I’m a General! Whee! John Laurens’ Duel with Charles Lee (Pt. 2)

On December 5, 1778, John Laurens wrote to Hamilton after reading Charles Lee’s Vindication:

“You have seen, and by this time considered, General Lee’s infamous publication. I have collected some hints for an answer; but I do not think, either that I can rely upon my own knowledge of facts and style to answer him fully, or that it would be prudent to undertake it without counsel. An affair of this kind ought to be passed over in total silence, or answered in a masterly manner.”

Laurens challenged Lee to a duel shortly after writing to Hamilton.  The duel took place on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1778.  Hamilton was Laurens’ second in the duel, and Lee’s former aid, Major Evan Edwards, served as Lee’s second.  (Interestingly, Edwards named his son Charles Lee Edwards, after the general).

A 1780 miniature portrait of Laurens, by Charles Willson Peale from Wikimedia

Hamilton wrote an account of the duel, available on Founders Online.  According to Hamilton, Laurens fired and hit Lee and then Laurens, Hamilton, and Edwards all came towards Lee to check on his injury.  Lee then stated that his wound was “inconsiderable” and tried to insist on a second round, which Hamilton, Laurens, and Edwards vigorously opposed.  Hamilton told Lee that unless Lee was “influenced by motives of personal enmity,” he should let the duel terminate.  Lee still insisted on continuing the duel, but then decided to let both of the seconds- Hamilton and Edwards- negotiate a peace.

They approached each other within about five or six paces and exchanged a shot almost at the same moment. As Col Laurens was preparing for a second discharge, General Lee declared himself wounded. Col Laurens, as if apprehending the wound to be more serious than it proved advanced towards the general to offer his support. The same was done by Col Hamilton and Major Edwards under a similar apprehension. General Lee then said the wound was inconsiderable, less than he had imagined at the first stroke of the Ball, and proposed to fire a second time. This was warmly opposed both by Col Hamilton and Major Edwards, who declared it to be their opinion, that the affair should terminate as it then stood. But General Lee repeated his desire, that there should be a second discharge and Col Laurens agreed to the proposal. Col Hamilton observed, that unless the General was influenced by motives of personal enmity, he did not think the affair ought to be persued any further; but as General Lee seemed to persist in desiring it, he was too tender of his friend’s honor to persist in opposing it. The combat was then going to be renewed; but Major Edwards again declaring his opinion, that the affair ought to end where it was, General Lee then expressed his confidence in the honor of the Gentlemen concerned as seconds, and said he should be willing to comply with whatever they should cooly and deliberately determine. Col. Laurens consented to the same.

Image of Lee from UVA’s George Washington Papers site

Hamilton and Edwards discussed the issue, and then Lee and Laurens talked about what resulted in the duel in the first place.  Lauren stated that he had been informed “that General Lee had spoken of General Washington in the grossest and most opprobrious terms of personal abuse.”  Lee stated that he had given a negative opinion of Washington’s “military character,” but had not attacked Washington’s personal character.

 

During the interview a conversation to the following purport past between General Lee and Col Laurens—On Col Hamilton’s intimating the idea of personal enmity, as beforementioned, General Lee declared he had none, and had only met Col. Laurens to defend his own honor—that Mr. Laurens best knew whether there was any on his part. Col Laurens replied, that General Lee was acquainted with the motives, that had brought him there, which were that he had been informed from what he thought good authority, that General Lee had spoken of General Washington in the grossest and most opprobrious terms of personal abuse, which He Col Laurens thought himself bound to resent, as well on account of the relation he bore to General Washington as from motives of personal friendship, and respect for his character. General Lee acknowleged that he had given his opinion against General Washingtons military character to his particular friends and might perhaps do it again. He said every man had a right to give his sentiments freely of military characters, and that he did not think himself personally accountable to Col Laurens for what he had done in that respect. But said he never had spoken of General Washington in the terms mentioned, which he could not have done; as well because he had always esteemed General Washington as a man, as because such abuse would be incompatible with the character, he would ever wish to sustain as a Gentleman.

The affair was then over.  Hamilton wrote that he was satisfied with the result:

“Upon the whole we think it a piece of justice to the two Gentlemen to declare, that after they met their conduct was strongly marked with all the politeness generosity coolness and firmness, that ought to characterise a transaction of this nature.”

Valley Forge National Park wrote this account of the duel:

December 1778 found Laurens involved in yet another escapade. The audacious young Lieutenant Colonel had challenged General Charles Lee to a duel. Lee had recently undergone a court martial in which he had not only verbally insulted Laurens, but also “spoken of General Washington in the grossest and most opprobrious terms of personal abuse.” The weapons of choice were pistols, and unlike most duels, Laurens and Lee started by facing each other, and then advanced until only about six paces separated them. Both men fired simultaneously; Laurens was not hit, but Lee was wounded in the side. However, Lee had only been grazed by the ball, and he insisted on reloading the weapons for another shot. Laurens voiced his acceptance. The seconds protested, saying that it should end. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and it was declared that honor had been satisfied and the duel was over. Lee later declared that Laurens’s conduct on this occasion was gentlemanly, and he had gained an “odd sort of respect for him.”

 

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