Gen. Charles Lee — The Traitor Who Threatened America
GEN. WASHINGTON and his staff thundered up, through the broiling summer heat, to the stricken battlefield of Monmouth. News had reached the commander-in-chief that his trusted leader, Gen. Chas. Lee, had disobeyed orders and that as a result, the American army was retreating.
Washington took in the situation at a glance. The patriots were falling back. The British were everywhere successful. His blue eyes ablaze with anger, the chief galloped across to Lee.
“In heaven’s name, General,” he shouted, “what means this ill-timed prudence?”
“I know of no one,” sneered Lee, “who has more of that abominable virtue than your excellency.”
At this retort the last barriers of Washington’s patience gave way. He hurled at Lee a public reprimand that the latter never forgot nor forgave. It was a case of a just man’s wrath at a blackguard’s misdeeds.
Charles Lee was born in England in 1731. He joined the British army as a mere child. At the age of eleven he was a commissioned officer. He fought in America during the French and Indian war and rose fast in rank to a lieutenant-colonelcy. But he had a sarcastic tongue and an ungovernable temper. He criticised his superior officers and made fun of their weaknesses. This sort of thing does not help a man on in any walk of life. It led at last to Lee’s practical dismissal from the army. He drifted to Poland and Russia, where, serving as a soldier of fortune, he received the rank of major-general. He also won doubtful fame as a ferocious duelist.
Leaving Russia, Lee made his way to America a short time before the Revolution. He hated England and he loved intrigue. So he plunged into the stirring politics of the day, siding with the patriots. The Revolutionary army was short of experienced officers and was delighted to accept the services of so noted a soldier as Lee. He was offered the rank of second major-general under General Washington. He bargained shrewdly with congress before accepting this honor, declaring that King George’s government would surely confiscate his British estates, and demanding to be paid for them. Congress agreed to give him $30,000 out of the impoverished patriot treasury as recompense for this possible loss.
Now began Lee’s American military career. From the first he seems to have had two aims. One, to seize Washington’s position as commander-in-chief; the other, to sell the American cause, at the best possible terms, to the British. After more than once risking the army’s welfare by disobeying Washington’s orders, Lee was captured at Basking Ridge, N.J., by the British. Whether or not he consented to the capture in order to carry out his treason plot cannot be known. But during his captivity (most of which he spent in a suite of rooms in New York City Hall) he came to terms of understanding with the British general, Howe, and explained to him his ideas on how best to crush the Revolution. Thinking he would be of more use to them in the Revolutionary army than in prison, the British set him free in 1778 and he went back to his duties. (The complete draft of Lee’s plan, by which the colonies might be overthrown, was found in 1857 among General Howe’s private papers.)
Then came the battle of Monmouth. The English, under Clinton, in June, 1778, evacuated Philadelphia and retreated across New Jersey to the British headquarters at New York. Washington resolved to smash part of the British army at Monmouth, N.J., on its march. Lee begged him not to make the attempt, but Washington sent him with an advance guard of 6,000 men to overtake the enemy. Lee caught up with the British at Monmouth on June 28, 1778, and began the battle in so strange and incompetent a way that Lafayette, in alarm, sent a secret message begging Washington to hurry to the front. Washington arrived in time to meet Lee in full retreat. He rebuked the traitor, rallied the army and saved the day.
No one could understand Lee’s odd behavior, for no one then knew he was false. In rage at the rebuke, he wrote two insulting letters to Washington, who promptly ordered him arrested. A court-martial suspended him from active service for a year. In rage, he retired to a mountain hut, where, for months, he lived like a hermit.
As his year of suspension drew to an end, Lee wrote an abusive letter to congress, and was at once dismissed from the army. He went to live on an estate he had bought in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1782 he visited Philadelphia, where he fell ill and died.
Daily Commonwealth (Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin) Jul 16, 1912