A MAN WHO COVETED WASHINGTON'S SHOES
By Frank E. Stockton
The person whose story we are now about to tell was not a Jerseyman;
but, as most of the incidents which make him interesting to us
occurred in this State, we will give him the benefit of a few years'
This was General Charles Lee, who might well have been called a
soldier of fortune. He was born in England, but the British Isles
were entirely too small to satisfy his wild ambitions and his roving
disposition. There are few heroes of romance who have had such a
wide and varied experience, and who have engaged in so many strange
enterprises. He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault
which prevented him from being a high-class soldier; and that fault
was, that he could not bear restraint, and was always restive under
command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people
what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought
He joined the British army when he was a young man; and he first
came to this country in 1757, when General Abercrombie brought over
an army to fight the French. For three years, Lee was engaged in
the wilds and forests, doing battle with the Indians and French,
and no doubt he had all the adventures an ordinary person would
desire, But this experience was far from satisfactory.
When he left America, he went to Portugal with another British
army, and there he fought the Spanish with as much impetuosity as
he had fought the French and Indians. Life was absolutely tasteless
to Lee without a very strong sprinkle of variety. Consequently
he now tried fighting in an entirely different field, and went
into politics. He became a Liberal, and with his voice fought the
government for whom he had been previously fighting with his sword.
But a few years of this satisfied him; and then he went to Poland,
where he became a member of the king's staff, and as a Polish
officer disported himself for two years.
It is very likely that in Turkey a high-spirited man would find
more opportunities for lively adventure than even in Poland. At any
rate, Charles Lee thought so; and to Turkey he went, and entered
into the service of the sultan. Here he distinguished himself
in a company of Turks who were guarding a great treasure in its
transportation from Moldavia to Constantinople. No doubt he wore
a turban and baggy trousers, and carried a great scimiter, for a
man of that sort is not likely to do things by halves when he does
them at all.
Having had such peculiar experiences in various armies and various
parts of the world, Lee thought himself qualified to occupy a
position of rank in the British army, and, coming back to England,
he endeavored to obtain military promotion. But the government there
did not seem to think he had learned enough in Poland and Turkey
to enable him to take precedence of English officers accustomed
to command English troops, and it declined to put him above such
officers, and to give him the place he desired. Lee was not a man
of mild temper. He became very angry at the treatment he received,
and, abandoning his native country again, he went to Russia, where
the czar gave him command of a company of wild Cossacks. But he
did not remain long with the Cossacks. Perhaps they were not wild
and daring enough to suit his fancy, although there are very few
fancies which would not be satisfied with the reckless and furious
demeanor generally attributed to these savage horsemen.
He threw up his command and went to Hungary, and there he did some
fighting in an entirely different fashion. Not having any opportunity
to distinguish himself upon a battlefield, he engaged in a duel;
and of course, as he was acting the part of a hero of romance, he
killed his man.
Hungary was not a suitable residence for him after the duel, and
he went back to England, and there he found the country in a state
of excitement in regard to the American Colonies. Now, if there
was anything that Lee liked, it was a state of excitement, and in
the midst of this political hubbub he felt as much at home as if
he had been charging the ranks of an enemy. Of course, he took part
against the government, for, as far as we know, he had always been
against it, and he became a violent supporter of the rights of the
He was so much in earnest in this matter, that in 1773 he came
to America to see for himself how matters stood. When he got over
here, he became more strongly in favor of the colonists than he
had been at home, and everywhere proclaimed that the Americans were
right in resisting the unjust taxation claims of Great Britain.
As he had always been ready to lay aside his British birthright
and become some sort of a foreigner, he now determined to become
an American; and to show that he was in earnest, he went down to
Virginia and bought a farm there.
Lee soon became acquainted with people in high places in American
politics; and when the first Congress assembled, he was ready to
talk with its members, urging them to stand up for their rights, and
draw their swords and load their guns in defense of independence.
It was quite natural, that, when the Revolution really began, a man
who was so strongly in favor of the patriots, and had had so much
military experience in so many different lands, should be allowed
to take part in the war, and Charles Lee was appointed major general.
This was a high military position,—much higher, in fact, than
he could ever have obtained in his own country,—but it did not
satisfy him. The position he wanted was that of commander in chief
of the American army; and he was surprised and angry that it was
not offered to him, and that a man of his ability should be passed
over, and that high place given to a person like George Washington,
who knew but little of war, and had no idea whatever how the thing
was done in Portugal, Poland, Russia and Turkey, and who was, in
fact, no more than a country gentleman.
