Basking Ridge, New Jersey’s Most Famous Incident
At about noon time on December 13,1776, General Charles Lee (1731-1782), was alarmed by Major Wilkinson while he was writing a letter to General Gates about George Washington in an upstairs bedroom of the Widow White’s Tavern.
Widow White’s Tavern, named after Ebenezer White’s wife Mary Brown White, became the centerpiece of Revolutionary War history on that day, because It was on this most unfortunate day for General Lee that General Lee became a prisoner of the British Army, leaving General Washington in a precarious position. Who would have guessed that the Widow White’s Tavern capture might have turned into a blessing in disguise for the young Continental Army.
With Lord Cornwallis staying in Pennington to the South, he sent a patrol of 30 dragoons from the Sixteenth Regiment (Burgoyne’s Regiment of Queen’s Light Dragoons), to gain intelligence of Lee’s division. Lieutenant-Colonel Harcourt (later Earl Harcourt, F.M.), obtained intelligence that Lee was in Basking Ridge, and proceeded in that direction.
Surprising Lee’s Guard, the Tavern was surrounded. Major William Bradford, one of Lee’s aids, who was present and escaped, stated that the event unfolded by a Tory who was with General Lee the night before, complaining of a horse that was recently taken by the Army. He found where the General was to lodge and breakfast, and knew it as to be at White’s Tavern about noon. He left them, rode 18 miles South to Brunswick and returned with Harcourt and the Dragoons.
On the other hand, the English account state that they captured a messenger, bearing a letter from General Lee, who was induced to tell where Lee was stationed. Harcourt detached Tarleton, who traveled to and charged the Tavern with six men to secure the doors (about 100 paces from the road). Harcourt immediately summoned the house, with threats to set fire to it, and put every man in it to the sword, if the General didn’t surrender. Harcourt’s light horse, however, were fired upon from the house, and two or three British were killed (one of whom was a Cornet). There were several French officers with Lee, and one of them took aim at Colonel Harcourt. General Lee’s guard had also been carelessly disposed at an out-building and the sentry at the door of the Tavern, at first mistook the dragoons for his own people. Lee’s Guard rallied as the alarm was given and attempted to defend but they were quickly overpowered. Some were wounded, two were killed trying to escape.
There was also a discussion regarding the valor of a French gentleman Captain Jean Louis de Virnejoux, who was noted that “had his advice been taken …probably Lee would have escaped.
Resistance was short. Finding concealment impossible, and further resistance useless, Lee made his appearance at the door, and in the most submissive manner, surrendered his sword to Colonel Harcourt, begging him to spare his life. English accounts state he fell to his knees to Harcourt in a cowardly manner. British Captain Thomas Harris, afterwards Lord Harris, states in his journal that “Lee behaved as cowardly in this transaction as he had dishonorably in every other. After firing one or two shots from the house, he came out and
entreated our troops to spar his life.”
He was somewhat roughly handled on being seized, and his captors, if they did not treat him with great indignity, certainly displayed very little regard for his comfort or appearance. He had presented himself without his hat or outside coat, and although he earnestly requested permission to get them, he was very peremptorily refused.
He was mounted on the guide’s horse, tied on both legs and arms, and with one of his aids who was mounted behind a dragoon, was hurried away at a furious speed towards Brunswick. About three hours later, after realizing no one was going to save him, he became sullen and very much dispirited. He said to his captors, admitting the weakness of the American army, and his own confidence in British strength and zeal, when roused, “The game is nearly at an end.”
There has been conflicting rumors as to why General Lee was even at the Widow White’s Tavern. Certain writers have written that he was there perhaps to see Widow White herself, while other accounts note that he was actually invited. There are also accounts that perhaps General Lee was not even comfortable around women and might have been homosexual. (George Washington’s Generals by George Athan Billias-1964).
General Charles Lee (one of Washington’s 12 Generals) was captured by British Lieutenant Colonel Charles Harcourt and taken on Major Wilkinson’s horse to the camp of Lord Cornwallis at New Brunswick. Widow White’s Tavern original location was on what is now the corner of South Finley and Colonial Drive in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Situated a hundred yards of so back from the road on a knoll that overlooks the beautiful Somerset Hills and valleys to the east, north and west. None of the original outhouses or barns remain (1907 Mount Holly News article).
But what became of the infamous Widow White’s Tavern?
Historical Names for Widow White’s Tavern
What’s in a name? Almost everything!
Here’s what’s been documented so far as far as the name goes:
- Brewster’s Tavern
- White’s Tavern
- Widow White’s Tavern
- Lee Mansion (? – 1873?)
- Lee Lodge (Franklin Conklin Sr.)
- Lee House (Franklin Conklin Jr.)
