Saturday, April 29, 2017
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Charles Lee of Britain, Poland & America

Charles Lee    When Englishman Charles Lee was denied a military appointment by King George III in 1773, he left for America to seek adventure. Lee was not a stranger to the 13 colonies, having fought alongside Washington in the French and Indian War, and having accumulated vast land holdings in North America.

    When he arrived here, he immediately began courting and schmoozing the leaders of the independence movement, eager for action. Lee had always been an advocate for personal liberty and he greatly admired the American leaders and their ideas. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he became second in command to Washington. But the two men did not get along. Eventually, Lee was relieved of his command for insubordination, courtmartialed and released from duty in 1780.

   So what is the Polish connection? Charles Lee was a professional soldier who hired himself out to countries who would pay him decently and promote his advancement. He found such opportunities not only in England, but also in America and Poland. After his exploits in the French and Indian War, Lee had sought further adventure attached to a British unit helping Portugal in a fight against Spain.

    After that he saw more opportunity on the continent. Poland came to the fore because her new king, Stanisław Poniatowski, was expected to raise a new army. Lee obtained letters of recommendation, including one  from an English friend of Stanisław, and arrived in Warsaw in March 1765. The King was impressed enough to appoint Lee his personal aide-de-camp. But Lee was basically a courtier, not in military service. He developed a true friendship with King Stanisław and considered him a kindred soul both personally and politically, especially in the King's promotion of personal liberty. Lee claimed that Stanisław was worth more than the whole British royal family, for whom he had a great contempt.

    The Englishman gained a fair knowledge of the Polish language. He complained about the wine and the climate in Warsaw, and claimed that its remoteness from the west made life there dull. He called the people "vicious" and "wretched beyond belief" and blamed it on slavery, more accurately the serfdom that still existed in Poland. He decried the fact that Prussia and Russia and the Polish gentry would not let the enlightened King Stanisław make reforms.

    But Lee longed for action. Finally, after several months the King sent him on a mission to Constantinople with the Polish ambassador to Turkey. Lee became sick with rheumatism while crossing the freezing Balkans, and once in Turkey he escaped with his life as an earthquake destroyed his house.

   By this time, events in England seemed to favor his career, so Lee received permission from Stanisław to return there. But King George refused to give him a military position. He turned once again to Poland and this time Stanisław promised to use his influence to secure for Lee a command in Czarina Catherine's Russian army against the Turks. When he returned to Warsaw in 1769, Poland was in disarray as the forces of the Confederation of Bar had taken up arms against King Stanisław and Russian domination of Poland. Two of the Confederates were Kazimierz Pułaski and his father.

    The King made Lee a Major General in the Polish army and conferred upon him the Order of St. Stanisław. But he did not see action against the Confederates. He spent some time teaching English to a young Polish lady to whom he proposed. He was turned down. He eventually departed for Russia, but his appointment to a command was not granted, and he was just an observer of the operations against Turkey.

    Lee became ill with a severe fever and hurried west to Hungary for treatment. He eventually made his way back to England and was once again rejected for further duty in the British army. He had had enough of the British royals and it was at this point that he left for America.

    Charles Lee was a true believer in personal liberty, and his views were undoubtedly reinforced by his friendship with King Stanisław. But he was basically an opportunist. Decades after his death in 1782 a document was discovered that showed that General Lee had given American battle plans to the British while he was their prisoner during the Revolutionary War in 1777. The reason for this treason is unclear. Possibly to save his own skin, or to play both sides of the fence in case the British won the war.   

Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal


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