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"Light-Horse" Harry and Robert E. Lee. Like Father Like Son? Maybe Not!

Updated on August 4, 2017
"Light-Horse" Harry Lee
"Light-Horse" Harry Lee
Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee

Authors Note: This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive biography of Robert E. Lee and his father "Light-Horse" Harry Lee. Rather it is intended to look at those factors that influenced Harry Lee's political views, particularly as it relates to union and disunion, and how those views would have influenced his opinion of the actions of his son had he been alive to witness them. While I do provide a short biography of Harry Lee, I make the assumption most are familiar enough with the career of Robert E. Lee that it does not require recounting here.

Even before his surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, the idolization of General Robert E. Lee as a thoroughly honorable and decent man; a military genius equaled only by George Washington who opposed slavery even as he fought for his “country,” had begun to take root. It first took hold in the south of course, but later, as reconstruction became more unpopular in all regions of the country, historians of the “lost cause” school became more successful at inserting these mythologies into the mainstream narrative of the Civil War.1 Part of this narrative involved not only the idolization of General Lee himself, but of the entire Lee family of Virginia. It became important therefore, to trace the genius of Lee to that of his almost equally famous father, Revolutionary War hero, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee III.

One of the driving tenets of the “lost cause” interpretation of the Civil War is to link its motivations and ideology with that of the American Revolution. Whether they believed it or not, southern politicians sold the war to their constituents as an extension of the fight for liberty for which their ancestors had fought. “Lost cause” historians later succeeded in pushing this narrative into mainstream interpretations of the war. It became crucial to not only identify the source of General Lee’s military genius, but to root the source of his decision to break his oath of allegiance to the United States, in the views and career of his father. To that end, hagiographic tales of General Lee's pilgrimage to his honored father's grave-site began to appear, in the south groups dedicated to honoring the veterans of both wars began explicitly linking the careers of father and son, monuments to both began to sprout up on battlefields and in towns across the south, a concerted effort began to clean up and de-emphasize the narrative surrounding Light-Horse Harry Lee's post-war failures, and most importantly there was almost no discussion of Light-Horse Harry's ardent Federalism. So pervasive has this linkage of Robert E. Lee's genius to that of his father's, that it requires a closer look to judge its accuracy. Would Light-Horse Harry Lee have approved of the actions of his son's fight to split the union? I believe he would not.

Born on January 29, 1756 at his father's estate "Leesylvania," located in modern day Prince William County, VA, Henry 'Light-Horse Harry' Lee III was the oldest son of Henry Lee II and Lucy Grymes Lee, At the age of fourteen he was sent to Princeton under the watchful eye of its President Rev. John Witherspoon, where he showed considerable promise. Relative Billy Shippen expressed the belief that Harry would eventually be "one of the first fellows in this country." One of his classmates, another "fellow of promise," who would more than live up to that prediction was James Madison.2 Henry's intention to study the law after graduation was abandoned when the American Revolution broke out. Instead, he joined the war effort, serving in a regiment of dragoons commanded by cousin Theodorick Bland, later earning a commission in the Continental Army.

Showing himself to be a very capable and effective cavalry officer, Henry Lee caught the eye of George Washington, who promoted him to Major and gave him command of an independent partisan corps of mixed cavalry and infantry that soon became known as "Lee's Legion." Specializing in lightening-fast raids and quick escapes, he developed into one of the most capable cavalry commanders in the Continental Army. His actions at Paulus Hook, New Jersey was rewarded by a gold medal struck in his honor, the only time Congress did so for an officer below the rank of general. It was during his time as commander of "Lee's Legion" that he earned the nickname "Light-Horse" Harry. Despite these successes however, as the war progressed, Harry would grow disillusioned with the behavior of his fellow citizens. Particularly as the war moved south, Harry witnessed a different kind of warfare, one that would shape his views on government, economics, and most crucially for the purposes of this essay, the importance of an indissoluble national union. It would also influence his son Robert E. Lee as he made the fateful decision to break his oath of allegiance to the United States, eventually to lead southern armies against his former country.

