Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Lee, Charles

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LEE, Charles, soldier, b. in Dernhall, Cheshire, England, in 1731; d. in Philadelphia, Pa., 2 Oct., 1782. He was the youngest son of Gen. John Lee, of Dernhall, and Isabella, daughter of Sir Henry Bunbury, of Stanney. He is said to have received a commission in the army at the age of eleven. However this may have been, he is known to have studied at the free grammar-school of Bury St. Edmunds, and afterward at an academy in Switzerland. He acquired some familiarity with Greek and Latin and a thorough knowledge of French. In the course of his rambles about Europe he afterward became proficient in Spanish, Italian, and German. He applied himself diligently to the study of the military art. On 2 May, 1751, shortly after his father's death, he received a lieutenant's commission in the 44th regiment, of which his father had been colonel. The regiment was ordered to America in 1754, where it was one of the two European regiments that took part in Gen. Edward Braddock's expedition to Fort Duquesne, and Lee was present at the disastrous defeat of Braddock at Monongahela in the following year. The remains of the shattered army were in the autumn of 1755 taken northward to Albany and Schenectady, where they went into winter-quarters. Lee was present at several conferences between Sir William Johnson and the chiefs of the Six Nations, and became much interested in the Indians. His relations with them soon became so friendly that he was adopted into the Mohawk tribe of the Bear under the curiously prophetic name of “Ounewaterika,” or “Boiling Water.” His captain's commission in the 44th, which he purchased for £900, was dated 11 June, 1756. He was wounded in the disastrous assault upon Ticonderoga, 1 July, and was soon afterward stationed on Long Island, where an army surgeon, with whom he had quarrelled, attempted to assassinate him, and nearly succeeded. It was remarked about this time that Capt. Lee had a fault-finding disposition with an extremely caustic tongue. He was fond of abusing his superior officers, and was by no means nice in his choice of epithets. As commander of foraging parties he pillaged friend and foe with impartial violence, and showed himself on many occasions arrogant and insubordinate. In the next campaign he was present at the capture of Fort Niagara, and was sent with a small party to follow the route of the few French who escaped. This was the first party of English troops that ever crossed Lake Erie. Their march led them to Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburg), whence they marched all the way to Crown Point to meet Gen. Amherst. In the final campaign of 1760 Lee's regiment was part of the force led by Amherst down the St. Lawrence to Montreal, and after the capture of that town he returned to England. He was promoted, 10 Aug., 1761, to the rank of major in the 103d regiment, which was disbanded two years later; but Lee was continued a major on half-pay. In 1762 the British government sent a small army to assist Portugal in driving out the invading Spaniards. Burgoyne commanded a division in this army, and Lee accompanied him with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Portuguese service. The expedition was brilliantly successful, and Lee received honorable mention for personal gallantry in the action at Villa Velha. On his return to England he busied himself with a scheme for founding two new colonies in America — one on the Ohio river below the Wabash, the other on the Illinois. Inducements were to be held out for emigrants from Switzerland and Germany as well as New England; but the ministry refused to sanction the scheme. About this time he wrote several pamphlets, reviewing the colonial policy of the government in language so arrogant and bitter as to make enemies of the ministry, while on the other hand his censorious and quarrelsome temper prevented his making many friends among the opposition party. In his endeavors after military promotion he was disappointed, and in 1764 he made his way to Poland, where he received an appointment on the staff of King Stanislaus Augustus. Two years afterward, in accompanying the Polish embassy to Turkey, he narrowly escaped freezing to death on the Balkan mountains, and again in Constantinople came near being buried in the ruins of his house, which was destroyed by an earthquake. In 1766 he returned to England and spent two years in a fruitless attempt to obtain promotion. His anger at the ministry was vented so freely that he soon acquired the reputation of a disappointed and vindictive place-hunter. In 1769 he returned to Poland, was appointed major-general in the Polish army, and served in a campaign against the Turks. On this, as on other occasions, he expressed the opinion that the commanders under whom he served were fools. After barely escaping with his life from a violent fever, he went to Vienna and spent the winter there. During the spring of 1770 he travelled in Italy, where he lost two fingers in a duel with an officer whom he killed. He then went by way of Minorca to Gibraltar, whence he returned in the autumn to England, where he wrote his ironical epistle to David Hume, and otlier papers. He spent the summer of 1772 in France and Switzerland, seeking relief from rheumatism. On 25 May of that year he was promoted lieutenant-colonel on half-pay, but was unable to obtain further recognition from the government.

