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Charles Lee (general)

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Charles Lee

Charles Lee (17321782) was a British soldier turned Virginia planter who was a Major General of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.

Lee was born in Cheshire England, on the 6th of February, 1732. By the age of twelve, Lee was already commissioned as an ensign in the British Army. Lee served under Major General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War along with fellow officers George Washington, Thomas Gage, and Horatio Gates (Braddock lost). During this time in America, he married the daughter of a Mohawk Indian chief. From the Mohawks he received the bynames "Boiling Waters" and "The Spirit That Never Sleeps". He then went back to Europe to serve under Major General John Burgoyne in Portugal and Poland for a couple years. By this time, Lee was a Colonel. He moved up quickly -- he was next commissioned as an aide-de-camp with the rank of Major General under the Polish king Stanislaus II. But when he returned to Britain, but he was not wanted in the army, so he headed back to the colonies in 1773.

When it started to look like war was inevitable, he volunteered his services to the colonies. He expected to be named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army -- he was the most experienced candidate. On the other hand, he was born in Britain, somewhat eccentric, slovenly in appearance, coarse in language, and perhaps most damning of all, he wanted to be paid (he expected to lose all of his property in Britain, and expected to be compensated for this). Washington, on the other hand, was sober, steady, calm, and best of all, would work without pay, asking only that U.S. Congress should cover his expenses. Washington also was a good political choice; a southern commander to pair with a primarily New England fighting force. Washington won, and Lee was given the lesser rank of Major General. Lee is often considered second in command of the colonial forces, although Artemas Ward officially held this position (Ward was not in good health).

Lee also received some other titles; in 1776, he was named Commander of the Canadian Department, although he never got to serve in this capacity, instead, he was appointed as the first-ever Commander of the Southern Department. He served in this post for six months, until he was recalled to the main army. That same year, he was caught by the British Army at White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey -- three miles from camp, where he stayed in comparative luxury. He was eventually regained by colonial forces in exchange for General Prescott.

Lee is, unfortunately, most famous for his actions during the Battle of Monmouth. Washington ordered him to attack the retreating enemy, but instead he retreated himself. He retreated directly into Washington and his troops, who were advancing, and Washington chewed him out in front of everybody. Lee responded with 'inappropriate language', and was arrested, and shortly thereafter court-martialed. Lee was found guilty and relieved of command for a period of one year.

It is not clear that Lee made a bad strategic decision; he believed himself outnumbered (he was -- British commander Sir Henry Clinton had 10,000 troops to Lee's 5,440), and retreat was reasonable. But he disobeyed orders, having had a low opinion of Washington's generalship, and he expressed disrespect to his commander. Now is not usually seen as a hero, or as particularly brave.

Lee tried to get Congress to overturn the court-martial verdict, and when this failed he resorted to open attacks on Washington's character. Lee's popularity plummeted. Colonel John Laurens, an aide to Washington, challenged him to a duel, in which Lee was wounded in the side. He was released from duty on January 10, 1780. He retired to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he died on October 2, 1782.

He was a dog lover, and was rarely seen apart from his dogs. His favourite, a Pomeranian named Spada, is mentioned about as often as his wife is -- meaning, not much. He also had a fort named after him, Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson river, right across from Fort Washington.

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