All this showed that these Americans were fools, who did not understand
their best interests. But as there was a good chance for a fight,
and, in fact, a good many fights, and as a major generalship was
not to be sneered at, he accepted it, and resigned the commission
which he held in the English army.
He was doubtless in earnest in his desire to assist the Americans
to obtain their independence, for he was always in earnest when
he was doing anything that he was inclined to do. But he did not
propose to sacrifice his own interests to the cause he had undertaken;
and as, by entering the American army, he risked the loss of his
estate in England, he arranged with Congress for compensation for
But, although General Lee was now a very ardent American soldier,
he could not forgive Mr. Washington for taking command above him.
If that Virginia gentleman had had the courtesy and good sense
which were generally attributed to him, he would have resigned the
supreme command, and, modestly stepping aside, would have asked
General Lee to accept it.
At least, that was the opinion of General Charles Lee.
As this high and mighty soldier was so unwilling to submit to the
orders of incompetent people, he never liked to be under the direct
command of Washington, and, if it were possible to do so, he managed
to be concerned in operations not under the immediate eye of the
commander in chief. In fact, he was very jealous indeed of Washington,
and did not hesitate to express his opinion about him whenever he
had a chance.
The American army was not very successful in Long Island, and there
was a time when it fared very badly in New Jersey; and Lee was not
slow to declare that these misfortunes were owing entirely to the
ignorance of the man who was in command. Moreover, if there was
any one who wanted to know if there was another man in the Colonies
who could command the army better, and lead it more certainly and
speedily to victory, General Lee was always ready to mention an
experienced soldier who would be able to perform that duty most
If it had not been for this unfortunate and jealous disposition,
Charles Lee—a very different man from "Light Horse Harry" Lee—would
have been one of the most useful officers in the American army.
But he had such a jealousy of Washington, and hoped so continually
that something would happen which would give him the place then
occupied by the Virginia country gentleman, that, although he was
at heart an honest patriot, he allowed himself to do things which
were not at all patriotic. He wanted to see the Americans successful
in the country, but he did not want to see all that happen under
the leadership of Washington; and if he could put an obstacle in
the way of that incompetent person, he would do it, and be glad to
see him stumble over it.
In the winter of 1776, when the American army was taking its
way across New Jersey towards the Delaware River with Cornwallis
in pursuit, Washington was anxiously looking for the troops under
the command of General Lee, who had been ordered to come to his
assistance; and if ever assistance was needed, it was needed then.
But Lee liked to do his own ordering, and, instead of hurrying to
help Washington, he thought it would be a great deal better to do
something on his own account; and so he endeavored to get into the
rear of Cornwallis's army, thinking that, if he should attack the
enemy in that way, he might possibly win a startling victory which
would cover him with glory, and show how much better a soldier he
was than that poor Washington who was retreating across the country,
instead of boldly turning and showing fight.
If Lee had been a true soldier, and had conscientiously obeyed the
commands of his superior, he would have joined Washington and his
army without delay and a short time afterward would have had an
opportunity of taking part in the battle of Trenton, in which the
Virginia country gentleman defeated the British, and gained one of
the most important victories of the war.
Lee pressed slowly onward—ready to strike a great blow for himself,
and unwilling to help anybody else strike a blow—until he came to
Morristown; and, after staying there one night, he proceeded in
the direction of Basking Ridge, a pretty village not far away. Lee
left his army at Bernardsville, which was then known as Vealtown,
and rode on to Basking Ridge, accompanied only by a small guard.
There he took lodgings at an inn, and made himself comfortable.
The next morning he did not go and put himself at the head of his
army and move on, because there were various affairs which occupied
Several of his guard wished to speak to him, some of them being men
from Connecticut, who appeared before him in full-bottomed wigs,
showing plainly that they considered themselves people who were
important enough to have their complaints attended to. One of them
wanted his horse shod, another asked for some money on account
of his pay, and a third had something to say about rations. But
General Lee cut them all off very shortly with, "You want a great
deal, but you have not mentioned what you want most. You want to
go home, and I should be glad to let you go, for you are no good
here." Then his adjutant general asked to see him; and he had a
visit from a Major Wilkinson, who arrived that morning with a letter
from General Gates.
All these things occupied him very much, and he did not sit down
to breakfast till ten o'clock. Shortly after they had finished
their meal, and Lee was writing a letter to General Gates, in which
he expressed a very contemptible opinion of General Washington,
Major Wilkinson saw, at the end of the lane which led from the
house down to the main road, a party of British cavalry who dashed
round the corner toward the house. The major immediately called
out to General Lee that the redcoats were coming; but Lee, who was
a man not to be frightened by sudden reports, finished signing the
letter, and then jumped up to see what was the matter.
