Charles Lee and Hamilton: He’s a General, Wheee!

—Phillip Papas

Prior to 2013, there had not been much mention of General Charles Lee in the narrative of the American Revolution. Lee is everywhere now. He appears in the AMC series TURN, in the Outlander novel My Own Heart’s Blood, in the video game Assassins Creed III, and in two biographies, including Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014). Lee also emerges in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the other revolutionaries who forged the American nation.

While Lee has become more visible in popular culture and in scholarship, his image as a debauched, cowardly malcontent has remained. Miranda’s Lee continues this trend.

In Act I of Hamilton, Washington’s bedraggled Continentals retreat across New Jersey in 1776. The commander-in-chief hopes to defeat the British through small-scale, risk-averse, skirmishes. “There’s only one way for us to win this, Provoke outrage, outright,” Washington tells his protégé Hamilton. “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless ’til their troops take flight,” he continues. “Hit ’em quick, get out fast.” (“Stay Alive”) Yet among the Continental officers, Charles Lee was the most consistent and articulate proponent of this kind of strategy, urging Washington to avoid conventional battles in favor of irregular warfare (or petite guerre). However, Lee advised organizing the army along the lines of a national militia, dividing it into small detachments that would coordinate with local partisans to harass the British flanks, cut their supply lines, disrupt communications, and ambush isolated patrols and outposts.

The realization of Lee’s strategy meant fighting a wholly different war than that envisioned by Washington and other Continental officers, including Hamilton. Their view supported a Continental Army comprised of long-term volunteers that avoided large-scale battles in favor of smaller conventional operations before withdrawing from the field, a strategy Washington effectively applied at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-1777. Washington, Hamilton, and others understood that for the Revolution to succeed the army had to remain intact. Nevertheless, Lee’s advocacy of petite guerre reminds us that Washington’s was not the only view on how to fight and win the war held by the revolutionaries.

Lee was the most experienced soldier appointed by the Continental Congress in June 1775. Yet he accepted the position as the third general in rank behind Washington and Artemas Ward, becoming second-in-command upon the latter’s resignation in April 1776. He also impressed his American contemporaries with his intellect and cosmopolitanism, attributes that are overlooked in Miranda’s musical and by historians. On December 13, Lee was captured by British cavalry at a tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Exchanged in 1778, he rejoined the Continental Army at the Valley Forge encampment. But Lee soon learned that the army had changed considerably during his captivity as had the politics of Congress and of Washington’s headquarters.

Thanks to the training program of the Prussian officer the Baron von Steuben, Washington’s troops emerged from Valley Forge confident they could succeed in a large-scale conventional battle. That opportunity arrived in June 1778 near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. Lee, in command of the advance corps, faced stiff resistance from the British rearguard. His lines disintegrated. Facing potential annihilation, Lee ordered a general retreat. “Ev’ryone attack!” Washington bellows. (“Stay Alive”) Lee replies “Retreat!” Irate to find Lee’s troops retreating, Washington publicly rebuked him. “What are you doing, Lee? Get back on your feet!” To which a cowardly Lee responds: “But there’s so many of them!”

The battle of Monmouth ended in a draw and Lee’s performance would have been considered unworthy of further admonishment had he not criticized the commander-in-chief in the press. “Washington cannot be left alone to his devices. Indecisive, from crisis to crisis,” Lee declares bitterly. He demanded a court-martial. Washington obliged.

The court-martial found Lee guilty of misconduct and disrespect and suspended him for a year. Lee again turned to the press to defend his actions at Monmouth, to criticize Washington, and to denounce a narrative of the battle crafted by Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette. “Many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous,” Hamilton asserts. He “shits the bed at the Battle of Monmouth” the three men exclaim while “a thousand soldiers die in a hundred degree heat” (Laurens). Washington snatches “a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.” (Lafayette)

Lee’s rage against Washington led to a duel with Laurens in December 1779. “Laurens, do not throw away your shot,” Hamilton advises his friend (“Stay Alive”). Lee, Laurens, Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, who supported Lee during the court-martial, use verse to recite the code duello (“Ten Duel Commandments”). Here Miranda foreshadows the 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel that ended Hamilton’s life. “Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?” Burr asks Hamilton. “Sure,” he responds, “But your man [Lee] has to answer for his words.” Laurens ultimately wounded Lee.

