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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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Charles Lee “a Damned Poltroon”?

During the Marquis de la Fayette’s visit to America in 1824-25, he made some remarks which indirectly resurfaced this week in the Library of America’s blog posting, “Did George Washington Swear During the Battle of Monmouth?” (This eighteenth-century picture of Lafayette comes courtesy of Vanderbilt University.)

According to Henry B. Dawson’s Battles of the United States (1858), on the morning of Sunday, 15 Aug 1824, Lafayette described the Battle of Monmouth “on the plaza of the residence of Vice-president Daniel D. Tompkins.”

Dawson cited that conversation without specifying how he came to know about it. Tompkins died in 1825. Dawson was born in Britain in 1821 and arrived in New York in 1834. So there must have been some intervening figures.

Dawson was a thorough researcher, and his account of the big Monmouth fight on 28 June 1778 is heavily footnoted with different sources. On the other hand, in his description of the friction between Washington and the Continental Army’s second-ranking general, the British-born Charles Lee, it’s clear which man he prefers. The passage starts as the commander-in-chief is trying to stem the American retreat:

At this instant the guilty author of the mischief, General Lee, rode up, and the commander-in-chief demanded, in the sternest manner, “What is the meaning of all this, sir?”

Disconcerted and crushed under the tone and terrible appearance of his chief, General Lee could do nothing more than stammer, “Sir, sir?” When, with more vehemence, and with a still more indignant expression, the question was repeated.

A hurried explanation was attempted—his troops had been misled by contradictory intelligence, his officers had disobeyed his orders, and he had not felt it his duty to oppose the whole force of the enemy with the detachment under his command. Farther remarks were made on both sides, and, closing the interview with calling General Lee “a damned poltroon,” the commander-in-chief hastened back to the high ground, between the meetinghouse and the bridge, where he formed the regiments of Colonels Shreve, Patton, Grayson, Livingston, Cilley, and Ogden, and the left wing under Lord Stirling.

When the first line of troops had been formed on the heights, General Washington rode up to General Lee, and inquired, in a calmer tone, “Will you retain the command on this height, or not? If you will, I will return to the main body, and have it formed on the next height.”

General Lee accepted the command, when, giving up the command. General Washington remarked, “I expect you will take proper means for checking the enemy,” and General Lee promised, “Your orders shall be obeyed; and I shall not be the first to leave the ground.”
Dawson’s footnote adds: “Gen. Lafayette referred to it as the only instance wherein he had heard the General swear.”

Some later authors insisted that it was completely out of character for Washington to swear like this, even once. But it’s clear that the commander said something unusually harsh to Lee.

TOMORROW: The general’s “singular expressions.”


Vern said...

Hmm, I thought Washington was famed for his temper, particularly when the recipient deserved it. The disaster that was Lee at Monmouth is certainly famous in Washington lore.

It's been a while since I read Freeman's biography of Washington though, so maybe I'm mis-remembering it?

J. L. Bell said...

I think the whole debate among Victorian writers about whether Washington said “damned poltroon” shows more about their values than about the historical question.

They all firmly held to the idea that Washington was a paragon, and in the right. Lee, consequently, was in the wrong.

And then they argued about whether a paragon like Washington would say something as supposedly profane as “damned poltroon,” or whether a wastrel like Lee was the sort of provocation that would push a paragon like Washington that far.

Some authors wrote that Lafayette must have been mistaken after so many years. However, many people accepted other, uncontroversial remarks about Washington based on reminiscences just as tenuous. If what the generalissimo had said to Lee was a big part of the dispute that followed, I’d think that would have stuck pretty well in young Lafayette’s mind.

RBK said...

Washington was also human (right?) and even individuals with the most self control are liable to snap at the right time. I think that since this was the first clash between the two forces, it was intolerable and unacceptable for a man like Washington, with all of his past experience and forward goals, to begin a war retreating, when so much relied upon the outcome. Obviously.

Anonymous said...

In Hamilton the musical after Washington always said Attack, Lee said to Retreat. Also in Hamilton Alexander was a bit pissed that he wasn’t General, and I can see why. I’m a wimp, but even I would do better. In CoNcLuSiOn, I think we all can call Lee a big Wimp. But it’s just my opinion tho :3

J. L. Bell said...

Hamilton the musical portrays Lee as an inexperienced Virginian when in real life he was an Englishman with more military experience and learning than anyone else in the Continental Army. So let’s not take that as a historical source.

Several analyses of the Battle of Monmouth in recent years have argued that Lee was right to order a strategic retreat when he did and Washington overreacted. But the way Lee reacted to Washington’s criticism sealed his career and his image in the history books.