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 www.smallstatebighistory.com.
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.
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 |
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?
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,
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.
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?
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.
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.
- - -
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.
Author website: http://christianmcburney.com
McBurney explores the history of Rhode Island at his site: http://smallstatebighistory.com
Dispatches Podcast, McBurney discusses Charles Lee’s decision to impose an oath of allegiance on the people of Newport, June 28, 2020: https://jardispatches.podbean.com/e/e72-christian-m-mcburney-general-charles-lee-imposes-an-oath-of-allegiance
Related article about Charles Lee and the Oath at Newport from the Journal of the American Revolution, May 5, 2020: https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/05/general-charles-lee-imposes-oaths-of-allegiance-on-newport-tories-1775
“Colonel Henry Jackson Accused by his Junior officers of Misconduct at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse” Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 5, 2020 https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/10/colonel-henry-jackson-accused-by-his-junior-officers-of-misconduct-at-the-battle-of-monmouth-court-house
“Top Ten Quotes of Major General Charles Lee” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 20, 2020 https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/01/top-ten-quotes-of-major-general-charles-lee
“The Battle of Bennett’s Island: The New Jersey Site Rediscovered” Journal of the American Revolution, July 10, 2017: https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/07/battle-bennetts-island-new-jersey-site-rediscovered
“Was Richard Stockton a Hero?” Journal of the American Revolution, July 18, 2016 https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/07/was-richard-stockton-a-hero
“The Culper Spy Ring Was not the First to Warn the French at Newport” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec. 9, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/12/the-culper-spy-ring-was-not-the-first-to-warn-the-french-at-newport
“Ann Bates: British Spy Extraordinaire” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec. 1, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/12/ann-bates-british-spy-extraordinaire
“Why Did a Boston Mob Kill a French Officer?” Journal of the American Revolution, Oct 23, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/10/why-did-a-boston-mob-kill-a-french-officer
“Presentation Swords for 10 Revolutionary War Heroes” Journal of the American Revolution, May 16, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/05/presentation-swords-for-ten-revolutionary-war-heroes
“‘Strange Mismanagement’ The Capture of HMS Syren” Journal of the American Revolution, April 10, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/strange-mismanagement-the-capture-of-hms-syren
“The Experience of New London Tories and Quakers” Journal of the American Revolution, February 17, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/02/the-experience-of-new-london-tories-and-quakers
“Bushnell’s Mine Nearly Sinks a Ship” Journal of the American Revolution, Feb 4, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/02/bushnells-mine-nearly-sinks-ship
“The Plot to Kidnap Schuyler” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan 16, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/plot-kidnap-schuyler
“Washington Authorizes Plan to Kidnap Future King” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan 8, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/washington-authorizes-plan-kidnap-future-king
“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 https://www.rihs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2011_SumFall.pdf
“Cato Pearce’s Memoir: A Rhode Island Slave Narrative.” Rhode Island History, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2009), pages 3-25. https://www.rihs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2009_WinSpring.pdf
“The South Kingstown Planters: Country Gentry in Colonial Rhode Island.” Rhode Island History, Vol. 45, No. 3 (August 1986), pages 81-93. https://www.rihs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/1986_Aug.pdf
“The Accidental Killing of Simeon Tucker During the Revolutionary War.” Pettaquamscutt Historical Society newsletter, April 2014. http://christianmcburney.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Simeon-Tucker-Article-Christian-McBurney.pdf
“The Plot to Kidnap Washington, The Brazen Mission that Could Have Changed the Course of the Revolutionary War” MHQ magazine (June 2017, cover article) https://www.historynet.com/plot-kidnap-washington.htm
Other Books by Christian McBurney:
(links to Amazon.com 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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