While it was easy to criticize Lee, the fact is he continued to have the respect of several revolutionaries including Aaron Burr, General Nathanael Greene, and the future U. S. president James Monroe, among others. Had Lee not ordered a retreat at the battle of Monmouth, the British would have decimated the Continentals before Washington’s arrival. Moreover, Lee has rarely been credited with delaying the British long enough for Washington to establish his main line of defense. By ordering a retreat, Lee drew the enemy into an unfavorable position by the time the commander-in-chief appeared and helped to save the Continental Army from a potentially devastating defeat. It was only Lee’s disrespect for Washington that ultimately ended his military career, not his performance on the battlefield.

Phillip Papas is Senior Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2007) and Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014), which earned Honorable Mention for the 2015 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.

On Veterans Day: Fulfilling an ongoing debt

—Mark Boulton

[This post originally appeared on The Hill’s Congress Blog.]

Listen to the words of any politician this Veterans Day, or head down to any local war memorial. Turn on a country radio station, or check out the bumper stickers on the nearest pickup truck. Think of the crowd reaction every time a soldier surprises his or her family by showing up behind home plate during the seventh inning stretch. If there in one thing, it seems, we can all agree upon in our polarized and hyper-partisan political culture, it is that everyone loves a veteran. Americans have quite rightly been bending over backwards to “thank a veteran” and to “support our troops” ever since the gut-wrenching stories of the neglect of the Vietnam generation became part of our collective consciousness. But if the ubiquitous gestures of goodwill and outpourings of appreciation for military service were consistently translated into practical services and benefits for returning servicemen and women, then perhaps their transition back to civilian life might be less of a burden than has often been the case.

When the nation abandoned a military draft and transitioned to an all-volunteer force at the end of the Vietnam era, most Americans turned their backs on what had historically been a civic obligation to defend the nation. In doing so, they uncoupled themselves from the disruption and potential trauma in life often caused by military service. One would think, therefore, that there should be little quarrel when our representatives are tasked with crafting legislation and building systems that properly fulfill the debt owed those men and women sent to fight in our name. But time and again we hear stories of veterans still suffering from high unemployment rates, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other unattended physical and psychological problems. This past summer saw much outcry over the alarming and sometimes catastrophic shortcomings of the Veterans’ Administration. Just prior to that in February, Senate Republicans shot down a sweeping bill that would have greatly liberalized veterans’ benefits and access to healthcare in large part because of the strain it would put on an already stretched federal budget.

These were just the latest iterations in a long and troubling pattern of a slow and often inadequate federal response to our veterans’ needs. Politicians from both ends of the political spectrum have repeatedly demonstrated willingness to cut benefits for economic or ideological reasons when veterans needed them most. In the White House, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt cut spending for all veterans, including those disabled in service, as he sought to reassess the nation’s finances during the Great Depression. Even though he did sign the generous 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights into law, later versions of the G.I. Bill were far less munificent. During the Vietnam era, Lyndon B. Johnson fought against a generous G.I. Bill for Cold War veterans for fear that it would divert funds from his broader Great Society social programs. Benefits for Vietnam veterans were similarly compromised by Richard Nixon who sought to slash federal spending, and by Gerald Ford who vetoed much-needed G.I. Bill improvements legislation in 1974 in an attempt to curb inflation. In an effort to trim the VA’s budget, Ronald Reagan attempted repeatedly to cut funding for outreach centers that provided vital counseling services for troubled veterans. The list could go on.

Everyone loves a veteran. But let us start showing them that love with more than just bumper stickers and well-intentioned gestures. Let us step up when they need us, not with a blank check or an open-ended commitment to a life living off the federal dollar, but with a more sensitive ear and a greater willingness to respond to their needs. Throwing more money at a problem does not always solve it, but in this case it can provide vitally needed programs and services. Coupled, certainly, with a reasonable expectation of accountability, let this be one area where cherished notions of small government and fiscal prudence are tempered by a greater sense of responsibility to assist those in uniform. This Veterans Day, remember to thank a veteran and to keep showing those the gestures of support—they do mean a lot. But when the next round of debates ring out on Capitol Hill over how much is owed our servicemen and women, let’s make sure that all is done to reasonably fulfill the debt they are owed. They answered our call: We must be better at answering theirs.

