- - Monday, April 7, 2014


By Christian M. McBurney
Westholme Publishing, $29.95, 334 pages

A confident British army felt that it was on the brink of subduing the ragtag Colonialist military in December 1776.

In the early months of the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington had fared poorly in encounters in and around New York City, and many military critics dismissed him as a backwoods bungler who was no match for forces trained in continental warfare. Indeed, the only revolutionary general whom they respected was Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, second-in-command to Washington — and formerly one of their comrades-in-arms.

English-born and the son of a colonel, Lee entered the British army at age 14 and developed a reputation both as a good soldier and as a vain man who viewed his superiors with scorn. (He called one commander “a stupid blunderer” and a “damn’d beastly poltroon.”)

Frequently court-martialed and so volatile, he became known as “Mad Lee.” In 1773, he embarked for America, eager for greater liberties. He aimed a parting blast at persons subservient “to the fantastical prerogative of a foolish perverted head because it wears a crown” — i.e., King George III.

His wide experience led the Continental Congress to name him Washington’s chief aide. He resigned his British commission and was stricken from the rolls for assisting “an unnatural rebellion.”

Lee’s unstable temperament notwithstanding, the British command feared that he could be chosen to replace Washington. Indeed, Lee was actively scheming to supplant Washington. In a letter to another general, he complained that Washington was “most damnably deficient.” The British command feared that should Lee succeed Washington, the war could go the other way.

Thus the excitement felt by Lt. Col. William Harcourt and Cornet Banastre Tarleton of the British dragoons the night of Dec. 12, 1776. On a reconnaissance mission near Colonial lines in New Jersey, Harcourt encountered Loyalists who reported that Lee was staying in a tavern at Basking Ridge.

A patrol surrounded the building. Lee initially ignored a fusillade of carbine fire, only to have Harcourt threaten to burn the place and that “every person, without exception, shall be put to the sword.” Lee surrendered.

In captivity, Lee did an abrupt about-face, saying that the Americans were losing the war, and that they should renounce independence and return to the rule of George III. Then, in what Christian M. Burney writes “can only be described as treasonous,” he submitted a battle plan to British commanders “to quickly defeat the American army.” He offered to negotiate an end to hostilities — a proposal Congress quickly rejected.

Nonetheless, Washington wrote the British that he desired that “General Lee be declared exchangeable, when we shall have an officer of yours of equal rank in our possession.” However, the Americans had no such ranking captive. (The British briefly considered hanging Lee as a traitor, ignoring the fact that he had voluntarily surrendered his commission. Given the desertion accusation, they expressed no interest in an exchange.)

Circumstances changed abruptly in July 1777, and, in delicious irony, the British officer captured was Maj. Gen. Richard Prescott, detested by the Americans for his cruel treatment of captured soldiers and the civilian populace alike. Mr. Burney devotes several pages to recounting the infamous conduct of Prescott, whose many sins included taking sadistic delight in chaining and beating prisoners.

Through informants including a freed slave, one Quako Honeyman, Lt. Col. William Barton learned that Prescott has taken up quarters in a farmhouse on Aquidneck Island, some five miles from Newport, R.I. In one of the bolder operations of the war, Barton and a contingent of volunteers rowed across Narragansett Bay, carefully picking a path around anchored British ships. They followed a hidden path to Prescott’s quarters, where he and an aide were seized without incident. Then Barton and his party made their way back across the bay, again eluding guard boats.

Rumors quickly spread that Prescott had been caught in a compromising position, in bed with either a farmer’s daughter or a prostitute. The British press subjected Prescott to such biting — and ribald — humor that George III was moved to protest “the injustice done to Prescott by the News-Writers.”

Somewhat to American surprise, the British balked at a one-for-one exchange, with some officers apparently determined to send Lee back to the gallows. Incredibly, when an American emissary met with Lee, he heard only disparaging comments on Washington’s leadership and a suggestion that the Colonial army switch to guerrilla warfare, fighting from a base in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. Lee again offered to mediate an end to the war.

The exchange was finally made on April 5, 1778. Washington, his wife and several officers gave Lee a celebratory dinner. However, the forced amity did not last long. Lee thoroughly botched his part in a battle at Monmouth Court House, N.J., missing an opportunity to deal the British a perhaps fatal blow. An angered Washington used harsh language — that Lee had made “an unnecessary, disorderly and shameful retreat.” A court martial convicted him and “suspended” him from the army; Congress later dismissed him outright. Lee spent his last years in penury on a Shenandoah Valley farm. He died in 1782, at aged 51, unmourned.

The tangled story told by Mr. McBurney, a tax lawyer with the firm Nixon Peabody, is superbly researched and presented in lively prose that makes for easy reading. In the text, he promises a future full biography of “Mad Lee,” a book I look forward to reading.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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