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.