Description

    Charles Lee (1732-1782) Letter Signed "Charles Lee Major General", three pages, 7.5" x 12.5", "Camp" [near Peekskill], November 22, 1776, with additional 19 line autograph postscript in Lee's hand to Brigadier General John Nixon. Charles Lee, perhaps Washington's most eneral John Nixon for a foraging expedition to the home and manor of Loyalist Frederick Phillips III.

    Following the Battle of White Plains on October 28, 1776, Washington split up his troops leaving Lee with a large contingent of the Continental Army near Peekskill. Washington moved the balance of the army across the Hudson River into New Jersey. On November 10th Washington received intelligence that the British were preparing to move into New Jersey, and requested that Lee and his army cross the Hudson to join forces. Lee hesitated for an entire month, answering Washington's repeated requests to move with various explanations including a wish not to expose the lush and agriculturally productive county of Westchester to the British for supplies. On November 12th, Lee communicated intelligence to Washington that the main body of Howe's army had retreated to the south, he still distrusted the ability of his scouts and feared a later attack since much of the British force still remained north of Manhattan Island and could easily turn against him. In this letter he gives highly detailed instructions to John Nixon: "Sir, You are to proceed with the two Brigades and party of Light Horse under your Command to Phillips's house - but previously you are to detach some able Scouts who are to reconnoiter will the Ground and observe if there is no body of the Enemy in or near the place superior to your own. You are to subdivide a sufficient number of your Men into small parties who beginning at Phillips's house ware to collect all the stout able horses-all the Cattle fat and lean-all the Sheep and hogs leaving only some milch Cows and a few hogs requisite for the immediate subsistence of the Families[.] You are to oblige the People to deliver up all their Blankets and Coverlings reserving only one to each Person[.] You are to give Certificates to the families for every article taken-and upon your return deliver to the Commissary General all the fat Cattle - to the Quarter Master General all the Blankets and Coverings - the lean Cattle & horses taking Receipts for the same - if it should happen to rain before you arrive at the point order'd I woul'd by no means have you expose your Men to the Wet - but loge 'em in the barns and houses as well as you can taking care to place proper Guards and Centinels [sic] to secure you against surprises - above all it is strictly inform'd you, to suffer your Soldiers and Officers to pillage[,] plunder or insult the wretched people" After signing the letter, Lee adds further instructions: "During night - flanking parties would only occasion confusion - You are therefore to have none as soon as the day appears your are to detach the sixth part of each Corps... I must particularly request that you have a strong Advanced Part of a field officer and an hundred and fifty Men -- that Capt Lee is with sixty Scouts advanced before them at least as much and half in front. Your light horse in Advancing ought to bring up the rear at an hundred yards distance in retreating the same -- I once more repeat that if it rains You will lodge your men as well as you can - above all let the strictest silence be observed..."

    The letter clearly illustrates Lee's complete distrust of abilities of his subordinate officers and men. The level of micromanagement here betrays his attitude toward Nixon, whom he regarded as an inferior. At the same time, Lee, who possessed one of the most distinguished military résumés in the Continental Army, thought himself vast superior than relatively inexperienced Washington. Lee actually staged a letter-writing campaign strongly criticizing Washington's command decisions, blaming him for the seemingly endless stream of defeats in 1776. Some have speculated that Lee's delay in joining Washington in New Jersey was a deliberate plot to see Washington defeated by Howe, demonstrating Washington's ineptitude, and creating an opening for Lee to command the army. This lack of confidence in the abilities of the officers and troops under his command (as well as his superiors) would continue to the end of his military career. This letter, however casts some doubt on any 'plot' to discredit Washington by letting him be defeated. It is obvious that besides being mistrustful of Nixon's judgment and abilities, he still viewed the British a threat to his position and was thus unwilling to abandon his post. Two years later, at Monmouth Court House, it was Lee's hesitation with his advance guard and subsequent retreat before a weaker British force that turned what could have been a decisive victory for the Americans into a stalemate. Lee survived a court-martial but continued to criticize Washington and was dismissed from the service in 1780.

    Within two weeks of his crossing the Hudson River (on our about December 1, 1776), Lee would himself be surprised and captured by the British. On the night of December 12, he decided to spend the night away from his army at White's Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey to enjoy food, drink, and the hospitality of one of the tavern's resident women. A British patrol under the command of Benastre Tarleton, arrived at the tavern the following morning on a tip from a Tory sympathizer. After a brief skirmish Lee surrendered. He remained in captivity in New York until he was exchanged in the spring of 1778. While in captivity, Lee actually presented a plan to the British command on how to defeat the American army. Fortunately for the Americans, the British ignored his plan. The treason was only exposed after his death in 1780.

    Frederick Phillips's open declaration of loyalty to the crown earned him an arrest warrant from George Washington -- Phillips appears to have already been in New York by late November. His signature appears with over 500 other loyalists in New York City on a petition addressed to William Howe on November 28, 1776 reaffirming his loyalty to King George III. He soon fled to British occupied New York with his family. Before the close of the War, he would flee to England with his family and remained there until his death in 1786. The State of New York confiscated his vast manor and sold it at public auction. The mansion, up on the Hudson near Tarrytown, is now a state historical site open to the public.

    This fine content letter bears the usual folds, light soiling and a few minor archival repairs, overall fine condition. From the Henry E. Luhrs Collection. Accompanied by LOA from PSA/DNA.


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