George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Charles Lee, 5 April 1776

From Major General Charles Lee

Williamsburg April the 5th 1776

My Dr General

I most sincerely congratulate you, I congratulate the Public on the great and glorious event—your possession of Boston—it will be a most bright page in the annals of America, and a most abominable black one in those of the Beldam Britain—go on, My Dr General, crown yourself with glory and establish the liberties and lustre of your Country on a foundation more permanent than the Capitol Rock—my situation is just as I expected. I am afraid that I shall make a shabby figure without any real demerits of my own—I am like a Dog in a dancing school—I know not where to turn myself, where to fix myself—the circumstances of the Country intersected by navigable rivers, the uncertainty of the Enemy’s designs and motions who can fly in an instant to any spot They chuse with their canvass wings throw me, or wou’d throw Julius Cæsar into this inevitable dilemma—I may possibly be in the North, when as Richard says, I shou’d serve my Sovereign in the West—I can only act from surmise and have a very good chance of surmising wrong—I am sorry to grate your ears with a truth, but must at all events assure you, that the Provincial Congress of N. York are Angels of decision when compar’d with your Countrymen the Committee of Safety assembled at Williamsburg. Page, Lee, Mercer and Payne are indeed exceptions, but from Pendleton, Bland the Treasurer & Co.—libera nos Domine1—I shall not trouble you with a detail of the Army, ordinance stores, but compendiously say that the Regiments in general are very compleat in numbers, the Men (those that I have seen) fine—but a most horrid deficiency of Arms—no intrenching tools, no guns (âltho the Province is pretty well stockd) mo⟨mutilated⟩ service—had I only eight eighteen Pounders I wou’d immediately at all events take post on Crany Island, by which measure I shoud drive out the Enemy and exclude em from the finest and most advantageous Port in America2—I have order’d with this view the Artificers to work night and day—if I succeed I shall come in for a sprig of lawrels—this essenstial measure might have been effected long ago, but the same apathy and oblique squinting towards what the milk and water People call reconciliation; the prodigious flattering prospect open’d by the appointment of Commissioners were strong arguments against the expence of gun carriages and intrenching tools3—but this is not all They have distributed their Troops in so ingeneous a manner, as to render evry active offensive operation impossible—an equal number of their Battalions are station’d on the different necks—They say, very acutely, that as the expence is equal, the security ought to be equal4—I cannot help perswading myself that their object will be to take possession of Williamsburg—not only from it’s tempting advantageous situation commanding in great measure two fine rivers and a Country abundant in all the necessaries for an army; but the possession of the Capital woud give an air of dignity and decided superiority to their arms, which in this Slave Country where dominion is founded on opinion ⟨multilated⟩ a circumstance of the utmost importance—perhaps I may be mistaken—but the surmise is not irrational[.] I have calld three Regiments down the Country5—You will excuse, My Dr General, the blots and scratches of this letter—for the Post is just going out—by the next I will inform You of the steps We have taken for the security of this place—I have been desir’d to recommend Colonel Grayson as a Man of extraordinary merit He sets out soon to make application to the Congress for an establishment6—if We have, as We must, a Continental Hospital in the Southern department Dr McClurg I suppose will be the Man to direct it—I need not mention his qualifications—they are so well known7—I beg You will make some body write to me from time to time, indeed I think I may modestly insist on Mr Palfrey’s Pen being employ’d often in this service—adieu, Dr General, yours most respectfu⟨lly⟩ and sincerely

C. Lee


Charles Lee, who had recently been put in command of the southern department, arrived in Williamsburg on 29 Mar. and took up residence in the Governor’s Palace. Anticipating that British forces commanded by Gen. Henry Clinton intended to attack the town, Lee began to reorganize the colony’s defenses to repel a landing on the James or York rivers. Lee soon became convinced, however, that Charleston was probably Clinton’s objective, and on 13 May he left Williamsburg for South Carolina.

1Edmund Pendleton was president of the Virginia committee of safety, and John Page was its vice-president. Thomas Ludwell Lee, James Mercer, and Richard Bland were members of the committee. The treasurer of the colony was Robert Carter Nicholas. “Payne” has not been identified. Lee expressed a similar low opinion of the committee of safety in his letter to Richard Henry Lee of this date (Lee Papers description begins [Charles Lee]. The Lee Papers. 4 vols. New York, 1872-75. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7. description ends , 1:378–80), but he endeavored to treat the committee respectfully and avoid disputes during his stay in Virginia (see Lee to Pendleton, 8 April, 4 May, and Lee to Robert Morris, 3 May, ibid., 393–94, 467–69).

2Craney Island is at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, downstream from Tucker’s Point, where Lord Dunmore was encamped with a small force of Tory volunteers and British regulars.

3Lee is referring to the recent appointment of British peace commissioners.

4Lee here wrote and subsequently struck out: “but as I cannot help surmising for I must repeat that I can only act from surmise I have call’d three of their Battalions down the Country.”

5On 2 April Lee ordered the regiments commanded by colonels William Peachey and Hugh Mercer to march to Williamsburg from the Northern Neck (ibid., 369), but several days later he instructed Col. William Daingerfield to bring his regiment down in place of Mercer’s regiment (Lee to Mercer, 10 April 1776, ibid., 409).

6GW needed no introduction to William Grayson (c.1736–1790) with whom he had hunted foxes and discussed business on more than one occasion (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 2:110, 181, 228, 3:309). A lawyer from Dumfries, Va., Grayson became captain of the Prince William County Independent Company in November 1774 and subsequently was chosen colonel of the county’s battalion of minutemen which marched to Hampton in December 1775. “A false and scandalous report,” however, thwarted Grayson’s efforts to obtain a commission from two Virginia conventions (Grayson to John Pinkney, 28 Aug. 1775, in Scribner and Tarter, Revolutionary Virginia description begins William J. Van Schreeven et al., eds. Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence. A Documentary Record. 7 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1973–83. description ends , 4:50–51). GW appointed Grayson one of his aides-de-camp on 24 Aug. 1776 and the following January made him colonel of one of the sixteen additional Continental regiments. Grayson retired from the army in April 1779 and served as a member of the Continental Board of War from December 1779 to September 1781.

7James McClurg (c.1746–1823) was one of Virginia’s most eminent physicians, having studied medicine in Edinburgh, Paris, and London before returning home in 1773 to practice in Williamsburg. On 6 April 1776 McClurg appealed to Thomas Jefferson to use his influence in the Continental Congress to have him appointed physician to the Continental troops in Virginia, “an office that I desire Exceedingly” (Boyd, Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 1:286–87), but on 18 May Congress named William Rickman to that position, apparently at the instigation of another Virginia delegate, Benjamin Harrison (see William Fleming to Jefferson, 27 July 1776, ibid., 474–76). On 8 Jan. 1777 the Virginia council made McClurg physician and director general of a state military hospital, which he subsequently established at Hampton. McClurg left that post on 19 Jan. 1780, but a few weeks later the Virginia board of war appointed him a surgeon for the state navy. McClurg also served as a professor of anatomy and medicine at the College of William and Mary from 1779 to 1783.

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