"Kidnapping General Charles Lee," Christian McBurney
Long before the creation of SEAL Team Six, Delta Force and the United Kingdom Special Forces, both the American and British armies already had their versions of special forces during the American Revolution.
One of the missions of these 18th Century special forces was to kidnap prime targets such as enemy generals. In December 1776 and July 1777, each side would succeed with daring overnight and early morning raids where they captured an enemy major general who was only half-dressed at the time of capture.
Christian M. McBurney described these two raids at the May 20, 2015 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. McBurney is the author of the book entitled Kidnapping The Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott.
At the time of his capture Charles Lee was second-in-command of the Continental Army. In fact he arguably possessed a more impressive military career up until this point than the Continental Army’s commander, George Washington.
Lee spent his early years in England and later went to a boarding school in Switzerland. After completing his education Lee joined the British army as a lieutenant and later fought in the French & Indian War. He was wounded in the 1758 failed British attack on Fort Ticonderoga.
Lee rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and retired from the British army at half-pay upon the 1763 conclusion of the war. A few years later Lee saw military action in Poland, Russia and Turkey where he served as an aide-de-camp to the Polish king. After returning to England when troubles began to brew between Great Britain and its American colonies, Lee became sympathetic toward America’s concerns and moved to Virginia in 1773.
When war broke out at Lexington and Concord, Lee volunteered his services to the American cause and hoped Congress would name him the commander of the Continental Army. Instead, Congress named him the third-in-command behind George Washington and Artemas Ward. When Ward resigned his commission a few months later, Lee moved up to second-in-command.
Lee never held a great deal of respect for Washington, and lost confidence in him during the New York campaign when Fort Washington’s American garrison was forced to surrender to the British. Lee had advised Washington to pull the garrison from the fort but instead Washington listened to other senior officers who recommended strengthening the garrison.
After the British forced a surrender of Fort Washington and crossed the Hudson River to capture Fort Lee, Washington retreated with the main body of his army toward Pennsylvania while Lee stayed north of New York City in the White Plains area with a small detachment.
As Washington retreated across New Jersey, he asked and then ordered Lee to rejoin the main army with his detachment. According to McBurney, Lee “dithered and delayed” in his efforts to rejoin the main army.
On December 12, 1776 while most of his troops were camped three miles away, Lee spent the night in Basking Ridge, NJ at what was called White’s Tavern. When Loyalists in the area learned of Lee’s whereabouts, they promptly informed a reconnaissance patrol of British dragoons under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt and Cornet Banastre Tarleton.
Under the cover of darkness the British dragoons rode quietly toward the tavern, gathering information along the way from captured American soldiers whom they threatened with death if they didn’t cooperate. On the morning of December 13, 1776 the British dragoons surrounded the tavern, captured Lee and quickly rode off with him.
At first William Howe and King George III wanted to hang Lee as a deserter since he had served in the British army. When word of this possibility reached the Americans, they threatened to retaliate by hanging British officers if the British hanged Lee. Finally when Howe learned that Lee had honorably resigned his British army commission, he agreed to treat Lee as a prisoner-of-war.
Americans were shocked by Lee’s capture, and some of them decided to do something about it. William Barton, a Rhode Island lieutenant colonel who had risen from the rank of private at the beginning of the war, devised a plan to capture Major General Richard Prescott, the commanding general of a 4,000-man British army in Newport, RI. The Americans had a particularly deep hatred for Prescott because he was known for treating American prisoners-of-war very cruelly.
On the night of July 10, 1777 Prescott and his small band of men rowed across Narragansett Bay in five whaleboats to Newport. They carefully avoided British naval vessels and landed in an area where they followed a small path which led them to the farmhouse where Prescott was spending the night. Then they surrounded the house, seized the sleeping Prescott and his aide-de-camp and returned to their boats. Prescott and his men managed to dodge British artillery fire as they rowed back across Narragansett Bay.
“Of course the British felt humiliated over a small party capturing Prescott under the noses of 4,000 British troops and the British navy,” said McBurney.
When word reached Washington about Barton’s successful capture of Prescott, he immediately offered William Howe an exchange of Prescott for Lee. At first Howe refused but later changed his mind. For Prescott his capture and later exchange were a repeat of what happened earlier in the war. During America’s invasion of Canada, Prescott was captured by the Americans in November 1775 and was exchanged in September 1776 for General John Sullivan.
As for William Barton, he ended the war as an American hero and a prominent citizen of Rhode Island. When Rhode Island finally ratified the U.S. Constitution on May 29, 1790, Barton was given the honor of riding to New York City to give the official news to President Washington.
Later in life Barton moved to Vermont and became a real estate speculator. He lost money and at one point he was accused of selling the same land to two different purchasers. After nearly 15 years of litigation Barton was ordered to pay $600 in damages, which he refused. As a result he was thrown into prison, and turned down requests from his family and close friends to pay the $600 judgment on his behalf.
“His pride wouldn’t let him back down,” said McBurney.
Barton spent 13 years in prison until the Marquis de Lafayette heard about his imprisonment while the Marquis was passing through Rhode Island on his American tour. Lafayette paid the judgment, and Barton was released from jail at the age of 77. During his imprisonment three of his children had died.
On October 22, 1831 Barton died at the age of 83---one of America’s last surviving Revolutionary War heroes.
Christian McBurney grew up in Kingston, RI. He is a graduate of Brown University and New York University School of Law, and is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Nixon Peabody LLP where he focuses on business tax law. He is a member of the American Revolution Roundtable of Washington, D.C. and currently serves as its secretary.
In addition to his book on the kidnapping of Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, McBurney’s other books are as follows:
1. Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island
2. The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation In the Revolutionary War
3. Jailed For Preaching: The Autobiography of Cato Pearce, a Freed Slave from Washington County, Rhode Island
4. A History of Kingston, R.I., 1700-1900: Heart of Rural South County
Prior to McBurney’s presentation before the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, the following business topics were discussed by the round table membership:
1. Various members announced several programs, meetings and events taking place in the near future across Virginia that relate to the American Revolution. Please see the ARRT-Richmond website for more details.
2. Mark Lender, Chairman of the ARRT-Richmond Book Award Committee, said the committee currently has nine candidates for the 2015 Book of the Year. Anyone wishing to nominate additional books may contact Chairman Mark.
3. Lindsey Morrison, Fellow for Battlefield Preservation at the Civil War Trust, gave a brief overview of Campaign 1776---a new preservation organization which is a division of the Civil War Trust. Campaign 1776 is dedicated to preserving America’s Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields, and is currently attempting to preserve a parcel that was part of the Battle of Princeton, NJ.
4. ARRT-Richmond President Bill Welsch said that five preservation candidates are under consideration as ARRT-Richmond’s 2015 Preservation Partner. In the near future President Bill will send an email with the list of 2015 preservation candidates to all ARRT-Richmond members who have paid 2015 dues. Each member will be ask to review the five candidates and to send back their email vote to President Bill.
5. President Bill Welsch reminded everyone that the July ARRT-Richmond meeting has been moved to August.