Sunday, April 11, 2021

ARP196 Rhode Island Campaign

By late summer, 1778, the British forces in North Ameirca were mostly restricted to their major garrisons on New York City and Quebec.  The next largest force in North America was in and around Newport Rhode Island.  

British Defenses 

In 1776, when General Howe ordered General Clinton to capture Newport, Clinton had been upset because it removed him from the primary campaign in New Jersey against Washington’s retreating Continentals.  After capturing Aquidneck Island, Clinton went back to London to resign his commission.  The king refused to accept his resignation and sent him back to New York City.  The British garrison in Newport came under the command of General Richard Prescott.  The Continentals managed to kidnap the general (see Episode 147) and the British sent General Robert Pigot to take command in Rhode Island.

First Rhode Island Regiment
Because soldiers were needed elsewhere, Rhode Island never really got enough soldiers to go on the offensive in New England.  Instead, they fortified Aquidneck Island and kept the waters around it as a port for the navy.  Occasionally the Americans in the surrounding areas would run minor raids against the island, but this was really just harassment.  Other than the mission to kidnap General Prescott, there was not much they could do.  Retaking Aquidneck Island without being able to control the waters around the island was just not possible.

In the spring of 1778, General Pigot ordered  a few British raids against the mainland, which I described back in Episode 185.  But again, those were day raids, designed as quick search and destroy missions, designed to be over before the enemy could respond in force. These minor raids aside, the occupation was pretty much a standoff for nearly two years, with the British in control of Aquidneck Islan and the patriots controlling the surrounding mainland.

General Pigot commanded between 2000 and 3000 British Regulars and Hessians, along with a handful of loyalist militia.  In July, before the French fleet reached New York, General Clinton sent an additional nearly 2000 regulars to Newport, under the command of General Richard Prescott.  The more senior General Pigot remained in command.  A short time later, Clinton dispatched another two regiments of Hessians.  All of these reinforcements travelled by sea and arrived via troop transports.  Rounding out Pigot’s command were Major General Francis Smith and Hessian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg.

These reinforcements put nearly 6000 soldiers under General Pigot’s command in defense of Aquidneck Island.  The British Navy still had at least a dozen smaller warships in the waters around Aquidneck in order to protect against any American assault on the island from the mainland.

American Forces

The Americans had been frustrated with this British outpost in New England.  But the Continental Navy was no match for the British, thus leading to the nearly two-year standoff.  However, until the French Navy under Admiral d’Estaing was able to threaten the British Navy  Washington saw no good chance to remove the British from Newport.

A year earlier, Washington had sent General Joseph Spencer of Connecticut to challenge the British presence in Rhode Island.  Spencer had called up New England militia for an attack on Aquidneck Island, but then cancelled the attack at the last minute fearing he had lost the element of surprise.  The Continental Congress had censored Spencer for his failure to attack.  Although a court of inquiry later exonerated the general, he resigned his commission and left the army as a result of the controversy.

 Gen. John Sullivan

Washington then sent General John Sullivan with similar orders.  Sullivan had spent several months trying to build up an assault force, but had done little other than try to parry against the British raids against the mainland.  

Washington, seeing the opportunity to use the French fleet to resolve this deadlock, sent his aide, Alexander Hamilton, to meet with Admiral d’Estaing at Sandy Hook, at the southern end of New York Harbor.  Hamilton, who spoke fluent French, advised d’Estaing of Washington’s plan to capture Newport with the French Navy’s assistance.  The French admiral set sail for Rhode Island. 

At the same time, Washington sent Sullivan about 2500 Continental reinforcements, as well as Generals Lafayette and Greene.  Nathanael Greene was, of course, from Rhode Island.  Even though he was serving as Quartermaster of the army at this time, Washington hoped his presence in the military command would help inspire local militia to turn out.  The bulk of the Continental army remained at White Plains, New York, just north of New York City, and perhaps a week’s march from Newport.  Washington was not going to break his siege of British-occupied New York.  His position north of the city also prevented Clinton from trying to march any British reinforcements overland to Rhode Island.

Washington had called on Sullivan to raise 5000 New England militia to supplement his army, but to keep secret the involvement of the French fleet.  Washington hoped to keep that a secret from the British.  Sullivan had difficulty getting the militia to turn out in great numbers until the actual arrival of the French fleet on July 29.  Buoyed by the presence of the fleet, New England militia began making their way to the Continental camp. 

