Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lee, Charles
LEE, CHARLES (1731–1782), American major-general, belonged to the old Cheshire family of Lee of Lea and afterwards of Dernhall (see pedigree in Ormerod's Cheshire, i. 466-7). His father, Major-general John Lee, served in the 1st foot-guards and 4th foot, and was colonel of the 54th, afterwards 44th foot (now the 1st Essex regiment), from 1748 to his death in 1751. John Lee married Isabella, third daughter of Sir Henry Bunbury, third baronet of Stanney Hall, Cheshire. Before his death he sold the Dernhall estate. Charles, the youngest of his children, was born at Dernhall in 1731. He was sent to the grammar school at Bury St. Edmunds, and afterwards to an academy in Switzerland, where he acquired some knowledge of classics and French. He is said to have received a commission when he was eleven years old, but his name first appears in the military records on 9 April 1746, when he was appointed ensign in his father's regiment (Home Office Military Entry Book, xix. f. 282). As a lieutenant he accompanied the regiment (44th foot) to America, under the command of Thomas Gage (1721-1787) [q. v.], and was with it in the disaster at Fort Duquesne, under General Edward Braddock [q. v.] When his regiment went into quarters at Albany, Lee was present at the Indian conference at Schenectady, and was initiated into the Bear tribe of Mohawks, under the curiously prophetic name of 'Ounewaterika' (Soiling Water). On 11 June 1756 he obtained his company in the regiment, for which he gave 900l. He commanded the 44th grenadiers and was wounded in the desperate assault on Ticonderoga on 1 July 1758. When quartered at Long Island in December 1758 his life was attempted by a medical officer whom he had thrashed for lampooning him. This was the first of many unpleasant situations into which his dissatisfied spirit and caustic tongue placed him. He was with his regiment at the capture of Niagara in 1759, and was sent over Lake Erie with a small party of soldiers to follow up the few French who escaped. The party, the first British troops to cross Lake Erie, eventually made their way to Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburg), whence they marched to Crown Point to join Amherst's force. With the latter they were present at the capture of Montreal. Lee was in London early in 1761, and on 10 Aug. in that year was appointed major of the 103rd foot, or 'volunteer hunters, a newly raised light corps. He was one of the British officers attached to the staff of the Portuguese army, with which he served as lieutenant-colonel in the campaign of 1762, and distinguished himself under General John Burgoyne (1722-1792) [q. v.] in the brilliant affair at Villa Velha on 5 Oct. 1762 (see Fonblanque, p. 60). He returned home at the peace, and when the 103rd was disbanded in November 1763, was put on half-pav.
Lee busied himself with a Utopian scheme for the establishment of military colonies on the Wabash and Illinois, to which emigrants were to be attracted from Germany and Switzerland, as well as from New England ; but the government would have nothing to do with the project. He obtained letters of recommendation to the Polish government, and in 1764 was appointed major-general in the Polish army, and was attached to the personal staff of Stanislas Augustus Poniatowsky as adjutant-general. He accompanied the Polish embassy to Constantinople in 1766, and was snowed up in the Balkans, where he nearly lost his life. After a sojourn at Constantinople he returned to England, and obtained letters patent for a crown grant of twenty thousand acres in Florida (Lee Papers, vol. i.) He openly expressed his wrath at failing to obtain other employment, and thus acquired the character of a disappointed and vindictive place-hunter. Early in 1769 he returned to Warsaw; held a major-general's command in the campaign against the Turks, and characteristically railed against his commanders. Returning to Vienna from Hungary he had a violent attack of fever that nearly cost him his life, and lost some of his fingers in a duel with a foreign officer, whom he killed. He went to Gibraltar by way of Minorca, and thence to England, where he wrote a satirical epistle to David Hume and other papers. The summer of 1772 he spent in France and Switzerland, seeking relief from rheumatism.
