February 5, 1732 – Birthdate of Charles Lee, Major General in the American Revolution

On this day in history, Charles Lee was born in Cheshire, England. He joined the British Army and was sent with his regiment to America in 1754 for service in the French and Indian War. He married the daughter of a Mohawk chief and went back to Europe.

Charles Lee

Charles Lee

When the quarrels with the colonies began, he felt sympathy with the Americans, and moved to Virginia in 1773. When war appeared inevitable he resigned his Royal commission, volunteering his services to the colonies, with an expectation of being named Commander-in-Chief. George Washington, however, was the favored choice; among other qualities, Washington agreed to work without pay.

Lee was offered the subordinate rank of Major General, and was considered to be second in command of the American forces. Nevertheless, he resented Washington ever after, and was apt to be insubordinate. In 1778 he was court-martialed and relieved of command for one year.

Later in life, Lee tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to overturn the court-martial’s verdict, and then engaged in open attacks on Washington’s character. He was released from his duty on January 10, 1780 and retired to his estate in Shenandoah Valley where he bred horses and dogs. While visiting Philadelphia he was stricken with fever and died in a tavern on October 2, 1782.

Washington Irving wrote of Lee, in his Life of George Washington (1857, at p. 387):

He was whimsical, eccentric, and at times almost rude; negligent also, and slovenly in person and attire; for though he had occasionally associated with kings and princes, he had also campaigned with Mohawks and Cossacks, and seems to have relished their ‘good breeding.’ What was still more annoying in a well regulated mansion, he was always followed by a legion of dogs, which shared his affections with his horses, and took their seats by him when at table. ‘I must have some object to embrace,’ said he misanthropically. ‘When I can be convinced that men are as worthy objects as dogs, I shall transfer my benevolence, and become as staunch a philanthropist as the canting Addison affected to be.’”

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