Over the winter of 1777-1778, both sides had captured large numbers of prisoners. Some men had been imprisoned for many years. Some were recent casualties of the Saratoga and Philadelphia campaigns. One big focus for the Continentals was the return of the man many regarded as the best officer in the Continental Army, Charles Lee.
Back in 1754 Lieutenant Lee served under General Edward Braddock, along provincial Captain George Washington, at the battle of the Monongahela. Lee fought in America throughout the French and Indian War, rising to the rank of major. When the war in America ended, he transferred to the European theater, where he fought in Portugal under General John Burgoyne.
When that war ended, he did what many ambitious officers did in peacetime. He joined another army to get experience as a more senior officer. Although he rose to Lieutenant Colonel in the regular army, he took a commission as a major general in the Polish army, serving as an aide to King Stanislaus II. There, Lee gained more combat experience as a commander in the Russo-Turkish War.
Despite his recent arrival, Lee had made clear his support for colonial rights and the patriot cause. He even published a pamphlet in 1775 in opposition to British policies, and opining the Americans could defeat the British regulars.
When the war began, there was some serious consideration to making Lee the Commander-in-Chief. He clearly had more command experience than anyone else. The main concerns against him were that he had very recently been a British regular officer, and indeed was still on half-pay with the British Army until he joined the Continentals. It was also not entirely clear that he would respect Congress and the civilian rule of government.
Even with any concerns, Major General Lee became the third ranking general in the Continental Army, behind only General Washington and Artemas Ward, who had been commander of the New England army before the Continental Army took over. Washington encouraged the appointment and relied on Lee to make up for his own deficiencies in command experience.
When the British captured Lee in December 1776, the British leadership rejoiced. They thought that Lee was the only continental general who had any chance of leading the Continentals to a credible defense. Many officers thought his capture presaged the collapse of the Continental army since the remaining amateurs would have no chance against professional and experienced British officers. Regular officers had long dismissed colonial militia as nearly useless amateurs. Few believed the rest of the continental leadership, who had all been civilians a year earlier, could do anything without the leadership of experienced regular officers, like Lee.
Among the many people who believed that Lee was far superior to anyone else in the Continental Army was -- Lee himself. Lee had an ego that would not quit. At the time of his capture, he was corresponding with other officers about the need to replace General Washington, presumably with himself.
As a British prisoner, Lee’s ego did not diminish. After a brief period where the British leadership debated hanging Lee for desertion and treason, they opted to treat him as a prisoner of war, giving him access to good lodgings and permission to dine with his former fellow British officers. They even permitted him to bring his servant and his dogs to join him in his confinement. The one permission they would not allow was parole. He was too valuable a prisoner to risk his escape and return to the Continental Army.
In truth though, Lee’s record did not really live up to his reputation. He was credited with defeating General Clinton’s attempt to capture Fort Sullivan in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina in early 1776. In fact, the Americans won that battle by defying Lee’s orders. Later, Lee provided a valuable service to the Continentals by convincing Washington to get out of New York City before the British could trap him there. While this was good advice, counseling retreat is not usually what we think of as the mark of a great general.
Lee’s capture put an end to his attempts to keep the Continental Army divided. Lee had seemed to be waiting for the British to defeat Washington in New Jersey in late 1776, at which point Lee could take command of the Continental Army. He had refused Washington’s repeated requests to join forces to fight the attacking British. After his capture, the rest of Lee’s army did join with Washington, giving him the manpower to attack Trenton and Princeton, and retake New Jersey.
As a prisoner, Lee openly discussed with British leadership weaknesses in the Continental Army. He proposed strategies on how to defeat the Americans by taking the army south and then attacking northward, similar to the strategy that General Howe eventually employed. This treasonous activity was only discovered decades later, long after all the parties were dead and gone. Historians speculated that Lee’s immense ego compelled him to show that he could lead either army to victory. As one historian put it: few of his contemporaries would have surprised that Lee committed treason. Most would have been shocked that he had managed not to brag about it during his lifetime.
As I said though, Lee’s reputation as a great commander and possible savior of the Continentals remained intact. Washington, and many others, were eager to secure his return. Recall that back in Episode 147, I discussed the capture of British General Richard Prescott in Rhode Island for the primary purpose of trading him for Lee. Ever since the Americans had captured Prescott, they had been trying to make a trade.
