From The American Biography; containing Biographical Sketches of the Officers of the Revolution, and of the Principal Statesmen of that Period. To which are added the Life and Character of Benedict Arnold, and the Narrative of Major Andre. Compiled from Authentic Sources; anonymous; Wheeling: Printed and Published for F. Kenyon, 1833; pp. 176-184.
American Military Officers.
Major-General in the American Army
General Lee was an original genius, possessing the most brilliant talents, great military prowess, and extensive intelligence and knowledge of the world. He was born in Wales, his family springing from the same parent stock with the earl of Leicester.
He may be properly called a child of Mars, for he was an officer when but eleven years old. His favorite study was the science of war, and his warmest wish was to become distinguished in it; but though possessed of a military spirit, he was ardent in the pursuit of general knowledge. He acquired a competent skill in Greek and Latin, while his fondness for travelling made him acquainted with the Italian, Spanish, German, and French languages.
In 1756, he came to America, captain of a company of grenadiers, and was present at the defeat of general Abercrombie at Ticonderoga, where he received a severe wound. In 1762, he bore a colonel’s commission, and served under Burgoyne in Portugal, where he greatly distinguished himself, and received the strongest recommendations for his gallantry; but his early attachment to the American colonies, evinced in his writings against the oppressive acts of parliament, lost him the favor of the ministry. Despairing of promotion, and despising a life of inactivity, he left his native soil, and entered into the service of his Polish majesty, as one of his aids, with the rank of major-general.
His rambling disposition led him to travel all over Europe, during the years 1771, 1772, and part of 1773, and his warmth of temper drew him into several rencounters, among which was an affair of honor with an officer in Italy. The contest was begun with swords, when the general lost two of his fingers. Recourse was then had to pistols. His adversary was slain, and he was obliged to flee from the country, in order that he might avoid the 177 unpleasant consequences which might result from this unhappy circumstance.
General Lee appeared to be influenced by an innate principle of republicanism; an attachment to these principles was implanted in the constitution of his mind, and he espoused the cause of America as a champion of her emancipation from oppression.
Glowing with these sentiments, he embarked for this country, and arrived at New-York on the 10th of November, 1773. On his arrival he became daily more enthusiastic in the cause of liberty, and travelled rapidly through the colonies, animating, both by conversation and his eloquent pen, to a determined and persevering resistance to British tyranny.
His enthusiasm in favor of the rights of the colonies was such, that, after the battle of Lexington, he accepted a major-general’s commission in the American army; though his ambition had pointed out to him the post of commander-in-chief as the object of his wishes. Previous to this, however, he resigned his commission in the British service, and relinquished his half-pay. This he did in a letter to the British secretary of war, in which he expressed his disapprobation of the oppressive measures of parliament, declaring them to be absolutely subversive of the rights and liberties of every individual subject, so destructive to the whole empire at large, and ultimately so ruinous to his majesty’s own person, dignity, and family, that he thought himself obliged in conscience, as a citizen, Englishman, and soldier of a free state, to exert this utmost to defeat them.
Immediately upon receiving his appointment, he accompanied general Washington to the camp at Cambridge, where he arrived July 2d, 1775, and was received with every mark of respect.
As soon as it was discovered at Cambridge that the British general, Clinton, had left Boston, general Lee was ordered to set forward, to observe his manœuvres, and prepare to meet him in any part of the continent he might visit. No man was better qualified, at this early stage of the war, to penetrate the designs of the enemy than Lee. Nursed in the camp, and well versed in European tactics, the soldiers believed him, of all other officers, the best able to face in the field an experienced British veteran, and lead them on to victory.178
New-York was supposed to be the object of the enemy, and hither he hastened with all possible expedition. Immediately on his arrival, Lee took the most active and prompt measures to put it in a state of defence. He disarmed all suspected persons within the reach of his command, and proceeded with such rigor against the tories, as to give alarm at his assumption of military powers. From the tories he exacted a strong oath, and his bold measures carried terror wherever he appeared.
Not long after, he was appointed to the command of the southern department, and in his travels through the country, he received every testimony of high respect from the people. General Sir Henry Clinton, and Sir Peter Parker, with a powerful fleet and army, attempted the reduction of Charleston while he was in command. The fleet anchored within half musket shot of the fort on Sullivan’s island, where colonel Moultrie, one of the bravest and most intrepid of men, commanded. A tremendous engagement ensued on the 28th of June, 1776, which lasted twelve hours without intermission. The whole British force was completely repulsed, after suffering an irreparable loss.
“General Lee and colonel Moultrie received the thanks of congress for their signal bravery and gallantry.
