General Charles Lee: traitor of the American Revolution

The Congress ordered an oath of allegiance to be administered to all the officers of the army at Valley Forge, before the opening of the campaign. This ceremony took place on the 12th of May, 1778. The commander-in-chief administered it to the general officers. In so doing, several of them placed their hands on the Bible at the same time, and so took the oath together.

When Washington began to read the form, General Charles Lee, who had been exchanged for General Prescott, captured on Rhode Island, withdrew his hand. This movement he repeated, when Washington demanded a reason for the strange conduct. Lee replied: "As to King George, I am ready enough to absolve myself from all allegiance to him; but I have some scruples about the Prince of Wales." This odd reply, which covered a deeper motive, excited much laughter. In the light of to-day, we may clearly see the real reason. Lee was then playing a desperate game of treason, and probably had some conscientious scruples about taking such an oath which he would probably violate. He did, however, subscribe to it.

At the middle of May, 1778 news reached Washington that the British were probably preparing to evacuate Philadelphia. It was premature, for the order for that movement had not then arrived. However, the vigilant commander-in-chief acted promptly. He detached Lafayette, with about twenty-one hundred men and five pieces of cannon, to restrain British foragers and marauders who were plundering the country, and had burned several American vessels in the Delaware River. He was instructed to cut off all communications between Philadelphia and the country; to obtain correct information concerning the enemy, and to be ready to follow the fugitives with a considerable force when they should leave the city. Lafayette crossed the Schuylkill and took post on Barren Hill, about half-way between Valley Forge and Philadelphia. The marquis made his quarters at the house of a Tory Quaker, who informed Howe of the fact. The latter immediately ordered General Grant to make a secret night march, with over five thousand men, to gain the rear of Lafayette, and prevent his recrossing the Schuylkill. This was done on the night of the 20th of May. Early the next morning Howe marched with almost six thousand men, commanded by Clinton and Knyphausen, to capture the young Frenchman and send him to England. Grant actually surprised the marquis, and held the ford over which he and his little army had crossed the Schuylkill; but by a deceptive, quick, and skillful movement Lafayette out-generaled his antagonist, and escaped across Matson's Ford-General Poor leading the advance, while Grant was making preparations for battle. Howe was sadly disappointed. He felt sure of closing his military career in America with a brilliant achievement, but was foiled; and he marched back to Philadelphia, where, on the 24th, he embarked for England.

The British army lingered in Philadelphia until the morning of the 18th of June, when, just before the dawn, they began the passage of the Delaware at Gloucester Point, and at the close of the day were encamped around Haddonfield, a few miles southeast from Camden. So secretly and adroitly had this movement been made, that Washington was not certified of the destination of the British army until they had passed the river. Suspecting, however, that Clinton would take a land-route to New York, the commander-in-chief had dispatched General Maxwell, with his brigade, to co-operate with the New Jersey militia, under General Dickenson, in retarding the march of the enemy. Clinton had crossed the Delaware with about seventeen thousand effective men.

General Arnold, whose wound kept him from duty in the field, was left with a detachment to occupy Philadelphia. The remainder of the army crossed the Delaware above Trenton, and pursued. Lee had been restored to his command as the oldest major-general, and exercised a baleful influence as far as he was able. He was plotting for the ruin of that army, and endeavored to thwart every measure that promised success. He persistently opposed all interference with Clinton in his march across New Jersey, finding fault with everything, and creating much mischief. When, at length, he was requested to lead the advance in a meditated attack upon the enemy, he at first declined the honor and duty, saying the plan was defective and would surely fail.

Clinton had intended to march to New Brunswick, and there embark his army on the Raritan; but finding Washington in his path, he turned, at Allentown, toward Monmouth Court-House, with a determination to make his way to Sandy Hook, and thence by water to New York. Washington followed him on a parallel line, prepared to strike him whenever a good opportunity should offer; while Clinton wished to avoid a battle, if possible, for he was heavily encumbered with baggage-wagons and a host of camp-followers, making a line twelve miles in length. He encamped near Mon-mouth Court-House on the 27th of June, where Washington resolved to strike him when he should move, the next morning, for it was important to prevent his gaining the advantageous position of Middletown Heights.

Lee was now in command of the advanced corps. Washington ordered him to consult his general officers, and form a plan of attack. When Lee met them--Lafayette, Wayne, and Maxwell--he refused to arrange a plan or give any orders; and when at dawn on the 28th--a hot and serene Sabbath morning--Washington was informed that Clinton was about to move, and ordered Lee to fall upon the enemy's rear unless there should be good reasons for his not doing so, that officer was so tardy in his obedience that he allowed the foe ample time to prepare for battle. When Lee did move, he seemed to have no plan. He gave orders and counter-orders, and so perplexed and alarmed his generals that they sent a request to Washington to appear on the field immediately. While Wayne was attacking with vigor with a prospect of victory, Lee ordered him to make only a feint. The irritated commander, like a true soldier, instantly obeyed, and lost a chance for victory and honor.

Clinton now suddenly changed front, and sent a large force, horse and foot, to attack Wayne. They approached cautiously toward Lee's right, when Lafayette, believing a good opportunity was offered to gain the rear of this division of the enemy, rode quickly up to Lee and asked permission to attempt it. "Sir," said Lee, sternly, "you do not know British soldiers; we cannot stand against them; we shall certainly be driven back at first, and we must be cautious." The marquis replied: "It may be so, general; but British soldiers have been beaten, and they may be again; at any rate, I am disposed to make the trial." Lee, yielding a little, ordered the marquis to wheel his column by the right, and gain and attack the enemy's left; at the same time he weakened Wayne's detachment, by taking from it three regiments to support the right. At that moment, discovering a movement of the British that apparently disconcerted him, he ordered his right to fall back. Generals Scott and Maxwell were then about to attack, when they, too, were ordered to fall back. Lafayette received a similar order, when a general retreat began. The British pursued, and Lee showed no disposition to check either his own troops or those of the enemy. A panic seized the former, and the orderly retreat became a disorderly flight.

