Lee’s Defeat… in Court

The War Years (1775-1783)

March 17, 2014
by Jeff Dacus Also by this Author


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During the sweltering hot day of June 28, 1778, the Continental Army and the British Army fought the longest battle of the Revolutionary War at Monmouth Court House. Major General Charles Lee reluctantly agreed to lead the initial American effort, after first turning it down. Instructed by George Washington to attempt some type of action against the British rear guard, Lee’s confused attack quickly became a retreat after British General Henry Clinton adroitly counterattacked.         Swept up in the retreat of his troops, Lee was surprised when he met Washington and the main body of American army moving in support. Washington, unaware until a few minutes before that Lee’s men were falling back, angrily asked the befuddled general what was going on. Lee’s stammering reply was insufficient and heated words followed.

Washington organized a rear guard and ordered Lee to command it.  Washington formed the remainder of the army on Perrine Ridge, a dominating terrain feature. Lee performed his duty and moved to the rear, playing no further role in the battle that ended in a British withdrawal.

After the battle, while Washington and the other leaders of the Continental Army necessarily concentrated on the conduct of the army’s march to White Plains, petulant Charles Lee proceeded to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

The angry words of Washington during their battlefield meeting had struck deep in the heart of the enigmatic Lee and he felt that the commander in chief owed him an apology or at least an explanation. Lee boiled all through the 29th, listening to the negative buzz[1] around camp concerning his role in the retreat. Finally, that evening, as Lee received no communication on the subject, he penned a poorly worded note to Washington:

Camp, English Town, July 1st [actually June 29] 1778


From the knowledge I have of your Excy’s character-I must conclude that 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 to the ground where you had taken post- 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 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 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 maneuvers-And to speak with a becoming pride, I can assert, that to these maneuvers 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 the 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 this war retire from a service at the head of which is placed a man capable to 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 instigated 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 Lee[2]

Busy with the continuing campaign, Washington received the note sometime in the morning of July 30. One of Washington’s trademarks in writing was his brevity, a characteristic Lee should have cultivated, and the Virginian answered Lee’s rant the same day:

Head Qr. English Town June 30th 1778


I received your letter, (dated, thro’ mistake, the 1st of July) expressed, as I conceive, in terms highly improper. I am not conscious of having made use of any very singular expressions at the time of my meeting you, as you intimidate. What I recollect to have said was dictated by duty and warranted by the occasion. As soon as circumstances will permit, you shall have an opportunity either of justifying yourself to the army, to Congress, to America, and to the world in general; or of convincing them that you were guilty of a breach of orders and of misbehaviour before the enemy, on the 28th inst. in not attacking them as you had been directed and in making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat. I am Sir, your most obt. servt,

Go Washington[3]

Lee was not satisfied with his commander’s brusque reply and the sulking general penned another note, keeping it brief this time but again misdating it:

Camp June the 28th [actually the 30th] 1778


I beg your Excellency’s pardon for the inaccuracy in misdating my letter- you cannot afford me greater pleasure than in giving me the opportunity of shewing to America the sufficiency of her respective servants-I trust that the temporary power of office and the tinsel dignity attending it will not be able by all the mists they raise can offuscate the bright rays of truth, in the mean time your Excellency can have no objection to my retiring from the army-I am Sir your most obt. hble srvt.

Charles Lee[4]

But the querulous major general wasn’t finished irritating and insulting the commander in chief. Without giving Washington time to reply or even digest his last missive, Lee sent him another nettlesome note, almost like an afterthought to his previous, brief, communiqué:

Camp June 30th 1778


Since I had the honor of addressing my letter by Col. Fitzgerald [Washington’s aide] to your Excellency I have reflected on both your situation and mine, and beg leave to observe, that it will be for our mutual convenience, that a court of inquiry should immediately ordered- but I could wish it might be a court martial- for if the affair is drawn into length it may be difficult to collect the necessary evidences, and perhaps might bring on a paper war betwixt the adherents to both parties which may occasion some disagreeable feuds on the Continent- for all are not my friends nor all your admirers- I must intreat therefore from your love of justice that you will immediately exhibit your charge- and that on the first halt, I may be brought to tryal- and am Sir your most obt. hble servt.

Charles Lee[5]

There was no further note from Washington except to inform Lee of a court martial. Perhaps Lee really did not want a showdown with Washington, maybe it was only a few wagging mouths he wanted to silence, but he found himself squarely opposite the Virginian.