It now seems to have occurred to him that the troubles in America might afford a promising career for a soldier of fortune. He arrived in New York, 10 Nov., 1773, in the midst of the agitation over the tea duties, and the next ten months were spent in a journey through the colonies as far as Virginia in one direction and Massachusetts in the other. In the course of this journey Lee made the acquaintance of nearly all the leaders of the Revolutionary party, and won high favor from the zeal with which he espoused their cause. At this time he rendered some real services with tongue and pen, while his self-seeking motives were hidden by the affected earnestness of his arguments in behalf of political liberty and the real sincerity of his invectives against the British government. The best of his writings at this time was the “Strictures on a Friendly Address to all Reasonable Americans, in Reply to Dr. Myles Cooper” (1774), in which the arguments of the Tory president of King's college were severely handled. This pamphlet was many times reprinted and exerted considerable influence. While the 1st Continental congress was in session at Philadelphia, Lee was present in that city and was ready with his advice and opinions. He set himself up for a military genius, and there was no campaign in modern European history which he could not expound and criticise with the air of a man who had exhausted the subject. The American leaders, ill acquainted with military science and flattered by the prospect of securing the aid of a great European soldier, were naturally ready to take him at his own valuation; but he felt that one grave obstacle stood in the way of his appointment to the chief command. He wrote to Edmund Burke, 10 Dec., 1774, that he did not think the Americans “would or ought to confide in a man, let his qualifications be ever so great, who has no property among them.” To remove this objection he purchased, for about £5,000 in Virginia currency (equal to about £3,000 sterling), an estate in Berkeley county, in the Shenandoah valley, near that of his friend Horatio Gates. He did not complete this purchase till the last of May, 1775, while the 2d Continental congress was in session. A letter to a friend at this time indicates that he was awaiting the action of the congress, and did not finally commit himself to the purchase until virtually sure of a high military command. To pay for the estate he borrowed £3,000 of Robert Morris, to whom he mortgaged the property as security, while he drew bills on his agent in England for the amount. On 17 June he received as high a command as congress thought it prudent to give him, that of second major-general in the Continental army. The reasons for making Washington commander-in-chief were generally convincing; and as the only Continental army existing was the force of 16,000 New England men with which Gen. Artemas Ward was besieging Boston, it was not deemed politic to place a second in command over Ward. Some of Lee's friends, and in particular Thomas Mifflin, afterward active in the Conway cabal, urged that he should at least have the first place after Washington; but John Adams declared that, while the New England army would cheerfully serve under Washington, it could not be expected to acquiesce in having another than its own general in the next place. Accordingly, Ward was appointed first of the major-generals and Lee second. The British adventurer, who had cherished hopes of receiving the chief command, was keenly disappointed. For the present he repressed his spleen against Washington, but made no secret of his contempt for Ward, whom he described as “a fat old gentleman who had been a popular church-warden, but had no acquaintance whatever with military affairs.” When Lee was informed of his appointment, 19 July, he begged leave, before accepting it, to confer with a committee of congress with regard to his private affairs. The committee being immediately appointed, he made it a condition of his entering the American service that he should be indemnified by congress for any pecuniary loss he might suffer by so doing, and that this reimbursement should be made as soon as the amount of such loss should be ascertained. Congress at once assented to this condition, and Lee accepted his appointment. Three days afterward he wrote a letter to the British secretary of war, Lord Barrington, resigning his commission as lieutenant-colonel and the half-pay that up to this moment he had been willing to receive from a government against which he was concerting measures of armed resistance.