Washington was pressing forward to the support of Lee, when he was met by the astounding intelligence that the advance divisions were in full retreat. Of this disastrous movement Lee had not sent him word, and the fugitives were falling back in haste upon the main army. This was an alarming state of things. The indignation of the commander-in-chief was fearfully aroused; and when he met Lee at the head of the second retreating column, he rode up to the culprit, and in a tone of withering reproof, exclaimed: "Sir, I desire to know what is the reason, and whence comes this disorder and confusion?" Lee retorted sharply, and said: "You know the attack was contrary to my advice and opinion." Washington replied, with a voice that told of the depth of his indignation: "You should not have undertaken the command unless you intended to carry it through." It was no time for verbal contention. Wheeling his horse, Washington hastened to Ramsay and Stewart, in the rear, rallied a large portion of their regiments, and ordered Oswald, with his two cannon, to take post on an eminence. These field-pieces, skillfully handled, soon checked the pursuing enemy. The presence of Washington inspired the troops with confidence and courage; and ten minutes after he appeared, the retreat was suspended. The chief rode fearlessly in the face of the storm of conflict, and the whole patriot army, which, half an hour before, seemed on the point of being a fugitive mob, were now in orderly battle array, upon an eminence on which General Lord Stirling placed some batteries of cannon. The line there formed was commanded on the right by General Greene, and on the left by Lord Stirling.

The patriot army were now confronted by the flower of the British troops in America, commanded by Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, about seven thousand strong. They were upon a narrow road bounded by morasses; and when they found themselves strongly opposed on their front, they attempted to turn the American left flank. The British cavalry, in the van, were repulsed, and disappeared. The regiments of foot then came up, when a severe battle ensured with musketry and cannon. The American batteries were skillfully worked under the direction of General Knox. For awhile the result of the contest was doubtful, when General Wayne came up with a body of troops and gave victory to the republicans. His well-directed fire was so effectual, that Lieutenant-Colonel Monckton, in command of the British grenadiers, seeing that the fate of the conflict depended upon driving Wayne away, led his troops to a bayonet charge. Wayne gave them such a hot reception with bullets that almost every British officer was slain. Among them was Monckton, who fell as he was waving his sword and pressing forward with a shout. Then the British retreated through the narrow pass along which they had pursued the Americans, and fell back to the heights occupied by Lee in the morning. It was a strong position, flanked by morasses, and accessible in front only by a narrow road. The conflict ended at dusk, when the wearied American troops lay down upon their arms on the battle-field, with the intention of renewing the struggle in the morning. It had been a day of fearful heat-ninety-six degrees in the shade. More than fifty American soldiers died that day from "sun-stroke;" and hundreds, suffering from thirst, drank from pools of muddy water, whenever an opportunity offered.

At near midnight, Clinton, with his army, stealthily withdrew, and before the dawn they were far on their way toward Sandy Hook. There they embarked for New York, arriving there on the 30th. Washington did not pursue, but marched for the Hudson River by way of New Brunswick. Crossing that stream, he encamped near White Plains, in Westchester county, until late in the autumn. Clinton, in his official despatch to his government, said: "Having reposed the troops until ten at night to avoid the excessive heat of the day, I took advantage of the moonlight to rejoin General Knyphausen, who had advanced to Nut Swamp, near Middletown." The waning moon set at a little past ten that night. Alluding to the circumstance, Trumbull, in his satire of "McFingal," wrote:

"He forms his camp with great parade, While evening spreads the world in shade, Then still, like some endangered spark, Steals off on tip-toe in the dark; Yet writes his king in boasting tone How grand he march'd by light of moon!"

Notwithstanding Washington had reason to suspect Lee of treachery on the battle-field (for he had been warned the night before that he was a secret traitor, and his conduct had justified the suspicion), he was disposed to treat him leniently. But Lee, smarting under the just reproof of the commander-in-chief, wrote a note to him the next day, demanding an apology for the words spoken to him on the field. Washington made a temperate reply, expressing his conviction that the reproof he had uttered was justified by the circumstances, whereupon Lee wrote an insulting letter to the chief. The offender was arrested and tried by a court-marital on charges of disobedience of orders, misbehaviour before the enemy, and disrespect to the commander-in-chief. He was found guilty, and sentenced to suspension from military command for a year. Late in the year the Congress approved the sentence. A little more than twelve months afterward, they dismissed him from the service on account of an impertinent letter which he wrote to them.

That General Lee was treacherous to the cause, which he pretended to espouse, there is ample proof. A few years ago a manuscript in the handwriting of Lee, prepared while that officer was a prisoner in New York and addressed to General Howe, containing a plan for the speedy subjugation of the colonies, came into the possession of George H. Moore, LL.D., who published it, with many facts, which clearly show that the writer had been a traitor, undoubtedly, from the fight in Charleston Harbor in June, 1776, until the battle at Monmouth, in June, 1778. All the while that he was in command during that time, he was acting in bad faith toward the Americans. His influence in the army was, at all times, mischievous. Exceedingly selfish and thoroughly unprincipled, bad in morals and courage, he loved neither God nor man. He died in poverty and obscurity in Philadelphia, in October, 1782. By his will written a few days before his death, he bequeathed his soul to the Almighty, and his body to the earth, saying: "I desire, most earnestly, that I may not be buried in any church or church-yard, 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." He was buried in the churchyard of Christ Church, Philadelphia, with military honors.

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