Refusing the Commander in Chief

TOPICS: Featured Document(s), George Washington, Revolutionary War

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
September 6, 2019

In this post, I focus on a rather unique letter to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War: a refusal by a junior officer to serve in the prestigious role of aide-de-camp to Washington.

At the end of March 1778, the general offered Virginia cavalry officer Henry Lee, Jr., a new assignment. The young captain had recently distinguished himself leading his troop of dragoons in a skirmish at Scott’s Farm near Valley Forge, Pa., as well as conducting foraging operations to supply the starving army at its Valley Forge winter encampment. Writing through his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, George Washington made Lee the offer of joining his military family as an aide-de-camp. The proposition entailed a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Few officers, whatever their personal feelings, would have dared to turn down such an offer from the commander in chief, but that is exactly what Lee did. On the last day of the month, he declined the general’s invitation:

Sir, I should do violence to my own feelings, was I to depart from Camp, without testifying the high sense of gratitude I feel for your Excellency’s approbation of my conduct. I assure you Sir, to deserve a continuance of your Excellency’s patronage, will be a stimulus to glory, second to none in power, of the many, that operate on my soul…. I must here take the liberty of laying before your Excellency, the reasons which have influence on my judgement, respecting the proposal you was pleased to make me thro’ Col. Hamilton.

Permit me to premise that I am wedded to my sword, and that my secondary object in the present war, is military reputation.

To have possessed a post about your Excellency’s person is certainly the first recommendation I can bear to posterity, affords a field for military instruction, would lead me into an intimate acquaintance with the politics of the States, and might present more immediate opportunitys of manifesting my high respect and warm attachment for your Excellencys character and person. I know, it would also afford true and unexpected joy to my parents and friends.

On the contrary, I possess a most affectionate friendship for my soldiers . . . a zeal for the honor of the Cavalry, and ⟨an⟩ opinion, that I should render m⟨ore⟩ real service to your Excellency’s arms.

Having thus shortly stated the reasons which operate on my mind, I will only say, that I most chearfully will act in any character your Excellency may call me to, and that the second satisfaction I can possibly enjoy, is my knowledge that my behavior has met with your Excellency’s approbation.1

Henry Lee by Charles Willson Peale, from life, c. 1782. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

In typical fashion, Washington gracefully accepted Lee’s refusal: he advised Congress to promote Lee to major and give him command of an independent corps of dragoons, which consisted of three troops of cavalry that were led by some of the most daring officers in the army. Stating that the “undisguised manner in which you express yourself cannot but strengthen my good opinion of you,” Washington told Lee that his offer was “purely the result of a high Sense of your merit.” “I would,” he continued, “by no means divert you from a Career in which you promise yourself greater happiness from it’s affording more frequent opportunities of acquiring military fame, I entreat you to pursue your own Inclinations as if nothing had passed on this subject.”2

Even before Washington wrote, a plan had arisen in Congress to give Lee his own corps. The general gave it his full backing. In consideration of Lee’s “Merit & Services,” a committee of Congress proposed to promote Lee to major and give him the command of a corps of two troops of dragoons.3 The committee sought Washington’s approval of the plan, and the general quickly gave it his endorsement. On April 3, the general informed Congress that he had consulted the committee on the plan and that in their mutual opinion, promoting Lee to major and giving him command of his own corps of horse “to act as an independent partisan Corps” would be a means of rewarding Lee and his officers for their “exemplary zeal, prudence and bravery.” The creation of such a corps, Washington assured Congress, would also be very advantageous to the army. “Capt. Lees genius peculiarly adapts him to a command of this nature,” the general explained, “and it will be most agreeable to him, of any station, in which he could be placed.” He asked for a speedy decision, since the next campaign was “fast approaching” and Lee would have little time to raise and prepare the new corps.4 Congress acted swiftly on the proposal. On the same day as it read Washington’s letter (April 7), Congress passed a resolution authorizing the formation of the corps and naming Lee major commandant.5

Despite Lee’s refusal of Washington’s offer, he continued to hold the general’s favor throughout the war. The young major later attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and built one of the most distinguished military careers of the Revolutionary War.

 


  1. “To George Washington from Captain Henry Lee, Jr., March 31, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0344. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 14:368-369.
  2. “From George Washington to Captain Henry Lee, Jr., April 1, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0355. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 14:379-80.
  3. Joseph Reed to Washington’s aide Robert Hanson Harrison, March 30, 1778, found at “From George Washington to Henry Laurens, April 3, 1778,” n.2 Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0367. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 14:390-91.
  4. “From George Washington to Henry Laurens, April 3, 1778,” n.2 Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0367. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 14:390-91.
  5. “To George Washington from Henry Laurens, April 8–9, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0406. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 14:424-26.