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Robert E Lee's Father A Forgotten American Revolutionary War Hero : Light-Horse Harry Lee

Updated on March 12, 2018
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas Fayetteville Geography & History

The Birth of an American Revolutionary War Hero

In 1773 Henry Lee graduated from Princeton and begin to pursue a legal career. Soon afterward at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Lee would put his law career on hold and join the Virginia dragoons as a captain. Lee was quickly promoted to major and gained a reputation as a leader of light troops, he was given command of a detachment know as Lee's Legion. It was at this time he earned the name Light-Horse Harry Lee for his superb horsemanship. Lee would fight in numerous battles under General Greene in the southern theater of the Revolutionary War until British General Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. Lee's legion was one of the most active and effective cavalry corps in the Continental Army. Lee's legion was Washington's bodyguard in the Battle of Germantown. His storming of Paulus Hook, New Jersey (August 19,1779), won praise from General Washington.

On December 26, 1799 Lee delivered the Eulogy of George Washington before the two Houses of Congress even though he still owed the late president money from a bad investment. Soon after Washington's funeral, Lee would continue make more bad real estate investments which would cause him to lose his very large estate on the Potomac River, later he would be imprisoned twice for debt. In 1812 Lee was badly crippled in a Baltimore riot while defending the editor of an anti-war newspaper. In the melee Lee suffered extensive internal injuries as well as head and facial wounds, even his speech was affected. The next year he would set sail for the West Indies to escape debt collectors and convalesce from the injuries he sustained in Baltimore. Light-Horse Harry Lee died on March 25,1818, on Cumberland Island, Georgia, never fully recovering from the injuries he received from the mob in Baltimore.

As the Civil War began to heat up in the winter of 1862, Robert E. Lee took a moment from his inspecting coastal defenses to visit Cumberland Island, Georgia. There amid the rustling saw grass and live oaks bearded with Spanish moss he found the gave he was looking for, he stood alone before it and paid tribute to Henry "Light Horse Harry Lee", the father he never really knew soon after a young Robert E. Lee turned 3 years of age he would never see his father again. "The spot is marked by a plain marble slab, "Lee wrote his wife, Mary, "with his name and age, and date of his death." A witness would later recall that Lee fell into a long silence as he walked back to the steamer that would return him to war.

Light Horse Henry Lee Hero of the American Revolution

A young Light Horse Henry Lee III
A young Light Horse Henry Lee III | Source
Map of Paulus Hook New Jersey. Scene of Light Horse Henry Lee's greatest victory in the American Revolutionary War ( August 19 1779).
Map of Paulus Hook New Jersey. Scene of Light Horse Henry Lee's greatest victory in the American Revolutionary War ( August 19 1779). | Source
Lee married a wealthy second cousin, Matilda Lee, who inherited Stratford Hall, a red brick plantation house which included more than 2,000 acres on the Potomac River. Lee put heavy chains around doors of the plantation to keep out bill collectors.
Lee married a wealthy second cousin, Matilda Lee, who inherited Stratford Hall, a red brick plantation house which included more than 2,000 acres on the Potomac River. Lee put heavy chains around doors of the plantation to keep out bill collectors. | Source

The Battle of Paulus Hook

On August 19,1779, Major Light Horse Henry Lee launched a daring nighttime raid on the heavily fortified British fort on Paulus Hook in what is today downtown Jersey City. Lee's troops surprised the British taking 158 prisoners and withdrew before daylight. After the battle the British lost control over most of New Jersey. For nearly three years, the Union Jack had flown over the fort on Paulus Hook, effectively cutting off New York Harbor. The heroic raid on the British stronghold with a handful of dragoons earned Lee, then 23, the nickname "Light Horse" Harry.

Lee's Gold Medal for the Battle of Paulus Hook

Henry Lee's Gold Medal he received in the Revolutionary War. On September 22, 1779, the Second Continental Congress presented Lee with a gold medal for his leadership at the Battle of Paulus Hook.
Henry Lee's Gold Medal he received in the Revolutionary War. On September 22, 1779, the Second Continental Congress presented Lee with a gold medal for his leadership at the Battle of Paulus Hook. | Source
Julian Vannerson's photograph of Robert E Lee in March 1864. Confederate hero of the Civil War he was Harry's youngest son, inherited his father's military courage, but avoided his recklessness in his personal life.
Julian Vannerson's photograph of Robert E Lee in March 1864. Confederate hero of the Civil War he was Harry's youngest son, inherited his father's military courage, but avoided his recklessness in his personal life. | Source
Lee at age 31 in 1838 as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the United States Army.
Lee at age 31 in 1838 as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the United States Army. | Source

Obelisk in Jersey City to mark the site of Paulus Hook

Obelisk to mark the site of the Battle of Paulus Hook August 19, 1779. A granite obelisk at the corner of Washington and Grand Street in Jersey City, erected in 1903 by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Obelisk to mark the site of the Battle of Paulus Hook August 19, 1779. A granite obelisk at the corner of Washington and Grand Street in Jersey City, erected in 1903 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. | Source

Battle Map of American Revolutionary War Battle Guilford Courthouse

Battle of Map of Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781) was the largest, most hotly-contested battle of the Revolutionary War's Southern Campaign. The battle would lead to the eventual surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Battle of Map of Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781) was the largest, most hotly-contested battle of the Revolutionary War's Southern Campaign. The battle would lead to the eventual surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. | Source

The Life and Times of Light-Horse Harry Lee

During the American Revolution, Light-Horse Harry Lee earned his fame as a swashbuckling commander of a light infantry brigade. General George Washington would send Lee south to fight under General Nathanael Greene in the Carolinas and Georgia. Lee raided British outposts, slashed supply lines and gathered intelligence that helped keep the enemy off balance. He also displayed a certain amount of ruthlessness, ordering his men to display a deserter's severed head in camp, and torturing a loyalist civilian by holding a red-hot shovel to his feet during interrogations.

