Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

During the American Revolutionary War,
From 1775 to 1783.
Describing Interesting Events and Transactions of this period;
with numerous Historical Facts and Anecdotes
From the Original Manuscript
By James Thacher, M. D.
Second Edition, Revised and Corrected.
Boston, Published by Cottons & Barnard, 1827.



General Lee was an original genius, and one of the most eccentric and extraordinary characters of the age. His brilliant talents, military prowess and extensive intelligence would have entitled him to pre-eminence in the days of chivalry. He could dignify with honor an elevated station, and it was not difficult for him to degrade his rank by indulging in a malignant, sordid passion for personal satire and invective. From the qualities and manners of a gentleman, he could descend to the level of a querulous clown. The profession of arms was his delight from infancy, and he was commissioned at the early age of eleven years. In the year 1762, he bore a colonel's commission, and served under General Burgoyne in Portugal, where he signalized himself by his martial skill and active enterprizes. He afterwards served as an aid de camp to his Polish Majesty, with the rank of major general. He exhausted every valuable treatise both ancient and modern on the military art, and his capacious mind was stored with knowledge on every subject which he could collect from reading, conversation and extensive travelling in Europe. He was honored with the acquaintance of princes and noblemen, yet his manners were rude and singular, partly from nature, and partly from affectation. To his strong powers of intellect, he added literary accomplishments, and the knowledge of six languages beside his own. As a statesman he appeared to be influenced by an innate principle of republicanism ; an attachment to these principles was implanted in the constitution of his mind, and he espoused the cause of America as a champion of her emancipation from oppression. He pertinaciously opposed every oppressive measure of the British cabinet towards the American colonies, even while he was in their service. On his arrival in this country, he became daily more enthusiastic in the cause of liberty, and he travelled rapidly through the colonies, animating both by conversation and his eloquent pen, to a determined and persevering resistance to British tyranny. Thus he acquired a large share of popularity, and his presence among the people at this crisis was considered as a most fortunate and propitious omen. He probably expected to have become the first in military rank in America, but in 1775, he accepted a commission of second major general from our Congress, having previously resigned that which he held in the British service, and relinquished his half pay. He accompanied General Washington to join the troops assembled near Boston, in July, 1775, and he was considered as a real acquisition to our cause. In the spring of 1776, he was ordered to New York, to take the command and to fortify that city for defence. Not long after, he was appointed to the command of the southern department, and in his travels through the country, he received every testimony of high respect from the people. General Sir Henry Clinton, and Sir Parker, with a powerful fleet and army, attempted the reduction of Charleston, while he was in Command. The fleet anchored within half musket shot of the fort on Sullivan's Island, where Colonel Moultrie, one of the bravest and most intrepid of men, commanded. A tremendous engagement ensued on the 28th of June, 1776, which lasted twelve hours without intermission. The whole British force was completely repulsed, after suffering an irreparable loss. General Lee, and Colonel Moultrie received the thanks of Congress for their signal bravery and gallantry. Our hero had now reached the pinnacle of his military glory, the eclat of his name alone, appeared to enchant and animate the most desponding heart. But here we pause to contemplate the humiliating reverse of human events. He returned to the main army in October, and in marching at the head of a large detachment through the Jerseys, having from a desire of retaining a separate command, delayed his march several days in disobedience of express orders from the Commander in Chief, he was guilty of most culpable negligence in regard to his personal security. He took up his quarters two or three miles from the main body, and lay for the night, December 13th, 1776, in a careless exposed situation. Information of this being communicated to Colonel Harcourt, who commanded the British light horse, he proceeded immediately to the house, fired into it, and obliged the general to surrender himself a prisoner. They mounted him on a horse in haste, without his cloak or hat, and conveyed him in triumph to New York. A splendid triumph indeed it was, for next to Washington he was the most highly prized as a captive by the British, who considered him as the soul of the American army, and at that juncture of our affairs a more grievous loss, Washington thought, could not have been sustained. The Commander in Chief greatly lamented his capture, as he entertained a high opinion of his martial skill, and he was apprehensive that the British general would treat him with indignity and rigor. Not having any prisoner of his rank, his Excellency immediately proposed to exchange for him five Hessian field officers captured at Trenton, which is equivalent to the rank of major general. The British