executed.

CM: Yes, Lee wrote a note to General Howe, William Howe, the commander of the North American army for the British and Howe returned in addressed to “Lieutenant Colonel Lee.” So Lee said, Uh-oh, I'm in trouble now. If I'm a British officer and fighting against the crown.  But in fact, before he joined the Americans, he did resign his post.  He had a right to money too.  He gave up that when he resigned his post. So it took about eight months before the British came to that realization and relaxed his imprisonment. But before then he was held and confined in two rooms in New York City, and on a warship.

MJT: Yeah, he was held under pretty harsh circumstances the first few weeks and then they slowly gave him somewhat better accommodations although they never allowed him parole like other officers. I think they considered him too valuable a prisoner to risk.

CM: Right. But they did, as I say in the “Kidnapping the Enemy” book, talking about the treatment of officers. Both sides - if a British respected the Americans as officers, they let him roam around New York City. You had to go back to the house at night, but during the day you go anywhere you wanted. Same in Boston, there'd be British officers roaming around.  Drove patriots crazy. Officers could be trusted. The rank and file, of course, in New York City were held in these awful, terrible prison ships and sugar houses and died by the thousands.

MJT: Yeah, that was horrific. That was where there were more American casualties than anywhere else. 

CM: Right. 

MJT: So while Lee is in captivity, he apparently seems to ingratiate himself with his captors by talking strategy. You want to talk about that a little bit?

CM: Yeah, some might call it treason as well.

MJT: They might.

CM: Yeah, after about two months, he suddenly submits this plan to his captor, Henry Strachey, who's the Secretary to Lord Richard Howe, and also the Secretary to the Royal Commissioners. The Howe brothers called themselves royal commissioners in their capacities as peace negotiators. 

He wrote an eight page letter unsigned, because he didn't want anyone to know it was him. But clearly, his handwriting is definitely his.  No historians said it was not his, and I've checked it myself. Also, the whole document contains a lot of thoughts he held for 15 months in captivity. It wasn't just a mere lark.  A lot of historians treat this as a mere lark and pass over it in a paragraph or less. But in fact, I think it's pretty serious and definitely treason. 

He said, I don't think Americans can win the war. He lost confidence in Washington. Of course, who was the next best general? Himself, and he's in jail. So he said, I don't think the Americans can win.  They need to renounce the Declaration of Independence, and return to crown rule. And the British - they're spending their money and suffering loss of lives needlessly. Let's negotiate an end of the war, I will help do that. And he also then writes a plan about how the British can best militarily defeat the American army. Can you believe it? I guess this goes to your point. Why did the Continental Congress trust him so much, since he was such a recent transplant? So that was pretty shocking. 

MJT: I kind of wondered about his motivations with that. I mean, some apologists have said that he really was giving the British bad advice, telling him to move south, which is what Howe eventually did, and ended up getting Burgoyne’s army captured. So maybe he was just trying to lead them into that bad idea.

CM: Actually, I have a short chapter in the book on that, and discounting that view.  Howe had already planned to go to Philadelphia. And Lee knew because he just assumed, well, I'm going to start talking about your plans to invade Philadelphia.  Howe had already said, I'm going to invade Philadelphia, probably going to go by sea. So Lee didn't really tell him anything different. So the whole idea that he was misleading, is totally false. 

And what's important here is what Lee wrote in this plan is not a one-time thing. He had other meetings with senior British officials in which he said the same thing. He wrote another long letter in February, 1778, very late, saying I'm willing to be a mediator. At that point, he thought the Americans would win. Because it was after Saratoga, the great victory at Saratoga. He said, Well, the way the Americans could win is just avoid battle.  If they have to, go to the bushes -  fight guerrilla warfare.  But he still thought the American should go back to British rule. 

He held that view for 15 months. I had discovered for the first time some notes that Henry Clinton wrote of a meeting with Lee, about serving as a mediator.  I came across Parliament discussion where his uncle said, Lee says this is how you defeat the Americans. It could only have come from a British officer who spoke with Lee, and it was consistent with what Lee's position was at that time. Here is Henry Bunbury, his relation, saying this in an open parliamentary debates and it was actually published at one place in America. But fortunately for Lee, it didn't get much press. But even after he was released, he was sending letters to Clinton and a new peace commissioner who arrived at Philadelphia.  

