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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

This was a high military position, – much higher, in fact, than he could ever have obtained in his own country, but it did not satisfy him. The position he wanted was that of commander in chief of the American army ; and he was surprised and angry that it was not offered to him, and that a man of his ability should be passed over, and that high place given to a person like George Washington, who knew but little of war, and had no idea whatever how the thing was done in Portugal, Poland, Russia, and Turkey, and who was, in fact, no more than a country gentleman.

All this showed that these Americans were fools, who did not understand their best interests. But as there was a good chance for a fight, and, in fact, a good many fights, and as a major-generalship was not to be sneered at, he accepted it, and resigned the commission which he held in the English army.

He was doubtless in earnest in his desire to assist the Americans to obtain their independence, for he was always in earnest when he was doing anything that he was inclined to do. But he did not propose to sacrifice his own interests to the cause he had undertaken; and as, by entering the American army, he risked the loss of his estate in England, he arranged with Congress for compensation for such loss.

But, although General Lee was now a very ardent American soldier, he could not forgive Mr. Washington for taking command above him. If that Virginia gentleman had had the courtesy and good sense which were generally attributed to him, he would have resigned the supreme command, and, modestly stepping aside, would have asked General Lee to accept it. At least, that was the opinion of General Charles Lee. As this high and mighty soldier was so unwilling to submit to the orders of incompetent people, he never liked to be under the direct command of Washington, and, if it were possible to do so, he managed to be concerned in operations not under the immediate eye of the commander in chief. In fact, he was very jealous indeed of Washington, and did not hesitate to express his opinion about him whenever he had a chance.

The American army was not very successful in Long Island, and there was a time when it fared very badly in New Jersey; and Lee was not slow to declare that these misfortunes were owing entirely to the ignorance of the man who was in command. Moreover, if there was any one who wanted to know if there was another man in the Colonies who could command the army better, and lead it more certainly and speedily to victory, General Lee was always ready to mention an experienced soldier who would be able to perform that duty most admirably.

If it had not been for this unfortunate and jealous disposition, Charles Lee – a very different man from "Light Horse Harry" Lee – would have been one of the most useful officers in the American army. But he had such a jealousy of Washington, and hoped so continually that something would happen which would give him the place then occupied by the Virginia country gentleman, that, although he was at heart an honest patriot, he allowed himself to do things which were not at all patriotic. He wanted to see the Americans successful in the country, but he did not want to see all that happen under the leadership of Washington; and if he could put an obstacle in the way of that incompetent person, he would do it, and be glad to see him stumble over it.

In the winter of 1776, when the American army was making its way across New Jersey, towards the Delaware River, with Cornwallis in pursuit, Washington was anxiously looking for the troops, under the command of General Lee, who bad been ordered to come to his assistance; and if ever assistance was needed, it was needed then. But Lee liked to do his own ordering, and, instead of hurrying to help Washington, he thought it would be a great deal better to do something on his own account; and so he endeavored to get into the rear of Cornwallis's army, thinking, that, if he should attack the enemy in that way, he might possibly win a startling victory, which would cover him with glory, and show how much better a soldier he was than that poor Washington who was retreating across the country, instead of boldly turning and showing fight

If Lee had been a true soldier, and had conscientiously obeyed the commands of his superior, he would have joined Washington and his army without delay, and a short time afterward would have had an opportunity of taking part in the battle of Trenton, in which the Virginia country gentleman defeated the British, and gained one of the most important victories of the war

Lee pressed slowly onward-ready to strike a great blow for himself, and unwilling to help anybody else strike a blow-until he came to Morristown; and, after staying there one night, he proceeded in the direction of Basking Ridge, a pretty village not far away. Lee left his army at Bernardsville, which was then known as Vealtown, and rode on to Basking Ridge, accompanied only by a small guard. There he took lodgings at an inn, and made himself comfortable. The next morning he did not go and put himself at the head of his army and move on, because there were various affairs which occupied his attention.

Several of his guard wished to speak to him, some of them being men from Connecticut, who appeared before him in full-bottomed wigs, showing plainly that they considered themselves people who were important enough to have their complaints attended to. One of them wanted his horse shod, another asked for some money on account of his pay, and a third had something to say about rations. But General Lee cut them all off very shortly with, "You want a great deal, but you have not mentioned what you want most. You want to go home, and I should be glad to let you go, for you are no good here." Then his adjutant general asked to see him; and he had a visit from a Major Wilkinson, who arrived that morning with a letter from General Gates.


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