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.
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…
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.
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.
Happy Tuesday, readers! I’m just starting to put a dent in the backlog of questions and comments that suddenly poured in over the last week and a half – here’s a quick pair of reader-submitted questions for you while I finish prepping a new post on General Lee. (The Revolutionary War general, not the car.)
- In “Mr. Culpeper” (TURN Episode 6) General Scott and Ben Tallmadge witness the hanging of John Herring. The scene seemed to have a lot of specific details… did this really happen?
Yes, it DID really happen! The sentencing and execution of John Herring is mentioned in the Continental Army General Orders issued on October 23, 1778:
Moses Walton and John Herring soldiers and Elias Brown Fifer of His Excellency the Commander in Chief’s guard were tried for breaking into the house of Mr Prince Howland on or about the 3rd instant and robbing him of several silver spoons, several silver dollars, some Continental dollars and sundry kinds of wearing Apparel to a considerable amount…
The Court (upwards of two thirds agreeing) do sentence John Herring to suffer Death.
So as you can see (and as I’m pleased to report), most of this brief scene was based on the historical record. Like most of the “real life” events we’ve witnessed in TURN so far, it happened later in the historical timeline than the show’s “current” date of 1777 — but the scene is still very appropriate, since discipline was a constant problem throughout the war’s duration for the Continental Army. These same General Orders are rife with criminal offenses both great and small, including stealing, “swearing and unsoldierly behaviour,” fistfights and harassment (“John Smith did call Corporal Wingler a Hessian Bougre”), and vandalism.
The American army was still very young in 1777, especially when compared to the professional armies of Europe, and its officers often struggled to find the proper balance between enforcing a necessary level of discipline while championing the cause of liberty and independence. (Quite the existential conflict, if you think about it.) To the 21st-century viewer, John Herring’s punishment might seem excessively harsh – and Washington’s unflinching reaction excessively cold. However, that aspect of the hanging scene is also historically accurate. Near the end of this very same document we read:
His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves these sentences—Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by the troops of late, He is determined to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders—Men who are called out by their Country to defend the Rights and Property of their fellow Citizens who are abandoned enough to violate those Rights and plunder that Property deserve and shall receive no Mercy.
Well, when you put it THAT way things make a little more sense, right? The dialogue in the show is directly lifted from the above paragraph — which, I might add, makes historians and history buffs absolutely giddy to see in a historical drama. (SOME of us, anyway.) If anyone tells you that historical accuracy is boring, or doesn’t work in a TV show, save your breath and show them this scene. (Or pretty much the entire John Adams miniseries from HBO… but I digress.) In no way did the accuracy detract from the drama of the execution. In fact, I would argue that the drama is enhanced for most viewers upon discovering that this event DID actually happen, unlike several other storylines in the show thus far. Fingers crossed that this happens a lot more often in future episodes!
And speaking of documentation: Shortly before the execution scene in Episode 6, we see Washington striding through camp, dictating a letter to his aides addressed to General Howe regarding the “cruel treatment” of American prisoners on British prison ships in New York harbor. Guess what? The dialogue from that scene is ALSO directly lifted from a letter Washington wrote to Howe on January 13, 1777. You can rewatch the scene for yourself and read along with the original letter:
Pretty cool stuff. I can say with confidence that this latest episode (“Mr. Culpeper”) is by far my favorite episode of TURN yet, in no small part because it had a much more even balance between artistic license and the historical record than any other episode thus far. It seems (I hope) that the show has turned a corner and will start to focus more clearly on documented history instead of anachronistic fiction (some of which we’ll mention in the forthcoming post on Charles Lee).
- While watching episode 3 (“Of Cabbages and Kings”) I noticed that Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform buttons all had USA on them. Is that historically accurate? I’m not sure when “USA” would have come into common enough use as an acronym to be on uniforms. It seems like a bit of an obscure question, but I’m a hobbyist needleworker interested in historical techniques and clothing, so it caught my eye. Thanks!
I’m not surprised that a needleworker would be so eagle-eyed! Those are indeed pewter USA buttons on Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform in TURN. USA buttons were common throughout the Continental Army during the middle and later years of the Revolutionary War, and came in a number of variations. (You can view some of them on this website, which features several images of original Revolutionary War buttons. Heads up: there’s a media player at the bottom of the site that plays music automatically upon loading!)
Your hunch is right about the timing – 1776 is a bit too early for these buttons to make their debut. The earliest extant (i.e. surviving original) USA buttons are dated to mid-1777. Many things about Tallmadge’s dragoon uniform are a couple years too early. Some of the most iconic elements of the uniform, including the blue regimental coat with white facings and the brass dragoon helmet, aren’t documented until 1778-1779. (Even the very existence of Tallmadge’s Second Light Dragoons in autumn of 1776 is too early, as you can see by glancing at the historical timeline.)
I hope to have the opportunity to discuss the Second Dragoons in much greater detail once they make another appearance in TURN. But in the meantime, if you’re a fan of Revolutionary War buttons, you can check out another impressive collection of extant buttons on Don Troiani’s Historical Image Bank website. And if you dabble in sewing and/or other needlework and are interested in making historical reproductions of 18th century clothing, I recommend trying to find as much documentation as possible before you start — there are plenty of helpful, well-researched tailors and seamstresses out there who are happy to point you in the right direction. Like I’ve said before on this blog: regardless of who you talk to, make sure they can show you historical documentation for the items they’re selling and patterns they’re using! It’s the best guarantee you’ll have against making inaccurate (and potentially expensive) mistakes. Good luck!