247 Years Ago, Bloody Ban Captures the Treacherous Charles Lee at Basking Ridge

Lee and Tarleton with the Widow White’s Tavern in the background.

247 years ago, on December 13, 1776, an unknown British dragoon named Banestre Tarleton captured General Charles Lee, a renowned American officer who was second-in-command to General George Washington, at the Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

The following account of Lee’s capture comes from “Diary of the American Revolution” a compilation of letters and newspaper articles compiled by Frank Moore in 1860. This account was written on the day Lee was captured.

December 13, 1776 — The Capture of General Charles Lee at Basking Ridge

This morning, about eleven o’clock, General Lee was taken prisoner at Baskenridge, in New Jersey, by Colonel Harcourt with a party of light horse. 

The sentry placed at the door of the house at which General Lee was stopping, saw the troopers coming on the run, and at first supposed them to be ours; but soon perceived his mistake by their swords, which are more crooked than ours. 

His piece not being loaded, he charged; they rode up to him and said, “Don’t shoot; if you fire we will blow your brains out.” General Lee cries out, “For God’s sake, what shall I do?”

The lady of the house took him up stairs, in order to hide him between the chimney and the breastwork over the fireplace, but he could not, the place being so small. The enemy at this time firing in at the windows, the captain gave orders to set fire to the house. The general seeing no way of escaping, sent down he would resign himself. They fired three times at the messenger, but missed him.

The general came down without his hat or outside coat, my hat and said, “I hope you will use me as a gentleman; let me get my hat and coat.” The Captain said, “General Lee, I know you well; I know you are a gentleman; you shall be used as such. I know you too well to suffer you to go for your hat and coat,” and ordered him to mount. Upon which they went off, carrying with them the general and a Frenchman, left the baggage, wounded one of the aide-de-camps, and one or two of the guard. There were but thirteen men with the general. He was about four miles from his division, and a mile out of the road.

Intelligence of General Lee’s unguarded situation was given to the enemy last night, by an inhabitant of Baskenridge, personally known to the general, and who had made great pretensions of friendship for the American cause, though at heart the greatest villain that ever existed. This Judas rode all the preceding night to carry the intelligence, and served as a pilot to conduct the enemy, and came personally with them to the house where the general was taken.

The enemy showed an ungenerous, nay, boyish triumph, after they had got him secure at Brunswick, by making his horse drunk, while they toasted their king till they were in the same condition. A band or two of music played all night to proclaim their joy for this important acquisition. They say we cannot now stand another campaign. Mistaken fools! to think the fate of America depended on one man. They will find ere long that it has no other effect than to urge us on to a noble revenge.

Lee’s Praise for the British Dragoons

This excerpt from a letter written by Lee, and praises the effort of Colonel William Harcourt’s 16th Light Dragoons, which included Tarleton. Interestingly, Lee blames his own men for his capture, which happened while he was writing a letter to General Horatio Gates — criticizing George Washington.

SIR, —The fortune of war, the activity of Colonel Harcourt, and the rascality of my own troops, have made me your prisoner.

I submit to my fate, and hope that whatever may be my destiny, I shall meet it with becoming fortitude; but I have the consolation of thinking, amidst all my distresses, that I was engaged in the noblest cause that ever interested mankind.

It would seem to me, that Providence had determined that not one freeman should be left upon earth; and the success of your arms more than foretells one universal system of slavery.

Imagine not, however, that I lament my fortune, or mean to deprecate the malice of my enemies; if any sorrow can at present afflict me, it is that of a great continent apparently destined for empire, frustrated in the honest ambition of being free, and enslaved by men whom unfortunately I call my countrymen.

To Colonel Harcourt’s activity every commendation is due; had I commanded such men, I had this day been free; but my ill fortune has prevailed, and you behold me no longer hostile to England, but contemptible and a prisoner!

I have not time to add more; but let me assure you that no vicissitudes have the power to alter my sentiments; and that, as I have long supported those sentiments in difficulty and in dangers, I will never depart from them, but with life.

The Treacherous — and Arrogant — Charles Lee

At the time, Lee was supposed to be leading his army south to meet up with Washington’s army in Pennsylvania. However, Lee, British by birth, believed he was superior to Washington and may have been hoping Congress would replace Washington with him. 

After Lee was captured, he was held prisoner by the British and may have provided General William Howe with information about how to defeat the Continental Army. Lee’s letters were not found until after his death, and the incident is known as the “Treachery of Charles Lee.” 

Lee returned to the Continental Army and joined Washington at Valley Forge. He is most famous for failing to carry out Washington’s orders at the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778). Washington was so upset with Lee that confronted Lee, accused him of intentionally disobeying orders, and relieved him of command. 

According to legend, Washington cursed so loudly at Lee — calling him a “damn poltroon” — that it caught the attention of many of the men who were there. In his memoirs, the Marquis de Lafayette recalled it was the only time he ever heard Washington swear.

This video from the American Battlefield Trust discusses the career and reputation of Charles Lee.

“Bloody Ban” Tarleton

Banastre Tarleton is most famous for his brutal battlefield tactics and, according to many accounts, his tendency to massacre surrendering American soldiers during the British Southern Campaign.

Tarleton arrived in America in 1776, along with General Charles Cornwallis. Before he caught Lee at Basking Ridge, he was relatively unknown. Afterward, he gained a reputation for bold tactics that often saw him lead his men charging their horses into American camps.

His tactics helped him win battles important battles at Monck’s Corner (April 14, 1780) and Lenud’s Ferry (May 6, 1780), which helped the British capture Charleston, South Carolina. His most famous victory came at the Battle of Waxhaws on May 29, 1780, when his men are said to have brutally murdered as many as 100 surrendering Americans. The incident is known as “Buford’s Massacre.”

Tarleton’s fortunes changed during the fall of 1780 when he failed to capture Francis Marion, the famous “Swamp Fox,” and suffered defeat at the Battle of Blackstock’s Farm (November 20, 1780). Eventually, his British Legion was crushed with a staggering defeat at the hands of Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781).

This video from the American Battlefield Trust discusses the career and reputation of Banastre Tarleton.