I think he was trying to play both sides. If the British won, he would be, oh, you should treat me better because I tried to negotiate a peace.  If the Americans won, it was all secret and kept it all secret. So he could go back and rejoin the American army as its number two, which ultimately he did. 

One question is why didn't the British ever reveal it afterwards? And say “gotcha! see, this guy's really a traitor.” And I think this was a different age. Two reasons. One they’re gentlemen.  Gentlemen don't squeal on each other. Also, the British were trying to encourage American officers to end the war through negotiations. So if they started attacking people who approached them about negotiating a peaceful end of the war, then they would discourage other officers from coming in the future, and also in future wars.

MJT: I guess they could have released it at some later time if it had been to their advantage to do so.  At the time, you're right, I think they were keeping Lee in their pocket as somebody who might be able to negotiate an end to this whole mess and... 

CM: But also, they wanted to promote any other officers who might want to do the same thing. If they nailed Lee, they would have discouraged other officers from coming forward, which they desperately wanted.

MJT: I wonder how much it too was Lee's own ego in that he wanted to prove that he was an amazing strategist who could win the war for either side. And he wanted to prove it to his British companions by saying, here's what you have to do to win the war.

CM: Yeah, no doubt, he definitely had a great ego. And he liked to be the center of attention in the center of things. So this allowed him to be in the center.  Couldn't be a American general anymore, but he could be a British general!

MJT: It worked for Arnold.

CM: And compare him with Arnold, I don't think he was as bad as Arnold because Arnold, you know, took a lot of money. He fought against the Americans and he moved to England after the war. Lee did none of those things. But still, he committed treason under the law of treason. I go through the articles of war that he violated.

MJT: He was in a difficult situation. He really was of both worlds and trying to live in both of them.

CM: But he wasn't authorized by Congress to seek peace negotiations. A general is allowed to cease hostilities if he’s surrounded or something like that. But not to say that he's going to try to end the entire war without authorization from Congress. As a matter of fact, in February, one and a half months after he was captured, he wrote a letter to Congress, oh, please send to me in New York City, two or three delegates for matter of public interest. Well that could have only been negotiating an end to the war. Congress wanted nothing to do with it. They had already tried it once, and it failed.

MJT: Washington was always very careful. When anybody even talked to him about any sort of negotiations, he immediately sent them off to Congress and said, you can’t talk to me, talk to them. And I think Lee kind of, and this was one reason I think Congress never really wanted to trust him at the top job is that he always kind of had a feeling he was better than Congress. And didn't really have to listen to them if they were being idiots.

CM: Right, right. He didn't like anyone who was superior to him. He criticized all of his superiors, including the entire Congress,

MJT: As you say, in your book, Kidnapping the Enemy, Lee was eventually exchanged and returned to the Continental Army. And this was spring of '78. He returns to Valley Forge where the Continental Army is still finishing up its winter. 

A number of things happen over that winter and spring: France joins the war. Britain is reevaluating its position in the war, in light of France getting involved.  General Howe has resigned and is returning to London. 

General Clinton is taking command of the army in America, and has orders to essentially send large portions of his army to other parts of the world to start fighting the French and to abandon Philadelphia, and retrench back in New York. So, he follows orders and decides to march his men back to New York.  And the Americans have to decide how to respond to that.  Want to take up the story there?

CM: Sure. And Lee is back in command as number two. Washington has a council of war: Should we attack Clinton's army as it crosses New Jersey? And Lee leads a faction that says no. We should build a bridge of gold and let them go to New York City.  Wait until our French allies come and then we could together attack the British. And actually most officers agree with Lee, even Nathanael Greene at that point. 

British and American Movements
(from Wikimedia)
But then Washington held another conference. And it was kind of clear by Washington even asking for another conference, that he really wanted to do something.  That something, as Nathaniel Greene said, was it was more than military.  It was politics.  Von Steuben had been doing a terrific job training the troops and the Continental Army. The various states had sent more troops, more supplies.  The army was in good shape after Valley Forge. 

Washington had lost.  He lost at Brandywine.  He lost the Battle of Long Island.  He lost Germantown.  He needed a victory, something, not necessarily a total general action. But he wanted to show that, you know, the new army could stand on the same battlefield as British.  He did ultimately send 4600 troops to attack the rear of Clinton.  That was the direction. Lee was ultimately given command I won't go into - that's another long story. But he was ultimately given command with orders to attack.

