In what proved a fateful decision on November 21, 1776, Continental Commander in Chief General George Washington writes to General Charles Lee in Westchester County, New York, to report the loss of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and to order Lee to bring his forces to New Jersey.
Lee wanted to stay in New York, so he dawdled in departing and crossing the small state of New Jersey to the Delaware River, where Washington impatiently awaited the arrival of his reinforcements. Lee, who took a commission in the British army upon finishing military school at age 12 and served in North America during the Seven Years’ War, felt slighted that the less experienced Washington had been given command of the Continental Army and showed no inclination to rush.
Famed for his temper and intemperance, the Mohawk had dubbed Lee “Boiling Water.” Lee was an adopted tribesman through his marriage to a Mohawk woman, but his union apparently failed to quell his interest in prostitutes. On December 13, Lee left his army, still dallying on its way to join Washington, and rode—with minimal guard–in search of female sociability at Widow White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It was there that British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and the 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons captured him on the morning of December 15.
Former comrades in the British army, Tarleton and Lee were now captor and captive. After being disappointed in his efforts to secure a lucrative royal appointment, Lee had retired to the colonies in 1773 and quickly joined the Patriot cause. Tarleton had sworn in a London club that he would hunt down the traitor to the crown and relieve him of his head. Fortunately for Lee, Tarleton failed to keep his promise, although the vain general may well have preferred a quick end to the humiliation of being led from Widow White’s Tavern to New York City in his nightdress.
The British rejoiced at the capture of the Patriots’ best-trained commander, while Washington fruitlessly negotiated for his release. Meanwhile, Lee enjoyed his captivity, even drafting a battle plan for his captors from plush accommodations in which his personal servant maintained his three rooms and no doubt served his food and wine in a most civilized fashion. The British did not act upon his plan, and Lee reported to Valley Forge upon his release in May 1778. After a series of arguments with Washington, Lee was suspended from the army in December 1778 and dismissed in 1780.