Prisoner exchanges, however, between the two armies had never gone well. In the Eighteenth Century, it was common for European armies to institute standing agreements, known as cartels, for the exchange of prisoners. These cartels spelled out how prisoners would be exchanged, based on rank. For example, a colonel would be exchanged for an enemy colonel. There might be other agreements for officers of different ranks, such as one major was worth two captains or four lieutenants. There were also rules such as the officers held the longest would be traded first. The details of such cartels differed between different countries and different time periods, but the general idea was that it would allow for the return of prisoners on an equitable basis.
|Walnut Street Prison, Philadelphia
Many British wanted to try and hang captured rebels for treason. However, the Americans made clear that captured British officers would suffer the same fate in retaliation. Even if Britain could not openly concede American sovereignty, it had to respect the power of the enemy to capture its soldiers and treat them as they wished. If the British did not want to see their own captured officers hanged, they would have to refrain from doing so with captured Americans.
The result was a standoff. There were occasions when field officers would agree to an exchange on an ad-hoc basis. The two sides, however, could not agree to a cartel.
It did not help that the Continental Congress did not seem willing to abide by agreements that its officers had made. For example, back in 1776 General Arnold made a deal for the release of 500 American prisoners at the Battle of the Cedars on the promise of release of 500 British prisoners (see, Episode 90). The Continental Congress refused to release the prisoners, even though the Americans prisoners had already returned. More recently, General Burgoyne’s northern army had agreed to a convention that promised they would be returned to England, on the promise not to come back to America. Congress did not outright reject that convention, but did manage to keep the Army as prisoners for years by demanding certain assurances from the King before their release.
While there may have been good reasons for refusing to comply with these agreements, it also meant that the British believed they could not trust the word of the rebels. It played into their world view that these were not gentlemen who could conduct diplomacy. Rather they were a criminal mob, albeit a very powerful one, that needed to be defeated totally.
Whatever British sentiment was as to the honor of Congress, the reality was that there were many thousands of British and Hessian soldiers being held as prisoners over the winter of 1777-1778. At the same time, the British were holding thousands of American prisoners in New York and Philadelphia. Even though the British gave them very little care, even that minimal care was more of a burden than they preferred to have. Further, since captured British soldiers were much harder to replace than captured American soldiers, the British had great incentive to agree to some sort of large scale exchange.
Similarly, Congress was under pressure to do something about the thousands of American prisoners who were suffering and dying in British hands. In August 1777, Congress authorized Washington to conduct negotiations for a prisoner exchange. At the time, Washington was more focused on the imminent British campaign to capture Philadelphia. So, while he accepted the authorization, he did little about it for the next few months.
In early February 1778, with the British settled into Philadelphia and the Americans in Valley Forge, General Howe sent a letter to General Washington, opening up discussions for a prisoner exchange. Washington responded that he thought it best for the two armies to send negotiators for a face to face meeting on March 10 at Germantown to discuss an exchange. Washington also made clear that he hoped the two armies would adopt a larger ongoing agreement for future exchanges, in other words, a cartel.
General Howe agreed to the meeting in Germantown, but did not address the idea of a cartel. He was more focused on a practical exchange of existing prisoners. Remember, Howe had already submitted his resignation to London. Although he had not heard back at this time, he expected to be gone within months. He did not want to tie his successor to an agreement that might prove disadvantageous to the British war effort.
However good the conditions sounded to those debating the issue in York, Washington was greatly annoyed by the new conditions. He knew that the British would never agree to such a thing and that Congress was effectively scuttling the negotiations before they could begin.
To follow up on this issue, Congress dispatched a committee headed by Francis Dana to Valley Forge to meet with Washington directly on this issue. Delegates made clear that they did not want a cartel with the British. The British prisoners were more valuable than the American prisoners who could be more easily replaced. Returning large numbers of British and Hessian soldiers to their armies would only undercut the successes of removing those soldiers from the field and shrinking the overall size of the enemy in America.