“Our hero had now reached the pinnacle of his military glory; the eclat of his name alone appeared to enchant and animate the most desponding heart. But here we pause to contemplate the humiliating reverse of human events. He returned to the main army in October; and in marching at the head of a large detachment through the Jerseys, having, from a desire of retaining a separate command delayed his march several days in disobedience of express orders from the commander-in-chief, he was guilty of most culpable negligence in regard to his personal security. He took up his quarters two or three miles from the main body, and lay for the night, December 13th, 1776, in a careless, exposed situation. Information of this being communicated to colonel Harcourt, who commanded the British light-horse, he proceeded immediately to the house, fired into it, and obliged the general to surrender himself a prisoner. They mounted him on a horse in haste, without his cloak or hat, and conveyed him in triumph to New-York.” — Thacher’s Military Journal.179
Lee was treated, while a prisoner, with great severity by the enemy, who affected to consider him as a state prisoner and deserted from the service of his Britannic majesty, and denied the privileges of an American officer. General Washington promptly retaliated the treatment received by Lee upon the British officers in his possession. This state of things existed until the capture of Burgoyne, when a complete change of treatment was observed towards Lee; and he was shortly afterward exchanged.
The first military act of General Lee, after his exchange, closed his career in the American army. Previous to the battle of Monmouth, his character in general was respectable. From the beginning of the contest, his unremitted zeal in the cause of America excited and directed the military spirit of the whole continent; and his conversation inculcated the principles of liberty among all ranks of the people. His important services excited the warm gratitude of many of the friends of America. Hence it is said that a strong party was formed in Congress, and by some discontented officers in the army, to raise Lee to the first command; and it has been suggested by many, that general Lee’s conduct at the battle of Monmouth was intended to effect this plan: for could the odium of the defeat have been at this time thrown on general Washington, there is great reason to suppose that he would have been deprived of his command.
It is now to be seen how general Lee terminated his military career. In the battle of Monmouth, on the 28th of June, 1778, he commanded the van of the American troops, with orders from the commander-in-chief, to attack the retreating enemy. Instead of obeying this order, he conducted in an unworthy manner, and greatly disconcerted the arrangements of the day. Washington, advancing to the field of battle, met him in his disorderly retreat, and accosted him with strong expressions of disapprobation. Lee, incapable of brooking even an implied indignity, and unable to restrain the warmth of his resentment, used improper language in return, and some irritation was excited on both sides. The following letters immediately after passed between Lee and the commander-in-chief:
Camp, English town, 1st July, 1778.
Sir — From the knowledge that I have of your excellency’s 180 character, I must conclude that nothing but misinformation of some very stupid, or misrepresentation of some very wicked person, could have occasioned your making use of such very singular expressions as you did, on my coming up to the ground where you had taken post: they implied that I was guilty either of disobedience of orders, want of conduct, or want of courage. Your excellency will, therefore, infinitely oblige me by letting me know on which of these three articles you ground your charge, that I may prepare for my justification; which I have the happiness to be confident I can do to the army, to the congress, to America, and to the world in general. Your excellency must give me leave to observe, that neither yourself, nor those about your person, could, from your situation, be in the least judges of the merits or demerits of our manœuvres; and, to speak with a becoming pride, I can assert that to these manœuvres the success of the day was entirely owing. I can boldly say, that had we remained on the first ground — or had we advanced — or had the retreat been conducted in a manner different from what it was, this whole army and the interests of America, would have risked being sacrificed. I ever had, and I hope ever shall have, the greatest respect and veneration for general Washington; I think him endowed with many great and good qualities; but in this instance I must pronounce, that he has been guilty of an act of cruel injustice towards a man who had certainly some pretensions to the regard of every servant of his country; and I think, sir, I have a right to demand some reparation for the injury committed; and unless I can obtain it, I must, in justice to myself, when the campaign is closed, which I believe will close the war, retire from a service, at the head of which is placed a man capable of offering such injuries; — but at the same time, in justice to you, I must repeat that I, from my soul, believe that it was not a motion of your own breast, but instigated by some of those dirty earwigs, who will forever insinuate themselves near persons in high office; for I am really assured that, when general Washington acts from himself, no man in his army will have reason to complain of injustice and indecorum.
I am, sir, and hope ever shall have reason to continue,
His Excellency General Washington.181
Head-quarters, English town, 30th, June, 1778.
Sir — I received your letter, dated through mistake the 1st of July, expressed, as I conceive, in terms highly improper. I am not conscious of having made use of any singular expressions at the time of my meeting you, as you intimate. What I recollect to have said, was dictated by duty and warranted by the occasion. As soon as circumstances will admit, 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 are guilty of a breach of orders, and of misbehavior before the enemy on the 28th instant, in not attacking them as you had been directed, and in making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat.
I am, sir, your most obedient servant,
A court-martial, of which lord Stirling was president, was ordered for his trial, and after a masterly defence by general Lee, found him guilty of all the charges, and sentenced him to be suspended from any command in the army for the term of twelve months. This sentence was shortly afterward confirmed by congress.
