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Stories of New Jersey
A Man Who Coveted Washington's Shoes
The Story of General Charles Lee. (Period, 1758-85.)

By Frank R. Stockton

Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

THE person whose story we are now about to tell was not a Jerseyman ; but, as most of the incidents which make him interesting to us occurred in this State, we will give him the benefit of a few years' residence here.

This was General Charles Lee, who might well have been called a soldier of fortune. He was born in England, but the British Isles were entirely too small to satisfy his wild ambitions and his roving disposition. There are few heroes of romance who have had such a wide and varied experience, and who have engaged in so many strange enterprises. He was a brave man and very able, but he had a fault which prevented him from being a high-class soldier; and that fault was, that he could not bear restraint, and was always restive under command of another, and, while always ready to tell other people what they ought to do, was never willing to be told what he ought to do.

He joined the British army when he was a young man; and he first came to this country in 1757, when General Abercrombie brought over an army to fight the French. For three years, Lee was engaged in the wilds and forests, doing battle with the Indians and the French, and no doubt he had all the adventures an ordinary person would desire. But this experience was far from satisfactory.

When he left America, he went to Portugal with another British army, and there he fought the Spanish with as much impetuosity as he had fought the French and Indians. Life was absolutely tasteless to Lee without very strong sprinkle of variety. Consequently he now tried fighting in an entirely different field, and went into politics. He became a Liberal, and with his voice fought the government for whom he had been previously fighting with his sword. But a few years of this satisfied him; and then he went to Poland, where he became a member of the king's staff, and as a Polish officer disported himself for two years.

It is very likely that in Turkey a high-spirited man would find more opportunities for lively adventure than even in Poland. At any rate, Charles Lee thought so; and to Turkey he went, and entered into the service of the Sultan. Here he distinguished himself in a company of Turks who were guarding a great treasure in its transportation from Moldavia to Constantinople. No doubt he wore a turban and baggy trousers, and carried a great scimiter, for a man of that sort is not likely to do things by halves when he does them at all.

Having had such peculiar experiences in various armies and various parts of the world, Lee thought himself qualified to occupy a position of rank in the British army, and, coming back to England, he endeavored to obtain military promotion. But the government there did not seem to think he had learned enough in Poland and Turkey to enable him to take precedence of English officers accustomed to command English troops, and it declined to put him above such officers, and to give him the place he desired. Lee was not a man of mild temper. He became very angry at the treatment he received, and, abandoning his native country again, he went to Russia, where the Czar gave him the command of a company of wild Cossacks. But he did not remain long with the Cossacks. Perhaps they were not wild and daring enough to suit his fancy, although there are very few fancies which would not be satisfied with the reckless and furious demeanor generally attributed to these savage horsemen.

He threw up his command and went to Hungary, and there he did some fighting in an entirely different fashion. Not having any opportunity to distinguish himself upon a battlefield, he engaged in a duel; and of course, as he was acting the part of a hero of romance, he killed his man.

Hungary was not a suitable residence for him after the duel, and he went back to England, and there he found the country in a state of excitement in regard to the American Colonies. Now, if there was anything that Lee liked, it was a state of excitement, and in the midst of this political hubbub he felt as much at home as if he had been charging the ranks of an enemy. Of course, he took part against the government, for, as far as we know, he had always been against it, and he became a violent supporter of the rights of the colonists.

He was so much in earnest in this matter, that in 1773 he came to America to see for himself how matters stood. When he got over here, he became more strongly in favor of the colonists than he had been at home, and everywhere proclaimed that the Americans were right in resisting the unjust taxation claims of Great Britain. As he had always been ready to lay aside his British birthright and become some sort of a foreigner, he now determined to become an American; and to show that he was in earnest, he went down to Virginia and bought a farm there.

Lee soon became acquainted with people in high places in American politics; and when the first Congress assembled, he was ready to talk with its members, urging them to stand up for their rights, and draw their swords and load their guns in defense of independence. It was quite natural, that, when the Revolution really began, a man who was so strongly in favor of the patriots, and had had so much militaryexperience in so many different lands, should be allowed to take part in the war, and Charles Lee was appointed major general.


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