“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” – The American Crisis by Thomas Paine 1776
During those disheartening days of the colonial’s cause for independence, Thomas Paine would begin to pen his inspirational patriotic plea for staying the course in the midst of a full and hasty retreat from an enemy army that was determined to put an end to this fledgling insurrection. On November 20, 1776, in the wake of having taken control of both Long island and New York City, superior British forces, under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, began their advance on the newly established American fortification on the heights overlooking the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Realizing the need to preserve what was left of his beleaguered army, George Washington issued orders to abandon Fort Lee. The inevitable capture of this recently renamed redoubt (in honor of General Charles Lee, the army’s third-in-command who was credited with the successful defense of Charleston, South Carolina a few months earlier) would unfortunately yield an abundant amount of ammunition, artillery and stores to the English.
As for the fort’s namesake, Washington’s somewhat suspect and scheming subordinate, who had often complained to Congress about his commander’s capacity to lead, would fall victim to his own lust for libations and the ladies. On the morning of December 15, 1776, Charles Lee would pay dearly for the previous evening’s pleasures at the Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He would awake to the sound of the approaching horsemen of the 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons with his former comrade, and now sworn adversary, Benastre Tarleton in the lead. This once celebrated soldier, who preferred to diddle while the rest of the Continental Army was attempting to avoid annihilation, would be led back to New York in his night-clothes. For the next seventeen months, General Lee would spend a fairly comfortable detainment in the care of his former employer.
In May of 1778, Lee was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He returned to active service, but after questionable field decisions at the Battle of Monmouth, and continued conflicts with command; he was suspended from the army at the end of that same year, and permanently dismissed in 1780. Charles Lee died in a tavern in Philadelphia on October 2, 1782–and so ends this tale of eighteenth century disloyalty and treachery in the Garden State.
For better or for worse, the overall nature of man, and the behavior of those charged with the care of the republic has not changed all that much since we decided to make our break from the British brand of tyranny. However, there may have been at least some lessening in the lengths at which one is willing to go in order to punish their rivals. Instead of stalling aid to those trying to allude their captors while taking flight across the well-trodden pathways of New Jersey–someone is content to simply lengthen the commute home by closing down a few lanes on the George Washington Bridge. Let us just hope that we are sparred the spectacle of that particular scoundrel being spirited away in nothing more than his night-clothes.
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Posted by Chris Poh