He went to school at Bury St. Edmunds and, later, in Switzerland.
In 1747 Lee was ensign in his father's regiment (De Fonblanque, post, pp. 159-60), and, on May 2, 1751, was commissioned lieutenant in the 44th Regiment. His baptism of fire occurred in 1755, when the 44th accompanied the Braddock expedition into western Pennsylvania. After the retreat from Fort Duquesne, Lee was sent to the Mohawk Valley, New York, where in 1756 he purchased a captaincy for £900. There he was adopted into a Mohawk tribe under an alleged Indian name, "Ounewaterika, " said to mean "boiling water". ("Lee Papers, " post, I, 4-5). Lee was with the 44th during Abercromby's disastrous attack on Fort Ticonderoga in July 1758. Badly wounded, he was transported back to Albany, and thence went to Long Island. Here he got into an altercation with a surgeon, whom he whipped and who afterward tried to assassinate him. Rejoining his regiment, when the tide began to turn in favor of the British, Lee was present at the capture of Fort Niagara from the French and with Amherst at the capture of Montreal, September 8, 1760.
In the winter of 1760-1761 he returned to England. Certain controversial pamphlets of this period are attributed to him, probably incorrectly (Sparks, post, ch. 1). On August 10, 1761, he was appointed major in the 103rd Regiment. The next year he accompanied the British expeditionary force to Portugal, where he became lieutenant-colonel and served brilliantly under Burgoyne in the campaign of Villa Velha (De Fonblanque, p. 50). Returning peace saw him once more in England, where the 103rd was disbanded and Lee put on half pay, in November 1763. About this time, seeing no future ahead in England, he considered a plan for establishing colonies in the Illinois country.
Instead of concerning himself with that project, however, he went to Poland, then under Stanislaus Poniatowski. He reached Warsaw in March 1765, and soon was on intimate terms with the pro-Russian king. Going on an embassy to Constantinople in 1766, he almost froze to death when he was snowbound in the Balkans, and he escaped with his life during the Constantinople earthquake of May 23, 1766.
By December he had returned to England; he had just been granted 20, 000 acres in Florida. In 1767 and 1768 he remained in England with no particular employment save playing the races and criticizing the government. Because of this latter activity, he has been identified as the author of the Letters of Junius, but this is a hardly tenable theory.
In 1769 a civil war broke out in Poland, precipitated by the Confederation of Bar against Stanislaus, and Lee rushed back to Warsaw to take sides with his friend. This time he was made "general and adjutant" ("Lee Papers, " I, 87) in the Polish service, that is, in the pro-Russian faction. He accompanied the Russian armies against Turkey in the campaign of the winter of 1769-70, fell ill, was invalided back to Hungary, and recuperated on the Mediterranean.
The summer of 1771 found him again in England, but the following winter he went to France. During all this time his writings were marked by a bitter hatred of the Tory party in England and a desire to be forever fighting for "liberty"--without any very clear idea of the meaning of the term.
He returned to America in 1773 and took up land in Berkeley County, Virginia (now W. Va. ), in 1775. To the pamphlet controversy preceding the American Revolution he contributed Strictures on a Pamphlet, entitled, "A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans" (1774), an attack upon the conciliatory efforts of Dr. Myles Cooper. When the war broke out between Great Britain and the colonies in 1775, he was almost violently on the patriot side. His military experience and capacity for self-advertisement helped him to insinuate himself into the councils of the Continental Congress, so that when, on June 22, 1775, he renounced his half pay in the British army, he had already (June 17, 1775) been appointed second major-general of the Continental Army. In accepting this appointment he insisted upon being compensated for whatever losses he might sustain through the confiscation of his English estates, as his new holdings in Berkeley County, Virginia, were not yet paid for.
