Biography of Charles Lee
Charles Lee was a General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, despite his personal dislike of General George Washington. He was born in Britain and served in the British Army during the French and Indian War. After the war, he supported the American Colonies in their dispute with Parliament over taxation policies, and he moved to Virginia in 1773. After the American Revolutionary War started, he participated in the Siege of Boston and then went to New York City to help plan the defenses of the city against British attack. In March 1776, he was put in charge of the Southern Department and sent to Charleston. He oversaw the fortification of the city, which helped the Americans successfully hold off a British attack at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. In October, he was given orders to return to New York with his men. However, Lee was upset with how Washington had been beaten in New York and was retreating through New Jersey. He was critical of Washington in a letter to Joseph Reed, which Washington happened to open and read. Lee was slow to march to join Washington, which was seen as insubordination. During the journey, Lee was captured by British troops and held prisoner until 1778. After he was released, he joined Washington at Valley Forge and returned to service as Washington’s second-in-command. In May 1778, he commanded troops at the Battle of Monmouth but ordered his men to retreat, which upset Washington. As Lee retreated, Washington confronted, accused him of disobeying orders, and relieved him of command. Afterward, Lee continued his criticism of Washington, was shot by John Laurens in a duel, and eventually resigned from the army in 1780.
This illustration depicts Washington confronting Lee and relieving him of command during the Battle of Monmouth. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
5 Things to Know About Charles Lee
- Charles Lee was born on February 6, 1732, in Darnhall, Cheshire, England, and died on October 2, 1782, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- During the French and Indian War, he was part of the expedition that General Edward Braddock led in 1755 that ended in disaster at the Battle of Monongahela. Later, he served in the Albany area and participated in several conferences between Sir William Johnson and the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy.
- Lee’s military experience made him a candidate for Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, but Congress appointed George Washington and made Artemas Ward second-in-command, while Lee was third. However, Lee was one of the first Major Generals appointed by Congress, along with Ward, Philip Schuyler, and Israel Putnam.
- After the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, Lee was seen as a hero for planning the defenses of Charleston. However, the American victory was due to the efforts of men like William Moultrie and John Rutledge.
- Lee had a reputation for being difficult to work with, and undermining his superiors. Much of it was due to his desire to achieve personal glory. While he was held captive by the British, he provided information to General William Howe to use against the American forces in 1777. This is called the “ Treason of Charles Lee” or the “Treachery of Charles Lee.”
Charles Lee is important to United States history because he helped plan the critical defense of Charleston in 1776. However, his desire for personal glory led him to commit a series of mistakes that saw him try to help the British win the war, and then be relieved from command during the Battle of Monmouth.
Learn More About Charles Lee
- Charles Lee (George Washington’s Mount Vernon)
- Charles Lee (American Battlefield Trust)
- Charles Lee (National Park Service)
- Charles Lee Leaves His Troops for Widow White’s Tavern (History)
- Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (Army Historical Foundation)