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.]

“That his northern laurels would be turned into southern willows” Major General Horatio Gates Arrives to take command in North Carolina, July 25, 1780

Opportunity knocked for Horatio Gates with the fall of Charleston, South Carlina in May 1780. A devastating loss for the Americans, with nearly 6,000 men of the Southern Army under Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to Sir Henry Clinton. Unless something wasn’t done soon, the entire southern colonies could fall and the revolution along with it. Congress needed someone who could inspire men to join the war effort and a trusted leader with a positive record. Washington put Nathaniel Greene’s name forward, but Congress in a rare move went against Washington’s wishes and appointed Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Department on June 13th

Major General Horatio Gates, ca. 1794 by Gilbert Stuart

The road from his victory at Saratoga to the Southern Department wasn’t an easy one for Gates. He sought independent field command and many believe he wanted Washington’s position as commander in chief. His allies in Congress and the Continental Army lobbied heavily on Gates’ behalf and were able to have Gates appointed to the powerful Board of War (the defacto Department of Defense). Though an important role (and serving as Washington’s civilian superior), Gates believed he belonged in the field.  Though his role in the famous “Conway Cabal” is still debated today, he was implicated via letters in criticizing Washington’s leadership. Whether his involvement was real or not, the relationship between him and Washington (and Washington’s inner circle) was seriously damaged. Due to the situation, Gates resigned from the Board of War and accepted appointment as department commander of the Northern Department. In this role he was responsible to look after the New York Highlands and watch from British incursions from Canada or New York city. Gates was unhappy in this role and proposed another American invasion of Canada. Washington and Congress disagreed and rejected his plans. He disliked his task of dealing with enemy native tribes in the region and dragged his feet in following orders. Finally, that fall, Gates took command of American forces in New England with his headquarters in Boston. Though excited by this appointment, he quickly realized that this post was not where the action would be. The British left Boston in 1776 and since the city was peaceful and not a welcome place for a man seeking glory and military action. Finally, after much frustration, Gates asked to return to his farm in Virginia and arrived there by December 1779. Gates found himself a hero without an army and continued to brood over his situation.

Continue reading ““That his northern laurels would be turned into southern willows” Major General Horatio Gates Arrives to take command in North Carolina, July 25, 1780”

A Handsome Flogging: 244th Anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth Revelry

Join ERW historians on our Facebook page this Sunday night at 7 p.m. as we discuss the Battle of Monmouth, which took place on June 28, 1778. In preparation for our trip to Monmouth Battlefield State Park next week, and our annual bus tour in November, we will focus on the journeys of both armies from Valley Forge and Philadelphia, the transformations each had experienced during the winter and spring, and the decisions made by the commanders on the road to Monmouth and on the battlefield that hot summer day in June. We hope you can join us as we begin our commemoration events of what most historians declare the “battle that made the American Army.”

“Rev War Revelry” Visits Forts Lee & Washington

On both banks of the Hudson River, in 1776, sat two forts the patriots hoped would stop any British excursions up the waterway. Named for the top two military leaders of the Continental army–George Washington and Charles Lee–the fortifications both fell to the British by late November of that same year.

Join Emerging Revolutionary War this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EDT on our Facebook page as the forts become the focal point for this week’s “Rev War Revelry.” Joining ERW will be Charlie Dewey who will help break down and discuss the implications of these actions in November 1776.

Dewey, an officer in the New York Army National Guard and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute has been a museum educator and special events coordinator for Fort Lee Historic Park since May 2018. He has been published in the Journal of the American Revolution along with being the author of various other scholarly articles on the Revolutionary time period.

Fort Washington, the last toehold of the Americans on Manhattan Island that fell and Fort Lee, the beginning of the long trek by Washington’s army across New Jersey late in 1776 have a unique part in American Revolutionary history. We look forward to you joining us this Sunday for this historian happy hour.

“Rev War Revelry” Author Interview: Christian McBurney

The hottest part of the hotttest temperature engagement in the American Revolution happened on June 28, 1778 at Monmouth Court House in New Jersey. The portion that gets the most attention out of this entire battle was the supposedly heated exchange between General George Washington and his second-in-command, General Charles Lee.

What ensued was the end of an American military career, as Lee would face a court martial, a suspension from duty, and a fall into obscurity. Historians have sorted through the primary sources of the time period to reconstruct what exactly happened on that balmy June day.

Yet, for the first time, a dedicated study, from the lens of both a historian and a practicing attorney, brings into focus the details of that fateful day in New Jersey. That topic, his new book, and historian Christian McBurney will be the focal point of this week’s “Rev War Revelry” as a Facebook live, this Sunday at 7 p.m. EST.

McBurney, an attorney in Washington D.C. and president of the George Washington American Revolution Round Table of Washington D.C. will speak on his latest publication, George Washington’s Nemesis, The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War. This book is one of five that McBurney has written on the subject of the American Revolution.

For more information on those books, click here. To read up or read the synopsis of the book at the center of the historian happy hour this Sunday, click here.

We look forward to welcoming you this Sunday; whether you read the book or on the fence about adding this volume to your expanding library or just want to know the history behind this last major battle in the northern theater in the American Revolution. Or all three! Remember to bring your comments, questions, and a favorite beverage to sip on as you tune in.

George Washington’s “Favorite” Charles Lee

When you mention the name “Charles Lee” in many Revolutionary War circles, one immediately thinks of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Though there was another Charles Lee and it can be argued provided more contributions to the United States than the British born military general.

220px-Charleslee
Charles Lee, Courtesy of Department of Justice

Charles Lee was born in 1758 on his father’s plantation Leesylvania in Prince William County, Virginia. The 2,000-acre farm that sat on the Potomac River and neighbored other Potomac River families such as the Fairfaxes, Washingtons and Masons. Charles’ father, Henry Lee II, a political colleague and friend of George Washington, Charles was one of eight siblings and five males that would solidify the Lee family’s role as leaders in politics and society. Continue reading “George Washington’s “Favorite” Charles Lee”