Tag Archives: Charles Lee

The Continental Army’s foreign-born bad boys

Lately we’ve looked at how film, TV, and fiction about the RevWar tend to portray the British as arrogant dipwads.  (That’s a technical social science term, is what that is.)

I think there’s a corollary to this stereotypical view of the men who led Britain’s armies in America, and it applies to the Continentals.

Think of the American officers who come across the worst in popular historiography, film, TV, and so on.  The list would probably include Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and maybe Thomas Conway.  Arnold’s place on the list is obvious.  The others share something in common: all were foreign-born. Gates and Lee were both natives of England, while Conway was a French-educated Irishman.

Would we have such prominent collective memories of these men as haughty but ineffectual snots if they had been born in America?

It certainly wouldn’t have cancelled out the stigma of Gates’s performance at Camden, Lee’s ignominious capture and unseemly ambition, and Conway’s backbiting.  In other words, they were probably bound to end up on the wrong side of historical memory.  But I wonder if the fact that they were professional veterans of European armies helped the process along.

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Turns and twists

Here’s a heads-up for Turn viewers who are a few episodes behind–this post contains spoilers. Ye be warned.

Gen. Charles Lee’s capture is one of the most dramatic and humorous episodes of the American Revolution.  Lee was one of the war’s most colorful figures, an eccentric and unkempt British veteran who was habitually accompanied by a pack of pet dogs.  On the eve of the war he hung up his red coat and adopted America as his home country, fired with a commitment to Whiggish principles.  Lee’s experience got him a commission in the Continental Army, where (like his fellow expatriate Horatio Gates) he became one of Washington’s critics.

Despite his commander-in-chief’s entreaties, Lee dithered while the rest of the army retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in 1776.  On December 12 he stopped for the night at a tavern in Basking Ridge, NJ. British dragoons found him there the next morning, still undressed and several miles from the safety of his troops. Women inside the tavern offered to hide him, but Lee gave himself up when the British threatened to set fire to the building. (Incidentally, one of the dragoons who captured him was Banastre Tarleton, who went on to make a name for himself in the Southern Campaign.)  The troublesome general spent the next sixteen months in captivity, offering advice to the British on how to defeat his former compatriots.

Last week’s episode of Turn depicted Lee’s capture, but changed the circumstances.  The show has Lee falling into the hands of John André while playing hide-and-seek with a young woman who, unknown to him, is a British operative.

It’s an amusing scene.  But it’s no more amusing than the actual circumstances of Lee’s capture.  Why the change to the historical record?

I don’t have a problem with dramatic license. People who adapt history have to compress events, get inside the characters’ heads, and combine historic figures into composites. I get that.

If the story is told well, I can forgive all manner of distortions. I liked 300. I liked The Patriot, for crying out loud. In fact, the grand scheme of things, The Patriot‘s distortions are much more substantial than the liberties Turn took with Lee’s capture, but they don’t irk me as much because I can see the rationale behind them. Modern audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with a slaveowner protagonist, so you make his field hands free men. People want the villain to get what’s coming to him, so instead of having Tarleton/Tavington escape from the field at Cowpens, you have Mel Gibson shove a bayonet in his throat. I get that.

What I don’t get are these little departures that don’t really amount to any improvement over what actually happened. Would a straightforward depiction of Lee’s capture in his nightgown at a Basking Ridge tavern have been any less entertaining than the “Marco Polo” scene? I don’t think so. Nor do I think the notion of Lee passing information to the British before his capture adds anything in terms of entertainment value.

I don’t really intend this to be a criticism of the show. I’ve been enjoying it; in fact, it’s getting better with each episode, especially now that major players like Washington and Cornwallis are putting in appearances. I just get puzzled and irritated when filmmakers sacrifice accuracy for no apparent payoff.

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Monmouth Court House in context

One of the most complicated and controversial battles of the Revolutionary War took place at Monmouth Court House, NJ on June 28, 1778.  The war had just changed fundamentally, since France’s entry as a belligerent forced the British to contract their commitment in the colonies.  This meant, among other things, abandoning Philadelphia, which they had captured the previous autumn.  The British march away from the rebel capital presented Washington with an opportunity to inflict some damage on his enemy’s force as it crossed New Jersey.  The ensuing engagement demonstrated that the Continental Army, so often defeated in the war’s previous two years, had become a formidable fighting machine.  This battle and the events surrounding it are the subject of Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, by Joseph G. Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins, released this summer by Westholme Publishing.  It is a book much wider ins cope than its title suggests.

The Revolution in New Jersey was a civil war, and the course of that civil war depended greatly on the fortunes of the regular armies.  The Tory ascendancy in of 1776 in New Jersey proved relatively brief.  British and Hessian rapacity alienated many civilians, Washington’s enterprising attacks at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that his army was not subdued, and an active local militia proved that while New Jersey was occupied, it remained unpacified. Fighting in the state continued through 1777, as both sides skirmished and foraged throughout the countryside.

