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"THE only time I ever heard Washington swear," Lafayette once remarked, "was when he called General Charles Lee a 'damned poltroon,' after the arrest of that officer for treasonable conduct." Nor was Washington the only person of self-restraint and good manners whose temper and angry passions were roused by this same erratic General Lee.

Lee was an Englishman, born in Cheshire in 1731. He entered the British army at the age of eleven years, was in Braddock's expedition, and was wounded at Ticonderoga in 1758. He also served for a time in Portugal, but certain infelicities of temper hindered his advancement, and he never rose higher in the British service than a half-pay major. As a "soldier of fortune" he was vastly more successful. In all the pages of American history, indeed, it would be difficult to find anybody whose career was more interestingly and picturesquely checkered than was his.

Lee's purpose in coming to America has never been fully explained. There are concerning this, as every other step of his career, two diametrically opposed opinions. The American historians have for the most agreed in thinking him traitorous and selfseeking, but for my own part I find little to justify this belief, for I have no difficulty whatever in accounting for his soldierly vagaries on the score of his temperament, and the peculiar conditions of his early life. A man who, while still a youth, was adopted by the Mohawk Indians, – who bestowed upon him the significant name of Boiling Water, – who was at one time aid-de-camp and intimate friend of the King of Poland, who rendered good service in the Russian war against the Turks, – all before interesting  himself at all in the cause of American freedom, – could scarcely be expected to be as simple in his us-ward emotions as an Israel Putnam or a General John Stark might be.

General Lee arrived in New York from London, on November 10, 1773, his avowed object in seeking the colonies at such a troublous time being to investigate  the justice of the American cause. He travelled all over the country in pursuance of facts concerning the fermenting feeling against England, but he was soon able to enroll himself unequivocally upon the side of the colonies. In a letter written to Lord Percy, then stationed at Boston, this eccentric new friend of the American cause – himself, it must be remembered, still a half-pay officer in the English army – expressed with great freedom his opinion of England's position: "Were the principle of taxing America without her consent admitted, Great Britain would that instant be ruined." And to General Gage, his warm personal friend, Lee wrote: " I am convinced that the court of Tiberius was not more treacherous to the rights of mankind than is the present court of Great Britain."

It is rather odd to find that General Charles Lee, of whom. we know so little, and that little scarcely to his credit, occupied in the military court of the American army a position second only to Washington; he was appointed a major-general on June 17, 1775, a date marked for us by the fact that Bunker Hill's battle was then fought. Not long after his arrival at the camp, General Lee, with that tendency to independent action which was afterward to work to his undoing, took up his quarters in the Royall house. And Lee it was who gave to the fine old place the name Hobgoblin Hall. From this mansion, emphatically remote from Lee's command, the eccentric general was summarily recalled by his commander-in-chief, then, as ever after, quick to administer to this major-general what he conceived to be needed reproof.

The house in which General Lee next resided is still standing on Sycamore Street, Somerville. When the place was occupied by Lee it had one of those long pitched roofs, descending to a single story at the back, which are still occasionally met with in our interior New England towns. The house was, however, altered to its present appearance by that John Tufts who occupied it during postRevolutionary times. From this lofty dwelling, Lee was able to overlook Boston, and to observe, by the aid of a strong fieldglass, all the activities of the enemy's camp. 


Lee himself was at this time an object of unfriendly espionage. In a "separate and secret despatch," Lord Dartmouth instructed General Gage to have a special eye on the ex-English officer. That Lee had resigned his claim to emolument in the English army does not seem to have made his countrymen as clear as it should have done concerning his relation to their cause.

Meanwhile, General Lee, though sleeping in his wind-swept farmhouse and watching from its windows the movements of the British, indulged when opportunity offered in the social pleasures of the other American officers. Rough and unattractive in appearance, – he seems to have been a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac, "a tall man, lank and thin, with a huge nose," – he had, when he chose, a certain amount of social grace, and was often extremely entertaining.

