He's the Lee in Ft. Lee
is a Chester County native who is writing a history of the Revolutionary War’s Eighth Virginia Regiment
With all the unwelcome attention Fort Lee, N.J., has received lately, people might wonder why a Northern town carries the Southern-sounding name Lee. It is indeed named for a high-ranking general from Virginia — but not the obvious one. This one is buried right here in Philadelphia.
Charles Lee was a frustrated British army officer who came to America in 1773 after being repeatedly passed over for promotions in London. After buying a home in Berkeley County, Va. (now in West Virginia), he schmoozed his way into a major general’s commission from the Continental Congress. Like that of an out-of-control rock star, his career soared to stratospheric heights and then plummeted to the lowest of depths in just a few years.
Though he could be charming, Lee was not a good man. His approach to military discipline was to “flog them in scores.” Though he hated King George III, a relative of Lee’s wrote, “I think His Majesty and poor Mr. Lee are much upon a par; they are both vain and obstinate.”
Yet patriots loved Lee. His mere presence was declared by one New Yorker to be of equal value to 10,000 soldiers. Many thought he should have had Washington’s job as commander in chief.
In 1776, the British planned to divide the colonies and contain the rebellion by seizing the Hudson River and the lakes above it. Washington brought his army to New York to stop them. The key to American success was denying the British navy access to the Hudson. Two forts were constructed on either side of the river and named for the army’s two top-ranked generals: Fort Washington (now Washington Heights in Manhattan) and Fort Lee, atop the New Jersey palisades.
The plan failed. After multiple losses and retreats, Fort Washington was captured, along with nearly 3,000 American soldiers. The surviving Continentals scattered, with Lee commanding the largest group in upstate New York. Washington led a much weaker force that fled freezing through New Jersey. The British took Fort Lee and chased the Americans to the banks of the Delaware.
While Washington’s men starved and shivered on the Pennsylvania side of the river, Lee was focused on the political fallout. He wrote to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush, “I must entreat that you will keep what I say to yourself; but I foresaw, predicted, all that has happened. ... My last words to the General were, ‘Draw off the garrison, or they will be lost.’”
With Philadelphia threatened, Washington called on Lee multiple times to reinforce him. Lee refused.
On the morning of Dec. 13, 1776, Lee was captured by the enemy — a move that may have saved the Revolution. His second-in-command, Gen. John Sullivan, immediately reinforced Washington, which made the famous Christmas surprise at Trenton possible.
In 1778, Lee was released in a prisoner exchange, and put in charge of an advance force at the Battle of Monmouth. Again, Lee refused to move. Washington relieved him of command and then led the Americans to their first conventional victory of the war. Lee was court martialed and expelled from the army.
From his half-built home on the Virginia frontier, Lee railed against Washington, calling him such names as “our Great Gargantua.” He complained that the rights of Tories were being trampled, and suspected that his mail was being surreptitiously read in transit. He told his neighbor, Gen. Horatio Gates, that Washington was plotting to kill them, and lost Gates’ friendship after calling his wife “that Medusa [who] governs with a rod of scorpions.”
He said he was “heartily sick of this country” and wished to move to a “well-disposed monarchy” because a “wholesome equal republic” was not possible. He wrote, “Great God, what a Dupe and a victim have I been to the talismanic name of Liberty!”
Lee died in 1782 while on a visit to Philadelphia. In his will, he wrote, “I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church or churchyard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or any Baptist Meeting house. For since I have resided in this country I have kept so much bad company when living that I do not choose to continue it when dead.” Nevertheless, he was buried at Christ Church.
Decades later, a document was discovered among the papers of an aide to British Gen. William Howe that proved Lee was a traitor. While in British hands, he had offered a detailed plan to end the Revolution.
“To bring matters to a conclusion,” Lee wrote, “it is necessary to unhinge or dissolve … the whole system or machine of resistance. … [This] depends entirely on the circumstances and disposition of the People of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. If the Province of Maryland or the greater part of it, is reduc’d or submits, and the People of Virginia are prevented or intimidated from marching aid to the Pennsylvania Army, the whole machine is dissolv’d and a period put to the War.” It may have been this advice that led Howe to abandon the Hudson and sail his army up the Chesapeake Bay in 1777. In just over three weeks, Howe defeated Washington in two major battles, at Brandywine and Germantown.
Though barely remembered today, Charles Lee was every bit the traitor that Benedict Arnold was.