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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Capture of Charles Lee

By James Wilkinson (1757–1825)

[Born near Benedict, Md., 1757. Died near Mexico, Mex., 1825. Memoirs of my Own Times. 1816.]

I WAS presented to the General as he lay in bed, and delivered into his hands the letter of General Gates. He examined the superscription, and observed it was addressed to General Washington, and declined opening it, until I apprised him of the contents and the motives of my visit; he then broke the seal and read it, after which he desired me to take repose. I lay down on my blanket before a comfortable fire, amidst the officers of his suite: for we were not in those days encumbered with beds or baggage. I arose at the dawn, but could not see the General, with whom I had been previously acquainted, before eight o’clock. After some inquiries respecting the conduct of the campaign on the northern frontier, he gave me a brief account of the operations of the grand army, which he condemned in strong terms. He observed, “that our siege of Boston had led us into great errors; that the attempt to defend islands against a superior land and naval force was madness; that Sir William Howe could have given us checkmate at his discretion; and that we owed our salvation to his indolence, or disinclination to terminate the war.—When I reached the army on York Island,” said Lee, “all hands were busily employed in collecting materials and erecting barracks; and I found little Mifflin exulting in the prospect of fine winter quarters at Kingsbridge. I replied to him, ‘Winter quarters here, sir! and the British army still in the field! Go, set fire to those you have built, and get away by the light, or Sir William Howe will find quarters for you.’”

This advice of Lee was generally understood; it obtained for him merited applause, and General Washington gave him due credit for it. He had also been opposed to the occupancy of Fort Washington, and the fall of that place enhanced his military reputation, while unavoidable misfortunes, and the unfortunate issue of the campaign, originating in causes beyond the control of the commander-in-chief, had quickened the discontents generated at Cambridge, and raised a party against him in Congress; and it was confidently asserted at the time, but is not worthy of credit, that a motion had been made in that body, tending to supersede him in the command of the army. In this temper of the times, if General Lee had anticipated General Washington in cutting the cordon of the enemy between New York and the Delaware, the commander-in-chief would probably have been superseded, and the man who lived the darling of his country, and died the admiration of the world, might have been consigned to retirement or oblivion. In this case Lee would have succeeded him, whose manifold infirmities would have been obscured by that honest but blind enthusiasm of the public, which never stops to compare causes and effects, much less to analyze motives and measures. This officer’s genius, education, military observation, and peculiar talents for war, qualified him to fill with éclat the most distinguished subordinate stations in command; but his disposition and habits were adverse to the preservation of public confidence, or the conciliation of personal feuds and discords; he would therefore soon have been displaced; successor upon successor would have followed him, and the calamities of the country would have kept pace with its impatience and caprice; yet, although the avowal may be more honest than discreet, I owe it to truth to declare, that after the Declaration of Independence, I could never subscribe to the sentiment, that the cause of the country depended on the life or services of any individual. I always considered it impolitic to place our dependence on an ordinary casualty, and I rejected the humiliating idea, because it concentred in one man the credit which belonged to the whole nation; not that the command could have been placed in safer or better hands than those of the immortalized Washington, but because other men would have been found, and General Greene in particular, to supply his place with effect, and more especially, because the severance of the British empire had been written in the book of fate, and the destiny of the North American colonies was protected by Him who governs the universe.

General Lee wasted the morning in altercation with certain militia corps who were of his command, particularly the Connecticut light-horse, several of whom appeared in large full-bottomed perukes, and were treated very irreverently; the call of the adjutant-general for orders, also occupied some of his time, and we did not sit down to breakfast before ten o’clock. General Lee was engaged in answering General Gates’s letter, and I had risen from the table, and was looking out of an end window, down a lane about one hundred yards in length, which led to the house from the main road, when I discovered a party of British dragoons turn a corner of the avenue at a full charge. Startled at this unexpected spectacle, I exclaimed, “Here, sir, are the British cavalry.” “Where?” replied the General, who had signed his letter in the instant. “Around the house;” for they had opened files, and encompassed the building. General Lee appeared alarmed, yet collected, and his second observation marked his self-possession: “Where is the guard?—damn the guard, why don’t they fire?” And after a momentary pause, he turned to me and said, “Do, sir, see what has become of the guard.” The women of the house at this moment entered the room, and proposed to him to conceal himself in a bed, which he rejected with evident disgust. I caught up my pistols, which lay on the table, thrust the letter he had been writing into my pocket, and passed into a room at the opposite end of the house, where I had seen the guard in the morning. Here I discovered their arms; but the men were absent. I stepped out of the door, and perceived the dragoons chasing them in different directions, and receiving a very uncivil salutation, I returned into the house.

Too inexperienced immediately to penetrate the motives of this enterprise, I considered the rencontre accidental, and from the terrific tales spread over the country of the violence and barbarity of the enemy, I believed it to be a wanton murdering party, and determined not to die without company. I accordingly sought a position where I could not be approached by more than one person at a time, and with a pistol in each hand I awaited the expected search, resolved to shoot the first and the second person who might appear, and then to appeal to my sword. I did not remain long in this unpleasant situation, but was apprised of the object of the incursion by the very audible declaration, “If the General does not surrender in five minutes, I will set fire to the house,” which, after a short pause, was repeated with a solemn oath; and within two minutes I heard it proclaimed, “Here is the General, he has surrendered.” A general shout ensued, the trumpet sounded the assembly, and the unfortunate Lee, mounted on my horse, which stood ready at the door, was hurried off in triumph, bareheaded, in his slippers and blanket coat, his collar open, and his shirt very much soiled from several days’ use.

What a lesson of caution is to be derived from this event, and how important the admonition furnished by it. What an evidence of the caprice of fortune, of the fallibility of ambitious projects, and the inscrutable ways of Heaven. The capture of General Lee was felt as a public calamity; it cast a gloom over the country, and excited general sorrow. This sympathy was honorable to the people, and due to the stranger who had embarked his fortune with theirs, and determined to share their fate, under circumstances of more than common peril. Although this misfortune deprived the country of its most experienced chief, I have ever considered the deprivation a public blessing, ministered by the hand of Providence; for if General Lee had not abandoned caution for convenience, and taken quarters two miles from his army, on his exposed flank, he would have been safe; if a domestic traitor who passed his quarters the same morning on private business, had not casually fallen in with Colonel Harcourt, on a reconnoitring party, the General’s quarters would not have been discovered; if my visit, and the controversy with the Connecticut light-horse had not spun out the morning unseasonably, the General would have been at his camp; if Colonel Harcourt had arrived an hour sooner, he would have found the guard under arms, and would have been repulsed, or resisted until succor could have arrived; if he had arrived half an hour later, the General would have been with his corps; if the guard had paid ordinary attention to their duty and had not abandoned their arms, the General’s quarters would have been defended; or if he had obeyed the peremptory and reiterated orders of General Washington, he would have been beyond the reach of the enemy.—And shall we impute to blind chance such a chain of rare incidents? I conscientiously reply in the negative; because the combination was too intricate and perplexed for accidental causes, or the agency of man: it must have been designed.

General Lee merited severe punishment for his neglect of duty and disobedience of orders, and he received it from an unexpected hand. His offence was well understood by the army, and his misfortune was unpitied by those who reflected on the cause of it. It is a fact, he had very strong reasons for his neglect of General Washington’s reiterated commands; but although they were not such as to justify the violation of a fundamental military principle, yet I verily believe his motives were patriotic, though intimately connected with a sinister ambition; for I am persuaded that in the moment of his capture he meditated a stroke against the enemy, which, in its consequences, would have depressed General Washington, elevated himself, and immediately served the cause of the United States.