Washington struggled to contain his anger. Not only was Congress undercutting his authority and requiring him to go back on the terms of negotiations he had already started with General Howe, it was also condemning thousands of American prisoners to more suffering and death. Washington expressed a sense of responsibility to these men and the need to save them, if at all possible. While he clearly disagreed with Congress, Washington, also always acceded to Congress' will.
On March 9, the day before negotiations were to begin in Germantown, Washington wrote to General Howe to ask for a delay until March 31. Howe’s response reflected his confusion and annoyance at this sudden change, which meant continued suffering for prisoners on both sides. He had no choice, however, but to accept the delay.
With the additional time, Washington began a campaign to convince Congress that an exchange and a cartel were not against American interests. On March 18, Congress agreed not to require upfront payment before the exchange of prisoners. It passed more vague instructions that gave Washington more room to begin negotiations.
With Congress backing down for the moment, Washington could focus on negotiations with the British. He and Howe agreed to send four negotiators each. Among the American negotiators were Elias Boudinot, who was the Commissary General for prisoners, as well as Washington’s personal aide, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton. The British sent three colonels and a captain. The agreement would allow the parties to meet in Germantown and that neither side would send any soldiers there, other than a fourteen member guard for each negotiating team.
The dispute over Ethan Allen was his rank. The Americans had sent a British Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell. Howe responded that he would be happy to send an American Lieutenant Colonel in exchange, but they did not consider it a fair trade for Colonel Ethan Allen. Washington had to make clear that Allen was, in fact, a lieutenant colonel. So both of these were ongoing negotiations before the Germantown meeting began.
Congress’ other limitation was that the negotiators would have no authority to conclude anything. Washington himself would need to sign off personally on any final agreement. Washington rushed these instructions via messenger to catch up with the negotiators who were already en route to Germantown.
On March 31, both delegations arrived late morning. Things did not get off to a good start. The Americans objected that the British team could not agree to anything legally binding. Rather, everything would be done based on the word of the commander, General Howe. Since everyone suspected Howe would be gone shortly, any agreement would disappear along with the general.
At the end of the day, the British returned to Philadelphia while the American delegation remained overnight in Germantown. The next day, the British delegation returned. They informed the Americans that General Howe had not intended for them to remain behind enemy lines overnight, and that they could not just live there. With that, and with the two side unable to reach even a legal basis to begin negotiations, the Americans packed up and returned to Valley Forge.
After an exchange of letters between the generals, the parties agreed to resume discussions at Newton (aka Newtown) which was about 20 miles northeast of Germantown, and further away from British lines.
Both delegations arrived on the evening of April 6. The British had failed to bring provisions with them, so the Americans invited them to share their dinner. The officers enjoyed a pleasant evening and left negotiations for the following day.
The friendly dinner and the new location did nothing to break the impasse in negotiations. The Americans insisted they wanted a permanent cartel. The British countered that they had no authority to do anything other than a partial exchange of existing prisoners. After two days of pointless debate, several of the British officers returned to Philadelphia to see if there was any chance of getting more authority to establish a cartel. On April 9, the same day they returned to Philadelphia, General Howe received word that London had accepted his resignation. With that, Howe’s position hardened since he did not want to leave his successor with an agreement that the successor might not want.
The British negotiators returned to Newton with the bad news. After several more days of attempting to get the Americans to accept a partial exchange, the American delegation withdrew. Both parties returned home without an agreement.
Charles Lee Returns
The failed negotiations, however, did not prevent the return of Charles Lee. After receiving Washington’s letter, General Howe rushed Lee to Philadelphia, where he arrived on March 25. On April 5, while the prisoner exchange negotiations were ongoing, he received parole and was permitted to travel to York where he could address the Continental Congress. A couple of weeks later, on April 22, the two sides reached a final agreement to complete the exchange. General Lee rode into Valley Forge, met by General Washington and an honor guard made up of all the top Continental leadership. Washington offered Lee command of the right wing of the army.
Lee, however, quickly spoiled the enthusiasm for his return. On his first night back, Washington offered him a bed in the same house where he and Martha lived, with his bedroom right next to Martha’s. Overnight, Lee smuggled his mistress into the house and spent the night enjoying his new found freedom with a little more excess than the Washingtons found acceptable. When he showed up the next morning for breakfast, rather disheveled, they made clear he would need to find new accommodations.
