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Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778

Lee's Trial

The presiding officer of the court was Lord Stirling, and the court sat from time to time over several weeks between July 4 and August 12 as the Continental army continued to march. Three charges were specified against General Lee as violations of the Articles of War (the precursor of the current Uniform Code of Military Justice):

  1. Disobedience of orders in not attacking the enemy, despite repeated instructions to do so.
  2. Misbehavior before the enemy, in making an unnecessary, disorderly, and "shameful" retreat.
  3. Disrespect to the commander in chief in two letters written after the action.

General Lee presented his own spirited defense, characterized by at least one contemporary observer as "masterly," in which he attempted to demonstrate that any other action than the retreat he ordered would have put the British at a great advantage and thus risked the destruction of the entire army. He was supported by some of his officers, with whom he was apparently a popular commander. The court-martial, however, returned a verdict of guilty on all charges, except that in returning the verdict they omitted the word "shameful" from the second count. The sentence was that he be suspended from his command for a period of one year. Some have noted that, given the seriousness of the charges, the penalty was relatively light. Lee was by no means alone in his critical assessment of George Washington as a military strategist, contrary to the image that popular history has bestowed upon him. In view of the light sentence, there has been speculation that Lee might have been acquitted on the first two counts, or that they would not have been brought at all, were it not for the provocation that Lee himself presented through his letters.

Lee became a recluse, living in squalor with his dogs—poodles, which had accompanied him on his campaigns. He continued to write abusive letters to the Congress about George Washington. As a result, he was challenged by a friend of Washington to a duel, in which he was wounded, and in 1780 the Continental Congress dismissed him from the army. He died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia in 1782.

Some 80 years after Lee's death, papers were discovered showing that while he was held prisoner by the British between December 1776 and early 1778 he had discussed military plans to defeat the patriots with General Howe, then the commander of the British forces. To some this has seemed to be proof that Lee was, in fact, a traitor. To others it only demonstrates that he was an eccentric soldier of fortune, fascinated with military strategy as an intellectual exercise. In any case, this was not a factor in his court-martial, and the most widely held view is that he ruined his own career by his unwillingness or inability to temper his criticism of his commander in chief, and not because of disloyalty or military incompetence.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Sparks, Jared. Lives of Charles Lee and Joseph Reed. Boston: Little Brown, 1846.

Stryker, W. S. The Battle of Monmouth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1927.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778 - Lee's Retreat At Monmouth, Lee Goads Washington, Lee's Trial