The General Who Could Have Replaced George Washington
Charles Lee had a mind for guerrilla warfare
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. 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.
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, known hereabouts as the French and Indian War. Winston Churchill famously dubbed the Seven Years’ War “the First World War.”
Above — Charles Lee by Johann Michael Probst, between 1776-1790. Library of Congress archive. At top — an engraving of Lee, 19th century.
An Englishman, Lee subsequently served alongside Washington on the ill-starred Braddock expedition, 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.
Charles Lee entertained a different view of human nature than did the aristocratic George Washington, and from this view he derived a different alternative strategy. Both generals considered Continental Army officers suspect in the early going, but Washington disparaged rank-and-file Yankee soldiers as well.
Lee, by contrast, extolled the virtues of republican fighting men. European tactics involved maneuvering linear formations on the battlefield. This represented European generals’ way of concentrating fire from inaccurate musketry. The “military radical” Lee deemed free Americans unsuited to such regimented methods; these were methods suited to despotism.
Whereas Washington sought to create a professional European-style army, Lee thus wanted to recruit militiamen to prosecute frontier warfare. He envisioned deploying militia units to create zones of resistance, in the bargain denying General William Howe and other British ground commanders the fruits of victory they coveted.
Lee raised militia forces in Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1776 before crossing the Hudson River to join the fragments of Washington’s army in New Jersey. Redcoats took him captive that December—forestalling his efforts to sway the commander-in-chief to an unconventional strategy.
The bones of his alternative strategy were clear nevertheless, according to John Shy. Lee rejected linear maneuvers and open-field engagements, which played to the strengths of despotic European armies. Americans should refuse to fight the redcoats’ fight. He rejected the efforts of Baron von Steuben and other European advisers to train the Continental Army on the “European Plan.”
Free citizens, as Shy puts it, “could not be successfully hammered into goose-stepping automatons and made to fire by platoons, but properly trained and employed, they could not be defeated.”
Lee demanded instead that the Patriots exploit their advantage of terrain and geographic position. They needed to fight in keeping with Americans’ history and tradition of liberty.
Even as a group of colonies clustered along the Atlantic seaboard, the nascent United States enjoyed vast strategic depth relative to the numbers of redcoats available to pacify it. It diluted British combat strength by its very size — just as the broad Atlantic Ocean made it hard for London to dispatch reinforcements and warmaking materiel.
This made opportune ground to prosecute a free-range strategy. That being the case, Charles Lee foresaw waging a guerrilla war in the hinterland, drawing British forces into protracted, frontless, frustrating warfare they stood little chance of winning. If need be colonial forces should pull back behind the Susquehanna River, which meanders north-south from Maryland to New York, and employ the river as their defensive perimeter.
Would Lee’s strategy have worked better than the strategy actually pursued? Color me doubtful. To its framer’s credit, his design may well have worked on the operational level. Much like Mao’s appraisal of 1920s and 1930s China, Lee’s appraisal of colonial territory and resources revealed advantages of considerable moment — even while the Patriots remained the weaker antagonist by far.
Stretching out the war in a bid to outlast a Great Britain whose resolve and patience were far from infinite was a strategic concept boasting substantial merit.
But think about the downsides in the political, social and cultural dimensions.
Had it prevailed, the United States would have emerged a vastly different — and probably worse — place than the free republic that emerged from the cauldron of revolutionary war.
Like Mao, Lee was not one to shrink from using armed force to compel recalcitrant citizens to join the Patriot cause. It’s already possible to categorize the American Revolution as a low-grade civil war that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Lee’s methods may have amplified the tendency to civil strife.
One wonders whether Lee’s strategy would have left America as a precursor to Communist China — eviscerating its traditions of liberty and self-rule.
And indeed, George Washington broached just that objection. He saw Lee’s ideas as madness. As Shy sums up Washington’s critique of Lee’s strategy, the commander-in-chief couldn’t countenance a “war of guerrilla bands drawn from the militia.”
A “strategy of that kind would change the war for independence into a genuine civil war with all its grisly attendants — ambush, reprisal, counter-reprisal. It would tear the fabric of American life to pieces. It might even undermine the political process, and throw power to a junta.”
Just so. War unfolds in layers, and what makes sense on one layer — in this case the tactical and operational layer — may not make sense on the plane of strategy and politics.
Charles Lee was correct to push an alternative vision of combat against Britain, and his hybrid methods found their way into Nathanael Greene’s conduct of operations in the American South. For this let us acclaim the redoubtable Boiling Water. But as a political radical, Lee’s ideas should have — and did — give the founders pause. They rightly rebuffed his vision.
It makes little sense to forfeit a free nation for the sake of winning battles. Whether or not George Washington was a robot sent from the future, that’s the lesson from the debate over strategy for the War of American Independence.
This article originally appeared at The National Interest.