The Lee-Laurens Duel (Hamilton 29)

Months ago, I found John Laurens’s letter to Hamilton about General Charles Lee’s “infamous publication,” and Hamilton’s account of the Lee-Laurens duel. But  it took me weeks to find the “strong words from Lee” that provoked the duel. When I did find it, the insult was so subtle that I missed it on first reading.

General Lee’s situation

Let’s rewind a bit. From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Charles Lee was disgruntled: he felt his years of military experience made him a much more suitable commander-in-chief than George Washington. For Lee’s earlier comments on Washington, see Hamilton Musical post 22 and post 23. Court-martialed in July and August 1778 for his actions at the Battle of Monmouth (see post 24), Lee was found guilty of disobeying orders, allowing a disorderly retreat, and disrespecting his commander-in-chief. He was suspended from duty for twelve months.

General Charles Lee, from a contemporary engraving
General Charles Lee, from a contemporary engraving

Lee complained of his treatment to Aaron Burr in October 1778 (see Hamilton Musical post 26). By that time, Lee was in Philadelphia, petitioning the Continental Congress to review his case. Here’s an excerpt from a draft of one of his letters to Congress, dated 10/30/1778. (This and most of the documents cited below were printed in 1873 in Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1873, Publication Fund Series vol. 6, 1874 – cited below as “NYHS Publication Fund Series 6.”)

When it is consider’d I hold a high rank in the service of one of the most respectable Princes of Europe; that I have been honour’d with the trust of the second command in your Army; that I have hitherto serv’d with some reputation as a soldier – that I now stand charg’d, and have actually been try’d for some of the most heinous military crimes; and to the astonishment not only of myself, but I can venture to say of every man in the Army who was present at this Court, and of every Man out of the Army who has read the proceedings, found guilty of these crimes – when at the same time I am myself inflexibly perswaded that I am not only guiltless, but that the Success of the 28th of June ought principally in justice to be ascrib’d to me … (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, p. 244)

Lee vs. Steuben

Having just finished Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, I read Lee’s correspondence with an eye to the sort of comments that might provoke a challenge. Baron Steuben, like Charles Lee, was a career military man with extensive experience in European wars before he joined the Continental Army. In the early months of 1778, he was in charge of drilling Washington’s troops at Valley Forge – an important step in transforming a rag-tag volunteer army into a professional army capable of fighting well-trained British soldiers. One awestruck American said Steuben looked like “the ancient fabled God of War … The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.” (Quoted in Chernow’s Washington: A Life)

Ralph Earl, Baron Steuben, ca. 1786. Image: Wikipedia
Ralph Earl, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, ca. 1786. Image: Wikipedia

Baron Steuben learned that during Lee’s court martial, Lee had said that Steuben

has certainly shown a very laudable zeal for bringing a criminal officer to condign punishment; but the next time he takes the field of prosecution in the case of an injured community, I hope his prudence will dictate to him the necessity of being furnished with a better apparatus. (Lee Court Martial, p. 232)

You and  I might have to read this twice to understand that Lee is making a criticism – never mind voicing an insult so severe that the man in question would want to meet Lee and shoot at him. Steuben found Lee’s comment grossly insulting, and in a letter of 12/2/1778 called Lee out:

Sir! It has come to my attention that at your court martial, you allowed yourself some indiscreet comments about me …. You have offended me – I demand an explanation. You will choose the place, time, and weapons, but since I do not like to draw these things out, I demand to see you as soon and as nearby as possible. (Whole letter in NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, pp. 253-4; my translation)

Alexander Hamilton wrote soon afterwards to Baron Steuben:

I have read your letter to Lee, with pleasure — it was conceived in terms, which the offence merited, and if he had had any feeling must have been felt by him. Considering the pointedness and severity of your expressions, his answer [NOTE: Lee’s reply doesn’t seem to have survived] was certainly a very modest one and proved that he had not a violent appetite, for so close a tete a tete as you seemed disposed to insist upon. His evasions, if known to the world, would do him very little honor. (Letter of 12/19/1778, NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, p. 254)

Lee’s “Vindication”

Meanwhile, on 12/3/1778, the day after Baron Steuben wrote his letter to Lee, Lee’s “Vindication to the Public” was published in The Pennsylvania Packet or The General Advertiser. Here are the most offensive passages. Don’t blink.

