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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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Charles Lee on a Fatal Sunday

Mount Vernon just shared an interview with Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone about their recently published book, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle.

Here’s the authors’ positive appraisal of how Gen. Charles Lee behaved as a battlefield commander on 28 June 1778:
Charles Lee had a difficult assignment. He had to lead a vanguard of some 3,500 to 4,000 men of mixed commands, led by officers he didn’t know, into terrain he didn’t know, against an enemy whose strength and intentions were unknown. He had to do this in the face of conflicting intelligence reports and without adequate cavalry or other scouting capabilities.

Nevertheless Lee executed a nearly perfect movement to contact, quickly assessed the enemy situation, and formulated a reasonable plan to cut off what he thought was a relatively small British rear guard. It would have been exactly the limited blow and victory [George] Washington had in mind. When faced with an overwhelming British counter-attack, and an unauthorized retreat by a sizable part of his command, Lee pulled back in fairly good order, looking for a place to make a stand until Washington brought up the main army.

When he met the commander-in-chief—and the two generals had their famous contretemps—Lee in fact was headed for the very ground on which Washington organized the main American line. Lee then fought an admirable delaying action at the Hedgerow, buying the time Washington needed to form the main army. Charles Lee certainly made some mistakes—lots of officers did that day—but all in all he fought a good battle at Monmouth.
Of course, after quarreling with Washington, Lee demanded a public vindication which took the form of a court-martial. He thus destroyed his American career, turning a battlefield draw into a permanent defeat as surely as Washington had turned it into a victory.

TOMORROW: Charles Lee in the 21st century.

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