Congress also ordered three Continental Navy ships in Boston to work with d’Estaing’s fleet. Two of the ships could not muster enough sailors to leave port.  All of the sailors were serving aboard privateers.  A third ship, the 32 gun Warren, did manage to leave port.  However, Captain John Burroughs Hopkins, much like his father, the now-disgraced Commodore Esek Hopkins, opted to disobey orders and set out in search of a merchant fleet sailing from Ireland to New York City.

Narragansett Bay

Washington’s aide, Colonel John Laurens, had been attached to General Sullivan for the campaign.  Laurens received Sullivan’s instructions and then waited for the French fleet.  When it arrived at Point Judith at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Laurens, who also spoke French fluently, met with Admiral d’Estaing.

The meeting did not go particularly well.  Laurens informed d’Estaing that Sullivan only had about 1600 soldiers ready to go.  He was still awaiting the arrival of the Continental reinforcements under Lafayette and Greene.  He was also still awaiting the arrival of most of the New England militia. D’Estaing also learned that the British had destroyed most of the Continental boats in their May raids.  Sullivan wanted to wait for the arrival of more reinforcements and the manufacture of more boats before he could begin an assault. The French fleet should guard the entrance into Narragansett Bay and await further instructions.

Admiral d'Estaing

The French were not happy about having to wait. It would simply give the British time to improve their defenses.  There was also the danger that the British could send a relief fleet before the French and Americans could take out the defenders.  Also, the French sailors and soldiers aboard the ships had not been ashore since sailing from France.  The men were suffering from scurvy and lack of fresh water.  On top of all that, d’Estaing was perturbed that General Sullivan was issuing orders to him like he was some subordinate officer.

The British did, in fact, take advantage of the delay.  The French fleet was much larger than the small British contingent of ships around Newport.  Admiral Howe had issued orders to make sure the British ships were not captured.  The British Navy unloaded and scuttled the ships in Narragansett Bay, where they would serve as obstacles to an advance by the French fleet.  The crews mounted the cannons in batteries around the various islands in Narragansett Bay, prepared to contest any French advance.

The day after his arrival, d’Estaing sent two of his ships into Narragansett, to the west side of Conanicut Island, which sat west of Aquidneck Island.  The British defenders on Conanicut spiked their cannons, blew up their powder magazine and retreated to Aquidneck.  The following day, the French landed a small party and raised the French flag on Conanicut. A couple of days later, they placed their own cannons on the island to cover the entrance to Newport Harbor.  They did not land in force though, fearing a British counterattack would lead to the soldiers being trapped on the island.

French ships also attacked several British warships that were still unloading onto Aquidneck.  The British abandoned their ships and set them on fire, their primary goal, keeping the ships from falling into the hands of the French.

On August 1, General Sullivan came aboard the Languedoc to meet personally with Admiral d’Estaing.  The leaders agreed that, once they were ready, the Continentals would land on Aquidneck from their bases on the mainland east of the island.  The French would land on the west coast at the same time.

The French also landed some of their sick, to be cared for on the mainland, turned over several hundred prisoners from prize ships to be held as American prisoners, and sent to Boston nine prize ships that they had captured since leaving France.

On August 3, two small British ships took advantage of the fog and sailed past the French fleet into Newport. They carried word from Admiral Howe that he was assembling a relief fleet.  With that, General Pigot ordered several remaining ships to put their cannons back aboard in order to protect Aquidneck from any attack before the British relief fleet arrived.

The French, seeing these ships back in position, came after them.  After trying to sail away from the French, the British commanders ordered their ships set on fire and destroyed them.

General Pigot became convinced that the French were planning to assault Newport.  The British commander attempted to enlist more local loyalists, even slaves, to assist in the town’s defense. Most locals, however, did not like British chances and did not want to be captured on the losing side of the battle.  Pigot also virtually abandoned the northern part of Aquidneck Island, concentrating his forces and supplies in the area immediately around Newport on the south of the island.

American Assault

In response to the call for militia, Massachusetts had called up about 3000 soldiers.  Of these, about 1000 were already in the field and had their terms extended.  Another 2000 were drafted and sent marching.  Connecticut only sent a mere 500 soldiers, leaving another 4000 militia in the state to protect against any British invasion from Long Island.  New Hampshire neglected to send any militia, despite New Hampshire General Sullivan’s command.  Rhode Island called about 3000 militia, but only for fifteen day’s service.  Officials were concerned about getting men home in time for harvest.

1778 French Map of the Area Around Aquidneck Island
In addition to the militia and the 2500 Continentals still making their way from White Plains, Sullivan also had command of several regiments of state regulars: the First and Second Rhode Island regiments, two Massachusetts Regiments, and one regiment from New Hampshire.  Massachusetts also sent a regiment of artillery.  