In July he was at the American camp at Cambridge, Massachussets, and served during the siege of Boston. Early in 1776 he was ordered to New York to superintend the defense of that city, where he encountered some difficulty in dealing with the state officials, not yet accustomed to a federal authority. After ordering Lee to Canada, Congress countermanded the order, and, on March 1, 1776, sent him off to oppose the British in the South. He reached Williamsburg, Virginia, March 29, and remained there until May 12, organizing a cooperative effort by Virginia and North Carolina. On June 4 he reached Charleston, where Gov. John Rutledge put the South Carolina troops under his command ("Lee Papers, " II, 57). Col. William Moultrie was already at work upon the defenses of the city, particularly upon the fort on Sullivan's Island. Lee did not look with favor upon this post, and spent most of his time arranging for the retreat of Moultrie's force, when the British should attack it. The assault on Fort Moultrie finally took place on June 28, 1776, while Lee was at Heddrals Point. The British failed on both land and sea, but credit for the American victory clearly belongs to Moultrie, as Lee generously admitted in his dispatches.
The rest of the summer Lee spent supervising the defenses of South Carolina and Georgia. Upon the retirement of the British from the southern area in the late summer of 1776, Lee was ordered back to rejoin the main army. In Philadelphia, on his way north (October 7, 1776), he learned that Congress had generously advanced him $30, 000 to pay for his Virginia plantation. This flattery, and the exaggerated reputation for his success in the Carolinas, increased his tendency to criticize his superiors on all occasions. He reached Washington's headquarters before the battle of White Plains. After that battle, Lee's division was posted at Philipsburg, New York.
When it became apparent that the British general, Howe, intended to pursue Washington in his retreat across New Jersey, the latter sent Lee repeated and increasingly peremptory orders to join the main army. Lee was extremely dilatory in complying with these instructions, explaining that he preferred to hang on the flank of the British and harass them. This policy was consistent with his opinion that the Americans could not stand in a pitched battle against the British but that they could best them in guerrilla warfare. It is also consistent with the theory that Lee wished to play a lone hand and gain some brilliant individual success, the credit for which he would not have to share with the Commander-in-Chief.
On December 12 he reached Basking Ridge, New Jersey, whence he wrote his famous letter to Gates condemning Washington for the loss of Fort Washington and remarking "entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient" ("Lee Papers, " II, 348). His headquarters at Basking Ridge was four miles from his division, and only twenty miles from the British under Cornwallis. On the very next day, a detachment of Colonel Harcourt's British dragoons rushed his headquarters and took Lee prisoner in a manner most humiliating to him. He was taken to New York, where General Howe had orders from Germain to return him to England for trial as a deserter from the British army. Fortunately for the British, Howe understood that Lee had actually resigned his half pay in the British army before joining the Americans, and that therefore retaliation would ensue if the orders from London were obeyed (W. C. Ford, The Writings of George Washington, V, 1890, p. 168). Lee was kept for a year in close and exasperating confinement. After a winter's imprisonment, he apparently became so intimate with Howe that he drew up a document giving the British information as to how to defeat the Americans. At present it is not known for whom this was prepared, or to whom it was given. It never came to light until 1858, when it was found among the papers of Henry Strachey, who had been with the Howes in their effort to conciliate America in 1776-1777 (G. H. Moore, post, pp. 75 ff. ).
Historians have since drawn the conclusion that Lee was a traitor. The document is clearly in Lee's writing and is indorsed "Mr. Lee's Plan, 29th March 1777" (Ibid. , facsimile). At the same time Lee was sending insistent notes to Washington and to Congress requesting that a committee of Congress be sent to confer with him and the two Howes, with veiled hints that great things might be expected from such a conference. Congress and Washington wisely refused to accede to this suggestion. It is altogether possible that Lee, with his propensity for writing familiarly to his old friends in the British army, never saw this affair as treason. It is also possible that the "Plan" was a deliberate blind, intended to mislead Howe. It is, however, extremely difficult for the historian to deny that it was giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States.
