Renegade Revolutionary:
The Life of Charles Lee

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Book Review: Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of Charles Lee by Phillip Pappas (New York University Press, 2014).

Prior to 2013, there had not been a major biography of Charles Lee since 1968. Then, within the span of a year, from 2013 to 2014, two major biographies of Lee were released, as well as my book, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, which is essentially a mini-biography of Lee.[1] This coincidence corrects an imbalance, as Charles Lee is an underappreciated founder of the American republic.

The best of the biographies is by Phillip Pappas. It is written in wonderfully clear and concise prose, is well footnoted with a variety of original and secondary sources, and effectively covers the span of Lee’s incredibly varied, if short, life. Pappas’s book contains some of the best descriptions of Lee in print, including of his extraordinary service as a soldier of fortune in wars in Poland.

Any biography of Lee must be compared to that of John R. Alden’s superb 1957 work, General Charles Lee, Traitor or Patriot?, still one of the best biographies of a Revolutionary War founder. Two important advantages of Pappas’s book are that it is in print, while Alden’s is not, and that it incorporates many scholarly discussions of Lee by historians who have dealt with him since 1957, as well as insightful new observations by Pappas himself.

Charles Lee probably had the most remarkable personality of any military or civilian leader on either side of the Revolutionary War. Born in England, he was ignored by his mother; his father, colonel of a British regiment, at least made sure that his son was trained to be an army officer. During the French and Indian War in America, Lee showed courage in battle, but also a penchant for getting into disputes with his fellow officers and writing bitterly sarcastic invectives against his superiors. He called Major General James Abercrombie, for example, a “stupid blunderer” and “our booby in chief.” The most widely read of the American army’s officers, Lee commanded a spectacularly successful raid in Spain in 1762 and received even more military training during his years as a soldier of fortune in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.

As Pappas cogently points out, seeing first-hand the tyranny of Eastern European rulers made Lee an even stronger proponent of republican principles and critic of Britain’s monarchial and aristocratic power. In 1773 Lee moved to America, becoming a popular pamphleteer among patriots. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, given his extensive military experience, especially compared to American candidates, he was selected by the Continental Congress as the Continental army’s third-in-command. He became second-in-command when Artemus Ward resigned in 1776.   (Lee, angry when Ward was picked ahead of him, called the Harvard graduate a “fat old . . . church warden” who “had no acquaintance whatever of military affairs”).

Lee’s main contributions to the “Glorious Cause” came in the early years of the war, when uncertainty and concern about the ability of the American army to fight the professional British army was at its height. Lee did good work training raw soldiers during the siege of Boston; he buttressed patriots in Newport and New York City by visiting them and being tough on Tories; and, as a citizen-soldier, he was one of the early advocates of American independence from Britain. While he was the titular commander of the American forces at the defense of Charleston in June of 1776, he wisely stayed out of the way during Colonel William Moultrie’s successful defense of the city. Sent by Congress to New York City to assist General Washington’s faltering efforts to defend the city, Lee advocated that the commander-in-chief immediately evacuate his main army from Manhattan Island, which Washington fortunately did.

After that time, Lee’s career went into a downward spiral, much of it caused by his own hubris. During the critical period in the late fall of 1776 when Washington’s army was being chased out of New Jersey by superior British forces, Lee dithered and delayed in marching his division from White Plains, New York, to join Washington behind the Delaware River. Was Lee hoping that Washington’s force would be crushed, which seemed likely at the time, so that Lee could vault to the command of the Continental army? Or was Lee biding his time to raid an exposed British outpost? In any event, on December 13, 1776, Lee foolishly allowed himself to be captured by staying at a tavern three miles from his main army. I argue that an unintended consequence of Lee’s capture was making possible Washington’s crucial victory at Trenton.

During his captivity, Lee committed treason by submitting to the British commander-in-chief plans for subduing the American army. When he was released after eighteen months of mostly being confined to a few rooms, Lee wrote and promoted a plan for the American army based on the proposition that training American soldiers on the “European Plan,” as he called it, was foolhardy, because they could never stand toe-to-toe with British regulars. At the Battle of Monmouth Court House, Lee was unfairly accused of making an unwarranted retreat, but I argue, as does John Alden, that Congress got it unintentionally right when it suspended Lee for a year. Lee never returned to the Continental army and died of disease in 1782.

For Pappas, Lee was an important founder for several reasons. First, he showed his skills as a pamphleteer, arguing that Americans should “demolish those badges of slavery” that stifled man’s natural disposition to be free. Lee also was a proponent of the American militia taking the most prominent role in waging the war. Pappas writes that “Lee adhered to the notion that militias comprised of free citizens who were motivated by a desire to fight to preserve their liberty and defend their properties and families . . . made them better soldiers than men who were held to long-term service, paid a wage, and trained to fight from a drill manual.” Pappas further sees Lee as a man ahead of his time and showing modern sensibilities by advocating for the strategy of guerrilla war, the education of women, and treating dogs as valued pets. Pappas’s discussion of guerrilla war in the context of the Revolutionary War is one of the most novel and intriguing parts of his book.

