Last updated: July 3, 2020
Charles Lee, a veteran of the Seven Years' War and former British army officer, offered his services to the Patriots in their war for independence. His initially stellar reputation was later damaged by arguments with other Continental Army officers, most notably the Commander-in-Chief General Washington, and failures on the battlefield.
Born in Cheshire, England in 1732 and later educated in Switzerland, Lee joined the British army in 1744. He later served in foreign armies, including Russia, Poland, and Portugal. In 1773, Lee settled in Virginia. When hostilities between Britain and the American colonies erupted in 1775, Lee chose the revolutionary cause. As second in command of the Continental Army, Lee was appointed head of the Southern Department, which consisted of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.
Upon Lee’s arrival in Charleston, South Carolina he went to tour the palmetto log and sand fort under construction on Sullivan’s Island. There he met Colonel William Moultrie and appraised the work being done to defend Charleston Harbor. Lee called the fort a “slaughter pen” and encouraged the construction of a bridge from Mount Pleasant across the marsh to Sullivan’s Island for the inevitable evacuation of a post he deemed vulnerable. Lee as the sole representative of the Continental Army in the state found himself overruled by President John Rutledge of South Carolina who urged Moultrie to remain at Sullivan’s Island and defend the fort. In the days leading up to the British attack, Lee still stressed the importance of finishing the bridge and also removed substantial quantities of gunpowder from the fort, preventing the patriots from turning a victory into a rout of the British.
Lee garnered substantial praise and admiration for his defense of Charleston in 1776. Though the victory was largely accomplished through the leadership of Col. William Moultrie, Lee received credit and accolades. Ironically, Lee wanted to replace Moultrie with Col. Francis Nash of the North Carolina Continentals on the morning of the fateful victory because of Moultrie’s failure to act in compliance with Lee’s orders to evacuate the fort he considered indefensible.
“I have the happiness to congratulate You on a very signal success (if I may not call it a victory) which We have gain'd over the Mercennary Instruments of the British Tyrant - I shall not trouble you with a detail of their manouvres or delays - but defer it to another time when I have more leisure to write and you to attend - let it suffice that having lost an opportunity (such as I hope will never again present itself) of taking the Town which on my arrival was utterly defenceless, the Commodore thought proper on Friday last with his whole Squadron consisting of two fifty's six Frigates and a Bomb (the rates of which You will see in the inclosd list) to attack our Fort on Sullivan's Island.” - Lee to Washington on July 1, 1776
He joined Washington in New York and began criticizing his superior in written correspondence. Longing for Washington’s job and exploiting the recent defeats in New York, Lee penned a Congressman, “Had I the powers, I could do you much good.” Lee’s efforts to undermine General Washington were disrupted when he was captured by the British at a tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey in December 1776. Lee was a notable prize for the enemy, and his release finally came in 1778 after the British loss at Saratoga.
In May 1778, Lee had returned to the Continental Army in time for the Battle of Monmouth. The decisive battle took place on June 28 as the Continental Army shadowed the British through New Jersey after their evacuation from Philadelphia. Washington hoped for a limited engagement that would test his army and inflict a defeat on the British. The Battle of Monmouth occurred when a limited engagement evolved into a full clash of a portion of the Continental Army under Maj. Gen. Lee and the British army. Lee ordered a retreat, resulting in a famous exchange of words between himself and His Excellency George Washington. Washington's presence and the solidity of other Continental regiments turned a potential rout into a battle in which the Americans won the field, allowing the British to escape to New York. The battle resulted in the disgrace of Lee and his court martial. It also intensified the political intrigue Lee orchestrated against General Washington.
Lee’s critiques of Washington finally reached a boiling point for John Laurens, a member of Washington’s military family, who challenged Lee to a duel and shot him in the side, wounding the disgraced officer. In 1780, Lee formally resigned from the Continental Army and retired to his estate in Virginia. He died from a fever while visiting Philadelphia in 1782.