By the first week of August, the bulk of the American forces had arrived.  The Rhode Island militia were some of the last, given that they did not bother to muster until August 6.  The other delay was a lack of boats to transport the army to Aquidneck Island.  Sullivan did not get authorization to pay for replacement boats until July 20.  Now he was rushing to buy, borrow, or build enough flat bottomed boats to transport his army.  By August 8 though, Sullivan had the fleet that he thought he needed.

With his forces ready, Sullivan called on d’Estaing to attack Aquidneck island as a feint to draw off British defenders, thus making the main American landing on the other side of the island easier.  The French leader, once again offended by Sullivan giving French forces a secondary role, insisted that both armies land simultaneously.

In point of fact though, although d’Estaing claimed to have 4000 French forces, he had only had about 1000 regular soldiers and 1600 marines.  The remainder of his forces were 1400 sailors who were not even armed with guns.  Much of his crew was also too sick for battle.  To supplement the French forces, Sullivan sent Lafayette commanding 300 Continentals and 900 militia to land with the French. 

Lafayette did not actually arrive until August 7.  Sullivan had planned the attack for August 8.  However most of his expected militia was still a day or two away.  He delayed the attack until August 10.  Even so, d’Estaing sailed several of his larger ships past Newport on the 8th, forcing the British to burn two more of their ships to avoid risk of capture.  Pigot also recalled the remainder of British soldiers from the northern part of the island, completely abandoning his defenses there.

On the morning of August 9, the day before the planned invasion, Sullivan called a council of war to discuss overnight intelligence that the British had abandoned their defenses on the northern part of the island. The council agreed to begin the landing right way, before the British thought better of their decision to withdraw, and returned.  

Sullivan sent a messenger to inform d’Estaing, while he deployed the First Rhode island Regiment to land and confirm the intelligence.  When the intelligence proved true, Sullivan began landing in full force.  The French had begun landing soldiers on Conanicut Island that same morning.  They planned to cross over to Aquidneck the following day.  About this time, d’Estaing received Sullivan’s message that he was already landing and inviting the French to move up their assault on Aquidneck.  The French landing force, mostly on Conanicut Island by this time, prepared to move on Aquidneck in the afternoon.

British Fleet

As the French prepared for their landing, d’Estaing received word of a fleet appearing in Narragansett Bay.  Fearful of the arrival of a large fleet from England, d’Estaing halted the French landing and began recalling his forces back to the fleet.  

As it turned out, the British ships were part of a fleet that Admiral Howe had cobbled together from ships arriving in New York Harbor.  Howe had been waiting for a larger fleet under the command of Admiral John Byron.  By August 6, Howe had eight ships of the line, seven smaller ships with at least 44 guns each, and a flotilla of smaller ships.  Howe figured that even if he could not defeat the French fleet decisively, it was better to go disrupt the assault on Newport than to await the arrival of the rest of the fleet. 

That night, under cover of darkness, d’Estaing took his fleet out of the narrow channels, preparing to sail into the open sea, where the large ships had a much greater advantage against the British.  The admiral hoped he could defeat the British fleet before more reinforcements arrived, then return to assist with the assault on Aquidneck.

Howe’s smaller fleet, having succeeded in drawing the French away from Newport, tried to get the best position upwind from the enemy before engaging.  The French pursued the British, who managed to keep their distance for the rest of the day. 

The next morning, the two fleets resumed the chase, but also noticed that the wind had picked up considerably.  Over the course of the day, the winds got worse, along with heavy rain and fog.  The storm was the remainder of a hurricane making its way up the east coast.  By evening, both fleets gave up the idea of battle and focused on riding out the storm.

Over the next two days, General Howe’s fleet got scattered, with several ships losing their masts and taking other damage.  The French also took serious damage and were scattered.  The Languedoc, d’Estaing’s flagship, not only lost several of its masts, but also broke its rudder, leaving the crew unable to steer.  On the morning of August 13, with the storm having passed, the smaller British ship, the Renown spotted the Languedoc and attacked.  Normally, the larger French ship would have had a clear advantage.  But after realizing the amount of damage, the Renown moved in to attack.  The French managed to keep the enemy at bay for most of the day, and overnight was able to signal other French ships to join her and chase away the British attacker.

Two British ships also attacked the damaged Marseilles.  But the larger French ship of the line managed to get off several broadsides despite damage to her masts, and chased off the British attackers.  Several other engagements took place as the damaged ships on both sides struggled to regroup their fleets.