MJT: I know you don't want to get into too much. But that is an interesting part of the story that Washington originally gave command to Lafayette, and Lee really didn't want any part of this. He thought this whole mission was kind of a mistake. Then, when Lafayette's marching off, Lee has second thoughts and says, Well, no, if we are going to do this, I really should be in charge.

CM: Well, as Washington kept increasing the size of the force, Lee finally said, you know, it's big enough for a senior commander like me, so I would like to command it now. And actually, it was probably a good idea. 

The first thing that Lafayette did when he got command of some of the troops was march as quickly as possible towards Clinton.  Well there are two problems. Number one, it was blazing hot, so he was exhausting his troops. Number two, he's getting really close to Clinton without any plan of defense. Clinton could have attacked him quite easily. So the rash Lafayette almost got the Continentals big trouble. 

MJT: To be fair, he's only 20 years old.  Kids do that sort of thing. 

CM: Yeah, exactly. 

MJT: Lee was trying to show some maturity, show some prudence in how to be a good commander and you don't just rush headlong with a few thousand men into the entire British Army. 

/ /

MJT: So, Clinton makes a slow march across New Jersey. The Continentals are able to catch up with them, leading to the Battle of Monmouth, which is the main topic of your book. Do you want to describe a little bit what happened there?

Battle of Monmouth (from Wikimedia)
CM: Sure. So Lee definitely intended to attack the army, British Army, there was some confusion in the American ranks. But ultimately, they all appeared out of the woods, and they saw the small rear guard of the British, and about four miles ahead were about 2000 troops under the Cornwallis, some of the best elite troops in the British Army, guards, British Light Infantry, grenadiers. And then beyond that, another the four miles, was Clinton's main force.  Lee said alright well, what we're going to do is Anthony Wayne, you kind of do a small attack against the British rearguard, trap them in place. I'm going to send some troops around the British rearguard, and we're going to trap them and pincer and capture them. So he intended to do the attack. 

He didn't know, that Clinton turned his troops around.  He saw an opportunity to finally attack the American army and he marched them as quickly as possible. A number of the troops, it was so hot that day, a number of them died of heat prostration. It was an incredible, painful march. But he got there. And Cornwallis also turned his men around. And they were all going towards Monmouth. 

And Lee said all right, I better not do that pincer movement. I better send some troops towards Monmouth. So he redirected some troops there and it looked like there was going to be a battle there. Then he sends a note to an aide says go see General Scott, Charles Scott, and  General William Maxwell. They're holding my center, tell them to stay there. So the aide goes there. They're gone! They have disappeared from the battlefield. No orders to do. It turns out Charles Scott thought that Lee was retreating when he was going toward the enemy, towards Monmouth. And he thought he should retreat too, and he convinced his senior, William Maxwell by the way, that he should retreat too. He was behind him and he ought to get out of the way. So they retreated and Lee had no idea where they were. 

That was more than half of Lee’s force, gone. Now he's about to fight Cornwallis with his great troops. Clinton has even more troops. He's outnumbered almost three to one.  He's got a ravine behind him. If his troops get stuck, trapped in that ravine, they could all be wiped out. And it was a very painful decision for him but he decided to retreat. It's not easy to retreat. It's not easy to do that. But he was a mature general and he decided that was the best course.  He did so.  It was the right call and saved a good part of the American army. 

He then set up a good delaying action at the hedgerow. The hedgerow was the main action of the battle of Monmouth, which got my longest chapter on it, very complex battle, very interesting.   The hedgerow, the Americans fought great.  They really stood toe to toe, fired ten rounds of muskets.  The artillery was blazing away. The British grenadiers and light Infantry had said there it was the most fierce firefight they'd ever faced. And so Lee did a successful retreat, didn't lose any regiments, didn't lose any flags. Everyone got over this other bridge, over the marshy western ravine. 

There Washington was approaching Perrine Ridge where he could set up a defensive post. Now the problem was that Washington came on the battlefield with the worst possible time. And everyone knows the story of Washington sees the musician, boy musician, and he says, oh, the Army's retreating. Then he sees some officers from Maxwell's regiment. And there's a: why are you retreating. I don't know why we're retreating. It's a ghost. 