Having thus entered the American service, Lee accompanied Washington in his journey to Cambridge, and at every town through which they passed he seemed to be quite as much an object of curiosity and admiration as the commander-in-chief. According to Lee's own theory of the relationship between the two, his was the controlling mind. He was the trained and scientific European soldier to whose care had been in a measure intrusted this raw American general who for political reasons had been placed in command over him. In point of fact, Lee's military experience, as sketched above, had been scarcely more extensive than Washington's. Such little reputation as he had in Europe was not that of a soldier, but of an unscrupulous political pamphleteer. Yet if he had been the hero of a dozen great battles, if he had rescued Portugal from the Spaniard and Poland from the Turk, he could not nave claimed or obtained more deference in this country than he did. On arriving at Cambridge he was placed in command of the left wing, with his headquarters at Winter Hill, in what is now Somerville. The only incident that marked his stay at Cambridge was a correspondence with his old friend Burgoyne, then lately arrived in Boston, which led to a scheme for a conference between Lee and Burgoyne, with a view to the restoration of an amicable understanding between the colonies and the mother country. The scheme, being regarded unfavorably by the Provincial congress of Massachusetts, was abandoned. In December, 1775, when Sir Henry Clinton was preparing to start from Boston on his southern expedition, fears were entertained for Rhode Island and New York, and accordingly Lee was sent to Newport, where his military genius displayed itself in the arrest of a few Tory citizens. Thence he proceeded in January to New York, where he did good service in beginning the fortifications needed for the city and neighboring strategic points. On the news of Montgomery's death, Lee was appointed to command the army in Canada; but scarcely had he been informed of this appointment when his destination was changed. It had become clear that Clinton's expedition was aimed at some point in the southern states, and Lee was accordingly put in command over the southern department, and in March went to Virginia. His recommendation to the Virginians to raise and discipline a cavalry force was sensible and useful. On 7 May he wrote a letter to Patrick Henry, strongly advocating a declaration of independence. Shortly after this Clinton, re-enforced by Sir Peter Parker's fleet with fresh troops under Lord Cornwallis, arrived in Charleston harbor; and Gen. Lee, following him, reached that city on the same day, 4 June. Preparations had already been made to resist the enemy, and Col. William Moultrie was constructing his famous palmetto fort on Sullivan's island. Lee blustered and found fault as usual, sneered at the palmetto fort, and would have ordered Moultrie to abandon it; but President Rutledge persuaded him to let Moultrie have his way. In the battle of 28 June between the fort and the fleet, Moultrie won a brilliant victory, the credit of which was by most people inconsiderately given to Lee. On the departure of the discomfited British fleet, the “hero of Charleston,” as he was now called, prepared to invade Florida; but early in September he was ordered to report to congress at Philadelphia. The question of his indemnification had been laid before congress in a letter from Rutledge, dated 4 July, and action was now taken upon it. The bills for £3,000 drawn upon his agent in England to repay the sum advanced by Robert Morris had been protested for lack of funds, as Lee's property in England had been sequestrated. Congress accordingly voted, 7 Oct., to advance $30,000 to Gen. Lee by way of indemnification. Should his English estate ever be recovered, he was to repay this sum.