Battle of Rhode Island

As the fleets struggled at sea, Sullivan’s forces dug in on the heights on the northern part of Aquidneck Island.  Sullivan had over 10,000 soldiers on the island  The army had to hunker down and endure the same storm that had hit the fleets at sea.  Soldiers’ tents were blown away and everyone was soaked.  Most of the gunpowder was ruined by water, making any battle plan much more difficult.

By the morning of August 15, the army had recovered sufficiently from the storm to begin moving south toward the British lines around Newport.  The Americans moved within a mile of the British.  Then, over the next couple of nights, moved within a few hundred yards, in artillery range of the lines.

The British defenses were formidable.  The reason that Pigot had given up the northern part of the island without a fight was so that he could concentrate his forces on entrenched heights just north of Newport.  The British laid out two lines, with water protecting their flanks and artillery covering the open fields that the Americans would have to cross.

The Americans outnumbered the British probably by two to one.  Sullivan tried to bait the British into leaving their lines to advance on the Americans, but Pigot remained safely inside his defensive perimeter.  For several days, the two sides just traded artillery fire, each side waiting for their navy to return.

On August 20th the British garrison happily caught sight of the British ship Senegal returning to Narragansett Bay.  Their hopes were dashed after learning that the Senegal was now a prize ship under French control.  Several other ships from the French fleet soon appeared.  They were badly damaged, but the French were returning to Narragansett, not the British.  If the French controlled the waters around Newport, the British could only hold out for a short time before inevitably having to surrender.  Their only hope was that a British fleet would arrive before they reached the end of their supplies.

The Americans appeared to be on the verge of victory.  Then, the Senegal landed a messenger at Point Judith with a message for General Sullivan.  D’Estaing informed Sullivan that the fleet was too badly damaged and that they were leaving right away, headed to Boston for repairs.  Sullivan immediately dispatched General Lafayette, General Greene, and Colonel John Langdon to persuade d'Estaing to remain.  The fleet’s presence, even for a few days, might be enough to convince the British garrison to surrender.  If d’Estaing could deploy his 4000 French troops onto the island, it would either convince Pigot to surrender, or at least divide his defensive lines, making an American attack more likely to prevail.

D’Estaing, however, would not be swayed.  His fleet was too badly damaged to do any good.  His lookouts had identified a few British ships of the line which they knew were part of Byron’s relief fleet.  The French did not want to get caught in Narragansett Bay facing a superior force, especially with their ships in such poor condition.  On the evening of August 21, the French fleet set sail for Boston.

With the French departure, Sullivan saw the American victory slip away.  He had already had to deal with several hundred militia leaving the island when their 15-day enlistments ended.  These were draftees, not volunteers.  Nothing would compel them to remain a minute longer than required.  Sullivan faced the imminent departure of all of the 3000 Rhode Island militia.  The other soldiers remaining were demoralized by the abandonment of the French fleet.  Following another council of war, the Americans withdrew back to the northern end of the island, where they occupied the defensive heights there.

Upon receiving word from Washington that a fleet of over 100 ships was gathering in Long Island Sound, likely a relief force for Newport, Sullivan began removing his supplies, heavy equipment, and some of his larger artillery off Aquidneck Island and back to the mainland.

By the evening of August 28th , the Continentals had completely evacuated their lines in front of Newport.  The British sent out two divisions, under General Von Lossberg and General Smith, to move to the northern part of the island and test the American lines.  The Americans held stiff resistance on fighting at Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill.  The back and forth fighting cost the Americans about 200 casualties, with the British and Hessian attackers taking about 260.  The British, back in control of the waters, brought up several frigates to support the attack. On the night of August 30, the Americans abandoned their position entirely on the island and rowed back across to Tiverton to take up defensive positions on the mainland.


With that withdrawal, the situation pretty much returned to the status quo.  The British held Aquidneck Island while the Americans remained across the water on the mainland.  The militia returned to their homes and the standoff remained.  The morning after the withdrawal, a 70-ship British relief fleet was spotted off Point Judith.  The British, once again, took control of the waters around Aquidneck Island.  

In the days following the French withdrawal, an angry General Sullivan and his officers hurled invectives and the French, the 18th Century equivalent of cheese eating surrender monkeys.  General Lafayette nearly got drawn into several duels while trying to defend the honor of his home country.  Some feared that the angry words might damage the new French alliance.  Sullivan had to put out a public declaration praising the efforts of the French.  The Continental Congress praised both the efforts of the Americans and the French.  The diplomatic statements papered over the hard feelings.  But once again, the Americans had failed to take their intended target.

Next week: we head back to upstate New York where battles still rage with the Indians and Loyalists at at Cobleskill and German Flatts.

