Charles Lee served as second-in-command of the Continental Army, subordinate only to George Washington. Born in England, Lee was the best-educated and most widely-read of all the Continental Army generals. He also had the most military experience, first serving as a British officer in the French and Indian War and later as a soldier of fortune in Poland, Russia and Turkey. This background, along with his natural abilities and caustic wit, gave him a sharp pen. These attributes do not mean he was the best Continental Army general, but they do provide entertainment to the reader and an appreciation of Lee’s innate intelligence. Of the many possible selections, these are my choices for the top ten quotes by Maj. Gen. Charles Lee.
1. “May God prosper the Americans in their resolutions, that there may be one asylum at least on the earth for men, who prefer their natural rights to the fantastical prerogative of a foolish perverted head because it wears a crown.”
Lee wrote this from Constantinople, Turkey, in 1766, during the Stamp Act Crisis. His harsh criticism of monarchial rule evokes the power of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which would be written a decade later.
In 1773, lacking options for promotion in England due to his criticisms of Crown rule, excited about the ideas of liberty espoused in America, and fondly recalling his military service there during the French and Indian War, Lee decided to leave Britain and seek a new life across the Atlantic. In explaining his decision to his sister, he wrote another great line: “Liberty I adore, and where she lives, that is my country.”
2. “It is most certain that men may be smartly dressed, keep their arms bright, be called [British] regulars, be expert in all the antics of a review and yet be unfit for real action. It is equally certain, that a militia [in America], by confining themselves to essentials, by a simplification of the necessary maneuvers, may become, in a very few months, a most formidable infantry. The yeomanry of America have, besides, infinite advantages over the peasantry of other countries; they are accustomed from their infancy to fire arms; they are expert in the use of them; whereas the lower and middle people of England are, by the tyranny of certain laws, almost as ignorant in the use of a musket as they are of the ancient Catapulta.”
In 1774, Lee authored and published a pamphlet extolling the virtues of American militia and boldly arguing that militiamen could defeat British regulars in battle. His pamphlet was one of the most widely read pamphlets leading up to the Revolutionary War. A “catapulta” was a Roman catapult used for launching arrows and javelins at an enemy force. Lee frequently used Roman and other ancient terms to display (or show off) his wide-ranging knowledge.
Throughout his military career, Lee had a penchant for insulting his superiors. This is just one example. When Congress selected Artemas Ward as the more senior major general to Lee, the Englishman’s reaction was typical when disappointed: overly harsh but with a kernel of truth. The forty-eight-year-old, Harvard-educated Ward had made his mark as a lieutenant colonel of the Massachusetts militia in the French and Indian War. After the battle of Lexington and Concord, he rose to command the New England troops laying siege to Boston. When he retired in March 1776 due primarily to health reasons, Lee became second-in-command of the Continental Army.
As indicated in his April 5, 1776, letter to Virginia Congressional delegate Richard Henry Lee (no relation), Charles Lee was one of the first Whigs to press Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. Congress would declare America’s independence three months later.
5. “T’was indecision in our military councils which cost us the garrison of Fort Washington, the consequence of which must be fatal, unless remedied in time by a contrary spirit . . . There are times when we must commit treason against the laws of the State for the salvation of the state. The present crisis demands this brave, virtuous kind of treason.”
Lee’s letter, written on November 22, 1776, reveals that he had lost confidence in General Washington, whom Lee blamed for the devastating loss of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. The letter also shows that Lee had treason on the brain. The comment is in the context of urging Massachusetts to send more troops and supplies, despite the lack of authorizing state laws; but perhaps Lee hoped it could also be read as suggesting that Lee be appointed head of the Continental Army in place of Washington. His statement was also a foretelling of his own treason.
On December 13, 1776, minutes before his capture at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, by British dragoons, at a tavern three miles from his main division, Lee wrote this line to Gen. Horatio Gates, lambasting Washington’s generalship. Once a firm believer in America’s ability to win its independence against Britain’s war machine, Lee began to harbor doubts.
7. “I am so confident of the event that I will venture to assert with the penalty of my life that if the plan is fully adopted . . . in less than two months . . . not a spark of this desolating war remains unextinguished in any part of the Continent.”
Following a string of defeats suffered by the Continental Army and his capture, Lee’s mindset changed. He now believed that America could not win the war and that to save bloodshed on both sides, America should renounce its Declaration of Independence and return to British rule. Within four months his capture, Lee submitted a military plan to British commanders explaining in detail how the British army could quickly win the war. As I argue in my book, George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War, Lee’s submission of his military plan constituted rank treason.
8. “If the Americans are servilely kept to the European Plan, they will make an awkward figure, be laughed at as a bad army by their enemy, and defeated in every rencontre which depends on maneuver.”
Lee’s treason was not discovered until seventy-five years after his death. Thus, when he was finally exchanged, he returned as second-in-command of the Continental Army. Despite his fifteen month absence, Lee came up with a plan to restructure the Continental Army. Lee objected to the Continental Army training to face British regular soldiers on the field of battle, which Lee called the “European Plan.” In his plan, Lee considered as “nonsense” the idea that American officers and soldiers were the equal of their British counterparts, and as “insanity” the notion that they could conduct an “offensive war” against the British army. According to Lee, “a plan of defense, harassing and impeding can alone succeed.” All this was counter to Washington’s idea of creating a new model army that could stand on the same battlefield as British regulars. At Valley Forge, Baron von Steuben had begun training officers and soldiers in attempt to achieve Washington’s goals.