There is but one supposition, and indeed only one (and that, for the General’s honour, is too monstrous to be admitted), that would render me criminal; it is, that he had positively commanded me, that after the attack commenced, whatever were my circumstances or whatever were my numbers, from thence I should not, from any consideration, recede an inch. Now, if such I had conceived to have been his intention, so great is my opinion of the valour, zeal, and obedience of the troops, and so well I think I know myself, that I do really believe we should all have perished on the first spot ; but I never had, (it was almost impossible that I should have) an idea that such was his plan ; and it is evident that it was not; consequently, in seeking a better position in our rear, I could be guilty of no disobedience. …

[W]ere the transactions of that day to pass over again, there is no one step I took which I would not again take. There is no one thing I did which does not demonstrate that I conducted myself as an obedient, prudent, and, let me add, spirited officer; and I do from my soul sincerely wish, that a court of inquiry, composed of the ablest soldiers in the world, were to sit in judgment, and enjoined to canvass with the utmost rigor every circumstance of my conduct on this day, and on their decision my reputation or infamy to be for ever established. There is, however, I confess, the strongest reason to believe (but for this omission I am no Ways responsible) that, had a proper knowledge of the theatre of action been obtained, as it might, and ought to have been, its nature and different situations, with their references studied, and, in consequence, a general plan of action wisely concerted and digested, a most important, perhaps a decisive blow might have been struck, but not by adopting any one measure that any one of my censurers has been fortunate enough to think of. …

Lee summarizes the heroic behavior of American soldiers ever since Bunker Hill – when they were not under the command of Washington. Then he continues:

With respect to the transactions on Long and York Islands, I must be silent, as I am ignorant of them; but, from some observations after I joined the army, I have reason to think the fault could not have been in the men, or in the common bulk of officers. Even the unhappy business of Fort Washington, which was attended with such abominable consequences, and which brought the affairs of America to the brink of ruin, (when the circumstances are well considered) did honour to the officers and men, devoted to the defence of this worthless and ridiculous favourite. (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, p. 262-3)

And summing up:

Upon the whole, I am warranted to say, what I always thought, that no disgrace or calamity has fallen on the arms of America through the whole course of the war, but what must be attributed to some other cause than to the want of valour, of disposition to obedience, or to any other military defect in the men, or the general mass of their officers in their different ranks; and I solemnly declare, that was it at my choice to select from all the nations of the earth to form an excellent and perfect army, I would, without hesitation, give the preference to the Americans. By publishing this opinion, I cannot incur the suspicion of paying my court to their vanity, as it is notoriously the language I have ever held. … (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, pp. 263-4)

If you read the whole the “Vindication,” you’ll find not a single direct, quotable attack on Washington. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough not to meet a person who deals in this sort of oblique insult swaddled in compliments. Lee’s contemporaries had no doubt about what he meant.

Miniature of John Laurens by Charles Wilson Peale
Miniature of John Laurens by Charles Wilson Peale

Laurens and Hamilton on Lee

Two days after Lee’s “Vindication” appeared (on 12/5/1778), John Laurens wrote to Hamilton, appealing to him as a writer rather than a fellow soldier:

My Dear Hamilton:

You have seen, and by this time considered, General Lee’s infamous publication.1 I have collected some hints for an answer; but I do not think, either that I can rely upon my own knowledge of facts and style to answer him fully, or that it would be prudent to undertake it without counsel. An affair of this kind ought to be passed over in total silence, or answered in a masterly manner. … The pen of Junius is in your hand; and I think you will, without difficulty, expose, in his defence, letters, and last production, such a tissue of falsehood and inconsistency, as will satisfy the world, and put him for ever to silence. … (Full letter here)

Laurens, Hamilton, and other members of Washington’s staff weren’t the only ones disgusted by Lee’s comments. General John Cadwalader wrote to General Nathanael Greene from Philadelphia on the same date, 12/5/1778:

