The person whose story we are now about to tell was not a Jerseyman; but, as most of the incidents which make him interesting to us occurred in this State, we will give him the benefit of a few years' residence here.
This was General Charles Lee, who might well have been called a soldier of fortune. He was born in England, but the British Isles were entirely too small to satisfy his wild ambitions and his roving disposition. There are few heroes of romance who have had such a wide and varied experience, and who have engaged in so many strange enterprises. He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault which prevented him from being a high-class soldier; and that fault was, that he could not bear restraint, and was always restive under command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought to do.
He joined the British army when he was a young man; and he first came to this country in 1757, when General Abercrombie brought over an army to fight the French. For three years, Lee was engaged in the wilds and forests, doing battle with the Indians and French, and no doubt he had all the adventures an ordinary person would desire, But this experience was far from satisfactory.
When he left America, he went to Portugal with another British army, and there he fought the Spanish with as much impetuosity as he had fought the French and Indians. Life was absolutely tasteless to Lee without a very strong sprinkle of variety. Consequently he now tried fighting in an entirely different field, and went into politics. He became a Liberal, and with his voice fought the government for whom he had been previously fighting with his sword.
But a few years of this satisfied him; and then he went to Poland, where he became a member of the king's staff, and as a Polish officer disported himself for two years.
It is very likely that in Turkey a high-spirited man would find more opportunities for lively adventure than even in Poland. At any rate, Charles Lee thought so; and to Turkey he went, and entered into the service of the sultan. Here he distinguished himself in a company of Turks who were guarding a great treasure in its transportation from Moldavia to Constantinople. No doubt he wore a turban and baggy trousers, and carried a great scimiter, for a man of that sort is not likely to do things by halves when he does them at all.
Having had such peculiar experiences in various armies and various parts of the world, Lee thought himself qualified to occupy a position of rank in the British army, and, coming back to England, he endeavored to obtain military promotion. But the government there did not seem to think he had learned enough in Poland and Turkey to enable him to take precedence of English officers accustomed to command English troops, and it declined to put him above such officers, and to give him the place he desired. Lee was not a man of mild temper. He became very angry at the treatment he received, and, abandoning his native country again, he went to Russia, where the czar gave him command of a company of wild Cossacks. But he did not remain long with the Cossacks. Perhaps they were not wild and daring enough to suit his fancy, although there are very few fancies which would not be satisfied with the reckless and furious demeanor generally attributed to these savage horsemen.
He threw up his command and went to Hungary, and there he did some fighting in an entirely different fashion. Not having any opportunity to distinguish himself upon a battlefield, he engaged in a duel; and of course, as he was acting the part of a hero of romance, he killed his man.
Hungary was not a suitable residence for him after the duel, and he went back to England, and there he found the country in a state of excitement in regard to the American Colonies. Now, if there was anything that Lee liked, it was a state of excitement, and in the midst of this political hubbub he felt as much at home as if he had been charging the ranks of an enemy. Of course, he took part against the government, for, as far as we know, he had always been against it, and he became a violent supporter of the rights of the colonists.
He was so much in earnest in this matter, that in 1773 he came to America to see for himself how matters stood. When he got over here, he became more strongly in favor of the colonists than he had been at home, and everywhere proclaimed that the Americans were right in resisting the unjust taxation claims of Great Britain. As he had always been ready to lay aside his British birthright and become some sort of a foreigner, he now determined to become an American; and to show that he was in earnest, he went down to Virginia and bought a farm there.
Lee soon became acquainted with people in high places in American politics; and when the first Congress assembled, he was ready to talk with its members, urging them to stand up for their rights, and draw their swords and load their guns in defence of independence. It was quite natural, that, when the Revolution really began, a man who was so strongly in favor of the patriots, and had had so much military experience in so many different lands, should be allowed to take part in the war, and Charles Lee was appointed major general.
This was a high military position,--much higher, in fact, than he could ever have obtained in his own country,--but it did not satisfy him. The position he wanted was that of commander in chief of the American army; and he was surprised and angry that it was not offered to him, and that a man of his ability should be passed over, and that high place given to a person like George Washington, who knew but little of war, and had no idea whatever how the thing was done in Portugal, Poland, Russia and Turkey, and who was, in fact, no more than a country gentleman.
