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Professor Donald Elder- Heroes and Generals of the American Revolution–Light Horse Harry Lee

Oct 2, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder- Heroes and Generals of the American Revolution–Light Horse Harry Lee –

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. For whatever reason, we sometimes have very iconic, interesting names for our heroes. In the American Revolution, we had the “Swamp Fox”, and later in the Civil War- Stonewall Jackson. Today we are going to learn about Light Horse Harry Lee.   First, where was he born and how did he get involved in the American Revolution?

Henry Lee III was born in Prince William County, Virginia, in March of 1756. His family traced its Virginia lineage back to the 1600s, and both Henry Lee I and Henry Lee II had served as officers in the Virginia militia. The Lee family’s wealth allowed them to send Henry to what is now known as Princeton University. He graduated from there in 1773 at the age of 17, and chose to pursue a career in the legal profession. His days as a lawyer did not last long, however, as he immediately offered his services to the Patriot cause upon the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775.

2. How did his famous nickname come about?

When he made the decision to join the American cause, Lee enlisted in a Virginia cavalry regiment. Given the rank of captain, Lee commanded the 5th Troop in that regiment. Soon, Washington assimilated the unit into the regular US Army, and renamed the regiment the 1st Continental Light Dragoons. At that point in time, armies usually featured two types of mounted soldiers. Members of cavalry units attacked on horseback and usually used swords to assault their enemies.

Dragoons, on the other hand, rode horses into battle but usually dismounted and fought on foot. Given this role, Lee and his men soon distinguished themselves with their ability to ride quickly into battle and engage the enemy.

Because of that ability, the army soon nicknamed him “Light Horse Harry.” Throughout the rest of the war, his exploits would guarantee that the sobriquet remained with him.

3. Apparently he had his own squadron of men—Lee’s Legion. Tell us about them and their heroics.

Because of Lee’s distinguished service with the 1st Continental Light Dragoons, Washington decided in 1778 to promote him to major and give him an independent command. This consisted of the 100 cavalry men belonging to his 5th Troop, along with 180 infantry men. Known as Lee’s Legion, this unit saw action for the first time in September of 1778 when Lee’s men attacked a detachment of Hessian soldiers in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Lee’s Legion inflicted 23 casualties, while suffering none themselves. A year later, Lee’s Legion attacked a British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey, and succeeded in capturing 158 British soldiers. Impressed with his accomplishment, Congress awarded him a gold medal. While Congress gave out a number of such medals, Lee was the only officer below the rank of general to receive such an award. These actions made Lee’s Legion one of the most famous units in the American Army during the Revolutionary War.

4. I understand that he once fought with General Francis Marion, the legendary “Swamp Fox.” What does history tell us about those days? (they surely must have been exciting!)

In May of 1780, the British had succeeded in capturing Charleston, South Carolina. They then moved inland, and on August 16, 1780 inflicted a crushing defeat on an American force at the Battle of Camden. Unwilling to simply cede the South to the British, George Washington sent military units to that theater of operations to try to stabilize the situation. Determining that this force needed a cavalry contingent, Washington ordered Lee to take his legion to South Carolina. When he arrived in that state, Lee immediately sought a rendezvous with Francis Marion.

A lieutenant colonel in a South Carolina regiment, Marion had managed to avoid capture at Charleston and Camden, and had afterwards engaged in a campaign of guerilla warfare against the British. Nicknamed “The Swamp Fox” for his ability to elude British attempts to capture him, Marion conducted raids on British outposts in the hinterland of South Carolina. When Lee met up with Marion (by then promoted to general), the two agreed to launch an attack on one such British position at Georgetown, South Carolina in January of 1781.

Nothing came of this campaign, but later that year the two did succeed in capturing Fort Watson and Fort Motte. These actions wreaked havoc on British communications throughout the state, and forced them to adopt a new strategy for suppressing American resistance. In this manner, two of the most marvelously nicknamed figures in American history leant their combined talents to efforts that would help to resurrect their nation’s cause in the South.

5. After the Revolutionary War ended, what events continued to engage him?

Lee actually left the army before the end of the war, and returned to the practice of law. Soon, however, his fellow citizens elected him to represent the state of Virginia in the US Congress. In 1789, he became a member of the Virginia state legislature, serving in that body until 1791. In that year, he won his state’s gubernatorial race, and would serve as governor for three years. His political career went on hiatus in 1794 when George Washington (by then the president of the United States) asked him to command US army forces tasked with suppressing what is known in American history as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Four years later, President John Adams, fearing a possible war with the French, commissioned him as a major general in the regular US Army. Nothing came of this, however, and Lee returned to civilian life. Shortly thereafter, Lee won election to the US House of Representatives. He served one term, and then returned to civilian life. Unfortunately, his life soon took a turn for the worse.

His business ventures proved unsuccessful, and a mob beat him in 1812 because of his opposition to the war that had recently broken out with the British. Lee never fully recovered, and died a few years later.

6. Where exactly is he buried? I understand he received full military honors!

In an effort to regain his health, Lee had gone to the Bahamas after the War of 1812. The trip did not help, however, and Lee decided to return to Virginia. But on his return trip, his health deteriorated, and Lee disembarked at a plantation owned by the family of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene. In March of 1818, he passed away there. Learning of Lee’s death, President James Monroe ordered nearby US Navy forces to sail there and give Lee a burial with full military honors.

In 1913, it was decided that his remains should be disinterred and moved to a chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University. There he was buried beside his second wife and his much more famous youngest son: Robert E. Lee.

7. What have I neglected to ask about this famous American hero?

Henry Lee III is an example of the fleeting nature of fame in American history. Once a household name for his courageous service during the American Revolution, he became essentially a footnote as time passed. If they remember him at all, most Americans know him only as the father of Robert E. Lee. In addition, they may know the toast “To George Washington: first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” but few will know that Lee first said those words.

Americans should do much more to commemorate people like him who helped to give us a nation during the first critical years of our existence.

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