- - -

Next Episode 197 Battle of German Flatts (Available April 18, 2021)

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Further Reading


Battle of Rhode Island:

The Battle of Rhode Island:

Battle of Rhode island:

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 22 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 27 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 28 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 10 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 17 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 19 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 21 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 29 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 1 September 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 3 September 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Defense Technical Information Center Hearts and Minds: The Political and Military Effectiveness of the Rhode Island Militia in the American Revolution, 1992. 

Durfee, Joseph  Reminiscences of Col. Joseph Durfee: Relating to the Early History of Fall River and of Revolutionary Scenes, 1834 (from Harvard Univ. Library). 

Field, Edward Revolutionary Defences in Rhode Island; an historical account of the fortifications and beacons erected during the American revolution, with muster rolls of the companies stationed along the shores of Narragansett Bay, Providence, R.I., Preston and Rounds, 1896.  

Munro, Wilfred H. The History of Bristol, R.I: The Story of the Mount Hope Lands, Providence: J. A. & R. A. Reid, 1880. 

Murray, Thomas H. Gen. John Sullivan and the Battle of Rhode Island: a Sketch of the Former and a Description of the Latter, Providence : The American-Irish Historical Society, 1902.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Crane, Elain F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era, Fordham Univ. Press, 1985.

Dearden, Paul F The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778: Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance, Rhode Island Bicentennial Federation, 1980. 

McBurney, Christian M. Kidnapping the Enemy, The Special Operations to Capture General Charles Lee and Richard Prescott,  Westholme Publishing, 2014.

McBurney, Christian M.  The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War, Westholme Publishing (book recommendation of the week).

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

ARP195 Courts Martial of Lee, St. Clair, & Schuyler

When the Second Continental Congress created the Continental army in 1775, it appointed Charles Lee as the number three commander, behind only George Washington and Artemas Ward.  General Ward had commanded the New England Army prior.  As a lieutenant colonel in the British Regulars, and who had served as a general in other European armies, Lee seemed to be the most experienced officer in the new Continental Army.  Many thought he would be a better commander than George Washington.  Lee certainly counted himself among that group.

When the British captured General Lee in late 1776, many on both sides thought the war was finished. The Americans had lost their only general with any real experience.  The army, however, managed to struggle on.  When Lee returned to the army after being exchanged in the spring of 1778, he returned to a much different army.  The generals, who had only been militia commanders at the beginning of the war, by 1778 had nearly three years of combat experience.  The soldiers had received training under General von Steuben at Valley Forge. They looked and felt much more like a professional army.

Lee’s time in British captivity was perhaps responsible for the fact that he did not appreciate the changes that had taken place.  He was unwilling to concede the idea that perhaps he was not head and shoulders above all the other Continental officers.

Lee Bungles Monmouth

As we heard in Episode 188, Lee opposed Washington’s wish to attack the British as they retreated from Philadelphia to New York in June of 1778.  Washington, however, not quite as star-struck as he once was by Lee’s military experience, proceeded with the attack anyway. He put General Lafayette in command of the lead force and followed behind himself with the rest of the army.

Not wanting to be left out of the action, Lee requested that he be given command of the advance force that he had refused to take earlier.  Washington acceded to this request and General Lee led the army into an attack at Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey.

On the morning of June 28th, General Lee moved forward with his army to confront the British rearguard.  Within hours though, Lee and his army were in full retreat.  General Washington was stunned to see his army running away from what had not even really become a battle yet.  The usually imperturbable Washington was, well, perturbed.  He angrily confronted Lee on the field.  A stunned Lee said almost nothing.  Washington asserted command of the field and battled the British army for the rest of the day.

Lee Court Martial

When the fighting ended at Monmouth, Lee had to defend his actions.  After a loss in battle, or even poor performance in a winning battle, it was not unusual for officers to face court martial or at least some formal inquiry.  Major General John Sullivan had recently faced a court martial and been acquitted for his actions at Brandywine.  In many cases generals requested, or even demanded, a court martial in order to dispel lingering doubts or derogatory gossip about their performance.

Charles Lee

That said, the consequences of a court martial could be pretty serious.  Congress had recently cashiered Major General Adam Stephen for his less than stellar performance at Germantown a few months earlier. Some articles of war called for the death penalty.  Although no Continental generals were executed during the war, Admiral John Byng of the British Navy faced a firing squad twenty years prior for failing to do his utmost before the enemy at Minorca. Lee could have faced similar charges that carried the death penalty.  Things, however, did not go that far for him.

