Major General Charles Lee

Correspondence between Major General Charles Lee and George Washington, June 1778

The following letters between Washington and Maj. Gen. Charles Lee concern events surrounding the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June 1778 that eventually led to Lee’s court martial. In the late spring and early summer of 1778 the British pulled out of Philadelphia and the leadership of the Continental army was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they could pursue and engage the British forces under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. If successful, the Americans might succeed in defeating the British presence in America and bring an early close to the war. However, the American troops were tired, underfed, underarmed, and undertrained in the spring of 1778, and therefore this plan was not without considerable risk. On the other hand, the Americans could allow the British to retreat across New Jersey with the expectation that the entrance of the French on the side of the Americans would end the war soon enough.

In a council of war on 24 June 1778, Major General Lee argued against the plan to pursue and engage the British forces and was adamantly in favor of allowing the British to retreat unmolested. It was eventually decided that small contingents of Continental troops should harass the British, but the ineffectiveness of this strategy led Washington to reconsider and seek a more direct confrontation. During fearfully hot weather in the last days of June, American troops sought to engage with British forces as the British left the village of Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. The following letters, beginning the day before the engagement, help explain the incidents that led to Lee’s court martial in the months following the battle.

Links to Letters

Images of Charles Lee

Engraved caricature of Lee from vol. 3 of The Diaries of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978. p.299).

Engraved caricature of Lee from vol. 3 of The Diaries of George Washington
(Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978. p.299).

Engraving by G. R. Hall, 19th century.

Engraving by G. R. Hall, 19th century.

An Impartial History of the War in America, vol. 1 (London, 1780).

An Impartial History of the War in America, vol. 1 (London, 1780).

From the Print Division of the New York Public Library.

From the Print Division of the New York Public Library.

Pencil sketch by John Trumbull (currently in possession of the Yale University Art Gallery).

Pencil sketch by John Trumbull (currently in possession of the Yale University Art Gallery).

Panel on the Lord Harcourt Monument Showing the Capture of General Lee (from St. George's Chapel, Windsor, England).

Panel on the Lord Harcourt Monument Showing the Capture of General Lee
(from St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, England).

"Washington Rebuking Lee at Monmouth" by John Ward Dunmore (currently in possession of the Sons of the Revolution).

“Washington Rebuking Lee at Monmouth” by John Ward Dunmore
(currently in possession of the Sons of the Revolution).

Drawing by Thaddeus Kosciusko, Suspended General.

Drawing by Thaddeus Kosciusko, Suspended General.

Maps of the Battle of Monmouth

On 28 June 1778 the British and American forces engaged near Monmouth, New Jersey. The battle occurred when Maj. Gen. Charles Lee retreated unexpectedly after briefly engaging with the British as the British removed themselves from the village of Monmouth Courthouse. When Lee’s troops retreated towards the main body of the American forces, the British troops under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton followed close behind. Despite the great confusion resulting from the unexpected retreat, the American forces repelled the British advances. The events surrounding Lee’s retreat and Washington’s reaction to that retreat precipitated Lee’s eventual court martial, as the Lee-Washington letters make clear.

This image was originally published as an inset sketch in a larger map in The West Point Atlas if American Wars, Volume I 1689-1900. This image comes from the West Point History Department.

This image was originally published as an inset sketch in a larger map in The West Point Atlas if American Wars, Volume I 1689-1900. This image comes from the West Point History Department.

This image is a copy of a contemporary map of the Battle of Monmouth, now in possession of the Monmouth County Historical Society. It is reproduced from Samuel White Patterson's Knight Errant of Liberty: The Triumph and Tragedy of General Charles Lee (New York: Lantern Press, 1958. p. 208).

This image is a copy of a contemporary map of the Battle of Monmouth, now in possession of the Monmouth County Historical Society. It is reproduced from Samuel White Patterson’s Knight Errant of Liberty: The Triumph and Tragedy of General Charles Lee (New York: Lantern Press, 1958. p. 208).

This image was originally published in History of Old Tennent Church by the Rev. Frank R. Symmons, D.D. The copy reproduced here was taken from Samuel White Patterson's Knight Errant of Liberty: The Triumph and Tragedy of General Charles Lee (New York: Lantern Press, 1958. p. 208).

This image was originally published in History of Old Tennent Church by the Rev. Frank R. Symmons, D.D. The copy reproduced here was taken from Samuel White Patterson’s Knight Errant of Liberty: The Triumph and Tragedy of General Charles Lee (New York: Lantern Press, 1958. p. 208).

This image was originally published on the inside cover of Theodore Thayer's The Making of a Scapegoat: Washington and Lee at Monmouth (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1976). It details the paths taken by the American and British troops, respectively, leading up to the Battle of Monmouth.

This image was originally published on the inside cover of Theodore Thayer’s The Making of a Scapegoat: Washington and Lee at Monmouth (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1976). It details the paths taken by the American and British troops, respectively, leading up to the Battle of Monmouth.

This image was originally published opposite the inside cover of Theodore Thayer's The Making of a Scapegoat: Washington and Lee at Monmouth (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1976). It shows Lee's attack on the British early on the day of 28 June 1778 and his subsequent retreat which immediately preceded the larger Battle of Monmouth.

This image was originally published opposite the inside cover of Theodore Thayer’s The Making of a Scapegoat: Washington and Lee at Monmouth (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1976). It shows Lee’s attack on the British early on the day of 28 June 1778 and his subsequent retreat which immediately preceded the larger Battle of Monmouth.

[Note: the explanatory text accompanying the correspondence between George Washington and Charles Lee presented here is adapted from Victory with the Help of France, volume five of Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington, primarily chapters two and three of that volume.]

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