Lee at this time, through the death of his brothers, had a private income of at least 1,000l. a year, besides grants of land in the colonies (Life of Hanmer, p. 466), but disappointed at his neglect at home he turned his attention to America. He arrived in New York on 10 Nov. 1773, in the midst of the agitation about the tea duties, and spent ten months in travelling and in making the acquaintance of the principal leaders of the revolutionary movement. He won high favour by his expressed zeal for the cause, and did it some real service, both with tongue and pen. The best of his writings at this time was his 'Strictures on a Friendly Address to all Reasonable Americans' (1774), in which he severely handled the tory arguments of Dr. Miles Cooper. The pamphlet was reprinted many times. On 16 Dec. 1774 Lee addressed a letter to Edmund Burke, sending it through Sir Joshua Reynolds, with whom he had been on terms of friendship. In this letter he endeavoured to show the real state of feeling in the colonies, and remarked that the Americans would not, and ought not to, trust any one, no matter what his qualifications, who held no property in the colonies. To remove this objection in his own case (nothing is said of his grants), Lee purchased for 5,000l. Virginian currency (about 3,000l. sterling) an estate in the Shenandoah Valley, in Berkeley co. Virginia, near that of his friend Horatio Gates. He did not complete the purchase until May 1775, when the second colonial congress was in session. To pay for it he borrowed money from Robert Morris, giving bills on his agent in England, and mortgaging the estate as security. His name appears as a lieutenant-colonel on half-pay in the 'Annual Army List' of Great Britain for 1774, but is omitted from that corrected to January 1775, when he had resigned his British commission. On 17 June 1775 (the day of Bunker's Hill) Lee, who was at Cambridge, was appointed to the highest command congress thought it prudent to bestow upon him, that of second major-general of the army before Boston; Artemus Ward (cf. Appleton, sub nom.) was first major-general, and Washington commander-in-chief. Lee, who had a professional soldier's contempt for civilian generals, sneered at Ward as a 'fat churchwarden.' and appears to have regarded himself as a mentor, to whose guidance and tutelage in military matters Washington, a raw general, placed above him for political reasons, had been confided. Lee opened a correspondence (on 7 June 1775) with his old acquaintance Burgoyne, then lately arrived at Boston with reinforcements ; but his letter did not reach Burgoyne until a month later (Fonblanque, pp. 161, 168). Burgoyne, in a subsequent account of the correspondence, says that he knew Lee's failing to be avarice, and that he believed his apostasy to be dictated by resentment (ib. pp. l76 et seq.) Burgoyne's biographer is obliged to admit that Burgoyne had little hesitation in prompting, or rather proposing to prompt, his former brother-officer to a dishonourable course (ib. p. 178). A conference between Lee and Burgoyne was suggested by the latter, and the proposal was referred to the provincial congress of Massachusetts. That body disapproved of the scheme, and Lee declined Burgoyne's offer. Lee was employed at Newport in December 1775, and at New York in January following, where he did good service in beginning the erection of the defences. On the news of the death of Richard Montgomery (31 Dec. 1775) he was nominated to the command of the American forces in Canada, but was counter-ordered to Charleston, South Carolina, where he defeated the British attack on 28 June 1776. According to some American accounts, the credit of the defence was chiefly due to the engineer, Moultrie. The 'hero of Charleston,' as Lee was now called, proposed to invade Florida, but was ordered to report himself to congress at Philadelphia. The bills drawn by him on his agent in England to repay the advance of 3,000l. had been returned protested, Lee's property in England having been confiscated. Congress granted him thirty thousand dollars by way of indemnification, to be repaid if he recovered his English estates. Lee repaired to New York, and took command of the right wing of Washington's army. Artemus Ward had long since retired, leaving Lee second only to Washington in rank. He proved himself an intractable subordinate. On 13 Dec. 1776 Lee was surprised at White's Tavern, Baskenridge, a little outside his own camp, by a scouting party of the 16th light dragoons under Colonel Hon. William Harcourt [see Harcourt, William, third Earl]. Part of the 16th dragoons had fought under Lee at Villa Velha. The account in vol. xi. of the privately printed 'Harcourt Papers' shows the capture to have been a mere accident, the party having no- idea of the proximity of the enemy. No confirmation is given of the improbable stories of Lee's cowardice, but he appears to have been very roughly handled. In his shirt and a blanket coat, without a hat, he was tied on a spare troop-horse and hurried to the British camp through eighty miles of hostile country, whence he was sent to New York. The importance attached by the Americans to his capture is attested by their offer of six Hessian officers of rank in exchange. Sir William Howe [q. v.] rejected the offer, on the ground that Lee was a British deserter, a pretension he had to abandon under threat of reprisals. He was instructed from home to treat Lee as a prisoner of war, subject to exchange when convenient.