An immediate inquiry or court martial was not possible, as the army was in motion, waiting to see if the British were really crossing over to New York. The movements of the army postponed any trial until July 4. Instead of following his own advice about avoiding “…a paper war betwixt the adherents of both parties,” Lee fired the first shots of such a war himself. He penned a note to Isaac Collins of the New Jersey Gazette on July 3 complaining of an inaccurate or as he wrote, “…invidious, dishonest, and false…” account of the Monmouth encounter that was published on July 1. He asked that his letter be published to refute the account and offered that he had asked for a court martial. He followed it with a second note that expounded upon the action itself.[6]

The court martial proceedings began on July 4, chaired by Lord Stirling,  in a tavern at New Brunswick. The general officers present were Jedediah Huntington of Massachusetts, Enoch Poor of New Hampshire, William Smallwood of Maryland, and William Woodford of Virginia. None of these officers had been in the thick of the fighting on June 28. Of the eight colonels appointed, only William Grayson had been closely engaged at Monmouth but he was replaced the night before the trial began.

The formal charges were:

First: For disobedience of orders, in not attacking the enemy on the 28th of June, agreeable to repeated instructions.

Secondly: For misbehavior before the enemy on the same day, by making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat.

Thirdly: For disrespect to the Commander-in-Chief, in two letters dated the 1st of July and the 28th of June.[7]

Lee pleaded not guilty. Witnesses were called and questioned by the court or by Lee, as he was defending himself. Lee provided an able defense and was articulate in addressing witnesses and making points on his behalf. He questioned officers’ military abilities: General Forman, a very experienced officer of both militia and regular troops, was questioned as to whether he had ever seen a more orderly retreat, Forman replied that he had, at White Plains.[8]  Lee sarcastically questioned Charles Scott’s ability to discern a disorderly retreat, “Did it appear to you that the men were running away, or were only hastening their steps to take a more advantageous post in their rear?”[9] He took time to lecture the court on tactics and military history. In particular, he pressed the witnesses about his demeanor during the action. Lee emphasized the fact that he was under control of himself and not flustered by events. Most of the witnesses agreed with that characterization.

Junior commanders, like Colonel Walter Stewart, termed the retreat as disorderly.[10] Paradoxically, Lee claimed credit for saving the Continental army through his order to withdraw but during the trial he claimed the retreat was “…in direct opposition to my then wish…”[11]

At times the trial boiled down to a rift between the respected commander in chief and his second in command. Nathaniel Greene, who remained both a friend to Lee and an admirer of Washington, spoke for many when he wrote: “I am really Sorry for the Affair as I know it will create many Divisions in the Army.”[12]

Due to the movement of the army the trial took more than a single day and took place in several locations, ending on August 12 at Peekskill. Thirty-nine people testified during the lengthy proceedings. The results were a verdict of guilty on all three counts, with the word “shameful’ removed from charge two.

The sentence of the court was Lee’s suspension from the army for a year. The sentence was forwarded to Congress. Congress agreed to the court’s decision by a close vote, thirteen to seven, on December 5, 1778. From the beginning of the trial until Congress reached its decision, Washington stayed out of the controversy and contented himself with leading the army.

After the trial Lee tried to exonerate himself through letters to Congress and newspapers, the “paper war” he had wanted to avoid by court martial. The only results were the alienation of many of his supporters and of Congress. His personal attacks on Washington, and those close to him, resulted in a duel with one of the men he had referred to as an “earwig,” John Laurens, the young son of the president of Congress. At the time appointed, Laurens wounded Lee in the side. Lee’s wound was serious enough to persuade him to forgo fighting an additional duel with another of Washington’s favorites, Anthony Wayne. In addition to Wayne, six other officers were waiting for their turn to duel the wounded major general, but his injury and placating letters ended his dueling career.

As the year of suspension ended, Congress voted on a resolution “…that Congress have no further occasion for his service….” The resolution did not pass. In response for even considering such a motion, Lee belligerently wrote another insulting letter to Congress.[13] On January 10, 1780 Congress, fed up by his attacks on them and seeing the detriment to the cause, finally cashiered Lee from the service.

[Featured image at top: Charles Lee on horseback. Source: Library of Congress]


[1] Carlos E. Godfrey, The Commander in Chief’s Guard, (Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1972), 280.

[2] Edward Lengel,  et al., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 15, (Charlottesville; University of Virginia Press, 2006), 594-596.

[3] Lengel, Papers of George Washington, 595-596.

[4] Lengel, Papers of George Washington,  596.

[5] Lengel, Papers of George Washington, 596.

[6] The Lee Papers, Vol. II,  (New York Historical Society, 1872), 452-453.

[7] The Lee Papers, Vol. III, (New York Historical Society, 1873), 2.

[8] Lee Papers, Vol. III, 26.

[9] Lee Papers, Vol. III, 29.

[10] Lee Papers, Vol. III, 88.

[11] Lee Papers, Vol. III,194.

[12] Nathanael Greene, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, Vol. II, (University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 451.

[13] John Richard Alden, Charles Lee: Traitor or Patriot?, (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1951), 286-287.

One thought on “Lee’s Defeat… in Court

  • Was any evidence of direct, non discretionary orders to attack the British ever given at the Court Martial such as that claimed by Major Thomas Massie in his later pension application?

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