- Murphy House (Built 1962- Sold 2006)
- Samuel Brown was the noted owner of the Tavern before the Widow White took possession. Mary was evidently the daughter of Elizabeth Phoebe Whitaker and Eliphalet Jervis, stepdaughter of Jonathan Whitaker of Mine Brook.
- It is not known if Jonathan Whitaker adopted these two children, but they are shown by some sources as Mary and Phoebe Whitaker. Both the wills of Jonathan Whitaker and Elizabeth Whitaker mention only Elizabeth, Jonathan, Jr., Nathaniel, and Eliphalet as heirs. It is possible that Sarah and Isaac Whitaker died young. I have been unable to find information to prove that Phoebe Whitaker was the daughter of Jonathan Whitaker.
- Mary Whitaker married Samuel Brown, who died in 1763 leaving property to his wife.
- Mary Brown married Ebenezer White. The Taverns Name was known as White’s Tavern.
- On Ebenezer White’s death (prior to 1776), Mary became the Widow White. If it weren’t for her remarrying, it might have been Widow Brown’s tavern. Hence the reference to the name Widow White’s Tavern.
- Mary Whitaker White died on May 28, 1794 (Vorhees had a copy of her will in 1935)
- Reference is given that when Franklin Conklin owned the property, it was called “Lee Lodge” (Oscar Vorhees- 1935)
- If Mary was the noted innkeeper of the infamous night, she would have been 50 (Vorhees, 1935).
- Incorrect, based on the reference below, she would have been 57.
- Whitaker Family – a Manuscript from Dartmouth College Records gives her birth year as 1719 and the names of her spouses as Samuel Brown and Edwin Whitaker.
- Jonathan Whitaker’s other daughter Elizabeth, married Stephen Ogden and lived in a house directly across the street from White’s Tavern (Rev. Oscar Vorhees Paper)
- Both Samuel Brown and Stephen Ogded died within a year of Jonathan Whitaker
- Lore has it that some of Lees guards were killed outside tavern during capture and possibly buried across the street in Mary White’s sisters yard. (See Bernardsville Times article in 1902), also stated in (Rev. Oscar Vorhees piece as follows “An officer in a letter dated December 21, 1776 stated that when Colonel Harcourt approached the house with his men, the received fire from a guard that was in an outhouse, that two sentinels were killed with sever others -one account says seven or eight), without any loss on our side.)
- Last that remained of Widow White’s was a fireplace, that was demolished after Conklin’s death.
- Lore has it that the actual mantle to the Widow White’s Tavern still exists today in a private residence.
- Memoirs of General James Wilkinson mention that General Lee arrived at approximately 4am at White’s Tavern on December 13, 1776 ( Rev. Oscar Voorhees a descendant of Jonathan Whitaker 1935)
- Wilkinson woke General Lee at 8am to discuss letter from Gen. Gates. and went down for breakfast about 10am.
- It was noted that General Lee was supposed to have breakfast on the morning of December 13, 1776 at John Morton’s house up the street. He never arrived. When Morton sent someone to look, that person was wounded by the British.
- 2019 – Widow White’s selected to the Somerset Hills Historic Cat’s Meow wooden collectible series.
- 2017 – Mr. Local History Project digs deeper into the Widow White’s Tavern
We keep Digging
‘December 13, 1776 –The General Lee Letter that he was writing to General Gates, on the morning of his capture…
My Dr. Gates: The ingenious maneuver of Fort Washington has unhinged the goodly fabrick we had been building- there never was so damned a stroke- entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choices of difficulties. If I stay in this Province I risk myself and army, and if I do not stay the Province is lost forever. I have neither guard, cavalry, medicines, money, shoes, or stockings. I must act with the greatest circumspection. Tories are in my front, rear and on my flanks. The amass of the people is strangely contaminated- in sort unless something which I do not expect turns up we ar lost. Our counsels have been weak to the last degree. As to what relates to yourself in you think you can be in time to aid the General I would have you by all means go. You will at least save your army. It is said the Whigs are determined to set fire to Philadelphia. If they strike this decisive stroke the day will be our own, but unless it is done all chance of liberty in any part of the Globe is forever vanished. Adieu, my dear friend. God bless. you .Charles Lee.”
