The Capture of Charles Lee

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TURN's portrayal of Lee's capture bears hardly any resemblance to how it actually happened.
TURN’s portrayal of Lee’s capture in Episode 4 (Eternity How Long) bears hardly any resemblance to how it actually happened.

There are plenty of tall tales concerning the capture of Charles Lee in 1776, even though the unembellished account of the capture contains plenty of drama of its own, as we see in this week’s guest post by Loyalist scholar Todd Braisted.

Major General Charles Lee, by nearly all accounts, was a difficult man to work with, and (as we’ll discuss in the future) had ego issues that made Washington’s job as Commander in Chief more difficult than it had to be. But depicting Lee as a philandering traitor to the American cause who was caught in the middle of a children’s game-turned-sex romp with a prostitute is a bit over-the-top in terms of gratuitous character assassination, don’t you think? I am especially grateful this week for Todd Braisted’s write-up of the REAL capture of Charles Lee, which will hopefully clear up any confusion about the accuracy of Lee’s questionable debut in TURN.  -RS

 

 

John André Banastre Tarleton and the Capture of Major General Charles Lee

by Todd Braisted

Brian T. Finney is in a lot of trouble. Well, actually his character, Major General Charles Lee is… but not exactly in the way that’s been portrayed in TURN thus far.

CharlesLeemezzotint_britishmus
A print of Major General Charles Lee (circa 1776) from the collections of the British Museum.

Charles Lee was a half-pay (inactive) lieutenant colonel in the British Army when the American Revolution broke out in 1775. A veteran of the Seven Years War, Lee had bounced around Europe, serving both the Poles and Russians before landing in America and settling down in western Virginia. When fighting broke out, Lee took up the cause of the 13 Colonies, fighting against his old comrades in the British Army. Except Lee had never actually resigned his British commission — not in a way that British authorities found acceptable, anyway — and was therefore a traitor to the Crown in the very real sense of the word. (n.b.: See the comments below for some additional insight into this issue.)

As Lee was an experienced officer in both Europe and North America, he commanded great respect in Congress, who made him a major general and 2nd in command of the newly formed Continental Army. Gaining credit for the successful defense of Charleston, SC in June 1776 against a combined British sea and land attack, Lee was welcomed as a hero when he joined the Continental troops around New York in October of that year.

However, Lee’s presence did nothing to prevent the loss of Fort Washington on the New York side of the Hudson, or Fort Lee (named after Lee himself, the celebrated hero of Charleston) just four days later. Five thousand British troops under Lord Cornwallis, soon after joined by Colonel William Harcourt’s 16th Light Dragoons which included a dashing young cornet named Banastre Tarleton, were soon pursuing Washington towards the Delaware River.

While Cornwallis, Harcourt and Tarleton were on Washington’s heels in his retreat across the state, 3,000 Continental troops under Major General Charles Lee crossed the Hudson River from Westchester NY on 2 December 1776, and were taking a more southwesterly course, both avoiding the British and seemingly in little hurry to join Washington. This force was essentially the same number of men that Washington had with him, and joining forces would at least double his strength and give him hopes of saving Philadelphia, the apparent British target. Spending several days at Morristown, claiming his men were “ill shod,” Lee proposed to Washington his force remain in New Jersey and attack the rear of Cornwallis’ army. He then related his uncertainty as to where he might cross the Delaware or meet Washington’s force. Such delays and excuses maddened Washington, who wrote to Lee on the 14th: “I have so frequently mentioned our Situation, and the necessity of your Aid, that it is painfull to me to add a Word upon the Subject.Lee, however, would never receive Washington’s letter…

Miniature portrait of a young Banastre Tarleton, by Richard Cosway.
Portrait of a young Banastre Tarleton by Richard Cosway, a famed English painter of miniatures.

