On the same day he writes from Chatham, in reply to Wash ington's letter by Major Hoops, just received: "I am extremely shocked to hear that your force is so inadequate to the necessity of your situation, as I had been taught to think you had been considerably re-enforced. Your last letters, proposing a plan of surprises and forced marches, convinced me that there was no danger of your being obliged to pass the Delaware; in consequence of which proposals, I have put myself in a position the most convenient to co-operate with you by attacking their rear. I cannot persuade myself that Philadelphia is their object at present. . . . It will be difficult, I am afraid, to join you; but cannot I do you more service by attacking their rear?"
This letter, sent by a light-horseman, received an instant reply from Washington. "Philadelphia, beyond all question, is the object of the enemy's movements, and nothing less than our utmost exertions will prevent General Howe from possessing it. The force I have is weak, and utterly incompetent to that end. I must, therefore, entreat you to push on with every possible succor you can bring.'
On the 9th, Lee, who was at Chatham, receives information from Heath, that three of the regiments detached under Gates from the Northern army, had arrived from Albany at Peekskill. He instantly writes to him to forward them, without loss of time, to Morristown: "I am in hopes," adds he, "to reconquer (if I may so express myself) the Jerseys. It was really in the hands of the enemy before my arrival.'
On the 11th, Lee writes to Washington from Morristown, where he says his troops had been obliged to halt two days for want of shoes. He now talked of crossing the great Brunswick post-road, and, by a forced night's march, making his way to the ferry above Burlington, where boats should be sent up from Philadelphia to receive him.
"I am much surprised," writes Washington in reply, “that you should be in any doubt respecting the route you should take, after the information you have received upon that head. A large number of boats was procured, and is still retained at Tinicum, under a strong guard, to facilitate your passage across the Delaware. I have so frequently mentioned our situation, and the necessity of your aid, that it is painful for me to add a word on the subject. Congress have directed Philadel phia to be defended to the last extremity. The fatal couse
1 Am. Archives, 5th Series, iii., 1138.
quences that must attend its loss are but too obvious to every one; your arrival may be the means of saving it."
In detailing the close of General Lee's march, so extraordi nary for its tardiness, we shall avail ourselves of the memoir already cited of General Wilkinson, who was at that time a brigade major, about twenty-two years of age, and was accompanying General Gates, who had been detached by Schuyler with seven regiments to re-enforce Washington. Three of these regiments, as we have shown, had descended the Hudson to Peekskill, and were ordered by Lee to Morristown. Gates had embarked with the remaining four, and landed with them at Esopus, whence he took a back route by the Delaware and the Minisink.
On the 11th of December, he was detained by a heavy snowstorm, in a sequestered valley near the Wallpeck in New Jersey. Being cut off from all information respecting the adverse armies, he detached Major Wilkinson to seck Washington's camp, with a letter, stating the force under his command, and inquiring what route he should take. Wilkinson crossed the hills on horseback to Sussex court-house, took a guide, and proceeded down the country. Washington, he soon learned, had passed the Delaware several days before; the boats, he was told, had been removed from the ferries, so that he would find some difficulty in getting over, but Major-General Lee was at Morristown. Finding such obstacles in his way to the commander-in-chief, he determined to seek the second in command, and ask orders from him for General Gates. Lee had decamped from Morristown on the 12th of December, but had marched no further than Vealtown, barely eight miles distant. There he left General Sullivan with the troops, while he took up his quarters three miles off, at a tavern, at Baskingridge. As there was not a British cantonment within twenty miles, he took but a small guard for his protection, thinking himself perfectly secure.
About four o'clock in the morning, Wilkinson arrived at his quarters. He was presented to the general as he lay in bed, and delivered into his hands the letter of General Gates. Lee, observing it was addressed to Washington, declined opening it, until apprised by Wilkinson of its contents, and the motives of his visit. He then broke the seal, and recommended Wilkinson to take repose. The latter lay down on his blanket, before a comfortable fire, among the officers of his suite; "for we were not encumbered in those days," says he, "with beds or baggage."
Lee, naturally indolent, lingered in bed until eight o'clock.
He then came down in his usual slovenly style, half-dressed, in slippers and blanket coat, his collar open, and his liner apparently of some days' wear. After some inquiries about the campaign in the North, he gave Wilkinson a brief account of the operations of the main army, which he condemned in strong terms, and in his usual sarcastic way. He wasted the morning in altercation with some of the militia, particularly the Connecticut light horse; "several of whom," says Wilkinson, "appeared in large, full-buttoned perukes, and were treated very irreverently. One wanted forage, another his horse shod, another his pay, a fourth provisions, etc.; to which the general replied, your wants are numerous; but you have not mentioned the last- you want to go home, and shall be indulged; for d-you, you do no good here.''