Lee then went to New York, where he arrived on 14 Oct., and took command of the right wing of Washington's army upon Harlem heights. By the resignation of Gen. Ward in the spring Lee had become senior major-general, and in the event of disaster to Washington he might hope at length to realize his wishes and become commander-in-chief. The fall of Fort Washington, 16 Nov., seemed to afford Lee the opportunity desired. At that moment Washington, whose defensive movements had been marked by most consummate skill, had placed half of his army on the New Jersey side of the river, in order to check any movement of the British toward Philadelphia. He had left Lee at Northcastle, with the other half of the army, about 7,000 men, with instructions to await his orders and move promptly upon receiving them. As soon as the nature of Howe's designs had become apparent, Washington sent an order to Lee to cross the Hudson river and effect a junction of the two parts of the army. But Lee pretended to regard the order in the light of mere advice, raised objections, and did not stir. While Washington was now obliged to fall back through New Jersey, in order to avoid fighting against overwhelming odds, his messages to Lee grew more and more peremptory; but Lee disregarded them. Many people were throwing the blame for the loss of Fort Washington upon the commander-in-chief, and were contrasting him unfavorably with the “hero of Charleston,” and Lee busied himself in writing letters calculated to spread and increase this disaffection toward Washington. The latter had left Heath in command in the Highlands, with very explicit instructions, which Lee now tried, but in vain, to overrule. On 2 Dec., Washington had retreated as far as Princeton, with a force diminished to 3,000 men. On the same day, after a fortnight's delay, Lee crossed the Hudson and proceeded by slow marches to Morristown, with his force diminished to 4,000 men. The terms of service of many of the soldiers had expired, and the prospect was so dismal that few were willing to re-enlist. At this moment Gates was coming down from Ticonderoga with seven regiments sent by Schuyler to Washington's assistance; but Lee interposed, and diverted three of these regiments to Morristown. By this time Washington had retreated beyond the Delaware, and most people considered his campaign hopelessly ruined. Lee's design in thus acting independently seems to have been to operate upon the British flank from Morristown, a position of which Washington soon afterward illustrated the great value. The insubordinate commander wished to secure for himself whatever advantage might be gained from such a movement. For some unexplained reason, he made his headquarters at Baskingridge, four miles from his army, and here he was captured, 13 Dec., by a party of British dragoons. His troops, thus opportunely relieved of such a commander, were promptly marched by Sullivan to Washington's assistance in time to take part in the glorious movement upon Trenton and Princeton. The capture of Lee was considered a grave misfortune by the Americans, who did not possess the clew to his singular behavior. Of his conduct in captivity, which would soon have afforded such a clew, nothing whatever was known until eighty years afterward. Lee was taken to New York and confined in the city hall, where he was courteously treated, but he well understood that his life was in danger in case the British government should regard him as a deserter from the army. Sir William Howe wrote home for instructions, and in reply was directed to send his prisoner to England for trial. Lee had already been sent on board ship, when a letter from Washington put a stop to these proceedings. The letter informed Howe that Washington held five Hessian field-officers as hostages for Lee's personal safety. This was the beginning of a discussion that lasted about a year, involving the exchange of several letters between Howe and his government on the one hand and Howe and Washington on the other, until at length, 12 Dec., 1777, Howe was instructed to consider Lee a prisoner of war, and subject to exchange whenever convenient. During the interval, while his fate was in suspense, Lee was busy in operations on his own account. First, he assured the brothers Howe that he was opposed to the Declaration of Independence, and hoped, if he could obtain an interview with a committee from congress, to be able to open negotiations for an honorable and satisfactory adjustment of all existing difficulties. The Howes, who were well disposed toward the Americans and sincerely anxious for peace, allowed him to ask for the interview; but congress refused to grant it. Lee's extraordinary conduct before his capture had somewhat injured his reputation, and there were vague suspicions, though no one knew exactly what to suspect him of. These doubts affected the soundness of his judgment rather than of his character. His behavior was considered wayward and eccentric, but was not seen to be treacherous. The worst that was now supposed about him was that he had suffered himself to be