That was just fine with Lee. Rather than assume command immediately, he asked for an opportunity to return to York to address Congress again. There, he met with President Henry Laurens. He raised his criticisms of Washington being an unfit commander and suggested that the Continental Army was in no shape to take on the British. He suggested that the Continentals retreat out west of Pittsburgh and give up on contention for the eastern seaboard.
Apparently Laurens thought his suggestions sounded just as insane as they do to the modern ear. He opted not to pass along Lee’s comments and suggestions to the rest of the Congress. At this time, Congress had just put to bed the Conway Cabal, and was not ready for another general to try to usurp Washington’s Command. Further, Lee’s complete lack of faith in the Continental Army showed just how out of touch he was with the rest of the American leadership.
With that, Lee returned to his home in Virginia. He would rest and recuperate for a few weeks at home on his plantation before rejoining the army and Valley Forge and resuming his command.
A few weeks later in May, Ethan Allen finally received his exchange. Allen, had been one of the longest held American officers, following his capture in September 1775. The British had sent Allen to London where he languished in the Tower of London for some time, awaiting execution for treason. After being returned to New York as a prisoner of war, Allen remained a prisoner until May 1778.
Upon his exchange, Congress offered him a command as a full colonel. Allen, however, returned to his home in Vermont. There, he took a position as a major general in the Vermont militia. Since the war never again returned to Vermont, Allen sat out the rest of the war. Instead, he devoted his time to advocacy for Vermont Independence.
Next week, we will take a look across the Atlantic where a young naval captain named John Paul Jones attacks the British mainland.
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Lee, Charles Strictures on a pamphlet, entitled "A friendly address to all reasonable Americans, on the subject of our political confusion." Addressed to the people of America, 1775 https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11179.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
Knight, Betsy. “Prisoner Exchange and Parole in the American Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, 1991, pp. 201–222. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2938068
Bowman, Larry G. “THE PENNSYLVANIA PRISONER EXCHANGE CONFERENCES, 1778.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, 1978, pp. 257–269. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27772537 or https://journals.psu.edu/phj/article/download/24051/23820
Baker, William S. “Exchange of Major-General Charles Lee.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 15, no. 1, 1891, pp. 26–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20083406
“To George Washington from John Hancock, 8 August 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0550
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 20 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0591
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 5 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0377
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 8–14 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0395
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 10 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0416
To George Washington from General William Howe, 14 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0450
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 21 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0530
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 1 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0010
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 2 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0020
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 7–8 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0068
“George Washington to Sir William Howe, 9 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0396
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 10 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0094
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 12 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0127
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 12 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0126
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 14 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0142
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 15 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0155
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 19 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0199
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 21 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0226
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 21 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0222
“George Washington to Sir William Howe, 22 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0402
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 22 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0242
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 27 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0301
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 29 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0323
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 30 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0333
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 3 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0366
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 4 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0380
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 4 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0378
“To George Washington from Major General Charles Lee, 13 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0460
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 14 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0470
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 16 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0485
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 18 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0504
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 19 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0512
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 24–25 April 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0559
“To George Washington from General William Howe, 10 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0081
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 11 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0090
“To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 11 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0091
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 12 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0100
“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 18 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0153
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 23 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0200
“From George Washington to General William Howe, 27 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0243
(from archive.org unless noted)
Baker, William Spohn (ed) Exchange of Major-General Charles Lee. From a manuscript of Elias Boudinot, Philadelphia: Lippincott Co. 1891.
Langworthy, Edward (ed) The Life and Memoirs of the Late Major General Lee, Richard Scott, 1813.
Moore, George H. The Treason of Charles Lee, New-York Historical Society, 1860.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Alden, John R. General Charles Lee,: Traitor or patriot?, Louisiana St. Univ. Press, 1951.
Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Fleming, Thomas Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, Smithsonian, 2005.
Jones, T. Cole Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution, Univ. of Pa. 2019 (book recommendation of the week).
Mazzagetti, Dominick Charles Lee: Self Before Country, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2013.
McBurney, Christian M. Kidnapping the Enemy, The Special Operations to Capture General Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, Westholme Publishing, 2014.
McBurney, Christian M. George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War, Savas Beatie, 2020.
Papas, Phillip Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee, New York NYU Press, 2014.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.