J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

“Making Use of So Very Singular Expressions”

Shortly after the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, which both the Americans and the British claimed as a victory, Gen. Charles Lee wrote an angry letter to his commander, Gen. George Washington. Lee was upset about the words they had exchanged during the fighting:

From the knowledge I have of your Excellency’s character, I must conclude that nothing but the misinformation of some very stupid, or misrepresentation of some very wicked person, could have occasioned your making use of so very singular expressions as you did on my coming up to the ground where you had taken post. They implied that I was guilty, either of disobedience of orders, want of conduct, or want of courage.

Your Excellency will therefore infinitely oblige me, by letting me know on which of these three articles you ground your charge, that I may prepare for my justification, which I have the happiness to be confident I can do to the army, to the Congress, to America, and to the world in general.
Decades later, the Marquis de la Fayette, who as a young officer had commanded troops in the battle, recalled that Washington had called Lee “a damned poltroon.” That would fit with Lee’s complaint about being accused of “want of courage.” No one at the time quoted Washington’s exact words, however.

Gen. Washington responded by saying that Lee’s letter was “expressed, as I conceive, in terms highly improper,” and misdated as well. As for his own language during the battle:
I am not conscious of having made use of any very singular expressions at the time of meeting you, as you intimate. What I recollect to have said was dictated by duty, and warranted by the occasion. As soon as circumstances will permit, you shall have an opportunity of justifying yourself to the army, to Congress, to America, and to the world in general, or of convincing them that you were guilty of a breach of orders, and of misbehaviour before the enemy, on the 28th instant, in not attacking them as you had been directed and in making an unnecessary, disorderly, and shameful retreat.
Whatever the two generals had said, they were speaking in the heat of battle—and there was a lot of heat that June day. Nearly one hundred British and American soldiers died of “fatigue” or heat stroke. Two days later, though, neither man was backing down.

One curiosity of the generals’ exchange is that Lee’s letter was dated 1 July, but Washington answered it on 30 June. Both generals acknowledged the first letter was misdated. Lee wrote a second letter apologizing for that error and dated that 28 June, the day of the battle. Some historians treat that as a misdated response to the correction in Washington’s answer—though it would be odd to write such an apology without ensuring it was dated correctly.

I wonder about another possibility: Lee wrote his first letter right after the battle but dated it 1 July, thinking that he’d wait a couple of days before hitting send. But he sent it anyway, perhaps in the evening, then realized his dating mistake and sent along a preemptive apology for that. Washington might have received the first letter on 29 June and waited a day before replying. In their notes exchanged on 30 July, the generals agreed that it would be best to have a court-martial on Lee’s conduct.

Because the court-martial included the charge that Lee had been rude and insubordinate in his letter to Washington, their written exchange became part of its record, and was widely reprinted in America and Britain. The testimony did not get into specifics of what Washington had said to Lee. Some late-1800s authors saw that as evidence that Washington didn’t use the words “damned poltroon.” However, it could just be evidence that Washington’s officers didn’t want to set down the specifics.

That inquiry ended with Lee being relieved of command for a year. He spent 1779 sniping at Washington publicly, left the army for good in January 1780, and died less than three years later.

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