Colonel Scammel, the adjutant-general, called from General Sullivan for orders concerning the morning's march. After musing a moment or two, Lee asked him if he had a manuscript map of the country. It was produced, and spread upon a table. Wilkinson observed Lee trace with his finger the route from Vealtown to Pluckamin, thence to Somerset court-house, and on, by Rocky Hill, to Princeton; he then returned to Pluckamin, and traced the route in the same manner by Boundbrook to Brunswick, and after a close inspection carelessly said to Scammel, "Tell General Sullivan to move down toward Pluckamin ; that I will soon be with him." This, observes Wilkinson, was off his route to Alexandria on the Delaware, where he had been ordered to cross, and directly on that toward Brunswick and Princeton. He was convinced, therefore, that Lee meditated an attack on the British post at the latter place.
From these various delays they did not sit down to breakfast before ten o'clock. After breakfast Lee sat writing a reply to General Gates, in which, as usual, he indulged in sarcastic comments on the commander-in-chief. "The ingenious manœuvre of Fort Washington," writes he, has completely unhinged the goodly fabric we had been building. There never was so d-d a stroke; entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties: if I stay in this province I risk myself and army; and if I do not stay, the province is lost forever. .. As to what relates to yourself, if you think you can be in time to aid the general, I would have you by all means go; you will at least save your army," etc.1
1 Am. Archives, 5th Series, iii., 1201.
While Lee was writing, Wilkinson was looking out of a window down a lane, about a hundred yards in length, leading from the house to the main road. Suddenly a party of British dragoons turned a corner of the avenue at a full charge. "Here, sir, are the British cavalry!" exclaimed Wilkinson. "Where?" replied Lee, who had just signed his letter. "Around the house!" for they had opened file and surrounded it. "Where is the guard? d- the guard, why don't they fire?" Then after a momentary pause "Do, sir, sce what has become of the guard."
The guards, alas, unwary as their general, and chilled by the air of a frosty morning, had stacked their arms, and repaired to the south side of a house on the opposite side of the road to sun themselves, and were now chased by the dragoons in different directions. In fact, a tory, who had visited the general the evening before, to complain of the loss of a horse taken by the army, having found where Lee was to lodge and breakfast, had ridden eighteen miles in the night to Brunswick and given the information, and had piloted back Colonel Harcourt with his dragoons.1
The women of the house would fain have concealed Lee in a bed, but he rejected the proposition with disdain. Wilkinson, according to his own account, posted himself in a place where only one person could approach at a time, and there took his stand, a pistol in each hand, resolved to shoot the first and second assailant, and then appeal to his sword. While in this "unpleasant situation," as he terms it, he heard a voice declare, "If the general does not surrender in five minutes, I will set fire to the house!" After a short pause the threat was repeated, with a solemn oath. Within two minutes he heard it proclaimed, "Here is the general, he has surrendered."
There was a shout of triumph, but a great hurry to make sure of the prize before the army should arrive to the rescue. A trumpet sounded the recall to the dragoons, who were chasing the scattered guards. The general, bareheaded, and in his slippers and blanket coat, was mounted on Wilkinson's horse, which stood at the door, and the troop clattered off with their prisoner to Brunswick. In three hours the booming of cannon in that direction told the exultation of the enemy. They boasted of having taken the American Palladium; for they considered Lee the most scientific and experienced of the rebel generals.
1 Jos. Trumbull to Governor Trumbull. Am. Archives, 5th Series, ill, 1265. 2 Idem.
On the departure of the troops, Wilkinson, finding the coast clear, ventured from his stronghold, repaired to the stable, mounted the first horse he could find, and rode full speed in quest of General Sullivan, whom he found under march toward Pluckamin. He handed him the letter to Gates, written by Lee the moment before his capture, and still open. Sullivan having read it, returned it to Wilkinson, and advised him to rejoin General Gates without delay: for his own part, being now in command, he changed his route, and pressed forward to join the commander-in-chief.
The loss of Lee was a severe shock to the Americans; many of whom, as we have shown, looked to him as the man who was to rescue them from their critical, and well-nigh desperate situation. With their regrets, however, were mingled painful doubts, caused by his delay in obeying the repeated summons of his commander-in-chief, when the latter was in peril; and by his exposing himself so unguardedly in the very neighborhood of the enemy. Some at first suspected that he had done so designedly, and with collusion; but this was soon disproved by the indignities attending his capture, and his rigorous treatment subsequently by the British; who affected to consider him a deserter, from his having formerly served in their army.
Wilkinson, who was at that time conversant with the cabals of the camp, and apparently in the confidence of some of the leaders, points out what he considers the true secret of Lee's conduct. His military reputation, originally very high, had been enhanced of late, by its being generally known that he had been opposed to the occupation of Fort Washington; while the fall of that fortress and other misfortunes of the campaign, though beyond the control of the commander-in-chief, had quickened the discontent which, according to Wilkinson, had been generated against him at Cambridge, and raised a party against him in Congress. "It was confidently asserted at the time," adds he, but is not worthy of credit, that a motion had been made in that body tending to supersede him in the command of the army. In this temper of the times, if General Lee had anticipated General Washington in cutting the cordon of the enemy between New York and the Delaware, the commander-in-chief would probably have been superseded. In this case, Lee would have succeeded him.”
What an unfortunate change would it have been for the country! Lee was undoubtedly a man of brilliant talents, shrewd sagacity, and much knowledge and experience in the art of war; but he was wilful and uncertain in his temper, self