Charles Lee: Revolutionary War General who Ignored his Commands



Charles Lee was a war general in the American Revolution against Britain. He also served under Britain for the Seven Years’ War. When George Washington had him put in charge during the Battle of Monmouth, Lee, instead of attacking, he retreated. This led to him being dismissed from the army a few years later in life.

On February 6, 1732, Charles Lee was born to Major General John Lee and Isabella Bunbury in Dernhall, Cheshire, England. There is not much information on his early life other than that he was sent to military school in Switzerland in 1744.

Serving under the 44 regiment of British General Edward Braddock, Lee was sent to the colonies in 1755 as an ensign during the French and Indian War. George Washington, among a few notable others, was also in this regiment. Lee was known to have always have dogs trailing behind him. This was, as he said, because he believed dogs were more faithful than men. While in northern New York, Lee was adopted into a Mohawk tribe in 1756.

Back under British command in July 1758, Lee was soon injured. He served under General Abercromby and unsuccessfully attacked Fort Ticonderoga. Lee was unhappy with the way his surgeon was treating the wound and later whipped the man. The doctor eventually tired to kill Lee for his behavior, but it did not work.

Lee fought the French in Fort Niagara in 1759. During the capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760, Lee was serving under General Amherst. Lee was promoted major in the 103rd regiment that winter while he was in Britain. By the following spring, Lee was a lieutenant colonel under General John Burgoyne as they traveled to Portugal.

In March 1765, Lee made his way to Warsaw, Poland. Lee was even able to gain the confidence of Poland’s current king, King Stanislaus. He returned to England the next year after living through a harsh winter and terrible earthquake while in Turkey. No longer in the army, Lee made a living by gambling and writing sarcastic essays against the British crown.

Two years later, Lee traveled to Poland once more. This time it was to aid the king when the country had broke out into civil war. Lee was appointed by the king as a general. However, while in Turkey in late 1769, Lee was sent to the Mediterranean to recover from being ill. Lee traveled to both France and Britain continuously in 1771, still unsure what country he pledged his allegiance to.

Lee joined American forces in the fight for freedom against Britain in 1773. He published a pamphlet attacking people’s attempts to restore a healthy relationship between the two called Strictures on a Pamphlet, entitled “A Friendly address to all Reasonable Americans.” The pamphlet gained him popularity amongst colonists, John and Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry included. Lee joined George Washington at Mount Vernon In December of 1774.

The war began the following year in 1775. Lee, appointed by Washington, became second major general. He joined Washington under General Ward to fight against the siege of Boston. Lee was soon ordered by the Continental Congress to fight in Virginia and North Carolina. Lee arrived in Charleston in June 1776, setting up his headquarters near Williamsburg, Virginia. However, Lee was not happy about his new post.

Both Lee and Colonel William Moultrie were later commended for keeping the British from Fort Sullivan. Colonel Moultrie was the one who had come up with the plan and is regarded as the one primarily responsible.

Lee returned to the main army in New York and New Jersey once the British had left the southern colonies. He believed that instead of joining the army, he should create his one “rogue” unit. Despite his beliefs, Lee made his way up to New Jersey. Lee stayed at White’s Tavern on December 12, 1776. The British had been camped nearby and quickly discovered where Lee was. He was captured by General Harcourt.

Imprisoned in New York, British General Howe attempted to have Lee put on trial. Washington had made attempts to have Lee released by prisoner exchange, but it did not work. For nearly eighteen months Lee was kept in British custody. A document from his time imprisoned was later found that Lee wrote to advise General Howe on ways to defeat the colonies. No one is quite sure if his allegiance was with America or Britain, as he was constantly changing.

In April 1778, Lee was exchanged for Major General Richard Prescott and released from the British. This was shortly after General John Burgoyne defeated the colonists at the battle of Saratoga. Lee made a trip to complain to congress about how he was captured and left there. He had rejoined his command by May.

Washington devised a plan to attack the British at Monmouth for a much needed victory. Many generals and members of the army agreed with Washington’s plan on an attack, but Lee did not. He argued strongly against the attack.



During the attack, instead of advancing on the British like Washington had commanded him, Lee retreated. This sparked an argument between the two. Lee and Washington continued to argue. On the battlefield Washington said something, the exact words unknown, to Lee that angered him. Lee soon sent Washington a letter that angered Washington. As they continued to send letters back and forth, Lee requested he make his case in court.

On July 4, the court martial had begug. Lee was found guilty of disrespecting his officer, not obeying commands, and ordering an unauthorized retreat on August 12. His punishment was a one year suspension from the military.

Lee continually sent letters attacking Washington to the press, military members, and congressmen. Challenged to a duel by Colonel John Laurens, Lee was wounded badly. Since he was unable to fight because of his wounds, Lee returned to Virginia in 1779. For two years he would stay in Virginia until he left for Philadelphia. Lee soon died due to pneumonia on October 2, 1782 while at a tavern.