In April 1778 Lee was exchanged, and in May went to York, Pennsylvania, where Congress was in session. Here he had the temerity to ask why he had not been promoted during his captivity, and to criticize the promotion of others in his absence ("Lee Papers, " II, 392). On May 20, 1778, he rejoined the army at Valley Forge, just as it was setting out on the Monmouth campaign. When Washington was determined to attack the British army, retreating from Philadelphia, the work of beginning that attack should, by seniority, have fallen to Lee. He declined on the ground that he did not believe the Americans could stand up against the British regulars. Lafayette was then given the honor of leading the attack, whereupon Lee reconsidered and demanded the privilege, which the Marquis surrendered with extreme generosity and courtesy. The ensuing circumstances brought to an end Lee's career as a successful soldier of fortune. Wayne began the attack at Monmouth, and to his horror saw Lee's main body begin to retreat behind him without warning. Wayne had to fall back and the retreat of the Americans speedily took on the semblance of a rout, when Washington came up with Greene, Steuben, and the rest of the army. What actually passed between the Commander-in-Chief and the retreating Lee will probably never be known. Washington stopped the retreat, reformed the army, threw Greene, Stirling, and Wayne into the battle, and fought the British to a standstill until nightfall, when they decamped into the darkness, heading for their boats and New York (Stryker, post).
Without waiting for Washington's reprimand for this apparently cowardly retreat, Lee addressed an insulting letter to the Commander-in-Chief, demanding an apology for the words spoken in the heat of battle. Washington curtly refused to apologize. Demanding a court of inquiry, Lee immediately got a court martial, which sat at Brunswick from July 4 to August 12, 1778. He was found guilty of disobedience of orders, misbehavior before the enemy, and disrespect to the Commander-in-Chief, and was then mildly sentenced to be suspended from the army for twelve months. He hung around the army until September, when he went to Philadelphia. Thence he wrote numerous quibbling letters to Congress, complaining of ill treatment. On December 3, 1778, he published his "Vindication" (Pennsylvania Packet, December 3, 1778; "Lee Papers, " III, 255-69), which was so abusive of Washington that Col. John Laurens challenged Lee to a duel and wounded him, so that he could not take up another challenge from Anthony Wayne.
By the following July Lee had retired to his estate in Virginia whence he wrote frequent and querulous letters to Congress, the newspapers, and all his friends. On January 10, 1780, in consequence of an insulting letter to Congress, he was finally dismissed from the army. After living on in Virginia for two years more, he went to Philadelphia where, on October 2, 1782, he died.
Lee is one of the most extraordinary and contradictory characters in American history. He had an exaggerated sense of his own ability and importance, and extraordinary luck in impressing them upon other people, until his capture by the British in 1776. His contemporaries agree that Rushbrooke's merciless caricature of him (G. H. Moore, post) gives a true idea of what he looked like. In anger he had little control over either his tongue or his pen. He so persistently interfered in matters which were not his business, by offering advice and criticism unasked, that one must marvel at the patience of his correspondents and particularly of his superiors. Men like John Adams and Benjamin Rush can rightly be blamed for encouraging his overweening ego. Yet British officers like Gage, Howe, and Burgoyne took his personal letters to them in all seriousness. As to whether his conduct at Monmouth was actual treason, planned ahead of time with the British commander, there may be two opinions. Clinton afterward said that Lee had to retreat. On the other hand, Washington said that Lee never should have accepted the command if he did not intend to fight; and there is ample evidence that Wayne, when he saw Lee retreating, twice sent frantic inquiries as to what to do and was never answered. It is equally clear that Lee was forgetful about sending orders, ignorant of the terrain of the battlefield, negligent in informing himself, and that he was almost crazed by the heat of June 28, 1778. But Lee had many redeeming qualities. He was extremely generous to his friends and considerate of his soldiers, and he had a genius for making loyal friends of important people. He was buried in Christ Church graveyard in Philadelphia, despite his express desire that in death he be spared association with any church ("Lee Papers, " IV, 31). His estate in Virginia was by his will divided among four loyal friends, and all his other property went to his sister in England.
Lee married the daughter of a Seneca chief. His wife (name unknown) gave birth to twins.