Cornwallis, having chased Washington’s Army across the Delaware, now turned his attention to that of Charles Lee. Not knowing his exact whereabouts, Cornwallis ordered Colonel Harcourt and thirty of the 16th Light Dragoons out to scout the area and learn what they could of the second in command of the Continental Army. Their guide for the expedition would be a seventeen year old Loyalist from Quibbletown, NJ named William Robins. On the morning of 12 December 1776, Harcourt and his men, including Cornet Tarleton, marched eighteen miles to Hillsborough, where the only excitement encountered was the house they put up in for the night caught fire. Continuing on early the next morning, Tarleton was given the advance guard of six men, winding their way towards Morristown. Along the way they captured one soldier, and received information from some residents, that Lee was but four or five miles distant. Advancing further, Tarleton captured two sentries, who informed him that Lee was only a mile further, lodged in a tavern at Basking Ridge, with his entourage and a small guard. (n.b.: Lee was searching for safe and comfortable lodgings, not prostitutes. This was a common practice among both British and American generals.) Taking all the information into account, Colonel Harcourt decided to make an attempt to capture Lee. Tarleton once again spurred on his advance guard, this time riding down a “Yankee Light Horseman” and taking him back to Harcourt, where “The Fear of the Sabre extorted great intelligence.”

The intelligence showed Lee was getting ready to move, and confirmed that his guard was about thirty men. The advantage for the British would come from surprise and speed. On the morning of December 13, Tarleton led on his advance guard, “making all the noise I could.” The sentries posted at the door to Lee’s quarters fled. Being informed officers were fleeing from the back door, Tarleton left one man at the front door and raced with the remaining cavalrymen around the back, scooping up the general’s aides and staff. The sentry Tarleton had left at the front door then apprehended Lee as he alighted from that entryway. In just fifteen minutes, the British had captured the second in command of the Continental Army at the cost of a horse’s leg being grazed by a bullet.

A late 18th century rendition of the capture of Charles Lee (who would not have been wearing his uniform at the time), featuring the 16th Light Dragoons. From the New Jersey State Museum.
A late 18th century rendition of the capture of Charles Lee (who would not have been wearing his uniform at the time), featuring the 16th Light Dragoons. From the New Jersey State Museum.

Sensing the retreat back to their lines might now be full of ambuscades, Colonel Harcourt turned to New Jersey Volunteer Captain Richard Witham Stockton to serve as a local guide. After 13 miles of skirting enemy ambushes and patrols, Tarleton happily wrote “We then forded a River, approached Hillsborough again and gave each other Congratulations with every Symptom of Joy…This is a most miraculous Event, it appears like a Dream. We conducted Genl. Lee…to Lord Cornwallis at Pennington. Our Days March only, exceeded 60 Miles.” Cornet Tarleton was made major-of-brigade, a staff position, to the two regiments of British cavalry in America. That would change before long, as in August 1778 Tarleton was made lieutenant colonel of the newly-raised British Legion, riding on to fame and infamy in the South.  Meanwhile, a despondent Washington learned the news of Lee’s capture just as he was facing the prospect of losing the majority of his troops after their enlistments expired at the end of the year. For the Americans, it seemed like the timing couldn’t have been worse…

So, did Lee then become a traitor and betray Washington and the cause of independence? We will explore Lee’s imprisonment, subsequent actions, and controversial motivations in the future. For now, we’ll just say he was not interrogated by Robert Rogers. (Nor did John André, who at this point in time was finishing up a long stint as an American prisoner of war in Pennsylvania, have anything to do with Lee’s capture.) Stay tuned…

———-—————————————————————————————————-———————————————————-

Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Capture of Charles Lee

    J. L. Bell said:
    May 15, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Didn’t Lee resign his British commission and half-pay quite publicly in a letter dated 22 June 1775? (Which is not to say that the royal authorities accepted his action.)

      spycurious responded:
      May 15, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      Excellent comment! I ran the above by Todd Braisted, who wasn’t sure off the top of his head. He replied: “In any case, the British considered Lee as still holding a British commission when he joined the Rebels, which was the central issue concerning whether or not he would be tried for treason.”

      Using your comment as a guide, after a bit of digging I found quite a few references to the letter in question. (You can read one such transcription, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal of June 28, 1775, here.) Not exactly a delicate letter, is it? Pretty easy to see why the Americans would celebrate Lee’s letter while the British Secretary of War might find it slightly unacceptable…

      Thank you ever so much for the insightful comment, Mr. Bell! I’ve tweaked the language of the original blog post oh-so-slightly to clarify the issue. -RS

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