Charles Lee: Gift of Controversy

Charles Lee between 1776 and 1790. Source: Library of Congress
Charles Lee between 1776 and 1790. Source: Library of Congress

Until the capture of Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright in World War II, the highest-ranking American generals taken prisoner were Major Generals Benjamin Lincoln and Charles Lee. Lincoln was taken when his army was forced to surrender at Charleston in 1780 but the enigmatic, eccentric Lee was ignominiously kidnapped when he failed to billet himself within his army’s position.

A former British Army officer, Lee had just returned from his nominal part in the American victory at Charleston, South Carolina, in June of 1775. Strange looking with a high sense of self importance, Abigail Adams said of Lee: “The elegance of his pen far outweighs that of his person,”[1] Gangly, with a head too big for his body, Lee was the second in command of the Continental Army during the fighting around New York City. Followed by a pack of dogs and his Italian manservant, Lee had little impact in those battles.

Forced to retreat from New York, George Washington divided his army into three divisions. William Heath took part and moved into northern New York on the east side of the Hudson. Charles Lee was given three thousand men and held himself in the north central highlands of New Jersey. Washington himself moved across New Jersey and crossed the Delaware. Finding his force too small to put up a competent defense of Philadelphia or contest the British, Washington ordered Lee to join him. He sent Lee two letters to this effect, more as requests than orders, but Washington became frustrated and wrote Lee twice more: “I must therefore entreat you to push on with every succor you can bring,”[2] and “Let me once more request and entreat you to march immediately for Pitts Town…”[3] Still Lee failed to move, making excuses about his own plans, trying to get Heath to take his place, anything to keep Washington at arm’s length.

After sitting for three days at Morristown, Lee finally began moving on December 11, heading toward the Delaware but still at a snail’s pace and entertaining his own ideas of striking at the British or just remaining in place to keep up civilian morale in the area. On the twelfth, as the day’s journey ended and the army bedded down for the night, Lee continued on with a small escort of about fifteen men, two French officers who wished to join the Continental service, and his aide. They stopped at the Widow White’s tavern near Basking Ridge and settled in for the night.

The British were also moving toward the Delaware in pursuit of Washington and a possible crossing of the river to take Philadelphia. The British commander, William Howe, sent out a party of 28 dragoons and five officers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt, to find the location of Lee’s force; among them was young, ambitious Banastre Tarleton. As they neared the tavern, they captured two American videttes who informed Harcourt of the position of Lee’s army and also the general’s lodgings. Riding on to confirm the report, Tarleton captured a messenger carrying a dispatch from Lee who confirmed the unsuspecting general’s location.

At about ten in the morning of a very unlucky Friday the 13th Lee sat leisurely writing a letter to fellow general Horatio Gates with the loutish Major James Wilkinson waiting to take the note.[4] Lee had already sent orders to his senior subordinate John Sullivan, to get the army moving and he would join them in his own time. Hearing a commotion outside, Wilkinson saw through an upstairs window the approach of red-coated dragoons, too late, as the tavern was already surrounded.  Harcourt had skillfully positioned his men, ironically of the same 16th Light Dragoons that Lee had served alongside in Portugal under John Burgoyne, around the tavern. They easily dispersed the guards, killing two and wounding four others. One of the Frenchmen attempted to escape out the back door but was wounded and captured. The British fired a few shots through the windows and demanded the surrender of the occupants. Further resistance appeared useless and Lee’s aide, Major William Bradford, went to the door and arranged for Lee’s surrender. Sheepishly, Lee came out a few minutes later and agreed to go with the British after first getting a cloak and hat, as he had been surprised in his small clothes. Wilkinson, in his eyewitness account, describes how he bravely hid behind the chimney with two loaded pistols as Lee was led away.[5] Bradford, disguised as a servant, and the unwounded Frenchmen escaped when Lee was hustled away into a comfortable captivity. Despite the self-serving claims of Tarleton, who was out back of the tavern at the time,[6] it was Harcourt who took Lee’s surrender. Lee gave credit to his actual captor, whom he complemented: “To Colonel Harcourt’s activity every commendation is due; had I commanded such men, I had this day been free…”[7]

Lee was taken to New Brunswick and on to New York. Many British officers wished him tried as a traitor or deserter but Lee had prudently resigned his half pay commission in the King’s forces and was kept as a prisoner until parole and exchange could be arranged. In New York, he lived well and mixed easily with his captors, many who were former comrades, until exchanged for Major General Richard Prescott on May 8, 1778.

Despite the obvious embarrassment of the situation, Washington voiced the feelings of many when he told Congress, “I sincerely regret Genl. Lee’s unhappy fate, and feel much for the loss of my country in his captivity.”[8] While it may appear a loss, one positive outcome was that Sullivan, leading Lee’s troops, joined Washington in time to assist in the battle of Trenton on December 26. It also left Washington with one less competitor for the affections of the army and Congress.

Harcourt would have a successful military career with many highlights, of which the capture of Charles Lee was one of the most satisfying; it is commemorated by a panel on his monument at Windsor Castle.[9] The two men who were eyewitness chroniclers of Lee’s kidnapping, Wilkinson and Tarleton, would end their contentious careers as generals.

Lee continued to be an enigma until his death in 1782.  While in captivity, he shared a plan with his captors for the defeat of the Continental Army that later critics have construed as treason, a plan not discovered until 1857. Details of that episode, like his later actions at Monmouth, his friendly correspondence with British officers throughout the war, his numerous duels or his plans for the capture of Spanish Mexico, make Lee a gift of controversy that keeps on giving even today.


[1] Letter from Abigail to John Adams 16 July, 1775, Charles Frances Adams, ed. Familiar Letters of John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams, during the Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press), 79.

[2] Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volume 7, October 1776- January 1777 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997), 302.

[3]  Chase, ed., The Papers of GeorgeWashington, 335.

[4] This oft quoted letter makes reference to Washington as “…a certain great man is damnably deficient.…” The Lee Papers, Vol. II (New York, NY: New York Historical Society, 1872), 348.

[5] James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times, Vol. I (Philadelphia: A. Small, 1816), 104.

[6] Tarleton’s letter to his mother, December 18, 1776, in Robert Bass, The Green Dragoon, (Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Co, 1957), 20.

[7] The Lee Papers, Vol. II, 356.

[8] The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Volume 7, October 1776- January 1777, 344.

[9] A photo of the panel is found in Samuel White Patterson, Knight Errant of Liberty: The Triumph and Tragedy of General Charles Lee, (New York, NY: Lantern Press, 1958).

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  • More seriously, this is a well detailed description of a small but telling episode. Charles Lee may have been a poor colleague, but he’s such a rewarding research subject!

  • The Battle of Fort Sullivan, the first major Naval Victory, took place on June 28, 1776 a few days before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Charles Lee was mortified at the unfinished fort and ordered evacuation. However, Gov. Rutledge told Col. Moultrie to disobey this order. Lee kept concentrating on providing a way for the soldiers to retreat from the island. It was on June 27th that Lee ordered Moultrie to evacuate the fort on the day before the eleven hour battle. So great was the victory that the British did not come back for over 3 years!

  • This article is an excellent short summary of Lee’s revolutionary war experience. For a more detailed treatment of this strange but forever fascinating man see two recently published books: Dominick Mazzagetti’s fine biography, “Charles Lee, Self Before Country,” and my own “Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture General Charles Lee and Richard Prescott.”

  • One of the great literary mysteries of Americana is the fate of Lee’s original papers for use in comparison to the published version.

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