Maj. General Charles Lee accompanied General George Washington to Boston in July 1775. His joining the Patriot cause had been considered quite an asset by the colonial rebels. Of all the former British officers who joined the Continental Army, Lee was considered the most accomplished and experienced. Serving during the Siege of Boston, he was found to be dirty and obscene, but tolerated because of his military reputation. It was Lee and not Washington who the British targeted as their greatest strategic enemy. Many considered him superior to Washington and a Commander-in-Chief in waiting.
In January 1776, Lee was detached to Connecticut to raise volunteers for the defense of New York City, where he arrived on February 4, 1776 after a bout with the gout. Then on February 17, 1776, He was chosen to replace Maj. General Philip Schuyler as Commander of the Northern Department. Then the Continental Congress decided to form a Canadian Department and selected Lee as the first commander. However, he never served in that capacity, because on March 1, 1776, he was chosen to be first commander of the newly formed Southern Department.
On June 2, 1776, Maj. General Lee arrived in Charleston, South Carolina with orders to fortify the city against British attack. Charleston was considered an important strategic position, because it was the largest port city south of New York City and considered the gateway to control of the Southern Colonies. Only two days after his arrival, a British force under the command of Maj. General Henry Clinton and Commodore Peter Parker arrived offshore.
Lee quickly undertook fortifying the city, while keeping up a steady stream of communication with Colonel William Moultrie who commanded Fort Sullivan on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor. Lee exhorted Moultrie to abandon the old fort built of Palmetto logs and retreat to the city, because Lee expected the majority of fighting to take place in the city proper. However, Moultrie insisted on holding the fort and on June 28, 1776, Moultrie and his men including Captain Francis Marion and Lt. Colonel Thomas Sumter brilliantly held off the British naval force and the British retired without ever reaching the city. Lee and Moultrie received commendations on July 20, 1776 from the Continental Congress for their actions in the victory.
In September 1776, Lee was recalled north to serve in the main army with Washington in New York and New Jersey, arriving in Philadelphia on October 7, 1776. As soon as he arrived, Congress gave him an advance of $30,000 to complete the purchase of his Virginia estate. He joined Washington in time for the Battle of White Plains on October 28, 1776. Following the battle Washington left him at Peekskill in command of a detachment that included some of the best troops. When Washington recalled him to reinforce the main army, he reacted in such a way as to arouse suspicion that he hoped for Washington to be defeated so that he would supplant him as Commander-in-Chief.
Lee finally got underway and began leading his detachment through New Jersey to join up with General Washington. On December 12, 1776, he camped several miles south of Morristown, New Jersey. For some unknown reason, Lee quartered himself with a guard of fifteen men and four other officers two or three miles from the main body of his force at a tavern. The same evening British Lt. General Charles Cornwallis had dispatched a patrol led by Lt. Colonel William Harcourt.
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