One thing people don't talk about -  those were Maxwell's men.  They retreated without orders. They went through the woods. No wonder they were all a little bedraggled. And it wasn't Lee, who made them retreat. And yet they're complaining. Unfortunately, that's what Washington sees. And then there's the sharp confrontation that they have. And there was no swearing anything like that. But Washington did speak sharply to Lee.

MJT: You mentioned in the book, you think that the notion of Washington swearing was a myth made up by General Scott years later to cover up his own part in this whole mess.

CM: Oh, yeah. Scott was trying to avoid blame for the loss of the battle. So he made up this story. This was in the early 19th century. He's an older man. And a friend asks if George Washington ever swore. And reading from the book:  “Scott responded Yes, once. It was at Monmouth, on a day that would have made any man swear. Yes, sir. He swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees, charming, delightful. Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since.  Sir, on that ever-memorable day, he swore like an angel from heaven.” 

Now, Scott was not an eyewitness to this meeting. He was half a mile away with his troops. It’s a total invention. And one great thing about the book was I'm able to rely on court martial testimony about the battle. You have all this, in two weeks after the battle, all these officers are giving very detailed information about exactly what happened.  And one of the most dramatic points is the testimony about Scott and Maxwell when they decide to leave the field. 

So a lot of historians believe this. They'll say it as if it's true. It's not true. Scott in this story insulted Lee, insulted Washington by saying he swore when he didn't swear, and he insults the  Christian religion when he says that angels swear in heaven.  It’s the trifecta for Scott,

MJT: Scott is not a general you hear much about. And that's probably just as well.  He caused problems at, I believe, in Germantown too, which ended up getting Adam Stephen kicked out of the army, which was his commander of Germantown. 

CM: Yeah, he was very loyal to Washington. So that was the best thing about him from Washington’s eyes. 

MJT: Yeah, Washington actually promoted him after Monmouth. He still didn't really amount to much,

CM: right.

MJT: Scott sort of abandons the field and kind of convinces General Maxwell to abandon the field as well. They give some good reasons for it, that they felt they were in danger of being captured by the British and being surrounded.  They couldn't get back across the ravine. But Scott inexplicably doesn't even try to tell Lee what he's doing and leaves Lee to just find his main center line just vanished in empty woods. 

Washington and Lee at Monmouth

CM: Exactly. And it was he suffered no consequences. It really should have been him who would have been court martialed. But Scott got to Washington first. He wrote this memo with Anthony Wayne, who was also upset at Lee, for no good reason. Wayne said why he should have sent me more troops and I could have been aggressive. But the whole idea was for Wayne just to hold the British in place, and the main troops would go behind the rearguard and trap them. So, he was mistaken. So they both write this memo and put Le in a bad light. And then a lot of rumors immediately after the battle Oh Lee lost the best chance the American army ever had for a great victory - total nonsense.

MJT: The battle went on after that. Washington did bring up the rest of the army. They did go and they chased off the British and they declared victory at the end of the day, saying they had chased the British from the field. Now, of course, General Clinton says we never intended to keep the field. We were marching to New York and they didn't stop us. So I guess both sides declared victory in that sense. But obviously, Washington was not happy with Charles Lee's performance that day. And we end up with a court martial of General Charles Lee.

CM: And he really brought it on himself, because he wrote a very rude letter to Washington saying, you know, why did you upbraid me like that in front of everyone? I saved the American army. You're listening to these dirty earwigs, a great term, referring to Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and Anthony Wayne.

Washington wrote a letter saying it's inappropriate for you to use that tone with me. And then Lee says, well, I demand a court martial. And we'll show the country who's the best commander, you or me. So now he's making it a contest with Washington, the only one who could hold the Continental Army together. So big mistake on his part, which he, as usual, realized fairly soon.

MJT: So he does face a court martial, several months after the battle. And I believe there's three charges against him. Do you want to go through those really quickly?

CM: Sure, not attacking the enemy, retreating in the face of the enemy in an unwarranted fashion and also in an irregular fashion, and insulting the commander in chief, which he did the last one, everyone, agrees to that.  

MJT: Right, although he even defends himself there saying he just wrote to... 