Mrs. John Adams, who first met General Lee at an evening party at Major Mifflin's house in Cambridge, describes him as looking like a "careless, hardy veteran," who brought to her mind his namesake, Charles XII. "The elegance of his pen far exceeds that of his person," commented this acute lady. In further describing this evening spent at Major Mifflin's home, in the Brattle mansion, Mrs. Adams writes: "General Lee was very urgent for me to tarry in town, and dine with him and the ladies present, but I excused myself. The general was determined that I should not only be acquainted with him, but with his companions, too, and therefore placed a chair before me, into which he ordered Mr. Spada (his dog) to mount, and present his paw to me for better acquaintance."1 Lee was very fond indeed of dogs, and was constantly attended by one or more of them, this Spada being a great, shaggy Pomeranian, described by unbiassed critics as looking more like a bear than a harmless canine. In this connection, it is interesting to know that Lee has expressed himself very strongly in regard to the affection of men as compared with the affection of dogs.

This love for dogs was, however, one of the more ornamental of General Lee's traits. His carelessness in regard to his personal appearance was famous, and not a few amusing stories are told of the awkward situations in which this officer's slovenliness involved him. On one of Washington's journeys, in which Lee accompanied him, the major-general, upon arriving at the house where they were to dine, went straight to the kitchen and demanded something to eat. The cook, taking him for a servant, told him that she would give him some victuals directly, but that he must first help her off with the pot, – a request with which he readily complied. He was then told to take a bucket and go to the well for water, and was actually engaged in drawing it when found by an aid whom Washington had despatched in quest of him. The cook was in despair when she heard her assistant addressed by the title of "General." The mug fell from her hands, and dropping on her knees, she began crying for pardon, when Lee, who was ever ready to see the impropriety of his own conduct, but never willing to change it, gave her a crown, and, turning to the aid-de-camp, observed: " You see, young man, the advantage of a fine coat; the man of consequence is indebted to it for respect; neither virtue nor ability, without it, will make you look like a gentleman."2

Perhaps the most remarkable episode in all Lee's social career, was that connected with Sir William Howe's famous entertainment at Philadelphia, the Mischianza. This was just after the affair at Monmouth, in the course of which Washington swore, and Lee was taken prisoner. Yet though a prisoner, the eccentric general was treated with the greatest courtesy, and seems even to have received a card for the famous ball. But, never too careful of his personal appearance, he must on this occasion have looked particularly uncouth.

 Certainly the beautiful Miss Franks one of the Philadelphia belles, thought him far from ornamental, and, with the keen wit for which she was celebrated, spread abroad a report that General Lee came to the ball clad in green breeches, patched with leather. To prove to her that entire  accuracy had not been used in describing his garb at the ball, the general sent the young lady the very articles of clothing which she had criticised! Naturally, neither the ladies nor their escorts thought any better of Lee's manners after this bit of horse-play, and it is safe to say he was not soon again invited to an evening party. Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Mercy warren both call Lee "a crabbed man." The latter described him in a letter to Samuel Adams as "plain in his person to a degree of ugliness; careless even to impoliteness; his garb ordinary; his voice rough; his manners rather morose; yet sensible, learned, judicious, and penetrating."

Toward the end of his life, Lee took refuge in an estate which he had purchased in Berkeley County, Virginia. Here he lived, more like a hermit than a citizen of the world, or a member of a civilised community. His house was little more than a shell, without partitions, and it lacked even such articles of furniture as were necessary for the most common uses. To a gentleman who visited him in this forlorn retreat, where he found a kitchen in one corner, a bed in another, books in a third, saddles and harness in a fourth, Lee said: "Sir, it is the most convenient and economical establishment in the world. The lines of chalk which you see on the floor mark the divisions of the apartments, and I can sit in a corner and give orders and overlook the whole without moving from my chair."3

General Lee died in an obscure inn in Philadelphia, October 2, 1782. His will was characteristic: "I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church or churchyard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Baptist meetinghouse; for since I have resided in this country I have kept so much bad company that I do not choose to continue it when dead." In this will, our singular hero paid a tribute of affectionate remembrance to several of his intimate friends, and of grateful generosity to the humble dependents who had adhered to him and ministered to his wants in his retirement. The bulk of his property – for he was a man of no small means  – was bequeathed to his only sister, Sydney Lee to whom he was ever devotedly attached.


1 Drake's "Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex." Little, Brown & Co., publishers.

2 Drake's "Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex."

3 Sparks's "Life of Charles Lee." Little, Brown & Co. 

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