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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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Charles Lee and a “distemper’d brain”

In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia dated 19 Sept 1775, Gen. Charles Lee complained about the Continental Army’s New England troops. And then he complained about Rush’s colleagues at the Continental Congress. And then he complained about how he was supposed to be addressed. Gen. Lee saw a lot to complain about that day.

Lee’s letter started with a mention of action at “Bunker’s Hill,” but he didn’t mean the big battle in June. In late August the wing of the army under his command had pressed forward to fortify Ploughed Hill, closer to the British fort on Bunker’s. That produced some firing back and forth. The fact that the Continentals had taken and held that position was the first significant movement in the siege for weeks, and enough for supporters to celebrate.

Gen. Lee, of course, complained:
I am extremely sorry that your Philadelphians have been buoy’d up with the news of so complete a victory, and more so that I am the Hero who have gain’d it—When men fall from great expectations, They are apt to esteem themselves deceiv’d by those who have been the reputed actors of the things They wish’d, altho’ They had no hand in raising these expectations—Not a syllable of the Bunker’s Hill seduction and victory has the least foundation in truth, indeed from all appearances not all the astutia [cleverness] of Hanibal or Sertorius wou’d draw ’em from their nest—

let me communicate to you my sentiments, but at the same time I must desire you to be secret. I think then We might have attack’d em long before this and with success, were our Troops differently constituted—but the fatal perswasion has taken deep root in the minds of the Americans from the highest to the lowest order that they are no match for the Regulars, but when cover’d by a wall or breast work. This notion is still further strengthen’d by the endless works We are throwing up—in short unless we can remove the idea (and it must be done by degrees) no spirited action can be ventur’d on without the greatest risk—

to inculcate a different way of thinking, to inspire ’em with some confidence pugnando manibus [in hand combat], I first propos’d a body of spearmen for each Regiment at Philadelphia, and I cou’d perceive that the proposal appear’d to many to be the production of a distemper’d brain; but I am afraid They may find to their cost some time or other that the principle was sound, and that They will suffer by not adopting it.

You alarm me extremely in expressing apprehensions of divisions starting up amongst the members of the Congress. Good Gods, I was in hopes that we shou’d reap the full harvest Which We have sown with such infinite pains and labor. (I agree with you entirely in the opinion that they ought (at least half of them) to be changed annually.)

I condemn with you the barbarous, dangerous custom of loading the Servants of the People with the trappings of Court Titles. I cannot conceive who the Devil first devis’d the bauble of Excellency for their Commander in Chief, or the more ridiculous of His Honour for me—Upon my Soul They make me spew—even the tacking honorable to the Continental Congress creates a wambling in my stomack—What cou’d add dignity to the simple title of the Continental Congress of America, as long as they do their duty? And the instant They grow corrupt or slavish from timidity all the rumbling sounds of honorable, serene, mighty, sublime, or magnanimous, will only make their infamy more infamous.
Lee then went on for even longer about John Adams’s recently intercepted comments about him and his dogs, about why dogs were superior, and about an imagined moment of John Dickinson being “pelted with oranges.”

In his recent biography of Lee, Renegade Revolutionary, Phillip Pappas writes that the general “evidenced classic signs of what modern psychiatry would classify as manic-depressive (or bipolar disorder).” This letter appears to be from one of his up moods.


Doug Hudson said...

By "spearmen", did he mean troops that relied primarily on the bayonet? That would actually make a certain sense, colonials would have benefited from close order bayonet training.

J. L. Bell said...

No, Lee meant men with spears. As this article by Hugh Harrington documents, Lee, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington were all talking up spears, pikes, and even bows and arrows in the first year of the war.

While a musket with a bayonet offered double the ways to kill than a spear, it didn’t have that advantage if you had no gunpowder.

Doug Hudson said...

Ah yes, I forgot about the gunpowder shortage.