Monmouth Monday: Lee Starts a War of Letters with Washington

Major General Charles Lee’s role in the battle of Monmouth Courthouse and his subsequent court-martial is perhaps one of the Revolutionary War’s most controversial subjects. His conduct during the battle on June 28, 1778 can be both ridiculed and praised. Although he failed to pin the enemy rearguard into place before Washington could arrive with the rest of the American army, he successfully organized a delaying force at the Hedgerow that temporarily slowed the British pursuit and provided time for the army to form a strong defensive line atop Perrine Ridge. When the guns fell silent and the British retired from the field, Lee, then four miles away at Englishtown, immediately began to grow angry and slighted by the famous confrontation that occurred between himself and the commander-in-chief when the latter arrived on the field earlier that afternoon. It is possible that Lee’s performance would have avoided severe scrutiny—after all, Monmouth had been a tactical victory for the Continental Army. However, the eccentric and egotistical Lee could not bite his tongue. In a series of incredible letters addressed to Washington, he sealed his ultimate fate. Choosing honor above all else, Lee criticized and downright offended his superior. By the end of the exchange Lee demanded, “that on the first halt, I may be brought to trial.” Washington obliged him.

Washington Arrives on the Monmouth Battlefield

Below is the first letter written by Lee in the correspondence that would eventually lead to his removal from the army:

Camp English Town [30 June 1778]

Sir

From the knowledge I have of your Excys character—I must conclude that nothing but the misinformation of some very stupid, or misrepresentation of some very wicked person coud have occasioned your making use of so very singular expressions as you did on my coming up to the ground where you had taken post2—They implyed that I was guilty either of disobedience of orders, of want of conduct, or want of courage. Your Excellency will therefore infinitely oblige me by letting me know on which of these three articles you ground your charge—that I may prepare for my justification which I have the happiness to be confident I can do to the army, to the Congress, to America, and to the world in general. Your excellency must give me leave to observe that neither yourself nor those about your person, could from your situation be in the least judges of the merits or demerits of our measures—And to speak with a becoming pride, I can assert that to these manouvers the success of the day was entirely owing—I can boldly say, that had we remained on the first ground, or had we advanced, or had the retreat been conducted in a manner different from what it was, this whole army and the interests of America would have risked being sacrificed. I ever had (and hope ever shall have the greatest respect and veneration for General Washington) I think him endowed with many great and good qualities, but in this instance I must pronounce that he has been guilty of an act of cruel injustice towards a man who certainly has some pretensions to the regard of every servant of this country—And I think Sir, I have a right to demand some reparation for the injury committed—and unless I can obtain it, I must in justice to myself, when this campaign is closed, [(]which I believe will close the war) retire from a service at the head of which is placed a man capable of offering such injuries. But at the same time in justice to you I must repeat that I from my soul believe, that it was not a motion of your own breast, but instigaged by some of those dirty earwigs who will for ever insinuate themselves near persons in high office—for I really am convinced that when General Washington acts from himself no man in his army will have reason to complain of injustice or indecorum. I am, Sir, and hope I ever shall have reason to continue your most sincerely devoted humble servt

Charles Lee1

To hear more stories like Charles Lee’s and to walk the ground in which he fought, join Emerging Revolutionary War historians Billy Griffith and Phillip S. Greenwalt this November on a bus tour covering the winter encampment at Valley Forge and the Monmouth campaign. More in formation can be found on our website, www.emergingrevolutionarywar.org, or on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/events/632831987720200/?acontext=%7B%22event_action_history%22%3A[%7B%22surface%22%3A%22page%22%7D]%7D

[1] “To George Washington from Major General Charles Lee, 30 June 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0651. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 15, May–June 1778, ed. Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006, pp. 594–595.]

This entry was posted in 2022 Bus Tour, Battles, Charles Lee, Continental Leadership, Emerging Revolutionary War. Bookmark the permalink.

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