Berkeley County, West Virginia Biography of Major General Charles LEE


         Charles LEE was born in Dernhall, Cheshire, England, in 1731, the youngest son of John and Isabella (Bunbury) Lee. He received a classical education and then devoted himself to a study of the art of war. His father died in 1751 and in the same year he was commissioned lieutenant in the 44th Regiment of which his father had been colonel. He was ordered to America in 1754; the regiment was attached to Braddock’s army in Virginia and, after the disastrous defeat of July 9, 1755, marched to Albany and Schenectady, where Lee met Sir William Johnson and was adopted by the Mohawk Indians. He purchased a captain’s commission June 11, 1756, and was severely wounded in Abercrombie’s assault on Ticonderoga, July 1, 1758. He was present at the capture of Fort Duquesne and went to Crown Point, New York, where he joined General Amherst and, in 1760, took part in the capture of Montreal.

         He returned to England and, on August 10, 1761, was promoted major in the 103rd Regiment. After service in Burgoyne’s division in Portugal, in 1762 he organized a project for establishing new colonies in America to be recruited from Germany, Switzerland and New England. The British ministry refused to approve the plan, and he went to Poland in 1764 where he was appointed to the staff of the King and accompanied the Polish embassy to Turkey in 1766. Charles Lee returned to England in 1766 and unsuccessfully urged his claims to promotion. He accepted a commission as major-general in the Polish army in 1769 and made a campaign against the Turks, after which he publicly derided his superior officers and left the army. He visited Italy in 1770, returned to England, was in France and Switzerland, 1771-72, and on May 25, 1772, was promoted lieutenant-colonel in the British army and placed on half-pay. Disappointed, he arrived in America November 10, 1773, made the acquaintance of the revolutionary leaders, was in Philadelphia during the session of the continental congress, and attracted attention with his expressed knowledge of military science.

         Charles Lee purchased an estate in Berkeley County, Virginia, near the estate of Horatio Gates. He was commissioned second major-general in the continental army in June 1775. The friends of Lee, notably Thomas Mifflin, earnestly urged his claims for first place against Artemas Ward and, when forced to second place, Lee mercilessly ridiculed the military skill of General Ward. He refused to accept until promised indemnity for any pecuniary loss he might suffer by accepting a commission, and congress assented. On July 22 of that year he resigned his commission and half-pay in the Britist army and joined Washington in his journey to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was placed in command of the left wing of the army, with headquarters at Winter Hill. When Sir Henry Clinton left Boston on his southern expedition, General Lee was sent to Newport, Rhode Island, and in January 1776, proceeded to New York where he directed the fortifying of the harbor. When the news of the death of Montgomery at Quebec reached Philadelphia, General Lee was made commander of the army in Canada, but when Clinton’s destination was found to be the southern states, Lee was transferred to the command of the department of the South and went from New York to Virginia, where he organized the cavalry and advocated a speedy Declaration of Independence. He reached Charleston, South Carolina, with his army, June 4, 1776, the same day the British fleet entered the harbor with the troops of Clinton and Cornwallis. General Moultrie had constructed a fort of palmetto wood on Sullivan’s Island, which Lee proposed to abandon as indefensible, but through the efforts of President Rutledge, the fort was garrisoned and in the battle of June 28, 1776, Moultrie prevented the British fleet from making a landing and Lee was given the credit of the victory and became popularly known as the “Hero of Charleston.”

         General Lee proposed to invade Florida, but Congress ordered him to report to Philadelphia, where he received $30,000 indemnity for losses by the sequestration of his property in England. Lee arrived in New York, October 14, 1776, and assumed command of the right wing of the army on Harlem Heights. The acceptance of the resignation of General Ward in May 1776 made Lee senior major-general. On November 16, 1776, the British captured Fort Washington and forced Washington to defend Philadelphia. Washington had left Lee with 7,000 men in Westchester County and when ordered to join Washington’s army in New Jersey, Lee failed to obey. Washington was, therefore, forced to fall back to Princeton with 3,000 men, which place he reached December 2, 1776, and the same day Lee moved across the river and encamped at Morristown with 4,000 men. General Schuyler had sent Gates from Ticonderoga with seven regiments to reinforce Washington, but Lee diverted the march and detained three of the regiments at Morristown. Washington was subsequently forced back across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. This situation gave Lee the opportunity he desired and he industriously circulated reports of Washington’s military incapacity. Holding a strong position at Morristown, he planned to fall on the flank of Howe’s army and if possible secure a victory that would give him the command of the American army.

         On December 13, 1775, a party of British dragoons surprised him at his headquarters at Baskingridge, 4 miles from his camp at Morristown, and made Lee, with his staff, prisoners, carrying them to New York City. General Sullivan, second in command, promptly broke camp at Morristown and reached Washington's army in time to take part in the successful movements on Trenton and Princeton. General Lee was refused the privileges of a prisoner of war and was ordered to be sent to England for trial as a deserter. Washington, to prevent this, wrote General Howe that he held five Hessian field officers as hostages for General Lee’s personal safety and, on December 12, 1777, Lee was declared a prisoner of war subject to exchange (it was later learned that during his imprisonment in New York, he planned a campaign against the American army which he claimed would result in the easy subjugation of the colonies, the identical plan, dated March 29, 1777, being discovered among the private papers of the Howes in 1857. Those papers were obtained in Nova Scotia and secured at a sale in New York). He was exchanged in May 1778 and joined Washington at Valley Forge. In June, when Sir Henry Clinton planned to retreat from Philadelphia across New Jersey to New York, Washington determined to oppose his march. General Lee advised against risking a battle, and his opposition was so determined that Washington appointed Lafayette to the command of Lee’s division. When Lee overtook the British near Monmouth Court House, June 28, 1778, his conduct aroused the suspicion of Lafayette, who dispatched an aide to Washington, who was bringing up the other division, asking him to hasten to the front, and when he reached Freehold Church he saw Lee’s division in retreat, closely pursued by the British. The commander-in-chief charged Lee with disobeying his orders, and, assuming command, rallied the Americans and defeated the British, after which he ordered Lee to the rear. The next day he reinstated Lee in his old command, in spite of which Lee addressed an exasperating letter to General Washington, to which Washington made a severe reply. Washington ordered Lee under arrest and, in August 1778, he was tried for disobeying orders in not attacking the enemy; for making an unnecessary and disorderly retreat; and for disrespect to the commander-in-chief in two letters. Lee was found guilty on all and was suspended for 12 months. He at once reopened his charges against Washington and was challenged by Colonel John Laurens, Washington’s aide-de-camp, which resulted in Lee’s being severely wounded in the arm. He subsequently addressed a letter to congress which caused him to be dismissed from the army and he retired to his Virginia home until the close of the war. While on a visit to Philadelphia he was stricken with fever and died alone and friendless at the tavern at which he was stopping, October 2, 1782. He was the author of “Strictures on a Friendly Address to all Reasonable Americans, in reply to Dr. Myles Cooper” (1774); and “Mr. Lee’s Plan” (1777). He claimed to know the secret of the authorship of the “Junius” letters and afterwards acknowledged himself as the author, which statement called out a number of articles and books in refutation of his claims.


    Submitted by Marilyn Gouge and extracted from Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Vol. II, Prominent Persons, 1915, and The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Volume VI, 1904

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