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Charles Lee Court-Martial: 1778

Lee's Retreat At Monmouth, Lee Goads Washington, Lee's Trial

Defendant: Charles Lee
Crimes Charged: Disobedience of orders; misbehavior before the enemy; disrespect to the commander in chief
Chief Defense Lawyer: No Record
Presiding Officer: Lord Stirling
Chief Prosecutor: No Record
Court: No Record
Place: Brunswick, New Jersey
Date of Trial: July 4-August 12, 1778
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Suspension from the army for one year

SIGNIFICANCE: The court martial of George Washington's second-in-command at a crucial stage in the War of Independence was the culmination of a tense relationship between the two men and ended General Charles Lee's military career.

Charles Lee was born in Cheshire, England, in 1731 and followed his father in embarking on a military career. He was with British troops on the North American continent as a young officer and was badly wounded at Fort Ticonderoga in 1758. In the 1760s he was a member of several expeditionary forces in Europe. He returned to America in 1773 with the British army, but soon sided with the patriots, resigned his commission, and enthusiastically embraced the causes of liberty and independence. Lee remains a perplexing figure, and the question of his ultimate loyalty is still controversial. To some of his contemporaries he appeared highly educated, clever, and a brilliant military strategist; to others he seemed boorish, slovenly, and possibly a charlatan. What is beyond dispute is that he was eccentric, ambitious, fiercely independent, and intemperate.

In June 1775 Charles Lee was one of three former British officers appointed to the rank of major general by the Continental Congress, at the same time that, for political rather than military reasons, it appointed George Washington to be commander in chief. Washington's relative lack of military experience was well known, particularly in fighting the kind of warfare that was anticipated against British troops. Lee was considered the foremost military expert serving in the American army, and he made no secret of his contempt for Washington's military abilities. General Lee acquitted himself well during 1775 and 1776, at the seige of Boston, the defense of New York, and particularly in his supervision of the defense of South Carolina and Georgia, but he became more outspokenly critical of Washington. In December 1776, possibly due to his own recklessness and a desire for female companionship, and after failing to comply with an order from Washington to withdraw, he was captured by the British at Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He was held in close confinement for more than a year before Washington arranged for his release in a prisoner exchange. Lee immediately rejoined the army at Valley Forge in May 1778.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832