George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Charles Lee, 30 November 1776

From Major General Charles Lee

Peeks Kill [N.Y.] Novr the 30th 1776

Dr General

I receiv’d yours last night dated the 27th from Newark—You complain of my not being in motion sooner—I do assure you that I have done all in my power and shall explain my difficulties when We have both leisure—I did not succeed with Rogers and merely owing to the timidity or caution of the Enemy who contracted themselves into a compact body very suddenly—I am in hopes I shall be able to render you more service than had I mov’d sooner—I think I shall enter the Province of Jersey with four thoushand firm and willing Troops who will make a very important diversion—had I stirr’d sooner I shou’d have only led an inferior number of unwilling—the day after tomorrow We shall pass the River—when I shou’d be glad to receive your instructions but I cou’d wish you wou’d bind me as little as possible—not from any opinion, I do assure you, of my own parts—but from a perswasion that detach’d Generals cannot have too great latitude—unless They are very incompetent indeed—adieu My Dr Sir, Yours—most affectionately

Charles Lee

P.S. I have just been speaking with General Heath the strictness of whose instructions a good deal distress me—I cou’d have replac’d the few I require by Men who [are] able to do stitionary duty—but not to make expeditious marches—my numbers will in consequence be fewer than I promis’d.1

ALS, DLC:GW. The cover is addressed to “His Excelleny Genl Washington Elizabeth Town.”

1William Heath says in his memoirs that Charles Lee arrived at Peekskill this afternoon and in a private conversation over a cup of tea he told Heath: “In point of law, you are right; but in point of policy, I think you are wrong. I am going into the Jerseys for the salvation of America; I wish to take with me a larger force than I now have, and request you to order 2,000 of your men to march with me.” Heath “answered that he could not spare that number. He was then asked to order 1,000; to which he replied that the business might be as well brought to a point at once—that not a single man should march from the post by his order. Gen. Lee replied, that he would then order them himself. He was answered that there was a wide difference between the two; that Gen. Lee was acknowledged by our General [Heath] to be his senior; but, as he had received positive written instructions from him who was superior to both, he would not himself break those orders: If Gen. Lee was disposed to counteract them, its being done by him could not be imputed to any other person; and that he knew the Commander in Chief did not intend any of the troops should be removed from that post—having expressed it not only in his instructions, but also in a letter just received from him. On the letter being shewn to Gen. Lee, he observed, ‘The Commander in Chief is now at a distance, and does not know what is necessary here so well as I do’—asked if he might be favoured with the return-book of the division. Major [Ebenezer] Huntington, the Deputy Adjutant-General, was directed to hand it. Gen. Lee ran his eye over it, and said, ‘I will take Prescott’s and Wyllis’s regiments’—and turning to Major Huntington, said, ‘You will order those two regiments to march early to-morrow morning to join me.’ Our General [Heath], turning to the Major, said, ‘Issue such orders at your peril!’ and then turning to Gen. Lee, addressed him: ‘Sir, if you come to this post, and mean to issue orders here, which will break those positive ones which I have received, I pray you to do it completely yourself, and through your own Deputy Adjutant-General, who is present, and not draw me, or any of my family, in as partners in the guilt.’ Gen. Lee replied, ‘It is right. Col. Scammel [Alexander Scammell], do you issue the order;’ which he did, and Huntington communicated it to the regiments.” At Heath’s insistence Lee wrote a certificate stating that he was the commanding officer at Peekskill and had in that capacity ordered the two regiments to march.

“Early the next morning,” Heath says, “the regiments moved from their cantonment towards Peekskill; but before they had reached it, Gen. Lee, now ready to pass into the Jerseys, rode up to our General’s [Heath’s] door, and calling him, observed, ‘Upon further consideration, I have concluded not to take the two regiments with me—you may order them to return to their former post.’ This conduct of Gen. Lee’s appeared not a little extraordinary, and one is almost at a loss to account for it” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 105–7).

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