All this showed that these Americans were fools, who did not understand their best interests. But as there was a good chance for a fight, and, in fact, a good many fights, and as a major generalship was not to be sneered at, he accepted it, and resigned the commission which he held in the English army.
He was doubtless in earnest in his desire to assist the Americans to obtain their independence, for he was always in earnest when he was doing anything that he was inclined to do. But he did not propose to sacrifice his own interests to the cause he had undertaken; and as, by entering the American army, he risked the loss of his estate in England, he arranged with Congress for compensation for such loss.
But, although General Lee was now a very ardent American soldier, he could not forgive Mr. Washington for taking command above him. If that Virginia gentleman had had the courtesy and good sense which were generally attributed to him, he would have resigned the supreme command, and, modestly stepping aside, would have asked General Lee to accept it.
At least, that was the opinion of General Charles Lee.
As this high and mighty soldier was so unwilling to submit to the orders of incompetent people, he never liked to be under the direct command of Washington, and, if it were possible to do so, he managed to be concerned in operations not under the immediate eye of the commander in chief. In fact, he was very jealous indeed of Washington, and did not hesitate to express his opinion about him whenever he had a chance.
The American army was not very successful in Long Island, and there was a time when it fared very badly in New Jersey; and Lee was not slow to declare that these misfortunes were owing entirely to the ignorance of the man who was in command. Moreover, if there was any one who wanted to know if there was another man in the Colonies who could command the army better, and lead it more certainly and speedily to victory, General Lee was always ready to mention an experienced soldier who would be able to perform that duty most admirably.
If it had not been for this unfortunate and jealous disposition, Charles Lee--a very different man from "Light Horse Harry" Lee--would have been one of the most useful officers in the American army. But he had such a jealousy of Washington, and hoped so continually that something would happen which would give him the place then occupied by the Virginia country gentleman, that, although he was at heart an honest patriot, he allowed himself to do things which were not at all patriotic. He wanted to see the Americans successful in the country, but he did not want to see all that happen under the leadership of Washington; and if he could put an obstacle in the way of that incompetent person, he would do it, and be glad to see him stumble over it.
In the winter of 1776, when the American army was taking its way across New Jersey towards the Delaware River with Cornwallis in pursuit, Washington was anxiously looking for the troops under the command of General Lee, who had been ordered to come to his assistance; and if ever assistance was needed, it was needed then. But Lee liked to do his own ordering, and, instead of hurrying to help Washington, he thought it would be a great deal better to do something on his own account; and so he endeavored to get into the rear of Cornwallis's army, thinking that, if he should attack the enemy in that way, he might possibly win a startling victory which would cover him with glory, and show how much better a soldier he was than that poor Washington who was retreating across the country, instead of boldly turning and showing fight.
If Lee had been a true soldier, and had conscientiously obeyed the commands of his superior, he would have joined Washington and his army without delay and a short time afterward would have had an opportunity of taking part in the battle of Trenton, in which the Virginia country gentleman defeated the British, and gained one of the most important victories of the war.
Lee pressed slowly onward--ready to strike a great blow for himself, and unwilling to help anybody else strike a blow--until he came to Morristown; and, after staying there one night, he proceeded in the direction of Basking Ridge, a pretty village not far away. Lee left his army at Bernardsville, which was then known as Vealtown, and rode on to Basking Ridge, accompanied only by a small guard. There he took lodgings at an inn, and made himself comfortable. The next morning he did not go and put himself at the head of his army and move on, because there were various affairs which occupied his attention.
Several of his guard wished to speak to him, some of them being men from Connecticut, who appeared before him in full-bottomed wigs, showing plainly that they considered themselves people who were important enough to have their complaints attended to. One of them wanted his horse shod, another asked for some money on account of his pay, and a third had something to say about rations. But General Lee cut them all off very shortly with, "You want a great deal, but you have not mentioned what you want most. You want to go home, and I should be glad to let you go, for you are no good here." Then his adjutant general asked to see him; and he had a visit from a Major Wilkinson, who arrived that morning with a letter from General Gates.
All these things occupied him very much, and he did not sit down to breakfast till ten o'clock. Shortly after they had finished their meal, and Lee was writing a letter to General Gates, in which he expressed a very contemptible opinion of General Washington, Major Wilkinson saw, at the end of the lane which led from the house down to the main road, a party of British cavalry who dashed round the corner toward the house. The major immediately called out to General Lee that the redcoats were coming; but Lee, who was a man not to be frightened by sudden reports, finished signing the letter, and then jumped up to see what was the matter.
