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.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Dacus, Jeff “Lee’s Defeat in Court” Journal of the American Revolution, March 17, 2014. https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/03/lees-defeat-in-court
Fleming, Thomas “The ‘Military Crimes’ of Charles Lee” American Heritage Magazine, Volume 19, Issue 3, April 1968. https://www.americanheritage.com/military-crimes-charles-lee
“Account of a Duel between Major General Charles Lee and Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, [24 December 1778],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0687
St. Clair Court Martial Proceedings: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N12772.0001.001?view=toc
Schuyler Court Martial Proceedings: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=evans;idno=N12773.0001.001
(from archive.org 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 Amazon.com 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.
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