One of the first and most powerful of the veteran’s organizations that sprung up following the American Revolution was the Society of the Cincinnati. Originally made up of former officers of the Continental Army it later became an influential hereditary society dedicated to upholding the ideals embodied by its original members and their fight for independence. However, this meant different things in different regions of the country. Following the Civil War southern branches of the society made explicit attempts to link the recently concluded Civil War, with the American Revolution, an effort which continued well into the 20th century. At its Washington-Cincinnati convocation held in April 1935 Edgar Hume, President of the Virginia Society, delivered a speech on the career and legacy of one of its most famous members, "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. In it he made direct comparisons between the actions of Lee and his more famous son. In one passage he noted that “six times in five generations the Lees had to make a choice between the older and new government. Only Light-Horse Harry and Robert, his son, chose the new, and both thought long before making their decision.”3 Later, referencing a passage in "Light-Horse Harry" Lee’s memoir in which he praised the south (and Virginia in particular) as the “fountain of southern resistance,” a region “well known [for its] obedience to law and hatred of change,” that nevertheless became convinced their “resistance was just, and consistent with the great charter of British liberty,” Mr. Hume simply notes, “his son might have said the same thing in 1861.”4 Despite Hume's assertion however it is not at all clear the father would have approved of the actions of the son.

In his review of Charles Royster’s Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution, historian Don Higginbotham notes that there was “no more ardent nationalist than Henry Lee, whose opinions on government and union grew out of his experiences as a soldier, who evidently was the only American of his period to deny explicitly state sovereignty and secession.” 5These wartime experiences were primarily in the south, where the war was more explicitly a civil war, a partisan, fratricidal conflict in which neighbors waged cruel war against each other. He witnessed the murder of civilians, including women and children, a form of warfare in which no quarter was given and where torture was viewed as a legitimate weapon. It soured Lee forever on the notion of civilized military conflict and sewed the seeds for his later ardent Federalism.

Following the war Lee cast his lot with those advocating for a strong central government, believing the only way to insure the tranquility of the new country was through a perpetual federal union. He argued for that position as a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention, and espoused that view through his entire political career (with one exception). Royster notes “Lee could not regard the federal union as a provisional compact, subject to dissolution if it seemed to conflict with liberty. Liberty and independence could not survive without the federal union, in fact, Lee believed, they were threatened even by the erosion of domestic unity through political antagonism.”6 As a Federalist Governor, Lee pushed through a bill forcing Republicans to vote for a resolution praising President Washington’s handling of foreign relations, including his neutrality proclamation. He was later tapped by Washington to head the forces sent to Pennsylvania to quash a rebellion of farmers protesting the national Whiskey tax. As a Federalist congressman during the deadlocked election of 1800, after a brief dalliance with Aaron Burr, he refused to give in and vote for one of the Republican candidates (Jefferson or Burr). Even as his personal fortunes declined in later years, and the Federalist Party faded from view, Lee stuck to and even grew more resolute in his insistence that the only way American independence could be secured forever was through a strong and indissoluble union.

As with many former Continental military officers Lee tried to connect the happiness of the country with his own fortunes. Convinced his view of public virtue would prevail and that the country would thrive through united effort, Lee made many very unwise financial investments. Advocating strongly for construction of nation transportation and commercial byways (roads, canals etc), Lee purchased property at a rapid pace. Convinced the C&O canal then under construction would be a major commercial thoroughfare enabling transportation of western goods to eastern ports, Lee purchased property along its route, overpaying in nearly every instance, convinced its future value would outweigh whatever price he was forced to pay. He invested in western lands, hoping to cash in not only on services provided those transporting goods, but to be a source of those goods himself. Unfortunately for him (and for members of his family including his brother Richard Bland Lee), Lee’s investments almost invariably came to nothing, sinking him further and further until he was eventually sent to debtors prison. While there he wrote his memoir; primarily an account of the Revolutionary War in the south, but which also contained a scathing attack on Thomas Jefferson and other Republicans, accusing them of betraying the principles of the Revolution as embodied by the values held by former Continental officers such as himself and of course, George Washington. He believed Jefferson’s emphasis on states rights, his view of a limited role of central government, his distaste for commercial enterprise, and his emasculation of the military branches would not only lead to eventual disunion, but were also the cause of his own financial downfall. Coincidentally, these are many of the issues that the south used as justification for its rebellion against the Union.