Mark Boulton is the author of Failing Our Veterans: The G.I. Bill and the Vietnam Generation (New York University Press, 2014) and an associate professor of History at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri.

Bringing home the bodies, after World War I and today

This week marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. To commemorate, Lisa M. Budreau, author of Bodies of War, gives us a glimpse into the history of America’s memorialization efforts after the First World War. 

—Lisa M. Budreau

While watching the appalling recent events surrounding the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between the mayhem surrounding the slaughter of these innocent civilians, and the similarly ghastly situation left upon the former battlefields after the First World War. The presumably mistaken, but nevertheless brutal murder on July 17th that left bodies scattered for miles across eastern Ukraine, resulted in a complex, macabre travesty where no plans or policy existed for the protection of the site, the identification of the dead, their burial or transportation home. Under the watchful eye of the global media, militants attempting to guard the site were exposed as woefully unprepared to handle this grisly state of affairs that engendered looting, corruption, public suspicion and marked irreverence to the dead.

In the aftermath of war in November 1918, the burial, exhumation, reburial and eventual shipment of American war dead home was equally ghastly, similarly disorganized and mysteriously unplanned for. Families grew increasingly intolerant as the passing months brought no evidence of any effort being made to return their loved ones. Their impatient pleas began arriving at the War Department within days of the cease-fire, with friends and families clamoring for the return of the war dead. Yet the government had entered the conflict in April 1917 with no clear measures for coping with the remains of the deceased.

Once plans were arranged for the return of the war dead, transportation of bodies across France became a logistical nightmare requiring a generous allowance of trucks, canal boats, and railway cars. Coffins had to be procured and more labor was required to complete the task on a time scale that would keep the American public content. Yet, despite the government’s best attempts to deny allegations against its efficiency, accusations mounted as press surveillance reports struggled to meet the demands of an increasingly suspicious public. Numerous cases of mistaken identity were reported by families who claimed to have received the wrong body (while others were promised remains that never arrived). In an attempt to get bodies back more expeditiously from overseas, some families with the means to do so, were willing to pay as much as $2,500 for their loved ones, to unscrupulous officials.

By the close of 1921, the gruesome burial work was nearly complete after the American military had shipped close to 46,000 dead to the United States and 764 to European places of birth. Those who remained overseas were laid to rest in immaculately constructed national cemeteries in England, France and Belgium. For these dead, war’s purposefulness— rather than its tragedy—was emphasized, as death in battle became a noble deed for a “worthy” cause.

By contrast, marked ambivalence will likely shroud the memory of those shot down from the skies above the Ukranian war zone as these tragic deaths can ever be fully justified. But the sacrifice of life still needs to be fully mourned and remembered in an honorable way. Regardless of national affiliation, we all owe a lingering moral obligation to the dead and to their families, and those in mourning need a collective site to remember their loved ones. It will be interesting to see if and how these losses will be remembered beyond the tributes left at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport since this well-intentioned site can offer only the smallest, temporary measure of consolation.

Lisa M. Budreau, PhD, is a consultant to the WWI Regional Office with the American Battle Monuments Commission, based in Arlington, VA, and Garches, France. She is author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2009).


Q&A with Phillip Papas, author of Renegade Revolutionary

We invited Phillip Papas on our blog for an exclusive Q&A session on his new book, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee. Happily, he obliged. Below, Papas discusses his inspiration for writing the book, shares a surprising moment in his research, and gives us the final word on Charles Lee in Assassin’s Creed. Read it, and if you haven’t already, check out the gorgeous trailer for the book!

What prompted you to write Renegade Revolutionary?