Lee informed the brothers Howe, who were the royal commissioners, that he disapproved of the Declaration of Independence, and hoped, could he but obtain an interview with a committee from congress, to open negotiations for an honourable and satisfactory adjustment of all differences. The Howes, who were well disposed towards America and sincerely anxious for peace, allowed him to seek the interview. But Lee's eccentric conduct had damaged his reputation, and congress refused to meet him. He was regarded with vague suspicion, but rather as wayward and untrustworthy than treacherous. Many British officers spoke of him as 'the worst present that could be given to the Americans.' When the conference was refused Lee is said to have sought favour with the Howes by professing to abandon the American cause as hopeless, and going so far as to draw up a plan of operations for a British expedition to the Chesapeake. A document, stated to be in the handwriting of Lee, and endorsed 'Mr. Lee's Plan— 29 March 1777,' in the handwriting of Henry Strachey, the secretary to the royal commissioners, was said to have been found among the 'Howe Papers' in 1858. It was published at New York in 1860 by George H. Moore, in a work entitled 'The Treason of Charles Lee.' Further information on the subject promised by the author has never appeared. But the volume of the 'Lee Papers' which deals with the period in question has not yet been published.
Lee was at length exchanged, and rejoined Washington's army at Valley Forge in May 1778. On 18 June Clinton [see Clinton, Sir Henry, the elder] who had succeeded Howe, evacuated Philadelphia, hoping to cross New Jersey on his way to New York without giving battle. Washington followed to attack him on the way. Lee showed so much reluctance to attack that Washington entrusted the duty to La Fayette. At the last moment Lee changed his mind, and solicited the command, which La Fayette gracefully ceded to him. On 28 June 1778 Lee came up with Clinton's rear-guard near Monmouth Courthouse, but he gave such extraordinary directions that La Fayette sent warning to Washington. When Washington came up he found Lee's division retreating in disorder, with the British close at their heels. Washington blamed Lee for the disaster, and sent him to the rear.
On 2 July 1778 Lee was tried at Brunswick, New Jersey, by a general court-martial, of which Major-general Lord Stirling was president, on three charges, vie. (1) disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy ; (2) misbehaviour 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 of all three charges, and sentenced to be suspended from command for twelve months. The sentence was confirmed by congress. Lee, who defended himself with great ability, subsequently published a vindication of his conduct, in which he reviewed Washington's military policy from the commencement. This led to a duel with Colonel Peter Laurens, Washington's aide-de-camp; Lee was severely wounded in the side, but bore generous testimony to his adversary's conduct. 'The young fellow behaved splendidly.' he said; 'I could have hugged him.' In the summer of 1779 Lee retired to his estate in the Shenandoah Valley, where, in company with his dogs, of which he was passionately fond, and a few favourite books, he lived a recluse, 'in a style peculiar to himself.' He bred horses and dogs, but appears to have had no taste for fanning. After three years he became tired of this misanthropic seclusion, and proposed returning to the haunts of men. He was seized with a fever while on a visit to Philadelphia, and died in a tavern there, friendless and alone, on 2 Oct. 1782, at the age of 51. He was buried in Christ Church burying-ground, Washington, and a great concourse of citizens attended his funeral. Lee left his property to a sister in England, Miss Sidney Lee, who died unmarried in 1788, aged 61.
In person Lee was tall and remarkably thin, with an ugly face and an aquiline nose of enormous size. His manners, although eccentric, were high bred and impressive. In latter days he was careless and slovenly in his habits. He was a fast friend and a bitter enemy (Life of Hanmer, p. 454). In matters of religious opinion Lee appears to have been heterodox, not atheistic, as generally asserted (cf. ib. p. 475). He was a clever, well-informed man, a ready speaker and writer, conversing in French, German, Spanish. Italian, and several Indian dialects ; but his bad temper brought him to the verge of insanity.
Lee was one of the persons credited with the authorship of the 'Letters of Junius.' The idea appears to have originated with a communication by Thomas Rodney to the 'Wilmington Mirror' in 1803, relating a conversation with Lee thirty years previously, in which Lee had declared himself to be the writer of the letters. The communication was copied into the 'St. James's Chronicle' (London, 1803), and the idea was afterwards worked up with much ingenuity by Dr. Thomas Girdlestone [q.v.] in 'Facts tending to prove that General 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's Letters," ' London, 1813. The work gives some interesting glimpses of Lee, and the frontispiece, a caricature of Lee with his dog, by Barham Rushbrooke, is said to be the best likeness extant; but the claim put forward is answered by the fact that Lee's passports and letters, published in vol. i. of the 'Lee Papers,' snow that he was in Poland and Hungary during the whole of the critical period, January-December 1769. Lee's essays and pamphlets were edited, with a biographical sketch (incorrect in many details), by Edward Langworthy, under the title 'Memoirs of the late Charles Lee, Esq..' Dublin, 1792. No relationship has been traced between Charles Lee and the Lees of Virginia, the family of the eminent American generals, Henry Lee ('Light-Horse Harry') of the revolutionary war, and Robert Edward Lee of the civil war.