Gen. Lee’s tryal has been the subject of Conversation in all Companies for some time — Congress, I am told, have confirmed the sentence — three to one — I do not suppose he will ever serve again in our Army — I think it would have [been ] better if he never had … (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, p. 270)

Washington on Lee

On 12/12/1778, General Washington wrote to Joseph Reed, the newly elected president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (= governor). It’s a fascinating letter because 1) Washington doesn’t often put into writing his complaints about what others say of him and 2) Joseph Reed had once been Washington’s trusted aide and adjutant general. In November 1776 Washington broke with Reed after accidentally opening a letter addressed to Reed from Charles Lee (“I … lament with you that fatal indecision of mind …”: see Hamilton Musical, 22). The part of Washington’s 12/12/1778 letter related to Lee is this:

General Lee’s publication in Dunlap’s Gazette of the 3d inst., (and I have seen no other,) puts me in a disagreeable situation. I have neither leisure nor inclination to enter the lists with him in a news paper: and so far as his production points to personality, I can and do from my inmost soul despise it but when he has most barefacedly misrepresented facts in some places, and thrown out insinuations in others that have not the smallest foundation in truth, not to attempt a refutation is a tacit acknowledgment of the justice of his assertions; for though there are thousands who know how unsupported his piece is, there are yet tens of thousands that know nothing of the matter, and will be led naturally to conclude that bold and confident assertions, uncontradicted, must be founded in truth.

It became a part of General Lee’s plan, from the moment of his arrest, (though it was an event solicited by himself,) to have the world believe that he was a persecuted man, and that party was at the bottom of it. But however convenient for his purpose to establish this doctrine, I defy him or his most zealous partisans to adduce a simple instance in proof of it, unless bringing him to trial at his own request is considered in this light. I can do more; I will defy any man out of my own family [i.e., on my staff] to say that I have ever mentioned his name after his trial commenced, if it was to be avoided: and, when it was not, if I have not studiously declined expressing any sentiment of him or his behaviour. How far this conduct accords with his, let his own breast decide. If he conceives that I was opposed to him because he found himself disposed to enter into a party against me — if he thought I stood in his road to preferment, and therefore that it was convenient to lessen me in the esteem of my countrymen, in order to pave the way for his own advancement — I have only to observe, that as I never entertained any jealousy of. or apprehension from him, so neither did I do more, than common civility and a proper respect to his rank required, to conciliate his good opinion. His temper and plans were too versatile and violent to attract my admiration: and that I have escaped the venom of his tongue and pen so long, is more to be wondered at than applauded; as it is a favour, that no officer under whose immediate commands he ever served has the happiness, (if happiness can be thus denominated) of boasting. (Whole letter in Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed  II, 41-43)

Well said, George; and Joe, I hope you feel very uncomfortable about your former dealings with Chuck. (I’m feeling severely uncharitable toward Joseph Reed because of what I read of his doings in Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, Chapters 3 & 9.)

Lee vs. Laurens

John Laurens issued a challenge to Lee (we don’t have it), to which Lee responded on 12/22/1778:

I am extremely sorry that the nature of my busyness should have laid an embargo on me so long — but as I now begin to apprehend from the delay of Congress that the ultimate determinations of my transactions with that Body will not require less than a month which is too tedious to think of I will do myself the Honour of meeting you attended by a Friend with a brace of pistols to-morrow [at] past 3. p. m. I would willingly bring a small sword at the same time, but from the effects of my fall and the quantity of Physick I have taken to baffle a fit of the Gout which I apprehended I do not think myself sufficiently strong on my legs — there is on the point and no point road, to the left hand a little on the Philad. side of the four mile stone a very convenient piece of wood, where unless it should rain I will do myself the honour of meeting you. In the meantime I am Sir, Your most Obedt. Servt. C. L. (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, p. 283)

So essentially, Lee says: I will of course meet you to defend my honor, but if you beat me it’s because I was already in such poor health that I could barely stand.