The residents of Monmouth County experienced the effects of this fighting firsthand, both before and after the climactic battle that erupted among their homes in the summer of 1778.  They also participated, often as militia or members of impromptu bands that coalesced in response to local military, social, or religious conditions.  Organized Loyalists benefited from the presence of British regulars, attacking Whigs and confiscating their goods, but when control of New Jersey shifted to the Patriots, the tables were turned and Loyalists suffered accordingly.  Some Tories joined armed bands of outliers, like the one led by an ex-slave that terrorized local Whigs from a base at Sandy Hook.  Legal and extralegal Patriot groups targeted these Tories and those suspected of sympathizing with them, resulting in a kind of see-saw partisan conflict in which each side persecuted the other while operating in the shadow of whichever occupying force was most prominent at that particular time.  Bilby and Jenkins use local records and correspondence to illuminate the inner workings of this struggle within Monmouth County.

The fortunes of the regular armies shifted back and forth, also.  By the summer of 1778 the Continental Army was a matured fighting force.  While the British had occupied Philadelphia, the Americans spent their winter at Valley Forge training under the tutelage of the colorful Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben.  The British abandonment of Philadelphia, supervised by Sir Henry Clinton, was a necessary consequence of France’s entry into the war, but it meant marching across dusty roads in intense heat, exposed to an enemy more proficient at making battle than it had ever been.

Some of Washington’s subordinates urged their commander to use the British withdrawal march as an opportunity to attack.  One who disagreed was General Charles Lee, a onetime veteran of the British Army who was also a critic of his commander and until recently a prisoner of war; while in captivity his behavior was sufficiently questionable as to bring his loyalty to the American cause into doubt.  Lee warned that the army was not prepared for an all-out engagement, and recommended the use of small-scale harassment.  Washington determined to divide his force and send a portion of it against the British flank and rear, seeking an opportunity to harass the enemy’s army and perhaps inflict serious damage.  Once it became clear that this force would be considerable in size, Lee insisted that his seniority entitled him to command it.  Washington relented, allowing Lee to take charge of a detachment faced with a task that he had vocally opposed.  According to Bilby and Jenkins, Lee’s unfamiliarity with the troops under his command and with the terrain over which he would have to fight caused much of the confusion that followed.

When the two armies caught up with each other along the fields, marshes, and ravines near Monmouth Court House on June 28, the British counter-attacked.  Faced with ever-increasing numbers of British troops, American units began to withdraw from the field, and shortly thereafter Lee himself ordered a general withdrawal and tried to establish a defensive position to the rear.  Washington arrived on the field surprised to find his troops retreating; encountering a confused and flustered Lee, he failed to secure a satisfactory answer as to why the withdrawal was taking place.  Washington himself then took command of the army and oversaw the establishment of new defensive positions along elevated ground, which the British found difficult to crack.  After a two-hour artillery duel and a number of localized American attacks, the British completed their withdrawal from the battlefield, marching away to Sandy Hook for embarkation to New York that evening.  The Americans had demonstrated their ability to stand toe-to-toe with British regulars in formal combat.

Still, the initial American withdrawal at Monmouth Court House ended the Revolutionary career of Charles Lee.  The combative general insisted on a court-martial to clear his name and dashed off a series of insulting messages to Washington, which did little to help his cause.  The American commander obliged Lee’s wish for an inquiry, which found Lee guilty of disobedience for failure to attack the British, conducting an improper retreat, and disrespect to his commander. Suspended from command for a year, Lee continued his crusade to vindicate his reputation, eventually getting himself removed from the army altogether.  Bilby and Jenkins find Lee largely responsible for his own misfortunes.  While the court-martial leveled accusations against Lee that were partly untrue (Washington had not ordered him to bring on a general engagement, despite the accusations of some of Lee’s enemies), and while his conduct of the defense following the confused retreat was admirable, the initial American withdrawal itself was, they argue, largely the result of Lee’s own ill-preparedness and his poor initiation of the battle.  Likewise, the collapse of his military career was essentially his own fault, attributable to his belligerent behavior after the battle.

If Lee’s reputation suffered as a result of Monmouth, though, the Continental Army had vindicated itself after the embarrassing defeats of 1776 and 1777 by facing the British in a pitched battle.  Over the next century, as Americans turned to the Revolution as a symbol of national unity and spirit, the battle and the field found their own places in American memory.  The most prominent figure in the memory of Monmouth was (and remains) Molly Pitcher, a campfollower who supposedly helped man one of the artillery pieces.  Bilby and Jenkins find that the Molly Pitcher legend, while embellished over time, likely has a basis in fact; it appears in some later participant accounts, and a likely candidate can be found in surviving records and recollections. The book concludes with a description of efforts to commemorate and preserve the battlefield, which is now a state park.

If all this sounds like more than a discussion of a battle, it is.  The authors’ intention is to “tell the story of the Battle of Monmouth Court House in a holistic manner” (x).  As such, much of the book is more concerned with the battle’s context than with the actual clash near Monmouth, delving into the course of the war in the Mid-Atlantic, its effects on the community, the organization and composition of the opposing armies, and eighteenth-century weapons and tactics.  Much of this background material will already be familiar to students of the Revolution, but it does place the battle itself in a larger perspective.

As one of the most complicated and controversial engagements of the war, Monmouth seems ripe for the sort of painstaking critique of command decisions that characterize many battle studies, and some readers will probably find the authors’ reluctance to engage in such minute dissection frustrating.  Still, this is a useful and enlightening account, one that clearly presents the story of Monmouth and puts that story within its proper place. It will be of interest to any reader interested in the Revolution or American military history.

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