To his credit, Pappas also writes that Lee “evidenced classic signs of what modern psychiatry would classify as manic-depressive (or bipolar disorder).” I thought the same thing, but was not brave enough to put those thoughts in my book. In addition, through his research and consulting with physicians, Pappas believes that Lee died of tuberculosis.

I do have disagreements with Pappas, but they mostly stem from the fact that he sees Lee in a more favorable light than I do. With Lee being such a polarizing figure, his biographers must choose to be largely sympathetic or critical of him. Pappas is in the former camp. When Lee submitted his plan to the British high command on how to defeat the Americans, in a misguided effort to try to end the war as quickly as possible in order to minimize the bloodshed on both sides, Lee committed treason. Even John Alden, another sympathetic biographer of Lee’s, stated that had Congress found out about it, Lee probably would have been hanged. Yet Pappas has just one paragraph addressing this topic. By contrast, Dominick Mazzagetti, in his biography of Lee, and I, show that the Englishman held the belief that the Americans should have negotiated a compromise settlement with Britain by abandoning their independence as late as more than one year after his capture.

Pappas gives details of Lee fundamentally changing his views during and after his captivity, but he fails to draw the logical conclusion from those changes. Pappas explains that shortly after his capture, Lee had promoted an effort to bring the Americans to the negotiating table with the British, but nicely adds that Lee himself had criticized a similar effort a few months previous to his attempt. Pappas also explains that after his return from captivity, Lee no longer believed in forcing Americans to take oaths to support the Continental Congress, while before his capture he was one of the main proponents among Americans advocating their use.

While Lee continued to advocate having an American army dominated by militia even after his release from imprisonment, he failed to recognize the changed circumstances. At Valley Forge, General Baron von Steuben had trained the Continental army into an effective fighting force. Both the regular soldiery and officer corps had improved during Lee’s captivity. Continental regiments would prove their mettle against British grenadiers and other regulars at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in late June of 1778, and many of the same regiments fought effectively two months later at the Battle of Rhode Island. Lee’s view that training American regular soldiers on the European Plan was “laughable” not only was wrong, it was outdated. With the arrival of a French fleet and army in North America in July of 1778, it was not a time for Washington to rely on militia, never mind guerrilla war. Lee also did not appreciate Washington’s effective strategy of creating a strong Continental army, but never risking all of it without having an avenue for retreat. With Lee’s fundamental differences in outlook about the nature of the American army, and his frequently acerbic and sarcastic invectives being a disruptive influence in any army to which he belonged, I believe it was for the best that Lee was suspended from the Continental army.

But my disagreement should not detract from Pappas’s excellent biography. As someone who is critical of post-captivity Lee, it is natural that I would focus on Lee’s problems rather than Pappas, who would prefer to discuss the general’s many favorable attributes. It is my fervent hope that Pappas will continue to write on Revolutionary War topics and make further valuable contributions to this underserved field.

 


[1] The other major biography of Charles Lee is Dominick Mazzagetti, Charles Lee, Self Before Country (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013). This too is a fine biography, but while the author has clearly mastered Charles Lee’s writings, he does not go too far beyond them. Mazzagetti tends to be more critical of Lee than either Pappas or me. To obtain a full understanding of Lee, the reader would be advised to read both Pappas’s and Mazzagetti’s biographies.

 

 

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5 Comments

  • It’s very interesting that you highlight Charles Lee’s political writing. His pamphleteering certainly stands out from other senior Revolutionary Generals. Do you have a source to read these pamphlets?

    • Gene: Fortunately, virtually all of Lee’s known writings are in a three-volume compilation published by the New York Historical Society from 1872 to 1875. His most famous pamphlet, “Strictures on a Pamphlet . . . Addressed to the People of America”, published in 1774, can be found in volume one starting on page 151. Lee did not rise to the level of Thomas Paine, but he could write some good lines now and again. Best, Christian

  • We use the word “treason” frequently when talking about the Revolution, however, we see it from our perspective, 200+ years later:after the Constitution was written, after the Washington Monument was built, after the Fourth of July parades. Can we really count Lee’s action in captivity as treason – less than a year after the Declaration of Independence was written? We tend to forget that Congress and the Continental Army were self created, and in 1777 their legitimacy was still shaky. Had Washington lost, or Congress been rounded up and hanged en masse, the Revolution might be seen the same way we see Jeff Davis and the Confederacy. Lee’s action just after capture may have been merely opportunism in an attempt to save himself from the firing squad.

  • Will: You make some interesting points. I will just make two points in response. First, the argument that he submitted the plan on how to defeat the American army and promoted a peaceful resolution of the war, with the former colonies returning to Crown control, in order to save himself from being executed, is weakened by the fact that he continued to promote a peaceful settlement more than a year later, well beyond the time when it was clear he was no longer at risk of being executed. (I cover this topic in my Kidnapping the Enemy book). Second, during his own life, following his release from captivity, Lee did not put in writing that he had submitted his plan to Howe on how to defeat the American army and had promoted a peaceful settlement of the war with the colonies returning to Crown control. I think it is clear that he quickly determined that if he had done so, his reputation would have been ruined in patriot circles, and further, that he would have risked being branded as a traitor. Best, Christian

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