Book Review: Renegade Revolutionary
by Phillip Papas
New York University Press, 2014
If you want to end up a villain in American history textbooks, one of the first things you should do is fall afoul of Alexander Hamilton. It also helps if you keep up a sarcastic patter, since that’s never played well in Peoria. And the sure-fire guarantee? Oppose Continental Generalissimo George Washington, especially on professional grounds. And given that he did these three things exuberantly, it’s therefore little surprise that General Charles Lee has for centuries been both vilified in the textbooks (the ones that bother to mention him at all, that is) and forgotten by the general public. So firmly in place is the standard narrative of Washington being the indispensable man, the one warrior-gentleman capable of taking up the sword against the British Empire and winning America’s independence, that the reputations and even the names of the half-dozen professional soldiers in the colonies who might have done his job as well or better than he did – men like Horatio Gates, Anthony Wayne, Nathanael Greene, and Lee himself – have been all but dropped from the national narrative.
Historian Phillip Papas years ago wrote a history of Staten Island during the American Revolution, and in 2014, apparently still indulging a morbid fascination with disreputable losers, he takes up the cause of General Charles Lee and, in his new book Renegade Revolutionary (beautifully produced by New York University), he provides readers with an absolutely glorious attempt to restore Lee’s reputation. It’s a doomed attempt, but it’s a great one.
Lee was born of comfortable Cheshire gentry in 1731and sought a military career from an early age. He was blooded in the wars of the American wilderness frontier between France and Great Britain, rose through the ranks, steeped himself both in the methods of classical, traditional warfare and in the new guerrilla techniques he observed in the French and Native forces in the New World. By the time tensions between the British Crown and the Colonies had erupted into outright rebellion, Lee was the most experienced military man in North America. And the main tenets of his military philosophy were radically different from the standards of his time:
The American nation was born in war. And, reflecting Lee’s arguments, this war shaped the kind of nation that emerged from it. Lee recognized that a strategic choice existed for the revolutionaries: they could try to preserve society by massing troops to fight conventional battles against the British at the risk of losing the war or they could they could risk that society by fighting a guerrilla-style insurgency that would prolong the war but give them their best chance to to defeat the British and gain their independence.
Papas has done an enormous amount of research in primary and secondary sources touching on Lee’s life (the first part of his book, “The World of Charles Lee,” is such a masterful synthesis that future biographers of Charles Lee would absolutely need to consult it, if there were ever going to be future biographers of Charles Lee) and personality, and he’s such a graceful and insightful writer that all of it is fascinating. But all of it can’t help but be prelude to one single moment. The life and career of General Charles Lee came down to one single moment.
The moment came at the height of the early Revolutionary War. Lee was subordinate to the Commander-in-Chief Washington, and the Continental Army was harrying a much larger British army in the freakishly hot New Jersey countryside. Washington was some distance removed from the scene when Lee’s forces began encountering very stiff resistance on 28 June, 1778 near Monmouth Court House from British rearguard Lieutenant General Cornwallis. In addition, his own men were completely stupefied by the 110-degree heat of the day and passing out left, right, and center. Watching factors align and not liking what he was seeing, Lee ordered a retreat. Very shortly Washington, riding up the lines, discovered this and lost control of his infamous temper. He rode on to confront Lee himself – an encounter, as Papas rightly reports, that became contradictory legend even while it was happening:
The famous confrontation between Washington and Lee took place on a hill near the West Ravine. There are many exaggerated accounts of this event by officers and soldiers who were not on the scene or who recalled it years later. General Scott alleged that Washington swore at Lee “till the leaves shook on the trees,” and Lafayette claimed that he heard the commander-in-chief call Lee a “damned poltroon.” Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who was three-quarters of a mile away with Scott’s detachment, said that he saw the confrontation but was “too far off” to hear the exchange. Martin asserted that some of the soldiers who were closer to the confrontation had told him that they distinctly heard Washington say “d —n him.” he conceded that he was not sure whether Washington had expressed those words since “it was certainly very unlike him, but he seemed at the instant to be in a great passion; his looks if not his words seemed to indicate as much.”
Contrary to some rumors of the day, Washington didn’t cashier Lee on the spot that ferociously hot day in 1778 – but Lee’s career was nevertheless finished. Long and complicated courts-martial followed that shattering moment, but the Hamilton-crafted narrative rushed in to feed the public opinion in a way that contrary, unbending Lee would never think to do. Even Papas’s own book wraps up its narrative with almost unseemly speed in the wake of Monmouth, although our author, bless him, doesn’t leave off without one last sterling ink-pot hurled in the face of received opinion:
Lee’s attempt to encircle [British General] Clinton’s rearguard was hindered by the local terrain, the brutally hot temperatures that day, the appearance of a stronger British force, and the hodgepodge organization of the Continental advance corps that had required him to command unfamiliar officers. Clinton himself later admitted that had Lee not ordered a general retreat, the Continentals would have been caught against the three ravines and annihilated long before Washington’s arrival. By ordering a general retreat, Lee was able to draw the British into an unfavorable position by the time Washington had appeared on the battlefield and helped save the Continental Army from a potentially devastating defeat.
That’s very well-said. Doomed, but well-said.