“What a lesson of caution is to be derived from this event, and how important the admonition furnished by it! What an evidence of the caprice of fortune, of the fallibility of ambitious projects, and the inscrutable ways of Heaven! The capture of General Lee was felt as a public calamity; it cast a gloom over the country, and excited general sorrow. This sympathy was honorable to the people, and due to the stranger who had embarked his fortune with theirs, and determined to share their fate, under circumstances of more than common peril. Although this misfortune deprived the country of its most experienced chief, I have ever considered the deprivation of a public blessing, ministered by the hand of Providence; for if General Lee had not abandoned caution for convenience, and taken quarters two miles from his army, on his exposed flank, he would have been safe; if a domestic traitor, who passed his quarters the same morning on private business, had not casually fallen in with Colonel Harcourt, on a reconnoitering party, the General’s quarters would not have been discovered; if my visit and the controversy with the Connecticut Light-horse had not spun out the morning unseasonably, the General would have been at his camp; if Colonel Harcourt had arrived an hour sooner, he would have found the guard under arms, and would have been repulsed, or resisted until succor could have arrived; if he had arrived half an hour later the General would have been with his corps; if the guard had paid ordinary attention to their duty, and had not abandoned their arms, the General’s quarters would have been defended; or if he had obeyed the peremptory and reiterated orders of General Washington, he would have been beyond the reach of the enemy. And shall we impute to blind chance such a chain of rare incidents? I conscientiously reply in the negative; because the combination was too intricate and perplexed for accidental causes, or the agency of man. It must have been destined.”General Wilkinson wrote in his later memoirs
(about General Lee and the December 13th morning in Basking Ridge)
As a captive he gave Gen. William Howe a plan for defeating the Americans, but his treason was not discovered. In the end, General Lee was exchanged (May 9, 1778) back to the Continental Army for for British Maj. General Richard Prescott and at Valley Forge, General Washington restored his command. At the Battle of Monmouth he received the rebuke of General Washington and subsequently was brought up on three charges for which Lee requested a Court Martial. He lost the court martial and was officially dismissed.
Presiding over the Court Martial hearings was no other than Basking Ridge’s own Major General Lord Stirling (William Alexander), who convicted and removed Lee from his position and the Army in disgrace.Lee tried to get Congress to overturn the court-martial verdict, and when this failed he resorted to open attacks on Washington’s character. Lee’s popularity plummeted. Colonel John Laurens, an aide to Washington, challenged him to a duel, in which Lee was wounded in the side. He was released from duty on January 10, 1780.
In an ensuing encounter, Lee was slightly wounded in the initial exchange of shots and only the intercession of Laurens’ second, Alexander Hamilton, prevented further engagement. Lee’s injury, however, prevented him from accepting a similar challenge from Anthony Wayne. On January 10, 1780 Lee leaves his Virginia estate to visit Philadelphia he was stricken with fever and dies alone and friendless at a tavern on October 2, 1782.
The former General Lee died a few years later on October 2, 1782 to which Lee wrote prior to his death in his will:
“I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church yard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist meeting house; for since I reside in this country I have kept so much bad company when living, that I do not choose to continue it when dead.”General Lee prior to his death
He was buried, however, in the cemetery of Christ Church in Philadelphia (Arch Street and 5th Street) with the inscription “Knight Errant of Liberty” and his funeral was attended by George Washington and other dignitaries nonetheless.
My 2 Cents worth of accolades in 2018 when I had the chance to pay the General a visit.
Lee Papers – The biography of Charles Lee has not yet been properly written. His essays and miscellaneous papers were edited, with an interesting biographical sketch, by Edward Langworthy, under the title “Memoirs of the late Charles Lee, Esq.” (London, 1792). The sketch by Jared Sparks (“American Biography,” 2d series, viii., Boston, 1846) is carefully written, but has little value to-day, because the author knew nothing of that treasonable correspondence with the Howe’s which modifies so profoundly our view of Lee’s whole career in America. George H. Moore announced in 1860 a biography and collection of essays, with documents never before published: but this much-needed book has not vet made its appearance. Dr. Moore’s monograph above cited contains much information not easily to be found elsewhere; the portrait which stands as its frontispiece is reduced from the folio print published in London during the Revolutionary war
Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson river, across from Fort Washington, was named for him.
References for this article
- 1907 Mount Holly Herald, “The White Tavern is situated a hundred yards of so back from the road on a pretty know that overlooks the beautiful Somerset Hills and valleys to the east, north and west. None of the original outhouses or barns remain.”
- Franklin Conklin Jr. Rutgers University Conklin Hall
- Franklin Conklin Jr. was the first president of the board of Rutgers-Newark’s predecessor, the University of Newark. Conklin was also a well-known civic leader in Newark. He attended Princeton from 1903-04 and later headed the Flood and Conklin Manufacturing Co. He was also a member and past president of the Essex County Park Commission, past president of The Newark Museum (1943-64). He was founder and first president of the board of Newark University
- Franklin Conklin Jr. Had two children, Franklin Conklin III and Eleanor Frances Conklin (Demarest).
- Franklin Conklin Property- One room has been kept totally intact, a chamber on the second floor, where General Lee made his last breakfast in freedom. House was set back approx 100 yards from the road. None of the original barns or outhouses remained.
