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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Thursday, July 28, 2016

The “unutterable things” of Gen. Charles Lee

In the movie Bull Durham, the veteran catcher counsels the hot pitching prospect, “Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you’re a slob.”

The reverse process happened to Gen. Charles Lee. In 1775-76, Americans saw him as a military genius and were willing to chuckle about his many eccentricities. Once he challenged Gen. George Washington in 1778, however, Lee became less popular. After Washington became President and was apotheosized after his death, Lee became one of the villains of American history, and authors were happy to highlight his character flaws.

In 1788 the Rev. William Gordon published this anecdote about Lee, dating it to late 1776. (It’s not clear whether Gordon actually wrote this in 1776, but his history of the Revolution took the form of a series of contemporaneous letters to a friend in Britain.)
Gen. Lee, while at White Plains, lodged in a small house close in with the road, by which gen. Washington had to pass when out on reconnoitring. Returning with his officers they called in and took a dinner. They were no sooner gone, than Lee told his aids, “You must look me out another place, for I shall have Washington and all his puppies continually calling upon me, and they will eat me up.”

The next day Lee seeing Washington out upon the like business, and supposing that he should have another visit, ordered his servant to write with chalk upon the door—No victuals dressed here to-day. When the company approached and saw the writing, they pushed off with much good humor for their own table, without resenting the habitual oddity of the man.
Here’s another story about the same trait of Lee’s, published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections by Thomas Amory Lee in 1917. See if you can spot the difference in tone:
Gen. Lee was not only slovenly in his dress and rude in manner, but remarkable for his sordid parsimony. Col. [William Raymond] Lee often remarked on these inhospitable and repulsive peculiarities of an officer of his superior education, large service in European armies, and constant intercourse with the first gentlemen in every country in which he had resided.

Col. Lee stated that as acting brigade major of the brigade which Col. [John] Glover temporarily commanded, he was obliged daily as senior officer in General Lee’s division, and at all hours to visit the headquarters of Gen. Lee. On one occasion, happening to call just as the General was sitting down to dinner, he observed, “Major Lee, why the devil do you never dine, breakfast, or sup with me; you are frequently at my quarters, either in the morning, at the dinner hour, or in the evening.”

The major replied, “General, you have never invited me to take a seat at your table.”

“That is just like all you damned Yankees; never stand on ceremony, but in future, whenever you come into my quarters at the time I am taking my meals, sit down and call on the servant for a plate.”

“Very well, sir,” said the major, “I am very much obliged to you and will avail myself of your politeness now,” and placing a chair at the table, requested that a plate might be brought to him.

The General was astonished, looked unutterable things, and never again hinted that Major Lee’s company would be agreeable.
In his recent biography Renegade Revolutionary, Phillip Papas speculated that Lee might have had bipolar or manic-depressive disorder. This is a far more understanding approach than deciding he was just a Bad Person. Of course, Lee could also have been a Bad Person.

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