December 1776 was one of the darkest months in American history. The American Revolution was on the brink of collapse. New York City had fallen, George Washington’s Continental Army was disintegrating before the country’s eyes, and the British Army under Sir William Howe was steamrolling its way across New Jersey toward the Delaware River—the only barrier preventing Howe from squeezing the life out of the rebellion.
Following the fall of Forts Lee and Washington along the Hudson River the previous month, the Continental Army fled from the British in two major wings. Washington, commanding just 3,000 men, hastily made his way across the northern part of New Jersey in an attempt to get over the Delaware and into Pennsylvania. Major General Charles Lee, who the commander in chief described as, “The first officer in Military knowledge and experience we have in the whole army….,” commanded the other wing—7,000 men at White Plains situated above New York City in case Howe attempted to head north. Lee was eccentric and erratic, but was by far the American commander with the most military experience and knowledge at this early stage in the conflict, as Washington had admitted. This could not, however, protect Lee from the enemy.
On multiple occasions at the end of November and in early December, Washington asked, requested, and then ordered Lee to bring his command into Pennsylvania so the army may be reunited. Lee hesitated, drug his feet, and then began to grow fond of the idea of having his own independent command in New Jersey away from the reigns of his superior, whose abilities he doubted. While Washington waited, Lee wrote to Congress on December 8 that he planned to stay east of the Delaware River and “annoy, distract, and consequently weaken [the British] in a desultory war.” On December 10, his command marched into Morristown, New Jersey, and two days later moved south west to Bernardsville. It was here, that Lee decided to search for more suitable conditions for a general to make his headquarters for the evening. He found what he was looking for three miles to the east in Basking Ridge at the two-story Widow White’s Tavern. With him, he took his aide, Major William Bradford, two French volunteer officers, and fifteen guards who situated themselves around the building. That evening, Major James Wilkinson, General Horatio Gates’s aide, rode to White’s Tavern with a dispatch for Lee from his superior.
While Lee and his party got themselves comfortable that night, British dragoons were galloping about Central Jersey trying to find out all they could about Lee’s command’s whereabouts. Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt, 22 year old Cornet Banastre Tarleton, and thirty or more horsemen of the 16th Dragoons had left General Charles Cornwallis’s headquarters at Pennington earlier in the day and rode willy-nilly to Hillsborough on their intelligence gathering mission without any success. They made their camp there in a house that was lit on fire in the middle of the night, forcing them to make a hasty escape and sleep within a hay barn. Early the next morning, they mounted up and continued on their task. Tarleton and several other dragoons were sent ahead of the rest of the group.
As the sun rose, the two groups headed in the direction of Morristown, scooping up several rebels along the way, but only receiving sketchy information about the enemy’s location. Near Basking Ridge, their luck changed as a rider from Gen. Sullivan was intercepted who had just returned from Lee’s headquarters. He led Tarleton and Harcourt within sight of White’s Tavern. Harcourt quickly formulated his plan of action—Lee was there, and he was going to capture this grand prize. Young Tarleton was ordered to rush the guards at the front of the structure, while he took his party around the back to surround and cut off their escape. It was 10 a.m.
As the dragoons prepared to make their attack, Lee was still inside White’s Tavern. Even though his command had begun to march out of Bernardsville, he chose to stay behind and finish breakfast and dictating a response to Wilkinson for Gates. His response was a clear shot at Washington: “… entre nous [between us], a certain great man is damnably deficient—He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties—if I stay in this Province [New Jersey] I risk myself and army and if I do not stay the Province is lost forever … unless something which I do not expect turns up we are lost—our counsels have been weak to the last degree….” Lee had no idea of the risk he was actually facing at that moment.
Shots rang out from outside after Lee finished his message. Tarleton and his dragoons swept out through the woods and violently fell upon the general’s guard. “I went on at full Speed,” Tarleton later recounted, “when perceiving 2 [guards] at a Door and a loaded Waggon; I push’d at them making all the Noise I cou’d. The [guards] were struck with a Panic, dropp’d their arms and fled. I order’d my Men to fire into the House thro’ every Window and Door, and cut up as many of the Guard as they cou’d.” Within minutes the fire ceased and the cornet demanded Lee and everyone inside the tavern to surrender or he set fire to it and kill them all. Lee was upstairs during the fighting hoping and watching for reinforcements. They would not come. Recognizing the inevitable, he sent Maj. Bradford outside to inform Tarleton that he would surrender.
In the wake of the skirmish, Bradford, Wilkinson, and one of the Frenchmen managed to make their escape. Lee, however, would not be so fortunate. After surrendering himself to Harcourt, he was taken back to Pennington, sent to New Brunswick, and eventually to New York City for confinement. He would not be paroled and returned to the Continental Army for nearly sixteen months. The American army and the status of its cause for independence which it fought and bled for would be much different then.