By this time the dragoons had surrounded the house; and when he perceived this, General Lee naturally wanted to know where the guards were, and why they did not fire on these fellows. But there was no firing, and apparently there were no guards, and when Wilkinson went to look for them, he found their arms in the room which had been their quarters, but the men were gone. These private soldiers had evidently been quite as free and easy, and as bent upon making themselves comfortable, as had been the general, and they had had no thought that such a thing as a British soldier was anywhere in the neighborhood. When Wilkinson looked out of the door, he saw the guards running in every direction, with dragoons chasing them.
What all this meant, nobody knew at first; and Wilkinson supposed that it was merely a band of marauders of the British army, who were making a raid into the country to get what they could in the way of plunder. It was not long before this was found to be a great mistake; for the officer in command of the dragoons called from the outside, and demanded that General Lee should surrender himself, and that, if he did not do so in five minutes, the house would be set on fire.
Now, it was plain to everybody that the British had heard of the leisurely advance of this American general, and that he had left his command and come to Basking Ridge to take his ease at an inn, and so they had sent a detachment to capture him. Soon the women of the house came to General Lee, and urged him to hide himself under a feather bed. They declared that they would cover him up so that nobody would suspect that he was in the bed; then they would tell the soldiers that he was not there, and that they might come and search the house if they chose.
But although Lee was a jealous man and a hasty man, he had a soul above such behavior as this, and would not hide himself in a feather bed; but, as there was no honorable way of escape, he boldly came forward and surrendered himself.
The British gave him no time to make any preparations for departure. They did not know but that his army might be on the way to Basking Ridge; and the sooner they were off, the better. So they made him jump on Major Wilkinson's horse, which was tied by the door; and in his slippers and dressing gown, and without a hat, this bold soldier of wide experience, who thought he should be commander in chief of the American army, was hurried away at full gallop. He was taken to New York, where he was put into prison. It is said that Lee plotted against America during his imprisonment; but General Washington did not know that, and used every exertion to have him exchanged, so that his aspiring rival soon again joined the American army.
But his misfortune had no effect upon General Charles Lee, who came back to his command with as high an opinion of himself, and as low an opinion of certain other people, as he had had when he involuntarily left it. It was some time after this, at the battle of Monmouth Court House, that Charles Lee showed what sort of a man he really was. He had now become so jealous that he positively determined that he would not obey orders, and would act as he thought best. He had command of a body of troops numbering five thousand, a good-sized army for those days, and he was ordered to advance to Monmouth Court House and attack the enemy who were there, while Washington, with another force, would hasten to his assistance as rapidly as possible.
Washington carried out his part of the plan; but when he had nearly reached Monmouth, he found, to his amazement, that Lee had gone there, but had done no fighting at all, and was now actually retreating, and coming in his direction. As it would be demoralizing in the highest degree to his own command, if Lee's armed forces in full retreat should come upon them, Washington hurried forward to prevent anything of the sort, and soon met Lee. When the latter was asked what was the meaning of this strange proceeding, he could give no good reason, except that he thought it better not to risk an engagement at that time.
Then the Virginia country gentleman blazed out at the soldier of fortune, and it is said that no one ever heard George Washington speak to any other man as he spoke to General Lee on that day. He was told to go back to his command and to obey orders, and together the American forces moved on. In the battle which followed, the enemy was repulsed; but the victory was not so complete as it should have been, for the British departed in the night and went where they intended to go, without being cut off by the American army, as would have been the case if Lee had obeyed the orders which were given him.
General Lee was very angry at the charges which Washington had made against him, and demanded that he should be tried by court-martial. His wish was granted. He was tried, and found guilty of every charge made against him, and in consequence was suspended from the army for one year.
But Charles Lee never went back into the American army. Perhaps he had enough of it. In any event, it had had enough of him; and seven years afterwards, when he died of a fever, his ambition to stand in Washington's shoes died with him. While he lived on his Virginia farm, he was as impetuous and eccentric as when he had been in the army, and he must have been a very unpleasant neighbor. In fact, the people there thought he was crazy. This opinion was not changed when his will was read, for in that document he said,--
"I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church or churchyard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist 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."