Charles Lee: Self before Country

Charles Lee: Self before Country

Charles Lee: Self before Country

Charles Lee: Self before Country


Dominick Mazzagetti presents an engaging account of the life of Charles Lee, the forgotten man of the American Revolution. History has not been kind to Lee--for good reason. In this compelling biography, Mazzagetti compares Lee's life and attributes to those of George Washington and offers significant observations omitted from previous Lee biographies, including extensive correspondence with British officers in 1777 that reflects Lee's abandonment of the Patriots' cause.

Lee, a British officer, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and a critic of King George III, arrived in New York City in 1773 with an ego that knew no bounds and tolerated no rivals. A highly visible and newsworthy personality, he quickly took up the American cause and encouraged rebellion. As a result of this advocacy and his military skills, Lee was granted a commission as a major general in the Continental Army and soon became second-in-command to George Washington. He helped organize the defense of Boston, designed defenses for New York City, and commanded the force that repelled the British attack on Charleston.

Upon his return to New York in 1776, Lee was considered by some leaders of the Revolution to be an alternative to George Washington, who was in full retreat from British forces. Lee's capture by the British in December 1776 put an end to that possibility. Lee's subsequent release in a prisoner exchange in 1778 and return to an American command led to a dramatic confrontation with Washington on the battlefield at Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778. Washington chastised Lee publicly for ordering an unnecessary retreat. Lee suffered the ignominy of a court-martial conviction for this blunder and spent the remaining years to his death in 1782 attacking Washington. Although few doubted Lee's loyalty at the time, his actions at Monmouth fueled speculation that he switched sides during his imprisonment.

A discovery years after his death completed Lee's tale. In 1862, a researcher discovered "Mr. Lee's Plan," a detailed strategy for the defeat of the American rebels delivered to British General William Howe while Lee was held in captivity. This discovery sealed Lee's historical record and ended all further discussion of his contributions to the American Revolution. Today, few people even realize that Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, was named in his honor.


In Greek mythology, references to the goddess Athena often identify her as “Pallas Athena,” in recognition of her victory over the Titan Pallas in Zeus’s battle for supremacy over the Titans. According to the tale, Athena stripped the skin from the dead Pallas and used it as a shield in the continuing fight. Images of Pallas Athena thereafter were displayed as talismatic guardians or shields, particularly the wooden image that stood before the walls of Troy, known as the “Palladium,” which was believed to have been thrown down from the heavens by Zeus. Only after this statue was captured by Odysseus and Diomedes were the walls of Troy breached. in the eighteenth century, several British newspaper editors used the term to refer to Major General Charles Lee, especially after he was seized by British grenadiers at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, in 1776. This use of the word implied that Charles Lee represented a champion for a just cause and, perhaps, suggested that the capture of Charles Lee, who had taken up the cause of the thirteen American colonies in the fight against the strongest nation in the world, would signal a favorable outcome for Great Britain.

Charles Lee accepted this characterization. We know this because he refers to himself late in his life as the “American Palladium.” This self-reference also reveals his singular personal trait, an ego that knew no bounds and countenanced no rivals. Even though few contemporaries in Europe shared Lee’s own opinion of his merits, the Americans who met him after his arrival in New York City in 1773 accepted his personal history without question. As a result, Lee reached heights that might otherwise have been improbable, only to fall just as quickly from those heights. History has not been kind to Charles Lee, and for good reasons.

Lee was a man with “a waywardness of temper, a rashness of resolution, a license of speech, an eager ambition, and an eccentricity of manners,” according . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.