Wielding the pen as well as the sword, Lee undertook to write on questions
of colonial policy, relative to Pontiac's war, in which he took the
opposition side. This lost him the favor of the ministry, and with it all
hope of further promotion.
He now determined to offer his services to Poland, supposed to be on the
verge of a war. Recommendations from his old commander, the Count de la
Lippe, procured him access to some of the continental courts. He was well
received by Frederick the Great, and had several conversations with him,
chiefly on American affairs. At Warsaw, his military reputation secured him
the favor of Poniatowsky, recently elected king of Poland, with the name of
Stanislaus Augustus, who admitted him to his table, and made him one of his
aides-de-camp. Lee was disappointed in his hope of active service. There
was agitation in the country, but the power of the king was not adequate to
raise forces sufficient for its suppression. He had few troops, and those
not trustworthy; and the town was full of the disaffected. "We have
frequent alarms," said Lee, "and the pleasure of sleeping every night with
our pistols on our pillows."
By way of relieving his restlessness, Lee, at the suggestion of the king,
set off to accompany the Polish ambassador to Constantinople. The latter
travelled too slow for him; so he dashed ahead when on the frontiers of
Turkey, with an escort of the grand seignior's treasure; came near
perishing with cold and hunger among the Bulgarian mountains, and after his
arrival at the Turkish capital, ran a risk of being buried under the ruins
of his house in an earthquake.
Late in the same year (1766), he was again in England, an applicant for
military appointment, bearing a letter from king Stanislaus to king George.
His meddling pen is supposed again to have marred his fortunes, having
indulged in sarcastic comments on the military character of General
Townshend and Lord George Sackville. "I am not at all surprised," said a
friend to him, "that you find the door shut against you by a person who has
such unbounded credit, as you have ever too freely indulged in a liberty of
declaiming, which many invidious persons have not failed to inform him of.
The principle on which you thus freely speak your mind, is honest and
patriotic, but not politic."
The disappointments which Lee met with during a residence of two years in
England, and a protracted attendance on people in power, rankled in his
bosom, and embittered his subsequent resentment against the king and his
In 1768, he was again on his way to Poland, with the design of performing a
campaign in the Russian service. "I flatter myself," said he, "that a
little more practice will make me a good soldier. If not, it will serve to
talk over my kitchen fire in my old age, which will soon come upon us all."
He now looked forward to spirited service. "I am to have a command of
Cossacks and Wallacks," writes he, "a kind of people I have a good opinion
of. I am determined not to serve in the line. One might as well be a
The friendship of king Stanislaus continued. "He treats me more like a
brother than a patron," said Lee. In 1769, the latter was raised to the
rank of major-general in the Polish army, and left Warsaw to join the
Russian force, which was crossing the Dniester and advancing into Moldavia.
He arrived in time to take part in a severe action between the Russians and
Turks, in which the Cossacks and hussars were terribly cut up by the
Turkish cavalry, in a ravine near the city of Chotzim. It was a long and
doubtful conflict, with various changes; but the rumored approach of the
grand vizier, with a hundred and seventy thousand men, compelled the
Russians to abandon the enterprise and recross the Dniester.
Lee never returned to Poland, though he ever retained a devoted attachment
to Stanislaus. He for some time led a restless life about Europe--visiting
Italy, Sicily, Malta, and the south of Spain; troubled with attacks of
rheumatism, gout, and the effects of a "Hungarian fever." He had become
more and more cynical and irascible, and had more than one "affair of
honor," in one of which he killed his antagonist. His splenetic feelings,
as well as his political sentiments, were occasionally vented in severe
attacks upon the ministry, full of irony and sarcasm. They appeared in the
public journals, and gained him such reputation, that even the papers of
Junius were by some attributed to him.
In the questions which had risen between England and her colonies, he had
strongly advocated the cause of the latter; and it was the feelings thus
excited, and the recollections, perhaps, of his early campaigns, that had
recently brought him to America. Here he had arrived in the latter part of
1773, had visited various parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia,
taking an active part in the political agitations of the country. His
caustic attacks upon the ministry; his conversational powers and his
poignant sallies, had gained him great reputation; but his military renown
rendered him especially interesting at the present juncture. A general, who
had served in the famous campaigns of Europe, commanded Cossacks, fought
with Turks, talked with Frederick the Great, and been aide-de-camp to the
king of Poland, was a prodigious acquisition to the patriot cause! On the
other hand, his visit to Boston was looked upon with uneasiness by the
British officers, who knew his adventurous character. It was surmised that
he was exciting a spirit of revolt, with a view to putting himself at its
head. These suspicions found their way into the London papers, and alarmed
the British cabinet. "Have an attention to his conduct," writes Lord
Dartmouth to Gage, "and take every legal method to prevent his effecting
any of those dangerous purposes he is said to have in view."
