Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Letters from the Front: Charles Lee to Alexander McDougall, October 1775



"...the tragedy acted by these hell hounds of an execrable Ministry with a more accursed Tyrant at their head now calls out for decision"

This installment of Letters from the Front introduces the notorious General Charles Lee, several of whose letters appear throughout the collection. Charles Lee was one of several Continental generals with a background in the British service (Horatio Gates and Richard Montgomery are other examples). Combined with his revolutionary zeal, Lee's background made him an obviously choice for high command in the new American Army. His letter to Alexander MacDougall, a prominent New York Whig, focuses on two key events of the early Revolutionary struggle: the burning of Falmouth, Massachusetts, (now Portland, Maine) by the British Navy on 18 October 1775 and New York City's entrance into the rebellion. While attention focused on Boston throughout 1775, the thirteen colonies' other major seaports were significant scenes of revolutionary struggle. New York City was one of the few that had recently hosted redcoats: British soldiers of the 18th (or Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot had arrived in the city late in 1774 and been escorted out to waiting transports in the Spring of 1775 by an angry mob. Governor William Tryon, formerly of North Carolina, remained in an attempt to maintain royal rule. Tryon was forced to retreat to the safety of a Royal Navy sloop-of-war (the Halifax) on 19 October, in a move that was probably un-related to the incident at Falmouth, which nevertheless served to galvanize Revolutionaries into action across the colonies. Lee's lack of awareness of Tryon's removal shows just how slowly news could travel in the eighteenth-century, just as his prose highlights the level of passion present in the revolutionary cause.

WPT III






Sol Feinstone Collection No. 789
Charles Lee to Alexander McDougall, 26 October 1775. Camp on Winter Hill, Massachusetts
Transcribed by W. P. Tatum III, August 2011

“Camp on Winter Hill Octr ye 26th

Dr Sir,
        You will have heard long before this of the inhuman busyness of Falmouth__ the tragedy acted by these hell hounds of an execrable Ministry with a more accursed Tyrant at their head now calls out for decision__ for Heaven’s sake, My Dr Sir, let your City no longer hold the house in suspense by their shilly shally mode of conduct is this a time when whole communities are laid waste by the Dogs of War to address or suffer addresses to be presented to to [sic] the delegate of an infernal Despot? Can any man in his senses suppose that Tryon who cannot hold his commission by any other tenure but that of contriving by fraud or force to subvert the freedom of this Continent be dup’d by his professions? You are, it seems, afraid of your Town in the first place I do not believe that they dare fire upon it__but if it was earnestly their intention [pg 1] you have, I think, the means of preventing it__ seize by one bold stroke this Tryon and all his associates__ then, assure the Capt of the Man of War that the first House He sets on fire shall be the funeral pile of his Excellency__ and You ought really to execute your threats__ if you do not adopt this method, I am confident you will repent it__ if the seizure of his Person can-not be effected by public authority, you may work up some glowing young Particulars to the undertaking I can solemnly assure you when the stroke is struck it will be supported and applauded by the Men whose support and applause, I am persuaded, you are most ambitious and interested to obtain I can, further assure you that in this quarter many murmurs and much discontent are already heard and manifested from it’s not having been done__ but the intemperance of my zeal will, I am afraid, hurry me into impertinence at least using arguments of instigation [pg 2] with the most ardent of Patriots (for such you are most justly esteem’d) is not very consistent with Modesty or decency__ but the very ardor with which you are possess’d will insure my pardon__ there is another report prevalent in the army not much to the advantage of New York__ it is said that your People of the lower and honester class had seiz’d a number of Blankets, that your Congress restor’d ‘em to the Officers of the Crown__ you may easily conceive how unpopular and odious such a slip must be__ The Soldiers here starving from want of Cloathing cannot well relish a complaisance of this nature__ but the higher order of Officers seem still more shock’d__ Once more, My Dr Sir, I beg you will excuse these liberties__ and believe me to be most truly and sincerely yours
                                                            Charles Lee     [pg 3]”


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