Phillip Papas: I came to the subject of Charles Lee through my doctoral dissertation which looked at the conditions that fostered strong Loyalist sentiments on Staten Island (subsequently published by NYU Press as That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution). In setting up the defenses of New York from February through March 1776, Lee had left the loyalist community of Staten Island at the entrance to New York harbor and by extension the Narrows, undefended. This did not mean that Lee had not thought about the island strategically. He had. Lee recommended that all of the livestock should be removed from Staten Island and that its residents be disarmed. If this approach did not work, Lee suggested Congress “secure their [the Staten Islanders’] children as hostages.”

I had heard of Charles Lee before working on my dissertation. More often than not, the references were to George Washington’s eccentric, egomaniacal second-in-command who was followed around by a pack of mangy dogs, who always challenged Washington’s military judgment, was captured by the British and offered them a plan that would keep them in the colonies, and faced a court martial after the battle of Monmouth in 1778 which eventually ended his military career.  Of course, Lee was an avid dog lover and always had a few of them by his side, especially his favorite Spado. Lee also had an ego the size of Texas, but who else among the leading revolutionaries didn’t? And he did challenge Washington’s military judgment, he was captured by the British in December 1776 in New Jersey, and he did face a court martial after the battle of Monmouth, where Washington had famously confronted him on the battlefield. But who was Charles Lee? Who was this former British officer who had become an avid supporter of the American resistance against Britain’s imperial policies and who eventually became one of the earliest and loudest voices for American independence? Who was this intellectual who recognized America’s potential and characterized her as the “last asylum of liberty?” Who was this professional soldier who admired the fighting spirit and irregular tactics of the colonial militiamen? I found these questions interesting and they led me to do further research on Charles Lee.

What surprised you most as you conducted your research?

I think it would have to be Lee’s cosmopolitanism, his intellectual curiosity, his support for providing women with a formal education, his recognition of America’s potential, and his attempts to dispel the British media’s portrayal of the Native Americans. Lee’s confidence in a popular war of mass resistance against the British fought using a strategy of petite guerre or irregular warfare also caught my attention. Lee’s belief that a strategy of petite guerre carried out by small units of Continentals in cooperation with local militia and roving groups of partisans to effectively stymie the British war machine, neutralize Loyalists, and win American independence fascinated me because it seemed to portent certain aspects of modern revolutionary military strategy.

In your book, you write that Lee suffered from manic depression, experienced phases of hypersexuality, drank to excess, and preferred the companionship of dogs to humans. What is the biggest misconception about him?

That he was an “oddity” or an eccentric. For Americans, a true gentleman was a man of honor and integrity; someone who embraced rigid rules of etiquette and manners, demonstrated emotional self-restraint, exhibited a proper sense of decorum in public and displayed elegance in speech and dress. The impressions of Lee by his American contemporaries revealed a provincial misunderstanding about what it meant to be an English gentleman. Although Lee’s outward appearance and behavior did not meet with American standards of gentility, in his background, upbringing, financial independence, and classical education Lee was an English gentleman.

Moreover, much of Lee’s behavior evidenced signs of what modern psychiatry would classify as manic depression.

Charles Lee is featured as one of the main antagonists in the video game Assassin’s Creed. How accurate is this portrayal of Lee as the ultimate villain?

I first heard about the video game Assassin’s Creed 3 from one of my students at Union County College. I could not believe that the subject of my research was a key character in a video game set during the American Revolution. Perhaps the game designers chose Lee as the game’s ultimate villain because he lacked political savvy and throughout his career he openly challenged the decisions of his superior officers and, of course, during the American Revolution became Washington’s chief antagonist. Lee was ambitious and an opportunist; he was a person who was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals. Many of Lee’s actions and decisions exemplified the saying “the end justifies the means.”

What do you hope readers learn from your book?

I hope that readers come away from the book with a new view of Charles Lee as a complex, fascinating person who made important contributions to the Revolutionary era as a propagandist and as a soldier and whose ideas on the education of women and on democratic societies set him apart from many of his contemporaries. I also hope that readers will gain new insights into the way the Americans waged the Revolutionary war and debated the question of the proper military organization in a democracy.