Laurens and Lee dueled the day after Lee sent that letter, on 12/23/1778. The seconds – Alexander Hamilton and Major Evan Edwards – wrote up an account that I find more chilling than anything in Freeman’s Affairs of Honor or all those books I read for the Ten Duel Commandments posts (post 27 and post 28). Because their attitude seems so utterly foreign, and because that attitude is so important in Act II, I’m including the whole letter. As always, you can skip to the red highlights if you’re in a rush.

Narrative of an Affair of Honor between General Lee and Col Laurens

General Lee attended by Major Edwards and Col Laurens attended by Col Hamilton met agreeable to appointment on Wednesday afternoon half past three in a wood situate near the four mile stone on the Point no point road. Pistols having been the weapons previously fixed upon, and the combatants being provided with a brace each, it was asked in what manner they were to proceed. General Lee proposed, to advance upon one another and each fire at what time and distance he thought proper. Col Laurens expressed his preference of this mode, and agreed to the proposal accordingly.

They approached each other within about five or six paces and exchanged a shot almost at the same moment. As Col Laurens was preparing for a second discharge, General Lee declared himself wounded. Col Laurens, as if apprehending the wound to be more serious than it proved advanced towards the general to offer his support. The same was done by Col Hamilton and Major Edwards under a similar apprehension. General Lee then said the wound was inconsiderable, less than he had imagined at the first stroke of the Ball, and proposed to fire a second time. This was warmly opposed both by Col Hamilton and Major Edwards, who declared it to be their opinion, that the affair should terminate as it then stood. But General Lee repeated his desire, that there should be a second discharge and Col Laurens agreed to the proposal. Col Hamilton observed, that unless the General was influenced by motives of personal enmity, he did not think the affair ought to be persued any further; but as General Lee seemed to persist in desiring it, he was too tender of his friend’s honor to persist in opposing it. The combat was then going to be renewed; but Major Edwards again declaring his opinion, that the affair ought to end where it was, General Lee then expressed his confidence in the honor of the Gentlemen concerned as seconds, and said he should be willing to comply with whatever they should cooly and deliberately determine. Col. Laurens consented to the same.

Col Hamilton and Major Edwards withdrew and conversing awhile on the subject, still concurred fully in opinion that for the most cogent reasons, the affair should terminate as it was then circumstanced. This decision was communicated to the parties and agreed to by them, upon which they immediately returned to Town; General Lee slightly wounded in the right side.

During the interview a conversation to the following purport past between General Lee and Col Laurens—On Col Hamilton’s intimating the idea of personal enmity, as beforementioned, General Lee declared he had none, and had only met Col. Laurens to defend his own honor—that Mr. Laurens best knew whether there was any on his part. Col Laurens replied, that General Lee was acquainted with the motives, that had brought him there, which were that he had been informed from what he thought good authority, that General Lee had spoken of General Washington in the grossest and most opprobrious terms of personal abuse, which He Col Laurens thought himself bound to resent, as well on account of the relation he bore to General Washington as from motives of personal friendship, and respect for his character. General Lee acknowleged that he had given his opinion against General Washingtons military character to his particular friends and might perhaps do it again. He said every man had a right to give his sentiments freely of military characters, and that he did not think himself personally accountable to Col Laurens for what he had done in that respect. But said he never had spoken of General Washington in the terms mentioned, which he could not have done; as well because he had always esteemed General Washington as a man, as because such abuse would be incompatible with the character, he would ever wish to sustain as a Gentleman.

Upon the whole we think it a piece of justice to the two Gentlemen to declare, that after they met their conduct was strongly marked with all the politeness generosity coolness and firmness, that ought to characterise a transaction of this nature. (Letter here)

Colonel Robert Troup, who was aide-de-camp to Major General Horatio Gates before being named Congress’s secretary of the Board of War, wrote to Gates on 1/3/1779:

Congress have confirmed the sentence of the Court Martial against General Lee, &  he is suspended for a Twelvemonth. He has lately published a Piece in the Philadelphia paper which Col. Malcom had read, & pronounces extremely severe. His satyr is pointed particularly at General Washington & Family. I suppose this Piece occasioned the Duel which was fought the other Day by Gen1. Lee & Col. Laurens, the A D Camp, in Philadelphia. My Albany acquaintance says General Lee was slightly wounded in the Body, and intends to have another Pop [“another pop”?!?!] as soon as he recovers. (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, pp. 289-90)

