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General Lee Taken Prisoner

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

December 13. –This morning, about eleven o’clock, General Lee was taken prisoner at Baskenridge, in New Jersey, by Colonel Harcourt with a party of light horse. The sentry placed at the door of the house at which General Lee was stopping, saw the troopers coming on the run, and at first supposed them to be ours; but soon perceived his mistake by their swords, which are more crooked than ours. His piece not being loaded, he charged; they rode up to him and said, “Don’t shoot; if you fire we will blow your brains out.” General Lee cries out, “for God’s sake, what shall I do?” The lady of the house took him up stairs, in order to hide him between the chimney and the breastwork over the fireplace, but he could not, the place being so small. The enemy at this time firing in at the windows, the captain gave orders to set fire to the house. The general seeing no way of escaping, sent down he would resign himself. They fired three times at the messenger, but missed him. The general came down without his hat or outside coat, and said, “I hope you will use me as a gentleman; let me get my hat and coat.” The captain said, “General Lee, I know you well; I know you are a gentleman; you shall be used as such. I know you too well to suffer you to go for your hat and coat,” and ordered him to mount. Upon which they went off, carrying with them the general and a Frenchman, left the baggage, wounded one of the aide-de-camps, and one or two of the guard. There were but thirteen men with the general. He was about four miles from his division, and a mile out of the road. 1

Intelligence of General Lee’s unguarded situation was given to the enemy last night, by an inhabitant of Baskenridge, personally known to the general, and who had made great pretensions of friendship for the American cause, though at heart the greatest villain that ever existed. This Judas rode all the preceding night to carry the intelligence, and served as a pilot to conduct the enemy, and came personally with them to the house where the general was taken.

The enemy showed an ungenerous, nay, boyish triumph, after they had got him secure at Brunswick, by making his horse drunk, while they toasted their king till they were in the same condition. A band or two of music played all night to proclaim their joy for this important acquisition. They say we cannot now stand another campaign. Mistaken fools! to think the fate of America depended on one man. They will find ere long that it has no other effect than to urge us on to a noble revenge.2


1 The following is said to be an authentic copy of a letter sent by General Lee to Captain K—-y, after his being taken prisoner: —
Sir, –The fortune of war, the activity of Colonel Harcourt, and the rascality of my own troops, have made me your prisoner. I submit to my fate, and hope that whatever may be my destiny, I shall meet it with becoming fortitude; but I have the consolation of thinking, amidst all my distresses, that I was engaged in the noblest cause that ever interested mankind. It would seem to me, that Providence had determined that not one freeman should be left upon earth; and the success of your arms more than foretells one universal system of slavery. Imagine not, however, that I lament my fortune, or mean to deprecate the malice of my enemies; if any sorrow can at present afflict me, it is that of a great continent apparently destined for empire, frustrated in the honest ambition of being free, and enslaved by men whom unfortunately I call my countrymen. To Colonel Harcourt’s activity every commendation is due; had I commanded such men, I had this day been free; but my ill fortune has prevailed, and you behold me no longer hostile to England, but contemptible and a prisoner! I have not time to add more; but let me assure you that no vicissitudes have the power to alter my sentiments; and that, as I have long supported those sentiments in difficulty and in dangers, I will never depart from them, but with life. —Middlesex Journal, February 20, 1777.

2 Freeman’s Journal, December 31, 1776, and January 14 and 21, 1777.

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