- 1943-1950 Caretaker, John Placko states that when he got to the Conklin Jr. property in May 1950, there was no house on the site but that there was a tremendous amount of scrap used lumber in the barn.
- 1962- Donald and Margaret Brown, built the current house on the site. Colonial Drive was just being completed, along with Rankin Road.
Property was sold by Margaret Murphy, remarried after the passing of Donald Brown in 1974, wife of Donald Murphy. Daniel Murphy, Margaret’s second husband from 1978 till about 1997.
Martha Brown Heiner states that Conklin built two additional houses on the site for his two sons, Franklin Jr. and Ludolph.
email from Martha Brown Heiner 8/24/2006
Sent the pictures on to my Mom (Margaret (Brown) Murphy. We had an interesting chat about it this morning. She said that Finley used to aim right into the Astor estate (there is a second entrance in the fence that is roped off by fence now), and then take a very sharp dangerous right turn.They moved Finley a little closer to Mom’s house and Lutz’s house in order to ease that turn. This must’ve been done in 1961 or 1962 because they were taking out dump trucks of dirt. Mom and her neighbor asked them to dump a load up by the parking area at Mom’s house to put some good dirt in there. Mom’s driveway used to go in a little and then bend to the left, where the Lutz’s driveway is now. They were separating it into 2 driveways at the time. She still believes the house was on her property. Close to where her house sits now. When they dug the foundation for her house, they dug up a long piece of cement foundation. When they finished building her house, they put it back in for fill, instead of hauling it away.
- Margaret Murphy sold the house and on July 26, 2006 moved to a condo in Lord Stirling Village.
- While Franklin’s orig house no longer exists, the two houses of his sons flank the front left and rear of the current structure Block 78, Lot 11.
- Frances Florio –Secretary to PB/BOA (Bernards Township Planning Board/Board of Adjustments)
- Harry Demarest: Son of Elanor (Demarest) Conklin, wife to Franklin Conklin Jr. and grandson of Franklin Conklin. Memories of visiting Lee Lodge. “As a young man, I remember visiting Franklin Conklin Jr’s house for dinner, going for walks in the woods, eating cheese snacks on the porch. Family legend confirms your story that the tavern was destroyed shortly after Franklin Conklin’s death (to avoid property taxes).” [email protected]
- Harry Demarest, Corvallis, OR 97330 541-758-1132
- John Placko – 28 Colonial Drive noted:
- “When I arrived here to work for Ludolf Conklin in May 1950, there was a lot of wood in the barn, with nails in it that might have been from a torn down house.” BHB interview on 8/28/2006. “But there was no house on the site. Only Ludolf’s house on the right, and Franklin Jr’s house on the left” (facing the current site from S. Finley).
- John also mentioned he had heard of possible soldier grave across the street, possibly General Lee’s guards who were stabbed after surrendering General Lee to General Harcourt.
- Mr Placko finally purchased the home on 28 Colonial Drive from Minetta Realty Company in 1960 for $12,000.
- Mr. Placko passed away on Sunday, September 27, 2009 at the age of 103. Funeral service was on Friday, October 2, 2009 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 140 S. Finley Ave., Basking Ridge at 10:30 a.m. His home was later demolished.
Reference People/Articles Supporting Research
It’s sad to note that as of 2018, all of the people below except the Rica’s (who’ve since moved) have now passed. We are grateful to have interviewed them for this research.
- June Kennedy was the head of Fellowship of Churches and creates a program combining all of the churches members and upcoming events. She might have a file on the WWT. (Deceased)
- Priscilla Bruno (Deceased)
- John Placko- (Working) Manager for Ludolf Conklin Jr.(1950) (Deceased)
- Charlie Fortenbacker, Chief of Police- 43 Haas Rd Basking Ridge, NJ 07920-2601
- (908) 647-0745 (Deceased)
- Essay – Essays Historical and Literary, published by Macmillian in 1902. John Fiske- Title General Charles Lee, A Soldier of Fortune
- Neighbors- Don and Roxanne Rica lived behind the current structure. Noted that there was carriage material in their digging and it might have been an original garage. (Moved)
- Linda Suggested to contact Rick Axt in the Engineering Dept to discuss surveys
- Bernards Twp Zoning office, suggested to contact Rick Axt, Twp Surveyor. Look at page 17 and 23 of current zoning map. Look for oldest map and records of what Conklin did to property. Update: Bernards Township records are not kept prior to 1977 so no records are on file. Might consider checking Tax Records for property.
How about a replica of the Widow White’s Tavern?
- The “Lee Papers 1754-1811
- General Lee’s historical timeline
- Letters between General Washington and General Lee