Lee actually did request court martial, although I think that was in the heat of the moment.  He probably regretted doing so shortly thereafter.  Rather than work out the matter with the commander, Lee chose to make the dispute into a contest with Washington to decide who was a better military commander.  

When the court convened several weeks after the battle of Monmouth, General Alexander, Lord Stirling, served as presiding officer of the court martial. Stirling was also known to be a Washington loyalist.  Stirling had been the first officer to alert Washington to the Conway Cabal and had helped him put down that attempt to replace the commander.

Normally, then as now, a court martial would consist of officers who were more senior than the accused. However, since George Washington was the only commander senior to Lee (General Ward had already retired), that was impossible.  In fact, several brigadiers and colonels sat on the court martial.

The prosecutor was John Laurence the same man who had ended General Adam Stephen’s career at a court martial a few months earlier.  As was the norm, General Lee defended himself, without counsel.

Charges Against Lee

The court considered three charges against Lee: 1. Disobeying orders to attack the enemy, 2. Misbehavior before the enemy, in making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat, and 3. Disrespect to the commander-in-chief, in two letters written after the battle.

Lee defended himself reasonably well. The first charge, disobeying orders to attack, seemed to come from the idea that Washington had ordered this attack and that Lee was opposed.  Nevertheless, Lee took command but then failed to make any serious attack after advancing toward the enemy. 

Gen. Lee with dog
As a legal charge against him, however, this did not stand.  First, Washington never gave Lee absolute orders to attack. As Washington always did, he left his field commander with discretion to use his best judgment based on the situation that he found on the field.  As Lee put it:  “to disobey discretionary orders . . . is as absolutely impossible as to kill a dead man.”  In other words, discretionary orders permitted him to use his discretion.

The second charge of making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat came from the notion that Washington had come across men streaming away from the enemy and no one seemed to know what was happening.

There was a rather disorderly retreat that day, but Lee probably was not responsible for it.  General Charles Scott who was in charge of the center of the Continental line seemed to think that Lee was retreating, when in fact Lee was advancing.  Scott then ordered his men to retreat and convinced his superior, Gen. William Maxwell to join the retreat.  By the time Lee discovered that the center of his line was missing, he had no choice but to retreat himself or have his army captured by a superior force.

The third charge, disrespect to the commander in chief.  Was probably the easiest to prove.  First, Lee had been rather disrespectful to Washington almost since the beginning.  Lee was always disrespectful to all of his superior officers, even when he served in the British regular army.  It was common practice for officers to indicate they could do a better job than those above them.  That was the path to promotion.  But such criticism required a certain amount of subtlety and respect shown to their superiors while they were doing it.  Lee had a real problem with subtlety.

Lee argued that the two disrespectful letters that he had sent to Washington after the battle were a response to the unfounded charges against him.  He believed that he had a right to be indignant at the accusations and basically asked for some understanding at his temper tantrum.

Lee Found Guilty

The trial took several weeks and had to be adjourned and restarted several times as the army moved.  It concluded in mid-August with a finding that Lee was guilty on all three counts.  The court martial ordered that Lee be suspended from service for one year.  Experts have noted that the one-year suspension is rather light given the charges.  General Adam Stephen was cashiered for less, only a few months earlier.  Theoretically, the charges against Lee could have carried the death penalty.  

Many historians believe that the court found Lee guilty on all three charges, mostly out of loyalty to Washington, but that the punishment was really, just for the third charge, disrespect of the commander.  Since Washington was an interested party to the trial, he did not approve the finding himself.  Instead, he forwarded the results to the Continental Congress for approval.  A few months later, Congress upheld the conviction and the penalty.  The matter was of great debate and delegates were divided, many opposed to Lee’s conviction.  But in the end, Congress opted to back Washington.  Lee returned home to Virginia.

In the end, the punishment seemed to be less about Lee’s performance at Monmouth, and more about his unwillingness to show deference to the commander-in-chief.  Washington was still working to solidify his command following the Conway Cabal.  He needed to establish his authority over the army.  He was still contending with General Horatio Gates.  General Conway had only resigned a few months earlier.  Washington could not add Lee to his list of opponents among his top commanders.

Lee-Laurens Duel

Following the suspension, Lee did not learn his lesson. He continued to try to justify his actions by bad mouthing Congress and Washington.  He published his defenses in the newspapers.  These caused great offense to a number of other officers.

John Laurens
Washington’s aide, Colonel John Laurens, challenged Lee to a duel for the attack on the commander in chief.  The two men fought a duel on Christmas Eve, 1778, with Colonel Alexander Hamilton serving as Laurens’ second. Laurens wounded Lee on the first shot.  Lee said the wound was minor and called for a second round of firing.  However, the seconds at the duel managed to calm tensions and ended the duel.

