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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,191

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This is the grave of Charles Lee.

Born in 1732 in Darnhall, Cheshire, England, Lee grew up in a prominent English military family. His father John was a major general and his mother came out of serious landed gentry. So he was very rich. This was eighteenth century England with its big estates and gigantic portraits of everyone who could afford one with their ridiculous wigs, etc. He was a sickly kid, hardly seeming to be on the future path of his father. He and his mother basically despised each other from the time he was a child, which had to be just great. He went to all the fancy schools. In 1747, his father, at the moment a colonel and still on his way up, purchased an ensign rank for his young son and so despite some questionable health, he was going into the military.

This meant being sent to Ireland as part of the occupying/colonizing force there. In 1751, his father died and he probably bought himself a promotion to lieutenant. He was sent to North America and was part of the force under General Edward Braddock. He adapted to the frontier well, to the point of marrying a Mohawk woman and having a child with her. Of course once he didn’t need her for life on the frontier and sex he dumped her like most whites did. While wounded after a battle for Fort Ticonderoga, he went to Long Island to recover. While there, he insulted the doctor. Insulting people seems to have been something of a pastime for Lee. In response, the doctor beat the shit out of him and wounded him even more seriously. But he recovered and was at the capture of Montreal in 1760 that brought the active phase of the Seven Years War to an end in the Americas.

After the war, again, leaving his Mohawk wife in New York and probably never thinking of her again, Lee returned to Europe. Now a major, he went into mercenary work. He was hired by the Portuguese as a lieutenant colonel and was part of the force that repelled a Spanish invasion of the country in 1762. A lot of British officers were involved in this and he was the number 2 behind John Burgoyne at the Battle of Villa Velha that was a major turning point in this war. Later, Burgoyne would become infamous for losing the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution, which gave the French confidence that it was worth pouring resources into the rebellion.

But by that time, Lee was sympathetic with the colonists, who had he gotten to know. It took him awhile to get back there. He continued his mercenary work, mostly with the Polish army. He lost a couple of fingers in a duel in Italy. You know, normal rich dude eighteenth century military ridiculousness. In 1773, Lee decided to move to the colonies permanently. He bought a plantation in Virginia. Not sure if he owned slaves. He got involved with the Patriot cause and was a vigorous supporter of the American Revolution.

Now, if military experience mattered, Lee should have been the commander of Patriot forces. All you had to do was ask him. He really wanted that job. But he also knew he hadn’t been there long enough to earn the trust of everyone and so sort of acquiesced to George Washington, but not really. Initially, he was only the third leading general in the army, also behind Artemis Ward, which really pissed him off and he had little respect for that guy. But Ward stepped away and Lee became #2.

Lee was involved in early operations in South Carolina, where he took credit for whatever good happened, with questionable veracity. He really couldn’t deal with a chain of command that had Washington above him; he had an ego the size of the British Navy. He started openly criticizing Washington after the British captured Fort Washington. Making it worse, the British actually captured Lee while he was at an inn writing a letter to Horatio Gates bitching about Washington’s strategy. Couldn’t be more fitting than this.

Lee’s career would decline pretty quickly after his embarrassing capture. He was released in a prisoner exchange in 1778 after sixteen months in captivity. He immediately lobbied Congress to be promoted ahead of Washington, which did not go over well. Lee and Washington fought over strategy at the Battle of Monmouth and then refused Washington’s offer of commanding the force there, thinking it too small and irrelevant for a genius like himself. So it went to the Marquis de Lafayette instead. Lafayette was certainly aggressive, but soon outran his supply lines and so Lee had to lead men, reluctantly, to help. Lee ended up having to retreat, but then never told Washington about it. It was in fact an orderly and probably militarily correct retreat, but the lack of communication damned him. So when Washington and his men arrived at the battle, no one was there and it was only then that a straggler informed Washington of the retreat. Washington was furious and let Lee know it. Lee might have survived this, but he wouldn’t let it go and continued to slander Washington and finally wrote the general a letter slamming him. That was the final straw. Lee was court-martialed. He was inactive after 1778, fought a duel with Henry Laurens over his continued slanders of Washington, and was finally kicked out of the Army by Congress in 1780. A total failure. It’s also long been rumored that Lee was on the verge of committing treason by returning to the British army.

Lee was not an idiot. Militarily, he was a smart guy. He consistently urged Washington to avoid large-scale battles and wait until the French committed more troops. He knew that would more likely ensure victory and would a catastrophic defeat. But the thing about these eighteenth century elites is that they could not separate their overwrought ego and incredible defensiveness from the rest of their life. And so when Washington ignored him, it wasn’t just a policy decision. It was a personal attack. The only way he knew to respond to that was to engage in personal attacks himself. But Washington was the hero and Lee still a Brit. It wasn’t going to work out for him.

Lee was one of these eighteenth century elites who spent money like crazy. He inherited his mother’s money upon her death, but blew through it on bad land speculations, gambling, dogs, and booze. By 1780, he was mostly breeding horses and dogs, drinking so much that he had severe gout, and then he developed tuberculosis. He died while traveling in Philadelphia in 1782. Who knows exactly why he died at that moment. He was 50 years old.

Charles Lee is buried at Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other generals of the American Revolution, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Glover is in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Daniel Morgan is in Winchester, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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