Lee vs. Scourge

The repercussions of Lee’s “Vindication” continued to rumble on for some time. On 12/31/1778, The New Jersey Gazette published a letter from a Virginian who signed himself “Scourge,” which attacked Lee: “This man is by profession what is called a Mercenary soldier, that is, a man who is altogether void of principle, who never consults conscience, but is ever guided by interest in his pursuits, and changes sides for one more farthing more added to his pay. It is difficult to ascribe any other motive of conduct to our hero than avarice.”  [NOTE: Lee had worked for hire for the sovereigns of Portugal and Poland, as well as Britain, before he joined the Continental Army.] In the New Jersey Gazette, the cover letter to the Scourge’s piece ran:

The attempt of a certain General Officer lately condemned by a Court Martial for his malconduct, to raise a party in his favor, by calling in question the abilities not only of our illustrious Commander in chief, but that of all our General Officers — has justly raised the indignation of every honest man — His publications are an insult to America. It is a degree of vanity without a parallel, even to hope to raise himself into importance, by affecting to be a competitor for popularity with that great and good man. There is no more similarity between their characters than there is between virtue and vice — good and evil — And he may assure himself that before he can raise a party in America in his favor, he must first deprive the people of their senses, and teach them that light and darkness are synonymous terms. … (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, p. 297)

William_Livingston Wik
William Livingston, first governor of New Jersey (1776-1790). Image: Wikipedia

General Lee demanded that Governor William Livingston take action against the Gazette for publishing that letter. (We met Livingston some months back as father of Kitty, one of the women Hamilton flirted with in 1777; see Hamilton Musical, 18.) Livingston sent a tactful but repressive reply to Lee (1/16/1779):

I am honoured with your favour of the 13th and can assure you that of the merit or demerit of your conduct in the affair of Monmouth on the 28th of June, I have not to this day framed my opinion. I have so little leisure to attend to the military operations of America, and am so incompetent a judge of the qualifications necessary to constitute the character of a General that I make no judgment at all. But without admitting or denying that “you have made greater sacrifices in the cause of American freedom than any officer of our whole army without a single exception, & that it is not less certain that you have saved our whole army more than once from destruction” (the proofs of which are not in my possession [ZING!!!]) I can assure you that I heartily disapprove of all publications containing personal reflections on the character of any Gentleman, & especially on those of your rank in the American Army.

I should be extremely unhappy in having reason to believe, what is frequently & perhaps injuriously reported of you, that you endeavoured to lessen the estimation in which General Washington is held by the most virtuous Citizens of America; and which estimation, not Sir, from a blind attachment to men of high rank, nor from any self interested motive whatsoever, but from a full conviction of his great personal merit & public importance, I deem it my duty to my country, to use my utmost influence to support. I am With all due respect, Sir Your most humble Servt Wil : Livingston. (NYHS Publication Fund Series 6, pp. 294-7)

At his court martial in August 1778, Charles Lee was suspended from duty for 12 months. In January 1780 he was released from duty (i.e., fired from the army) and retired to his estate in the Shenandoah Valley, now West Virginia. On a visit to Philadelphia in late 1782, he caught a fever and died.

I think we can be done with Charles Lee now.

Cadwalader vs. Conway

In late 1777 and early 1778, Thomas Conway was one of the leaders in the attempt to remove Washington as commander-in-chief  (the “Conway Cabal”). In summer 1778, General John Cadwalader called Conway a coward for his behavior at the Battle of Germantown in October 1777. The two dueled near Philadelphia on 7/4/1778. Cadwalader’s shot smashed Conway’s cheek: a severe but not fatal wound. Cadwalader is reported to have said, “I’ve stopped the damned rascal’s tongue anyhow.” (Quoted in Thomas Fleming, Washington’s Secret War)


  • I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the pages on the Hamilton Musical: a fantastic resource. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American MusicalOther posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief BiographyBottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack. I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
Close Menu