commander affected to consider Lee as a deserter from his majesty's service, and refused to listen to proposals for an exchange, but treated him with all the rigor of a state criminal of the first magnitude. This compelled the American commander, by order of Congress, to retaliate on the persons of five Hessian officers, and also on Colonel Campbell, who was now committed to a dungeon. After the capture of General Burgoyne and his army, the enemy relaxed in their rigorous treatment, and General Lee was soon exchanged for Major General Prescott. It is next to be seen in what manner General Lee terminated his career in the continental service. In the battle at Monmonth on the 28th of June, 1778, he commanded the van of the American troops with orders from the Commander in Chief to attack the retreating enemy. Instead of obeying this order, he conducted in an unworthy manner and greatly disconcerted the arrangements of the day. His Excellency, advancing to the field of battle, met him in his disorderly retreat, and accosted him with strong expressions of disapprobation. Lee, incapable of brooking even an implied indignity, and unable to restrain the warmth of his resentment, used improper language in return, and some irritation was excited on both sides, for the moment. Lee on the same day addressed two letters to the Commander in Chief, couched in disrespectful language, and with an air of defiance solicited a trial for his conduct, in consequence of which he was immediately put under arrest. A court martial, of which Lord Stirling was president, was ordered for his trial on the following charges. 1st. For disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy on the 28th. of June, agreeably to repeated instructions. 3d. For misbehavior before the enemy on the same day, by making an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat. 3d. For disrespect to the Commander in Chief, in two letters dated July 1st, and June 28th. The letter dated July 1st was so dated by mistake, it was written June 28th. The court found him guilty on all the charges, and sentenced him to be suspended from any command in the armies of the United States of America for the term of twelve months. He made a masterly defence, and endeavoured to prove that any other course than that pursued would have given the enemy great advantage, and hazarded the destruction of our army. In his adversity General Lee was not altogether destitute of advocates as respects the affair of Monmouth ; they alleged that, were it not for the disrespectful letters to his Excellency, Lee would have been acquitted, and the degree of punishment seems in some measure to justify this opinion. If he had been proved fully guilty of all the charge, a suspension for one year would be inadequate to the magnitude of tile crime. It appears also that Congress did not without some demur sanction the sentence of the court martial. When at length their confirmation of the sentence was promulgated, it was like a mortal wound to the lofty aspiring spirit of General Lee ; pointing to his dog he exclaimed, " Oh that I was that animal, that I might not call man my brother." He became outrageous, and from that moment he was more open and virulent in his attack on the character of the Commander in Chief, and did not cease in his unwearied endeavors both in his conversation and writings to lessen his reputation in the estimation of the army, and the public. He was an active abettor of General Conway in his calumny and abuse of General Washington, and they were believed to be in concert in their vile attempts to supersede his Excellency in the supreme command. With the hope of effecting his nefarious purpose, he published a pamphlet replete with scurrilous imputations unfavourable to the military talents of the Commander in Chief, but this, with his other malignant allegations were consigned to contempt. At length Colonel Laurens, one of General Washington's aids, unable longer to suffer this gross abuse of his illustrious friend, demanded of Lee that satisfaction which custom has sanctioned as honorable. A rencounter accordingly ensued, and Lee received a wound in his side. Lee now finding himself abandoned by his friends, degraded in the eye of the public, and despised by the wise and virtuous, retired to his sequestered plantation in Virginia. In this spot, secluded from all society, he lived in a sort of hovel without glass windows or plastering, or even a decent article of house furniture ; here he amused himself with his books and dogs. On January 10th, 1780, Congress resolved that Major General Lee be informed that they have no further occasion for his services in the army of the United States. In the autumn of 1782, wearied with his forlorn situation, and broken spirit, he resorted to Philadelphia, and took lodgings in an ordinary tavern. He was soon seized with a disease of the lungs, and after a few days' confinement, he terminated his mortal course, a martyr to chagrin and disappointment- October 2d,1782. The last words which he was heard to utter, were, " stand by me my brave grenadiers." The citizens of Philadelphia were much affected with his unexpected death, and his funeral was attended by a large concourse of people, the clergy of different denominations, the president and members of Congress, and of the Assembly of Pennsylvania, the minister of France and his secretary, General Baron de Viominil, the minister of war, and several other officers of distinction, both of the French and of the American army.