Lee also nearly got into duels with Generals Wilhelm von Steuben and Anthony Wayne.  Lee, however, manages to calm tempers with those to men and avoided appearing on the field of honor with either of them.

Lee even challenged a member of the Continental Congress, Charles Drayton of South Carolina, to a duel.  The two men had a bad history, and Drayton had repeated the accusations made against Lee at the court martial.  Drayton however, demurred and did not accept Lee’s challenge.

Lee Resigns

Despite the duels, Lee continued to write publicly attacking Washington and other leaders during his one-year suspension.  A year later, as his suspension was coming to an end, Congress proposed terminating Lee’s services permanently.  The motion was close, but failed.  Lee, however, heard about the motion and dashed off an angry letter to Congress, including an offer to resign. 

A few days later, Lee thought better of his angry letter, and wrote back saying that he had been intemperate and wished not to resign.  The letters, however, convinced Congress that Lee had not learned his lesson, and would never show the proper respect for Washington or Congress. The delegates voted to accept Lee’s resignation and terminate his services in the Continental Army.

St. Clair Court Martial

When the army concluded the Lee court martial, it turned its attention to two other major generals who were still facing judgment.  The loss of Fort Ticonderoga a year earlier, without a shot fired, had resulted in great indignation, particularly in Congress, for the military commanders in charge at the fort.  Arthur St. Clair, who had been in command of the fort and who had ordered the retreat, said at the time that he had to choose between saving his reputation and saving his army.  He chose the latter, but then had to deal with the blow to his reputation.  Philip Schuyler, who had been in command of the Northern Army at the time, also had to answer for the command decisions that led to the loss of Fort Ticonderoga.

Arthur St. Clair

In August 1778, a court martial took up the matter of St. Clair.  The tone of this court martial seemed to be very different than that of General Lee’s.  One of the big differences was that St. Clair still had General Washington’s support. 

Up until the loss of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, St. Clair had been an up and coming officer in the Continental army.  He had served as a captain in the British regulars during the French and Indian War, and had been an early supporter of the patriot cause in Pennsylvania.  St. Clair did not receive a commission in the Continental Army until August of 1776, when Pennsylvania began to send significant numbers of soldiers to the Continental Army, which was by that time in New York. 

His leadership in the New York campaign and the Princeton campaign led to his promotion to major general less than a year later.  His independent command at Fort Ticonderoga in mid-June, 1777 was a sign of confidence in this up and coming officer. Three weeks later, St. Clair believed his military career was over as his men marched away from the fort, escaping the British attackers under General Burgoyne.

Since that time, St. Clair did not receive another command.  He remained with Washington at Valley Forge, advising the commanders and serving as a staff officer.  However, he remained under a cloud for his actions at Ticonderoga.  Unlike the Lee court martial, which began just a few days after the battle of Monmouth, St. Clair’s fate lingered with Congress for a year.  In August 1777, Congress formed a committee to investigate what happened. That committee reported in February, 1778.  Then there were a series of other delays so that Congress did not direct that Washington conduct the court martials until June of 1778.  By that time, Washington was in the middle of planning his attack on the British who were retreating from Philadelphia. Following the battle of Monmouth, Washington wanted to get the Lee trial done first, before finally giving the court time to begin St. Clair’s trial in August.

General Benjamin Lincoln presided over the court martial, which took place in New York.  At the time, the Continentals were besieging British occupied New York City.  Lincoln had received his appointment as a major general on the same day as General St. Clair.  He had been among the officers who took command of the northern army under General Gates following the loss of Ticonderoga.  Four brigadiers and eight colonels also served on the court. John Laurence, the same officer who had prosecuted Lee, also prosecuted St. Clair.

St. Clair faced five charges: neglect of duty, cowardice, treachery, inattention to the progress of the enemy, and “shamefully abandoning” his posts at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.  The court spent several weeks evaluating the evidence and taking testimony from witnesses.  

In the end, the court found St. Clair had acted properly.  St. Clair had only arrived at Fort Ticonderoga weeks before the British attack.  The fort’s defenses were not capable of mounting a defense.  Any attempt to do so would have resulted in the destruction or capture of the garrison.  St. Clair had acted properly in ordering a retreat, and saving most of the army.  Those men would be needed to win the battles at Saratoga a few months later.

The court unanimously acquitted St. Clair on all counts and with the highest honor.  Despite the acquittal, St. Clair would never receive another independent command during the war.  He would continue to serve as a staff aide to General Washington.