hoodwinked by the Howes into requesting a conference that could answer no good purpose. As soon as the conference was refused, he straightway went over to the enemy, and sought to curry favor with the Howes by giving them aid and counsel for the next campaign against the Americans. He went so far as to write out for them a plan of operations. After the disastrous result of the campaigns of 1777, the brothers did not wish to disclose the secret of their peculiar obligations to such an adviser, and Lee's papers remained hidden in their domestic archives until 1857. A fac-simile of it is given in George H. Moore's monograph on the “Treason of Charles Lee” (New York, 1858). The paper is in Lee's handwriting, folded and indorsed as “Mr. Lee's Plan — 29th March, 1777.” The indorsement is in the handwriting of Henry Strachey, secretary to the royal commissioners, Lord and Sir William Howe. In this paper Lee expressly abandons the American cause, enters “sincerely and zealously” into the plans of the British commanders, and recommends an expedition to Chesapeake bay, essentially similar to that which was actually undertaken in the following summer. This advice seems to throw light upon the movements of Gen. Howe in July and August, 1777, which were formerly regarded as so strange. If anything had been known about these treacherous shifts on the part of Lee, he certainly would never have been taken back into the American service. As nothing was known about the matter, he was exchanged early in May, 1778, and joined Washington's army at Valley Forge. It is not altogether easy to see why he should have returned to his place in the American army unless it may have been with the intention of playing into the hands of the enemy; nor, except upon some such theory, is it easy to see why the British commander should have acquiesced in his return. Possibly Sir Henry Clinton, who had lately superseded Sir William Howe, may have known nothing of Lee's tergiversation; but the facts seem compatible with the supposition that in this case Sir Henry was willing to profit by treachery in the American camp, as afterward in his conspiracy with Arnold. Perhaps he was only acting upon the declared opinion of Sir Joseph Yorke, that such a man as Charles Lee was “the worst present the Americans could receive.” In the campaign of 1778 Lee proved himself to be such. When, in June, Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia, it was his purpose to retreat across New Jersey to New York without a battle, if possible. It was Washington's object to attack Clinton on his retreat and cripple him. Lee at first endeavored to dissuade Washington from making such an attack. Then, when it was resolved to make the attack upon the rear division of the British army, with the view of cutting it off from the advanced division, Lee showed such unwillingness to undertake the task that Washington assigned it to Lafayette. Each of the opposing armies numbered about 15,000 men, and each was marching in two divisions, three or four miles apart. The American advance, of about 6,000 men under Lafayette, was to attack the British rear division upon its left flank and engage it until Washington, with the main body, should come up and complete its discomfiture. At the last moment Lee changed his mind and solicited the command of the advance, which Lafayette gracefully gave up to him. Washington's orders to Lee were explicit and peremptory. On the morning of 28 June, Lee overtook the enemy near Monmouth Court-House; but the fighting had scarcely begun when his conduct became so strange and his orders so contradictory as to excite uneasiness on the part of Lafayette, who sent a messenger back to Washington, begging him to make all possible haste to the front. When the commander-in-chief, with his main force, had passed Freehold church on the way toward the scene of action, he was astonished at the spectacle of Lee's division in disorderly retreat, with the enemy close at their heels. In a fierce outburst of wrath he upbraided Lee for his behavior, then rallied the troops, and repelled the enemy. Later in the day he sent Lee to the rear. During the night Clinton withdrew from the field, leaving his wounded behind. Lee's extraordinary conduct in failing to grasp the opportunity that all believed within his reach excited indignant comment among officers and soldiers, and he now wrote two angry letters to the commander-in-chief, to which Washington replied by placing him under arrest. He was tried by court-martial on three charges: 1. Disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy. 2. Misbehavior before the enemy in making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat. 3. Disrespect to the commander-in-chief. On 12 Aug. he was found guilty on all three charges, and suspended from command in the army for the term of one year. For a long time his conduct in the battle of Monmouth seemed utterly unintelligible; the discoveries since made regarding his behavior while in captivity do not yet clear it up, but they certainly make it appear susceptible of the worst possible