Charles Lee wrote this sentence to counter exaggerated statements by some American officers that the Battle of Monmouth Court House had been a one-sided American victory. This is an example of Lee’s mastery of simple and succinct sentences that conveyed much information.
Unfortunately, the battle was a disaster for Lee. On June 26, 1778, Lee was given command of many of the Continental Army’s best troops with vague orders from Washington to attack the rear of British general Henry Clinton’s column near Monmouth Court House, New Jersey. Lee intended to attack the enemy’s rear guard on June 28, but instead he retreated in the face of Clinton’s bold move to reverse his march with some 6,000 troops. Crucially, two of Lee’s subordinate major generals, Charles Scott and William Maxwell —without orders and without informing Lee—moved more than half of his command off the field. Faced with the possible destruction of the balance of his force, Lee ordered a general retreat while conducting a skillful delaying action.
Many historians have been quick to malign Lee’s performance at Monmouth. Many of his contemporaries did so too. After the battle, Lee was convicted by court-martial for not attacking and for retreating in the face of the enemy. I believe this was a miscarriage of justice, for the evidence shows Lee was unfairly convicted and had, in fact, by retreating, performed an important service to the Patriot cause by saving his troops from possible destruction. The guilty verdict was more the result of Lee’s having insulted Washington, which made the matter a political contest between the army’s two top generals—only one of whom could prevail.
The volatile Lee did not react well to the charges against him. In a letter the day before the commencement of his court-martial trial to his friend, financial advisor and delegate to the Continental Congress Robert Morris, Lee revealed his true feelings, writing hysterically, “not content with robbing me and the brave men under my command of the honor due us, a most hellish plan has been formed (and I must say at least not discouraged by headquarters) to destroy forever my honor and reputation.” The bitter general went as far as to state that although American troops had forced the enemy to flee the last field of battle, “by all that’s sacred, General Washington had scarcely any more to do in it than to strip the dead.” Fortunately for Lee, Morris kept this ill-advised invective confidential.
Lee effectively conducted his own defense at his court-martial trial. Here is a quote from his closing statement at the trial, on the issue of whether Washington granted Lee the authority to exercise his own discretion in determining whether to attack the enemy. If Lee had been granted such discretion, and had decided not to attack pursuant to such authority, then he could not have violated an order to attack. As Lee colorfully and succinctly phrased it, “to disobey discretionary orders . . . is as absolutely impossible as to kill a dead man.”
10. “If I have committed any fault, been guilty of any treason, it has been against myself alone, in not once from the beginning of the contest to this day consulting common prudence with respect to my own affairs.”
This quote, made in 1780, was a rare moment of clarity for Lee. He ultimately recognized he had used poor judgment in demanding a court-martial, making it a contest between the army’s two top generals, and forcing Congress to choose between them. His course forced a political rather than a judicial decision. Congress approved the court-martial sentence against him—suspension from the army for one year. Lee never again served in a military capacity.
Lee, at the age of fifty-one, died of a fever at an inn in Philadelphia on the evening of October 22, 1782. Reportedly, with his last words, he came up with another memorable quote. Before his death, a Philadelphian informed John Bernard, an English travel writer: “A friend calling to see him at the inn where he was lying in Philadelphia, found him . . . sitting upright in bed, hands clinched on its frame, and his eyes glaring fiercely. At that moment he imagined himself once more amid the shock and shout of battle, and as the fire of life shot up its latest spark, he uttered his last words: ‘Stand fast, my brave grenadiers!’” Lee’s last words had been based on his imagining himself once again as a British officer and not one in the Continental Army.
Even after his death, Lee provided a memorable quote. In his will, Lee included a rather cheeky comment that created a sensation when it was published in 1784: “I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church or churchyard or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist meeting-house, for since I have resided in this country, I have kept so much bad company when living, that I do not choose to continue it when dead.” When Lee was buried shortly after his death, his will may not have been readily available. He was buried in the grounds of Christ Church on Second Street in Philadelphia, though within several months, nothing marked the spot. Lee’s remains were disinterred and buried next to the church’s south wall, where a plaque now commemorates the spot.
Charles Lee to Sydney Lee, March 1, 1766, in The Lee Papers, 1754-1811, in Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Years 1871-1874, 4 vols. (New-York Historical Society, 1872-75) (“Lee Papers”), 1: 42-43.
Charles Lee to Richard Henry Lee, April 5, 1776, in ibid., 1: 380. Lee actually arrived at the conclusion that America should be independent even earlier. In a January 3, 1776, letter to Congressional delegate from Pennsylvania Robert Morris, Lee wrote, “at present there appears no alternative: we must be independent or slaves.” Charles Lee to Robert Morris, Jan. 3, 1776, in ibid., 1: 233.
For more on Lee’s capture, the aftermath, and his ultimate exchange, see Christian McBurney, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2014).
Charles Lee’s Military Plan, March 29, 1777, in Lee Papers, 2: 365. Lee made a similar claim two more times in his military plan. He wrote of it, “if it is adopted in full, I am so confident of success that I would stake my life on the issue.” He also assured the British commanders Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe that he would “most sincerely and zealously contribute all in my power” to accomplish the return of America to the British fold, and boldly concluded, “I will answer my life for the success.”
Plan for the Formation of the American Army, undated (attached to letter dated April 13, 1778), in ibid., 2: 384. The archaic term rencontre, derived from French, in this context means a hostile meeting, a battle.
Edward Langworthy, The Life and Memoirs of the Late Major General Lee, Second in Command to General Washington, During the American Revolution, to which are Added, His Political and Military Essays. Also Letters to and from Many Distinguished Characters both in Europe and America (Philadelphia, 1813), 59.