When promulgated, it was like a mortal wound to the lofty, aspiring spirit of general Lee; pointing to his dog, he exclaimed — “Oh that I was that animal, that I might not call man my brother.” He became outrageous, and from that moment he was more open and virulent in his attack on the character of the commander-in-chief, and did not cease in his unwearied endeavors, both in his conversation and writings, to lessen his reputation in the estimation of the army and the public. He was an active abettor of general Conway in his calumny and abuse of general Washington, and they were believed to be in concert in their vile attempt to supersede his excellency in the supreme command. With the hope of effecting his nefarious purpose, he published a pamphlet replete with scurrilous imputations unfavorable to the military talents of the commander-in-chief; but this, with his other malignant allegations, was consigned to contempt.
At length, colonel Laurens, one of general Washington’s aids, unable longer to suffer this gross abuse of his illustrious friend, 182 demanded of Lee that satisfaction which custom has sanctioned as honorable. A rencounter accordingly ensued, and Lee received a wound in his side.
Lee now finding himself abandoned by his friends, degraded in the eye of the public, and despised by the wise and virtuous, retired to his sequestered plantation in Virginia. In this spot, secluded from all society, he lived in a sort of hovel, without glass windows or plastering, or even a decent article of house furniture; here he amused himself with his books and dogs. On January 10th, 1780, congress resolved that major-general Lee be informed they have no further occasion for his services in the army of the United States. In the autumn of 1782, wearied with his forlorn situation and broken spirit, he resorted to Philadelphia, and took lodgings in an ordinary tavern. He was soon seized with a disease of the lungs, and after a few day’s confinement, he terminated his mortal course, a martyr to chagrin and disappointment, October 2d, 1782. The last words which he was heard to utter were, “stand by me, my brave grenadiers.”
General Lee was rather above the middle size, “plain in his person even to ugliness, and careless in his manners even to a degree of rudeness: his nose was so remarkably aquiline, that it appeared as a real deformity. His voice was rough, his garb ordinary, his deportment morose. He was ambitious of fame, without the dignity to support it. In private life he sunk into the vulgarity of the clown.” His remarkable partiality for dogs was such, that a number of these animals constantly followed in his train, and the ladies complained that he allowed his canine adherents to follow him in the parlor, and not unfrequently a favorite one might be seen on a chair next his elbow at table.
In the year 1776, when our army lay at White Plains, Lee resided near the road which general Washington frequently passed; and he one day with his aids called and took dinner. After they had departed, Lee said to his aids, “You must look me out other quarters, or I shall have Washington and his puppies calling till they eat me up.” The next day he ordered his servant to write on the door, “No victuals cooked here to-day.” The company, seeing the hint on the door, passed, with a smile at the oddity of the man. “The character of this person,” says Thacher, “is 183 full of absurdities, and qualities of a most extraordinary nature.” While in Philadelphia, shortly before his death, the following ludicrous circumstance took place, which created no small diversion: — The late Judge Brackenridge, whose poignancy of satire and eccentricity of character were nearly a match for those of the general, had dipped his pen in some gall, which greatly irritated Lee’s feelings, insomuch that he challenged him to single combat, which Brackenridge declined in a very eccentric reply. Lee having furnished himself with a horsewhip, determined to chastise him ignominiously on the very first opportunity. Observing Brackenridge going down Market street a few days after, he gave him chase, and Brackenridge took refuge in a public house, and barricaded the door of the room he entered. A number of persons collected to see the result. Lee damned him, and invited him to come out and fight him like a man. Brackenridge replied that he did not like to be shot at, and made some quaint observations, which only increased Lee’s irritation, and the mirth of the spectators. Lee, with the most bitter imprecations, ordered him to come out, when he said he would horsewhip him. Brackenridge replied, that he had no occasion for a discipline of that kind. The amusing scene lasted some time, until at length Lee, finding that he could accomplish no other object than calling forth Brackenridge’s wit for the amusement of the by-standers, retired.
General Lee was master of a most genteel address; but was rude in his manners, and excessively negligent in his appearance and behaviour. His appetite was so whimsical, that he was every where a most troublesome guest. Two or three dogs usually followed him wherever he went. As an officer, he was brave and able, and did much towards disciplining the American army. — With vigorous powers of mind, and a brilliant fancy, he was a correct and elegant classical scholar; and he both wrote and spoke his native language with propriety, force, and beauty. His temper was severe: the history of his life is little else than the history of disputes, quarrels, and duels, in every part of he world. He was vindictive, avaricious, immoral, impious, and profane. His principles, as would be expected from his character, were most abandoned, and he ridiculed every tenet of religion. Two virtues he possessed in an eminent degree — sincerity and veracity. It was 184 notorious that general Lee was a man of unbounded personal ambition; and conscious of his European education, and pre-eminent military talents and prowess, he affected a superiority over general Washington, and constantly aimed at the supreme command, little scrupulous as to the means employed to accomplish his own advancement.
The following is an extract from general Lee’s will: “I desire most earnestly, that I may not be buried in any church or churchyard, 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 while living, that I do not choose to continue it while dead.”