General Lee was rather above the middle size, "plain in his person even to ugliness, and careless in his manners even to a degree of rudeness; his nose was so remarkably aquiline, that it appeared as a real deformity. His voice was rough, his garb ordinary, his deportment morose. He was ambitious of fame without the dignity to support it. In private life he sunk into the vulgarity of the clown." His remarkable partiality for dogs was such, that a number of these animals constantly followed in his train, and the ladies complained that he allowed his canine adherents to follow him into the parlor, and not unfrequently a favorite one might be seen on a chair next his elbow at table.

In the year 1776, when our army lay at White Plains, Lee resided near the road which General Washington frequently passed, and he one day with his aids called and took dinner; after they had departed Lee said to his aids, " you must look me out other quarters or I shall have Washington and his puppies calling till they eat me up." The next day he ordered his servant to write with chalk on the door, " no victuals cooked here to day." The company, seeing the hint on the door, passed with a smile at the oddity of the man. " The character of this person," says one who knew him well, " is full of absurdities and qualities of a most extraordinary nature. His understanding was great, his memory capacious and his fancy brilliant. He was a correct and elegant classical scholar, and both wrote and spoke his native language with perspicuity, force and beauty. From these circumstances he was at times a most agreeable and instructive companion. His temper was naturally sour and severe. He was seldom seen to laugh and scarcely to smile. The history of his life is little less than the history of dispute's, quarrels and duels in every part of the world. He was vindictive to his enemies. His avarice had no bounds. He never went into a public and seldom into a private house where he did not discover some marks of ineffable and contemptible meanness. He grudged the expense of a nurse in his last illness, and died in a small dirty room in the Philadelphia tavern, called the Canastoga wagon, attended by no one but a French servant, and Mr. Oswald the printer, who once served as an officer under him. He was both impious and profane. In his principles he was not only an infidel, but he was very hostile to every attribute of the Deity. His morals were exceedingly debauched. His appetite was so whimsical as to what he ate and drank, that he was at all times and in all places a most troublesome and disagreeable guest. His judgment in war was generally sound. He was extremely useful to the Americans in the beginning- of the revolution, by inspiring them with military ideas and a contempt for British discipline and valor. It is difficult to say whether the active and useful part he took in the contest arose from personal resentment against the king of Great Britain, or from a regard to the liberties of America. It is certain he reprobated the French alliance and republican forms of government after he retired from the American service. He was in the field brave in the highest degree, and with all his faults and oddities, was beloved by his officers and soldiers. He was devoid of prudence, and used to call it a rascally virtue. Two virtues he possessed in an eminent degree, sincerity and veracity. He was never known to deceive or desert a friend, and he was a stranger to equivocation, even where his safety or character was at stake. It was notorious that General Lee was a man of unbounded personal ambition, and conscious of his European education, and pre-eminent military talents and prowess, he affected a superiority over General Washington, and constantly aimed at the supreme command, little scrupulous as to the means employed to accomplish his own advancement. In reference to his base detraction, General Washington in a letter to a friend said, " what cause is there for such a profusion of venom as he is emitting on all occasions ?-a simple narration of facts would defeat all his assertions, notwithstanding they are made with an effrontery which few men do, and for the honor of human nature, ought to possess."-"If this gentleman is envious of my station, and conceives that I stand in his way to preferment, I can assure him in most solemn terms, that the first wish of my soul is, to return to that peaceful retirement, and domestic ease and happiness, whence I came. To this end all my labors have been directed, and for this purpose have I been more than four years a perfect slave, endeavoring, under as many embarrassing circumstances as ever fell to any man's lot to encounter, and as pure motives as any man was ever influenced by, to promote the cause and service I had embarked in."-Gardens Anecdotes.

The following is an extract from General Lee's will.

" I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church or church yard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist Meeting House, for since I have resided in this country, I have kept so much bad company while living, that I do not choose to continue it when dead."

Thomas Paine once said of Lee, that "he was above all monarchs, and below all scum."

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