CM: He was provoked.

MJT: He wrote some letters to Washington, which were insulting but weren't meant for public dissemination, that sort of thing. Clearly, he didn't have a lot of respect for Washington. But you know, you could have brought those charges three years earlier, I think or two years earlier anyway, and, and they would have been just as valid. Lee decides to defend himself at the court martial.

CM: Well, in those days, they didn't appoint the lawyers to defend the generals. So that was par for the course. He did a pretty good job defending himself, but as usual, he was too harsh in his assessments. For example, Baron von Steuben. He didn't do anything in the battle. But Lee said, Oh, he was just a distant spectator. Well, that upset von Steuben a lot. And he actually was one of several who challenged Lee to a duel after the court martial ended.

MJT: So Lee is found guilty at the court martial. And I believe he was given a one year suspension from the army.

CM: Right. And most people believe, look, he was, one year, he got that for insulting Washington. No one really believes he was guilty of not attacking the enemy or an unwarranted retreat.

MJT: Washington tended to be very forgiving of his officers when they made mistakes in the field. I think, in this case, part of it was Lee's personality. I think part of it too was Washington kind of felt Lee should have known better. Lee was a much more experienced officer than any of his other generals. And I think Washington thought he made mistakes or was overly cautious in ways that he shouldn't have been.

Washington at Monmouth (from Wikimedia)
CM: Yeah, he did. Washington didn't have the whole story. I told you the story about Scott and Maxwell leaving the field while Lee was going toward battle to attack Cornwallis.  Then suddenly he gets word that Maxwell and Scott have left the field. So Washington didn't have the whole story. What Lee should have done was after the battle, have gone to Washington and said, this is what happened. I understand you're upset, but hear me out. And I think that would have smooth things over. But Lee didn't do that. Instead, he got angry, sitting around the campfire listening to all the rumors about him and wrote some nasty letters to Washington.

MJT: But it seems like Washington went from thinking Lee as my very best general to I can't work with this man ever again.

CM: Well, Lee was the first guy to challenge Washington. The second, I should say.  Well, first. Back before he was captured and he wasn't listening to him.  Then you had the Conway Cabal at Valley Forge. That was the most serious challenge ever to Washington's leadership. And following that, now you have Charles Lee, challenging him saying who's the best general. And so I think Washington was just fed up with other officers challenging him, especially former British officers. And so Lee always had a reputation for attacking his superiors. And he was very acerbic, generally. So he started a whispering campaign against Washington, when he came to Valley Forge, that Washington knew about it.  So I think he was just fed up with Lee at that point. But I have to say, you know, he didn't show his best colors when he allowed this court martial verdict of not attacking and an unwarranted retreat to go through.

MJT: So Lee will never return to the army despite being sentenced to only a year suspension. Do you want to explain a little bit about why that happened? 

British Retreat from Monmouth (Wikimedia)
CM: Well, there was some politicking going on in Congress: hey, maybe we should make this suspension permanent. After the Congress approved the verdict, which is a whole chapter in the book. Suddenly, Lee also now is faced with different duels and threats to duels and Lee threatens to duel a South Carolinian congressman.  He actually fights a duel with John Laurens. He wrote a blistering nasty letter to Washington, addressing Washington saying why he was such a lousy general.  So why would you let Lee back into the army, in that circumstance? There was discussion, maybe we should make the suspension permanent. 

Some idiot came to leave about the time the year was about to come up and said, oh, they're discussing cutting off your money as a general. And Lee, wrote immediately, impulsively, just wrote a letter to Congress: If you think I care about money, you know, you guys are nuts and you ought to be disgraced. Anyway it was read to Congress, and they voted immediately to suspend him permanently. And then Lee immediately the next day, wrote a letter. Oh, I'm very sorry I wrote that. I was provoked and have a temper. It was too late.

MJT: So that was kind of the end of Charles Lee's career.  He retires to his estate in Virginia, and, I believe, dies shortly thereafter.

CM: Yeah, it wasn't much of a -  didn't really have much of an estate.  It was a small, decent farm, but he was a lousy farmer. I visited his house.  He only lived in about one quarter of it. And he didn't have any dividing walls in his house.  He had little chalk lines where the living room should be, and the dining room should be. And finally an insight, alright, being a tobacco farmer is not working out for me. It worked out for Washington, but not for me. So we went to Philadelphia to sell it. He met with Robert Morris, was about to sell it. 