Lee, when subsequently informed of these suspicions, scoffed at them in a
letter to his friend, Edmund Burke, and declared that he had not the
"temerity and vanity" to aspire to the aims imputed to him.
"To think myself qualified for the most important charge that ever was
committed to mortal man," writes he, "is the last stage of presumption; nor
do I think the Americans would, or ought to confide in a man, let his
qualifications be ever so great, who has no property among them. It is
true, I most devoutly wish them success in the glorious struggle; that I
have expressed my wishes both in writing and _viva voce_, but my
errand to Boston was mere curiosity to see a people in so singular
circumstances; and I had likewise an ambition to be acquainted with some of
their leading men; with them only I associated during my stay in Boston.
Our ingenious gentlemen in the camp, therefore, very naturally concluded my
design was to put myself at their head."
To resume the course of events at Boston. Gage on the 1st of September,
before this popular agitation, had issued writs for an election of an
assembly to meet at Salem in October; seeing, however, the irritated state
of the public mind, he now countermanded the same by proclamation. The
people, disregarding the countermand, carried the election, and ninety of
the new members thus elected met at the appointed time. They waited a whole
day for the governor to attend, administer the oaths, and open the session;
but as he did not make his appearance, they voted themselves a provincial
Congress, and chose for president of it John Hancock,--a man of great
wealth, popular, and somewhat showy talents, and ardent patriotism; and
eminent from his social position.
This self-constituted body adjourned to Concord, about twenty miles from
Boston; quietly assumed supreme authority, and issued a remonstrance to the
governor, virtually calling him to account for his military operations in
fortifying Boston Neck, and collecting warlike stores about him, thereby
alarming the fears of the whole province, and menacing the lives and
property of the Bostonians.
General Gage, overlooking the irregularity of its organization, entered
into explanations with the Assembly, but failed to give satisfaction. As
winter approached, he found his situation more and more critical. Boston
was the only place in Massachusetts that now contained British forces, and
it had become the refuge of all the "_tories_" of the province; that
is to say, of all those devoted to the British government. There was
animosity between them and the principal inhabitants, among whom
revolutionary principles prevailed. The town itself, almost insulated by
nature, and surrounded by a hostile country, was like a place besieged.
The provincial Congress conducted its affairs with the order and system so
formidable to General Gage. Having adopted a plan for organizing the
militia, it had nominated general officers, two of whom, Artemas Ward and
Seth Pomeroy, had accepted.
The executive powers were vested in a committee of safety. This was to
determine when the services of the militia were necessary; was to call them
forth,--to nominate their officers to the Congress,--to commission them,
and direct the operations of the army. Another committee was appointed to
furnish supplies to the forces when called out; hence, named the Committee
Under such auspices, the militia went on arming and disciplining itself in
every direction. They associated themselves in large bodies, and engaged,
verbally or by writing, to assemble in arms at the shortest notice for the
common defence, subject to the orders of the committee of safety.
Arrangements had been made for keeping up an active correspondence between
different parts of the country, and spreading an alarm in case of any
threatening danger. Under the direction of the committees just mentioned,
large quantities of military stores had been collected and deposited at
Concord and Worcester.
This semi-belligerent state of affairs in Massachusetts produced a general
restlessness throughout the land. The weakhearted apprehended coming
troubles; the resolute prepared to brave them. Military measures, hitherto
confined to New England, extended to the middle and southern provinces, and
the roll of the drum resounded through the villages.
Virginia was among the first to buckle on its armor. It had long been a
custom among its inhabitants to form themselves into independent companies,
equipped at their own expense, having their own peculiar uniform, and
electing their own officers, though holding themselves subject to militia
law. They had hitherto been self-disciplined; but now they continually
resorted to Washington for instruction and advice; considering him the
highest authority on military affairs. He was frequently called from home,
therefore, in the course of the winter and spring, to different parts of
the country to review independent companies; all of which were anxious to
put themselves under his command as field-officer.