Book trailer for Renegade Revolutionary

In November 1774, a pamphlet to the “People of America” was published in Philadelphia and London. It forcefully articulated American rights and liberties and argued that the Americans needed to declare their independence from Britain. The author of this pamphlet was Charles Lee, a former British army officer turned revolutionary, who was one of the earliest advocates for American independence. Lee fought on and off the battlefield for expanded democracy, freedom of conscience, individual liberties, human rights, and for the formal education of women.

Phillip Papas is Associate Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Leeavailable now from NYU Press.

Many thanks to the team at New York Dub for producing this gorgeous trailer!

One Day in December: Starred review in Library Journal

One Day in December casts a spotlight on the remarkable “missing actor” of the Cuban Revolution, Celia Sánchez. Based on ten years of original research, the biography draws on interviews with Sánchez’s friends, family, and comrades in the rebel army, along with countless letters and documents.

Alice Walker “loved the book;” Sapphire, author of Push, called it “a damn good read;” and most recently, the book has received a much-deserved starred review in Library Journal!

Praise for the book from LJ appears below, excerpted from the full review in the May 1, 2013 issue.


“In this impressive biography Stout (reference librarian, Fordham Univ. Libs.; Havana: La Habana) utilizes interviews, Cuban archives (to which she was granted special access by Castro himself), letters, and other documents to provide an accurate portrait of Sanchez, who ran the planning organization of the revolution after the death of Pais in 1957. Slight in stature, Sanchez saw combat and was arguably the most influential among Castro’s cadre of revolutionary leaders. Her role during and after the revolution was remarkable, and Stout’s biography tells her story as well as offering insights into other revolutionaries and their contributions. Sanchez’s death from cancer in 1980 shook Castro and all of Cuba but her legacy remains in buildings and projects that bear her name. VERDICT: Highly recommended for readers and scholars of Cuban history.”

Want more? Read the introduction by Alice Walker or an excerpt from the book—and watch our exclusive interview with author Nancy Stout.

WWI centennial update

—Lisa Budreau

It appears that the nation’s plans to commemorate the Centennial of the First World War in 2014 are progressing. The WWI Centennial Commission Act (House Resolution 6364) passed by Congress and was, until recently, awaiting the President’s signature. However, the bill died on the Presidents desk. And, as the rules go, if a bill, for other than appropriations, signed by both parts of the legislature goes to the executive branch and is not signed within 10 days, it becomes law. That’s Poli Sci 101 in any university. And thus, the Frank Buckles bill, heretofore known as the WWI Centennial Commission Act, is now law but quite toothless. There’s no funding. The chairman of the commission can task government agencies as might be pertinent but on a reimbursable basis. (Read more about this here.)

In general, the bill provides for the formation of a board consisting of twelve members within 60 days after it becomes law. Plans have already begun to nominate members of this board, though unofficially. So, who will be the leader of this new Commission? Where will they be based, on the East Coast or Kansas City? What role will the American Battle Monuments Commission play in our national 4-year remembrance? They are, after all, the appointed caretakers of nearly all the American First World War commemorative constructs.

Once again, history repeats itself and commemoration remains one of the most political of all national activities, but risks becoming an exploitative process, one used to fulfill agenda far from the intended purpose of remembering the war dead.

Let’s hope that this group remembers the true meaning of commemorating this first global event. It, and our dead, deserve our respect.

Lisa Budreau is a consultant to the WWI Regional Office with the American Battle Monuments Commission, based in Arlington, VA, and Garches, France. She is author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2009).

On Veterans Day: A look at the past and present

Yesterday marked the 93rd Veterans Day since the holiday’s enactment in 1919. And, depending on where you work or go to school, observations for the important day are still underway at this moment. This year, to celebrate our veterans, our thoughts immediately sprang to the newly released In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation—a book that chronicles the lives of Korean War soldiers, and, in doing so, voices a greater truth about the pain, bravery, and selflessness of the men and women who have served our country. Here the author, Melinda L. Pash, takes us back to the beginnings of her book (it all started at a high school prom…) and shows us the unwavering support the older generation of soldiers have for today’s troops.

Watch more from this interview over at our Youtube page.