But then he caught a disease in Philadelphia tavern, and he died in the Philadelphia tavern. He did have a pretty good burial. He was buried at Christ Church, of course, which still exists in Philadelphia, and some impressive dignitaries attended it. 

But he couldn't afford a gravestone. So a week later, somebody was saying he thought he was walking on where Lee had been buried, but there's no gravestone for him. And later, they were going to put a road in where he had been buried. So they moved his body closer to the church. There is a memorial that a lead biographer, Samuel Patterson did that you can see at the Christ Church in the entrance to the main door. 

I wouldn't mind seeing a statue to Charles Lee in the Battle of Monmouth Battlefield Park. There's one of von Steuben, who was a distant spectator.  Von Steuben deserved it because of his great training of the troops and they fought very well at the battle. But I think Lee ought to have one. Let's have a campaign to get statue for Lee, or at least a boot. You remember how Arnold got a boot?

MJT: Certainly Lee's most famous moment if not his best. So I mean, the impression I get from your book is Lee had a lot of personality problems which made problems for him as a general but that he really kind of got a raw deal in the court martial.

CM: He was a good general on the field. The problem was most of the time he was not on the field. But he definitely got a raw deal in the court martial.  And also the, you know, let's talk about the verdict of history. Most of the popular historians say that he ruined a good chance for a big victory for the Continentals. And he should take the blame. No, that's not what happened. So we ought to not say that anymore, not write it anymore, not quote Charles Scott’s story anymore.  Let's get to the real story.

MJT: Yeah, I don't think there was ever any thought that they were going to crush the British Army in this battle.

CM: No, what Washington wanted to do is to attack the rearguard.  He did not want a general action. If you look at his language, he didn't want to risk a general action. But he did want the rearguard to be attacked and give them a nice charge, kind of thing. He wanted to show that the American troops could stand on the battlefield, at least with some of these soldiers. So no, he was not looking for a big general action.

MJT: I think he mostly wanted to show off his army and see if all that work they did at Valley Forge training troops paid off or not.  Impress some of the politicians who were still thinking what's Washington really ever done for us on the battlefield?

CM: Without risking the entire army, as the French were about to show up.

MJT: And that was Lee's main concern and Washington's as well, which was, whatever you do, don't get the entire Continental Army captured or even a huge chunk of it, because the French were about to arrive. And that's when we're really going to do something.

CM: Right. 

MJT: With so many of these characters, there's, you know, it's not a black and white issue.  Lee did not appear impressive on the battlefield. He didn't do anything gallant, he didn't make a great charge. And I think that's what Washington wanted to see. But at the same time, he did what he thought he had to do, which was protect the army from capture, protect it from becoming a complete disaster. And in that sense, I think he did what he needed to do that day. 

CM: Yeah, he might have done a charge if Scott and Maxwell had held their ground. That's where he was going.

MJT: I think it was Napoleon who said I'd rather have a general who's lucky than good. So much of it comes down to luck.  Generals sometimes do really stupid things, and it works out really well. And people say it wasn't that general brilliant for defying convention and trying this maneuver. But it just easily could have gone very badly. And then they would have said, Well, why did this idiot defy convention and try this stupid maneuver?

CM I mean, the fact was, Lee never commanded an army of more than a couple thousand men before in battle. This was his first time. So he had learning to do too.

MJT: And I don't think he even commanded division in the Continental Army, at least not since he returned from being a prisoner of war, right? He was not permanently in charge of any particular division of the army.

CM: He was in Boston.  He had the troops at White Plains that he held back, about 4000. But in battle no.  He never, even French and Indian War, never commanded more than a few hundred troops.

MJT: And when he returned to command at Monmouth, he was, he had been a prisoner for many months. So he really didn't have a familiarity with the officers and men who made up the army at the time, he was basically coming in as a stranger almost to this army.

CM: That’s right, that was one of the problems, the communication, definitely a problem.  He didn't appreciate that some of these generals were gaining experience, like Nathanael Greene, Anthony Wayne, and some others.