Schuyler Court Martial

Having completed the St. Clair court martial, the army next turned its attention to General Phillip Schuyler.  Like St. Clair, Congress had investigated Schuyler for his role in the loss of Fort Ticonderoga, and after extensive investigation, instructed Washington to hold a court martial.  On October 1, 1778, the court began its hearing against Schuyler.  

Phillip Schuyler
Once again, Benjamin Lincoln presided.  The members of the court martial were the same as that which sat for General St. Clair, with the replacement of one colonel.  John Laurence, also continued his role as prosecutor.  

The court only preferred one charge against Schuyler: neglect of duty for failure to be present at Fort Ticonderoga in the weeks leading up to the surrender.  

Schuyler’s defense was a pretty simple one. He was not present at Fort Ticonderoga, not because of a neglect of duty but because he was commander of the entire northern department.  He had left Major General St. Clair in charge of Fort Ticonderoga while Schuyler worked in Albany to get reinforcements, find supplies, negotiate to keep local Indian tribes out of the fighting, and a host of other duties.

The trial only lasted three days, after which time the court found Schuyler not guilty, and acquitted him with highest honor.  The court sent the findings of both the St. Clair and Schuyler to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  Congress confirmed both acquittals.

Unlike St. Clair, Schuyler was not content to remain with the army.  With the suspension of Charles Lee, Schuyler became the number two commander in the army, with only Washington his superior.

Schuyler, however, had never really been a military man.  Although he had been a colonel in the New York militia and had served in the French and Indian War, his appointment as one of the Continental Army’s first major general was primarily due to the need to have a prominent New York leader represented in the army.  Schuyler’s strengths lay in politics and diplomacy, not in military command.  In December 1778, after Congress confirmed his acquittal, Schuyler submitted his resignation. 

Congress rejected the offer of resignation.  Several delegates, as well as General Washington, encouraged Schuyler to remain in the army.  Washington offered to return command of the Northern Department to Schuyler, as a show of support for his abilities.  But Schuyler was insistent.  Finally in April 1779, Congress accepted his resignation.

While charges were still pending against him, New York had voted to send Schuyler back to the Continental Congress, where he had served prior to his military appointment.  Following his acquittal, Schuyler accepted his seat and traveled to Philadelphia to serve as a delegate.

Mifflin Resigns

Around this same time, Major General Thomas Mifflin, who had been caught up in the Conway Cabal, also resigned.  Mifflin had been quartermaster, then served on the board of war with General Gates in the attempt to usurp command authority from Washington.  Mifflin faced accusations of embezzlement from his time as quartermaster.  He demanded a formal inquiry, but never got one.  Finally, in February 1779, Mifflin also resigned his commission.  Like Schuyler, he would continue his career in politics.

Next week, we are going to look at another campaign that leads to the resignation of yet another major general.  General John Sullivan leads the Continental effort to retake Rhode Island.

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Next Episode 196 Battle of Rhode Island 

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Further Reading


Dacus, Jeff “Lee’s Defeat in Court” Journal of the American Revolution, March 17, 2014.

Fleming, Thomas “The ‘Military Crimes’ of Charles Lee” American Heritage Magazine, Volume 19, Issue 3, April 1968.

“Account of a Duel between Major General Charles Lee and Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, [24 December 1778],” Founders Online, National Archives,

St. Clair Court Martial Proceedings:

Schuyler Court Martial Proceedings:;idno=N12773.0001.001

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Proceedings of a general court-martial held at Brunswick, in the state of New-Jersey, by order of His Excellency Gen. Washington, Commander-in-chief of the Army of the United States of America, for the trial of Major-General Lee, July 4th, 1778. 

Proceedings of a general court martial, held at White Plains, in the state of New-York by order of His Excellency General Washington, for the trial of Major General St. Clair, August 25, 1778: 

Langworth, Edward (ed) The Life and Memoirs of the Late Major General Lee, Richard Scott, 1813. 

Smith, William Henry (ed) The St. Clair papers: the life and public services of Arthur St. Clair, Vol 1, Cincinnati: Clarke, 1882. 

Tuckerman, Bayard, Life of General Philip Schuyler, 1733-1804, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1903.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Alden, John Richard General Charles Lee, Traitor or Patriot? Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1951. 

Lender, Mark E. & Garry Stone Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle, Univ. of Okla. Press, 2016. 

McBurney, Christian George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War, Savas Beatie, 2020 (book recommendation of the week). 

Phillips, R.W. Dick Arthur St. Clair: The Invisible Patriot, iUniverse, 2014. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.