In 1782, with the war's end in sight, Lee abruptly resigned his commission. He said he felt mentally drained, overlooked and unappreciated. He headed home for Virginia, keen on pursuing the pleasures of peace but was so upset about leaving the army the he couldn't say his farewells in person. Within a few months of leaving the army Lee married a wealthy second cousin, Matilda Lee, who inherited Stratford Hall, a red brick plantation house which included more than 2,000 acres on the Potomac River. Matilda bore three children before her premature death during child-birth eight years later. Soon after Matilda died in 1790, Lee married Anna Hill Carter, another Virginia blueblood, who bore him six children.

Lee soon grew bored with the serious business of farming and followed other relatives into the era's rough-and-tumble politics, which often seemed similar to combat, with the fiery arguments, warring camps and tenuous truces. In 1785, he became a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he alienated fellow Virginians because of his outspoken views on western trade and a strong central government.

Even though Lee plunged himself headlong into politics, he still missed the thrill of soldiering. So when President Washington recalled Lee, then in his third term as Virginia's governor, to lead the state's militia against the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania he jumped at the challenge. The show of force, from Virginia and other state units, ended the rebellion without bloodshed.

The attributes that served Lee in war such as swiftness, optimism, and bravado served him poorly in his private life. He dreamed big and soon owned thousands of raw acres in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, where he anticipated the establishment of new settlements for a growing nation. In 1789, in an attempt to gain an easy profit, he appealed to his friend Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, for insider information about the governments plans to issue new currency. Hamilton abruptly refused to offer Lee any information. Soon Lee was over his head in debt and after years of avoiding creditors, Light Horse Harry earned the new dubious alias "Swindling Harry Lee."

The Battle of Guildford Courthouse

Light Horse Henry Lee's Final Resting Place

Source

Harry's Life and Death

On December 26, 1799 Lee delivered the Eulogy of George Washington before the two Houses of Congress sadly he still owed Washington money. Relegated to the fringes of political life Lee still remained a staunch Federalist, it would lead into the violence surrounding the announcement of the War of 1812. Soon after President Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, Lee traveled to Baltimore to support a Federalist newspaper editor, Alexander C. Hanson, whose outspoken anti-war rhetoric ignited public sentiment with newly arrived Irish immigrates who harbored extreme hatred for the British. Rioters attacked Hanson's newspaper, destroying the press and burning the building. Hanson would defy the opposition and continue producing the paper at another location. When Lee and others rallied behind him, a brick-throwing mob forced them to seek shelter in the city jail. The next day, rioters broke into the jail, and dragged Hanson and his followers into the street to beat them. One died. Another was stripped of his clothes, tarred and feathered.

Lee and Hanson were knifed and pummeled. One rioter tried to cut off Lee's nose, disfiguring him; another poured hot wax in his eye to find out if he was really dead. He was alive, but seemed lifeless as he lay senseless and crumpled on the cobblestone street of Baltimore. Later friends would carry Lee away and treat his wounds. Crippled and broken spiritually he would never completely recover from that fateful day. Children would recoil at the sight of his horribly scarred face. His sight impaired, his health "deranged," as he put it. The old swagger had bravado had been beaten out of Light Horse Harry.

In April 1813, Lee would set sail for the Caribbean. He would spend the next five years of his life wandering, hoping the warm climate would restore his health. He stayed with friends wrote bad checks, he seized rooms without the authority to do so and consulted doctors who could do little to relieve his pain. Lee's health continued to worsen which was aggravated by a painful bladder condition, as well as the trauma from his beating in Baltimore. He was deathly ill when he arrived at Nathanael Greene's estate in early March 1818 on Cumberland Island Georgia. He died a few weeks later at the age of 62 and was buried in the Greene family plot, escorted by a marine guard and saluted by the USS John Adams.

Nearly fifty years would pass when Robert E. Lee made his way to Dungeness in 1862 to say farewell to his swashbuckling, distant father. Biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor calculated that Robert spent no more than a total of 34 months with Harry, most of it as a toddler. Even so it is easy to see Harry's fearlessness burning bright in Robert, who also absorbed his father's genius for improvisation on the battlefield. And Robert E. Lee unquestionably gained from the father's negative example, learning the self-command, correctness and frugality that Light Horse Harry Lee habitually preached but almost never practiced. It is beyond question that Robert E. Lee's use of Napoleonic Tactics on the battlefield saved the day for Confederate forces on many occasions during the American Civil War 1862-65.

Henry Lee III

Sources

Nagel C. Paul. The Lees of Virginia Seven Generations of an American Family. Oxford University Press. New York Oxford. 198 Madison Avenue, New York , New York, 10016. 1990.

Rhodehamel John. The Essential George Washington. Penguin Books 14 East 60th Street New York, NY 10022.

Royster Charles. Light-Horse Harry Lee And The Legacy Of The American Revolution. Alfred A. Knopf Publishing. New York , NY USA. 1981.

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