Some of Lee’s attacks on Jefferson were not without merit. It was Jefferson who authored the Kentucky resolves of 1798 that argued for the legality of state nullification of federal laws it viewed as unconstitutional, which was later the basis for the nullification efforts of John C. Calhoun, and used as a rallying cry for the south in the lead up to the Civil War. Lee’s views on union and internal improvements were among the main tenets of the Whig party that grew out of opposition to Andrew Jackson. Henry Clay’s “American System,” which contained among other things proposals for stepped up construction of internal improvements including transportation byways, in many ways echoed those advocated by Lee. Ultimately however, Lee’s attacks on Jefferson were more a result of his belief that Jefferson and his policies were the cause of his personal financial failures. And it was these failures that provided the few memories of his father that Robert E. Lee had, and what enabled him to not only reject his fathers example as an advocate for union, but to use it as justification for disunion.

“The greatest failure of Henry Lee and many of his contemporaries,” Charles Royster notes, “was not their descendants’ departure from the fathers’ revolutionary example, but rather their descendants’ appeal to their fathers’ example to justify destroying the fathers’ work through disunion.”7 Because Harry Lee, and to a lesser extent George Washington and other Virginia Federalist leaders, had failed to triumph in its view of the relative importance of union as a bedrock principle on which to build the country, their sons were able to point to this failure as justification for their own rebellion; the same type of rebellion their own fathers had engaged in. Added to this political failure, Robert E. Lee also had the example of his fathers personal and financial failures, and no doubt linked the two as his father had. Paradoxically then, Robert E. Lee and others who rebelled in 1861, were able to combine this example of service in the American Revolution by their fathers, with their subsequent failure to put their views of what that revolution meant as a model for building a prosperous country, into a justification for rebellion.

So, to answer the question of whether "Light-Horse Harry" Lee would have approved of the actions of Robert E. Lee, I would say the answer is a resounding no. In fact I think Harry would be appalled by what his son was doing in his name, and would be horrified to learn his son was using his Revolutionary service as a model for disunion. He never disavowed his views on the need for a perpetual union except for one brief period during the debates over federal assumption of state debt, and died believing in them. It is ironic then, that in many ways Harry Lee’s life example rather than his political convictions, is what freed his son to fight for the dismantling of the Union.

1 The “Lost Cause” school of Civil War history attempted to reconcile the south’s loss in the Civil War, and its justification of slavery, with the perceived righteousness of its cause. It ascribed the loss to overwhelming superiority of northern resources, cast southern generals and civilized gentlemen while denigrating northern generals as brutish butchers. It aimed to deemphasize slavery as a proximate cause, emphasizing the war as a noble result of opposition to northern tyranny.

2Nolan, Paul C. The Lee's of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 161

3 Hume, Edgar Erskine, “Light Horse Harry Lee and His Fellow Members of the Cincinnati,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Jul., 1935), pp. 272

4Hume, p. 273

5 Higginbotham, Don, “The American Revolution: Whose Revolution?,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Mar., 1982), pp. 44

6 Royster, Charles. Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p.87

7Royster, p. 204


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    • profile image 7 years ago

      I've always thought "Light Horse" Harry Lee would be very sad to see the role his son played in the Civil War. Henry Lee was ahead of his time. His son was stuck in the past. What a price the South paid for remaining in the past. We still see repercussions today. Thanks for your article. Maybe you could do one on the connection between Thomas Jefferson's policies and the Civil War.

    • SonofKenny profile image

      Jim Daniels 7 years ago from Ashburn, VA

      Thanks very first attempt so any advice would certainly be appreciated!!

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      I am not a student of American History but I found this to be very enlightening and a quality product to add to hubpages. Thanks for this