interpretation. On learning the sentence of the court-martial, which was presently confirmed by congress, Lee's spite against Washington became quite ungovernable, and his venomous tongue soon got him into trouble. In a duel with Washington's aide-de-camp, Col. Laurens, he was wounded in the arm. After some time he addressed an impudent letter to congress, and was immediately dismissed from the army. He retired in disgrace to his estate in the Shenandoah valley, and lived there long enough to witness the triumph of the cause he had done so much to injure. On a visit to Philadelphia he was suddenly seized with fever, and died in a tavern, friendless and alone. His last words were: “Stand by me, my brave grenadiers.” In his will he had expressed a wish that he might not be buried within a mile of any church or meeting-house, as since his arrival in America he had kept so much bad company in this world that he did not wish to continue it in the next. He was buried, however, in the cemetery of Christ church, and his funeral was attended by the president of congress and other eminent citizens. Gen. Lee was one of the numerous persons credited with the authorship of “Junius.” In a letter dated at Dover, Del., 1 Feb., 1803, published in the “Wilmington Mirror” and copied into the “St. James Chronicle,” London, Thomas Rodney gave the substance of a conversation between himself and Gen. Lee in 1773. Lee observed that not a man in the world but himself, not even the publisher, knew the secret of the authorship of “Junius.” Rodney naturally replied that no one but the author himself could make such a remark as that. “I have unguardedly committed myself,” said Lee, “and it would be folly to deny to you that I am the author; but I must request you will not reveal it during my life, for it never was nor ever will be revealed by me to any other.” Lee then went on to point out several circumstances corroborative of his claim. Such a statement, from a gentleman of so high a character as Mr. Rodney, at once attracted attention in Europe and America. Two intimate friends of Lee maintained opposite sides of the question. Ralph Wormeley, of Virginia, published a letter in which he argued that Lee was very far from possessing the knowledge of parliamentary history exhibited in the pages of “Junius.” Daniel Carthy, of North Carolina, published a series of articles in the “Virginia Gazette” in refutation of Wormeley. Dr. Thomas Girdlestone, of Yarmouth, England, followed on the same side in a small volume entitled “ Facts tending to prove that Gen. Lee was never Absent from this Country for any Length of Time during the Years 1767-'72, and that he was the Author of 'Junius'” (London, 1813). The first part of Dr. Girdlestone's title points to the fatal obstacle to his hypothesis. The simple fact is, that Lee was absent in such remote countries as Poland and Turkey at the very dates when “Junius” was publishing letters exhibiting such minute and detailed acquaintance with affairs every day occurring in London as could only have been possessed by an eye-witness living on the spot. This fact makes it impossible that Lee should have written the “Letters of Junius”; and the statement of Mr. Rodney only goes to show that in other than military matters Lee was willing to claim what did not belong to him. The most interesting thing to-day in Girdlestone's volume is the portrait of Lee which stands as frontispiece. It was taken from a drawing by Barham Rushbrooke, which, though designed as a caricature, was “allowed, by all who knew Gen. Lee, to be the only successful delineation either of his countenance or person.” It was taken on his return from Poland, in his uniform as aide to King Stanislaus, and shows the inevitable dog. Lee was very fond of dogs, and was seldom seen without half a dozen at his heels. He was slovenly in dress, dirty in person, repulsive in feature, and rude in manner, always ready with disagreeable and sarcastic remarks. His eccentricities were so marked as perhaps to afford some ground for the plea of insanity whereby to palliate his misdemeanors. The biography of Charles Lee has not yet been properly written. His essays and miscellaneous papers were edited, with an interesting biographical sketch, by Edward Langworthy. under the title “Memoirs of the late Charles Lee, Esq.” (London, 1792). The sketch by Jared Sparks (“American Biography,” 2d series, viii., Boston, 1846) is carefully written, but has little value to-day, because the author knew nothing of that treasonable correspondence with the Howes which modifies so profoundly our view of Lee's whole career in America. George H. Moore announced in 1860 a biography and collection of essays, with documents never before published; but this much-needed book has not yet made its appearance. Dr. Moore's monograph above cited contains much information not easily to be found elsewhere; the portrait which stands as its frontispiece is reduced from the folio print published in London during the Revolutionary war. No relationship is traceable between Charles Lee and the illustrious Lees of Virginia.