George Lee: The Man Who Could Have Replaced George Washington in the Revolutionary War

George Lee: The Man Who Could Have Replaced George Washington in the Revolutionary War

And lost. 

Queries the great Sheldon Cooper : “How would the Civil War have gone differently if Lincoln had been a robot sent from the future?”

None can tell. Nor can we tell with any exactitude how the War of American Independence would have unfolded differently had George Washington been a robot on an errand from the future. (Assuming he wasn’t. He did have an otherworldly character to him.) But we can essay some critical analysis about how the revolution would have gone had the Patriots rejected Washington as commander-in-chief and embraced the alternative strategy put forward by Washington’s sometime comrade, sometime antagonist—Charles Lee.

To provoke our students in Newport, we sometimes liken Washington to Mao Zedong . The former was a model of republican virtue and the Father of His Country . The latter was an abusive father of Communist China who heaped up bodies of his countrymen like cordwood during his catastrophic Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution . Americans tend to bristle at the comparison.

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As a battlefield commander, though, Washington bore a striking resemblance to Mao. Both flirted with conventional battlefield strategies—and by all rights should have lost their armies, their lives, and their political causes. Both were humble enough to know how close they had come to cataclysm. And both fashioned strategies whereby the weak could flummox the strong, gain time to build up martial might, and ultimately outfight erstwhile stronger foes. Washington had his Redcoats to vanquish. Mao had his Chinese Nationalists and Imperial Japanese.

But if Washington arrived at his martial Maoism through trial and error on American battlegrounds, Lee was the real deal. He was Maoist by philosophy and temperament. (Or, since Lee was born long before China’s Great Helmsman, maybe Mao was Lee-ist. He was certainly no stranger to borrowing from the likes of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu to inform his treatises on military affairs .)

Charles Lee was a fascinating character . In a sense he was Washington’s alter-ego. Washington was a colonial militia officer who longed to fight decisive Clausewitzian engagements, cementing his standing as an equal of regular-army officers, and who failed abysmally in his early career at arms. A recent historian of the American Revolution depicts this Washington v1.0 as a “callow” officer who needlessly assaulted a French Army patrol on the western frontier in 1754—and thus touched off the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), known hereabouts as the French and Indian War. Winston Churchill famously dubbed the Seven Years’ War “the First World War.”

An Englishman, Lee subsequently served alongside Washington on the ill-starred Braddock expedition (1755), named for its fallen commander. Lee’s 44th Regiment of Foot , a regular British Army unit, was shot up badly in a firefight with the French at Fort Duquesne, near present-day Pittsburgh. It may be that Lee formed a dim opinion of Washington during that debacle—and that it poisoned his relations with the American commander-in-chief during the War of Independence. Defeat colors your views forevermore.

Lee replenished the 44th Foot’s numbers afterward, mainly by recruiting from among the American Indian populace of New York. (In the process he acquired a Mohawk name, “Boiling Water”—and a more apt moniker there never was. Like U.S. Navy admiral Ernest King two centuries later, he was “the most even-tempered person” in the service. “He was always in a rage.”) Lee developed an affinity for frontier warfare of the exceedingly unconventional sort practiced by the Indian nations. He was the regular redcoat soldier who inclined to frontier methods—and thereby took the opposite trajectory from George Washington.

Lee went on to take part in the conquest of New France, assaulting Montreal in 1760. He went home to the British Isles afterward. He served under “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne in a campaign on the Iberian Peninsula in 1762, and later served in Polish and Russian armies during civil strife in Poland. These experiences “profoundly affected him” according to historian John Shy , and left him with little experience at or taste for conventional warfare. Lee made himself into a soldier-intellectual—Shakespeare’s works constituted a particular favorite—and John Adams graciously allowed that Lee was the only officer better versed in the history and art of war than Adams himself. (By 1776 Washington himself was acclaiming Lee as “the first Officer in Military knowledge and experience” in the entire army, while also pronouncing him “fickle and violent . . . in his temper.”)

Which brings us up to the War of American Independence. Lee told off King George III, left royal service, and tendered his service to Congress in 1775. General Washington requested his appointment as third-in-command of the Continental Army that summer, and lawmakers duly granted his request. Lee commanded the northern Continental division, in Charlestown, during the siege of Boston. (Rhode Island’s General Nathanael Greene, later an expert in “hybrid” conventional/unconventional warfare in his own right, acted as one of Lee’s brigadiers at Charlestown. You have to wonder to what extent General Lee molded his views.)