By this time the dragoons had surrounded the house; and when he
perceived this, General Lee naturally wanted to know where the guards
were, and why they did not fire on these fellows. But there was
no firing, and apparently there were no guards, and when Wilkinson
went to look for them, he found their arms in the room which had
been their quarters, but the men were gone. These private soldiers
had evidently been quite as free and easy, and as bent upon making
themselves comfortable, as had been the general, and they had had
no thought that such a thing as a British soldier was anywhere in
the neighborhood. When Wilkinson looked out of the door, he saw
the guards running in every direction, with dragoons chasing them.
What all this meant, nobody knew at first; and Wilkinson supposed
that it was merely a band of marauders of the British army, who
were making a raid into the country to get what they could in the
way of plunder. It was not long before this was found to be a great
mistake; for the officer in command of the dragoons called from the
outside, and demanded that General Lee should surrender himself,
and that, if he did not do so in five minutes, the house would be
set on fire.
Now, it was plain to everybody that the British had heard of the
leisurely advance of this American general, and that he had left
his command and come to Basking Ridge to take his ease at an inn,
and so they had sent a detachment to capture him. Soon the women
of the house came to General Lee, and urged him to hide himself
under a feather bed. They declared that they would cover him up so
that nohody would suspect that he was in the bed; then they would
tell the soldiers that he was not there, and that they might come
and search the house if they chose.
But although Lee was a jealous man and a hasty man, he had a soul
above such behavior as this, and would not hide himself in a feather
bed; but, as there was no honorable way of escape, he boldly came
forward and surrendered himself.
The British gave him no time to make any preparations for departure.
They did not know but that his army might be on the way to Basking
Ridge; and the sooner they were off, the better. So they made him
jump on Major Wilkinson's horse, which was tied by the door; and
in his slippers and dressing gown, and without a hat, this bold
soldier of wide experience, who thought he should be commander in
chief of the American army, was hurried away at full gallop. He was
taken to New York, where he was put into prison. It is said that
Lee plotted against America during his imprisonment; but General
Washington did not know that, and used every exertion to have him
exchanged, so that his aspiring rival soon again joined the American
But his misfortune had no effect upon General Charles Lee, who
came back to his command with as high an opinion of himself, and
as low an opinion of certain other people, as he had had when he
involuntarily left it. It was some time after this, at the battle
of Monmouth Court House, that Charles Lee showed what sort of a
man he really was. He had now become so jealous that he positively
determined that he would not obey orders, and would act as he thought
best. He had command of a body of troops numbering five thousand,
a good-sized army for those days, and he was ordered to advance
to Monmouth Court House and attack the enemy who were there, while
Washington, with another force, would hasten to his assistance as
rapidly as possible.
Washington carried out his part of the plan; but when he had
nearly reached Monmouth, he found, to his amazement, that Lee had
gone there, but had done no fighting at all, and was now actually
retreating, and coming in his direction. As it would be demoralizing
in the highest degree to his own command, if Lee's armed forces in
full retreat should come upon them, Washington hurried forward to
prevent anything of the sort, and soon met Lee. When the latter
was asked what was the meaning of this strange proceeding, he could
give no good reason, except that he thought it better not to risk
an engagement at that time.
Then the Virginia country gentleman blazed out at the soldier of
fortune, and it is said that no one ever heard George Washington
speak to any other man as he spoke to General Lee on that day. He
was told to go back to his command and to obey orders, and together the
American forces moved on. In the battle which followed, the enemy
was repulsed; but the victory was not so complete as it should have
been, for the British departed in the night and went where they
intended to go, without being cut off by the American army, as
would have been the case if Lee had obeyed the orders which were
General Lee was very angry at the charges which Washington had made
against him, and demanded that he should be tried by court-martial.
His wish was granted. He was tried, and found guilty of every charge
made against him, and in consequence was suspended from the army
for one year.
But Charles Lee never went back into the American army. Perhaps
he had enough of it. In any event, it had had enough of him; and
seven years afterwards, when he died of a fever, his ambition to
stand in Washington's shoes died with him. While he lived on his
Virginia farm, he was as impetuous and eccentric as when he had been
in the army, and he must have been a very unpleasant neighbor. In
fact, the people there thought he was crazy. This opinion was not
changed when his will was read, for in that document he said,—
"I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church
or churchyard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist
meeting house; for since I have resided in this country I have kept
so much bad company when living, that I do not choose to continue
it when dead."