MJT: He didn't maintain control of the battlefield and of his field officers like he should have.  Now we can say there's good reasons why he couldn't do that. But, in the end, he didn’t. And history will always be rather harsh when you you don't succeed and exceed everyone's expectations on the field. But yeah, it was a really interesting story. And I'm glad we could talk about it. 

You've worked on a lot of really interesting books.  Where do you do most of your research? Does it come from primary sources? or working with a lot of other books? Or where does it come from?

CM: Yeah, I try to really rely on primary sources. I think in my Battle of Rhode Island book, I had 136 pages of footnotes, almost all primary sources. But a lot of primary sources you can get these days, because of the internet and books that are out of copyright are on the internet, you can have access to a lot of those in the 1860s to 1920s. There were a lot of journals, written correspondence published, excuse me, journals published. So those are original sources that you can rely on. And also, in this book, of course, I relied a lot on court martial records, and they’re a terrific resource as you really get into the details, and you really get people's thought process, get inside their minds. But there's the standard as well. The William Clements library is a great place for British records officers, then you find stuff all over the place.

MJT: So are you working on any new projects these days?

CM: I am, but I might have to harm you if I told you. 

MJT: Oh, okay!

One thing I like to do is I like to write books on new subjects that hadn't been written about, you know, I'm not going to write the 10th book on the Battle of Saratoga or the 20th biography of one of the leading generals. So I'd like to write stuff on something new and this new one I have is definitely no one's ever come close to this one so.

MJT: Can you least tell us if it's American Revolution related? 

CM: It is. 

MJT: Okay, good. Well, we look forward to that then. 

CM: Thank you. 

MJT: Well, Christian McBurney, it's been a pleasure to have you today. I really appreciate it. I think this was a really good talk and I appreciate your time.

CM: Thank you, Michael. Pleasure to be here.

- - -

Further Reading:

For more on this topic, please read Christian McBurney's latest book: 

George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War.

Savas Beatie, 2020.

Online Resources:

Author website:

McBurney explores the history of Rhode Island at his site:

Dispatches Podcast, McBurney discusses Charles Lee’s decision to impose an oath of allegiance on the people of Newport, June 28, 2020:

Related article about Charles Lee and the Oath at Newport from the Journal of the American Revolution, May 5, 2020:

“Colonel Henry Jackson Accused by his Junior officers of Misconduct at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse” Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 5, 2020

“Top Ten Quotes of Major General Charles Lee” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 20, 2020

“The Battle of Bennett’s Island:  The New Jersey Site Rediscovered” Journal of the American Revolution, July 10, 2017:

“Was Richard Stockton a Hero?” Journal of the American Revolution, July 18, 2016

“The Culper Spy Ring Was not the First to Warn the French at Newport” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec. 9, 2014:

“Ann Bates: British Spy Extraordinaire” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec. 1, 2014:

“Why Did a Boston Mob Kill a French Officer?” Journal of the American Revolution, Oct 23, 2014:

“Presentation Swords for 10 Revolutionary War Heroes” Journal of the American Revolution, May 16, 2014:

“‘Strange Mismanagement’ The Capture of HMS SyrenJournal of the American Revolution, April 10, 2014:

“The Experience of New London Tories and Quakers” Journal of the American Revolution, February 17, 2014:

“Bushnell’s Mine Nearly Sinks a Ship” Journal of the American Revolution, Feb 4, 2014:

“The Plot to Kidnap Schuyler” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan 16, 2014:

“Washington Authorizes Plan to Kidnap Future King” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan 8, 2014:

“Mutiny! American Mutinies in the Rhode Island Theater of War, September 1778-July 1779.” Rhode Island History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2011), pages 47-72

“Cato Pearce’s Memoir: A Rhode Island Slave Narrative.” Rhode Island History, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2009), pages 3-25.

“The South Kingstown Planters: Country Gentry in Colonial Rhode Island.” Rhode Island History, Vol. 45, No. 3 (August 1986), pages 81-93.

“The Accidental Killing of Simeon Tucker During the Revolutionary War.”  Pettaquamscutt Historical Society newsletter, April 2014.

“The Plot to Kidnap Washington, The Brazen Mission that Could Have Changed the Course of the Revolutionary War” MHQ magazine (June 2017, cover article)

Other Books by Christian McBurney:
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War, 2011.

Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, 2013.

Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island, 2014

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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