On this day in 1776, American General Charles Lee was caught with his pants down. Literally.
It seems that Lee – little-remembered today and certainly not a hero of modern textbooks – was miffed that he had been denied appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in favor of the less-experienced George Washington. It’s true that Lee was a capable officer who had graduated from a British military academy and had ably served with the King’s forces in the Seven Years’ War. But when he failed to land a lucrative royal appointment afterward, he retired from the army and remained in the colonies, later taking up the rebel cause perhaps out of spite.
The fact that Lee was known to imbibe and possess a volcanic temper even when sober – Mohawks whom he had fought in the war had dubbed him ‘Boiling Water’ – and demonstrated other, er, weaknesses of character probably played a role in his stunted career.
Ironically, Boiling Water had married a Mohawk woman when he wasn’t fighting her relatives, but that inconvenient fact didn’t quell his interest in women of loose virtue. More on that in a moment.
At some point in his service of the King, Lee had crossed paths with Banastre Tarleton, who would later become famous during the Revolution for the alleged atrocities of his mounted troops. When Tarleton learned of his nemesis’ treachery in joining the rebels, he swore – in a London club over rounds of port and madeira – to personally hunt him down and relieve him of his head.
Lee probably came to wish Tarleton had kept his word.
Oh, he kept the ‘hunt him down’ part. Learning of Lee’s penchant for strumpets, Tarleton’s 16th Light Dragoons waited until the wee hours of 14 December 1776 to find Lee, not with his bivouacked troops three miles away, but instead unguarded and in the company of said loose women at Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. There they interrupted him, in flagrante delicto, and hauled him all the way back to New York City… still in his nightdress. And shackles.
After that humiliation, though, Lee was shown courtesy and given plush accommodations and a manservant while he discussed with his captors potential weak spots in the American defenses.
Apparently Washington was unaware that Lee had been helping the British, because when Lee was finally released in a prisoner exchange in May 1778, he reported to the Continental Army at Valley Forge and was given back his command. True to form, though, it was not long before his temper erupted in insubordination, and Lee was suspended by Washington and convicted at court-martial six months later. Drummed out of the service, he retired to Philadelphia, and died there in 1782.
Despite his decidedly mixed record, Fort Lee, New Jersey, is named for him.
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