Mount Vernon, therefore, again assumed a military tone as in former days,
when he took his first lessons there in the art of war. He had his old
campaigning associates with him occasionally, Dr. Craik and Captain Hugh
Mercer, to talk of past scenes and discuss the possibility of future
service. Mercer was already bestirring himself in disciplining the militia
about Fredericksburg, where he resided.
Two occasional and important guests at Mount Vernon, in this momentous
crisis, were General Charles Lee, of whom we have just spoken, and Major
Horatio Gates. As the latter is destined to occupy an important page in
this memoir, we will give a few particulars concerning him. He was an
Englishman by birth, the son of a captain in the British army. Horace
Walpole, whose Christian name he bore, speaks of him in one of his letters
as his godson, though some have insinuated that he stood in filial
relationship of a less sanctified character. He had received a liberal
education, and, when but twenty-one years of age, had served as a volunteer
under General Edward Cornwallis, Governor of Halifax. He was afterwards
captain of a New York independent company, with which, it may be
remembered, he marched in the campaign of Braddock, in which he was
severely wounded. For two or three subsequent years he was with his company
in the western part of the province of New York, receiving the appointment
of brigade major. He accompanied General Monckton as aide-de-camp to the
West Indies, and gained credit at the capture of Martinico. Being
despatched to London with tidings of the victory, he was rewarded by the
appointment of major to a regiment of foot; and afterwards, as a special
mark of royal favor, a majority in the Royal Americans. His promotion did
not equal his expectations and fancied deserts. He was married, and wanted
something more lucrative; so he sold out on half-pay and became an
applicant for some profitable post under government, which he hoped to
obtain through the influence of General Monckton and some friends in the
aristocracy. Thus several years were passed, partly with his family in
retirement, partly in London, paying court to patrons and men in power,
until, finding there was no likelihood of success, and having sold his
commission and half-pay, he emigrated to Virginia in 1772, a disappointed
man; purchased an estate in Berkeley County, beyond the Blue Ridge;
espoused the popular cause, and renewed his old campaigning acquaintance
He was now about forty-six years of age, of a florid complexion and goodly
presence, though a little inclined to corpulency; social, insinuating, and
somewhat specious in his manners, with a strong degree of self-approbation.
A long course of solicitation; haunting public offices and antechambers,
and "knocking about town," had taught him, it was said, how to wheedle and
flatter, and accommodate himself to the humors of others, so as to be the
boon companion of gentlemen, and "hail fellow well met" with the vulgar.
Lee, who was an old friend and former associate in arms, had recently been
induced by him to purchase an estate in his neighborhood in Berkeley
County, with a view to making it his abode, having a moderate competency, a
claim to land on the Ohio, and the half-pay of a British colonel. Both of
these officers, disappointed in the British service, looked forward
probably to greater success in the patriot cause.
Lee had been at Philadelphia since his visit to Boston, and had made
himself acquainted with the leading members of Congress during the session.
He was evidently cultivating an intimacy with every one likely to have
influence in the approaching struggle.
To Washington, the visits of these gentlemen were extremely welcome at this
juncture, from their military knowledge and experience, especially as much
of it had been acquired in America, in the same kind of warfare, if not the
very same campaigns in which he himself had mingled. Both were interested
in the popular cause. Lee was full of plans for the organization and
disciplining of the militia, and occasionally accompanied Washington in his
attendance on provincial reviews. He was subsequently very efficient at
Annapolis in promoting and superintending the organization of the Maryland
It is doubtful whether the visits of Lee were as interesting to Mrs.
Washington as to the general. He was whimsical, eccentric, and at times
almost rude; negligent also, and slovenly in person and attire; for though
he had occasionally associated with kings and princes, he had also
campaigned with Mohawks and Cossacks, and seems to have relished their
"good breeding." What was still more annoying in a well regulated mansion,
he was always followed by a legion of dogs, which shared his affections
with his horses, and took their seats by him when at table. "I must have
some object to embrace," said he misanthropically. "When I can be convinced
that men are as worthy objects as dogs, I shall transfer my benevolence,
and become as staunch a philanthropist as the canting Addison affected to
be." [Footnote: Lee to Adams. Life and Works of Adams, ii., 414.]