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This Day in History: George Washington, Charles Lee, & a court martial

On this day in 1778, General Charles Lee’s court martial ends with a guilty verdict. But who is Charles Lee? Well, it seems that if Charles Lee had had his way, he would have been Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Now he was in trouble. Mere weeks earlier, he had ordered a retreat in the midst of the Battle of Monmouth. General George Washington had arrived just in time to reverse the retreat and salvage the battle.

General Charles Lee

Washington had been furious! He wrote of his “great surprize and mortification” when he discovered the “whole advanced Corps retreating, and, as I was told, by General Lee’s orders without having made any opposition, except one fire . . . .” (See June 29 history post.)

Lee and Washington exchanged sharp words in the field. A private later wrote that Washington was “in a great passion,” while one of the officers reported that Washington “swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees.”

Lee later stewed over the rebuke and unfortunately dashed off an emotional letter to Washington. He accused the General of using “so very singular expressions” during the battle. “They implyed that I was guilty either of disobedience of orders, of want of conduct, or want of courage,” Lee wrote. He demanded “some reparation for the injury committed.”

Yikes. That couldn’t have gone over too well with the Commander-in-Chief!

Washington quickly rebuked the “highly improper” letter. “As soon as circumstances will permit,” Washington wrote, “you shall have an opportunity, either of justifying yourself to the army, to Congress, to America, and to the world in General; or of convincing them that you were guilty of a breach of orders and of misbehaviour before the enemy on the 28th . . .”

Lee was shocked at the brusque reply. He later said that he was “more than confounded, I was thrown into a stupor, my whole faculties were for a time benumm’d.”

Perhaps he should have taken a few deep breaths? Instead, he shot Washington two angry replies.

“I trust that temporary power of office and the tinsel dignity attending it,” he wrote, “will not be able by all the mists they can raise to affuscate the bright rays of truth.” Instead of a court of inquiry, he asked for a court martial. He feared that evidence would become more difficult to gather over time, and he wanted to avoid a “paper war betwixt the adherents to both parties.”

For better or for worse, Lee got his wish, and his court martial began on July 4. The charges were embarrassing to someone of Lee’s stature! He was charged with “disobedience of orders in not attacking the Enemy on the 28th of June,” “Misbehaviour before the Enemy on the same day by making an unnecessary, disorderly & shameful Retreat,” and “disrespect to the Commander in Chief in two Letters . . . .”

The trial lasted for weeks, partly because the court had to move every time the army moved.   During the trial, Lee emphasized his military experience and claimed that the retreat was orderly and necessary. It wasn’t enough. On August 12, the court found Lee guilty on all three counts, although the word “shameful” was removed from the description of his retreat. The court recommended that Lee be suspended from active service for one year.

Congress deliberated for many months, but finally agreed to the verdict.

You’d think that would be the end of the matter? But, of course, it wasn’t.

Despite his earlier worries about a “paper war,” Lee began one. Matters degenerated for him pretty badly after that. He sent letters to congressmen and wrote for newspapers. He verbally attacked Washington. He was challenged to duels! He was kicked out of the army.

Sad. Lee was a man who could have been a real contributor to the American cause. Instead, he let his wounded ego get in the way.

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