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Friday, September 04, 2015

Light Horse Harry

Young, dashing and daring, Henry Lee III was a brilliant and resourceful young officer in the Revolutionary War. Lee earned the confidence of George Washington, and the faith of General Nathanael Greene, both of whom befriended him, a man young enough to be a son. Time and again, when the Continental Army needed them most, Light Horse Harry and his men delivered. He was the only officer below general to receive a Congressional Gold Medal.

But he is best known for his loving eulogy to Washington delivered to a grieving Congress on December 24, 1799. It included this passage: "First in war — first in peace — and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting. To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections tender: correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues."

That is a great description of Lee himself.

Born on January 29, 1756, in Leesylvania, near Dumfries, Virginia, into the most famous family in colonial America, through marriage, he was related to just about everyone in Virginia society.

Lee was 14 when he entered Princeton. Immature, he had several incidents that should have gotten him expelled. But while he was not the best student, he was the most well-read -- perhaps too well-read as he could put friends and family asleep as he droned on about his favorite books.

But he was no bookworm. He rode, obviously, and hunted. He was 17 when he graduated and still a teenager when Paul Revere made his ride to warn that the British were coming. A year later. he received a captaincy in the Virginia Dragoons on June 18, 1776. He recruited his cavalry and infantrymen. Each had to pass his rigorous testing. None were older than 24.

Joining Washington's troops that summer, he noticed the Continentals were poorly supplied. He and his men raided the British and stole 20 wagons of supplies. He continued raids and scouted the enemy, bringing back valuable information.

On August 19, 1779, Lee led a night raid by 300 men at Paulus Hook, New Jersey -- now Jersey City. They captured 158 prisoners. He planned to burn the barracks at dawn but relented when he learned the barracks housed sick soldiers, women and children. He lost a dozen men, including seven POWs, but the British suffered 50 casualties and of course, 158 POWs.

The victory boosted morale. Major Lee received the Congressional Gold Medal and a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Washington wrote, "The Major displayed a remarkable degree of prudence, address and bravery upon this occasion, which does the highest honor to himself and to all the officers and men under his command. The situation of the fort rendered the attempt critical and the success brilliant."

Congress also gave Lee $15,000 to distribute among his men.

Throughout the war, Lee and his men excelled in guerrilla tactics. Lee was so good that British General William Howe sent 50 men after him. Cornered in a barn and out-numbered fifty to eight, Lee and his men held off British charges three times before escaping.

Washington offered him a promotion and a job as an aide-de-camp. Lee liked battle more than paperwork. He spent months trying to figure out how to turn down his hero, Washington, but when he did, Washington understood and saw to it that Lee became a major general.

Lee proved himself in the Southern Theater, working alongside the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, as well as with General Greene, and General Andrew Pickens. It was with Pickens that Lee saw his greatest victory, in Pyle's Massacre, on February 24, 1781. Pretending to be British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Lee led his men close to Loyalist troops led by Doctor John Pyle in Orange County. Once within firing range, they opened fire. The battle ended with 93 dead loyalists and 250 POWs. American losses? One horse.

The irony is Pickens and Lee had been sent to find and capture Tarleton, but they never did.

That autumn, Lee was at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered. After the war, he married The Divine Matilda Lee, a second cousin, on April 13, 1782. They had three children before her early death in 1790. Her death devastated him as did the death, two years later, of their eldest son, Phillip, at age 10.

But he recovered. On June 18, 1793, Lee married the wealthy Anne Hill Carter, with whom he had six children, including Robert E. Lee. Washington sent Light Horse Harry to help quell the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. At the time, Lee was in the third year of his three years as governor of Virginia.

He served a term in Congress, the highlight being Washington's death and Lee's tribute to him. Lee would go bankrupt and spend a year in debtor's prison. His opposition to the War of 1812 led to his eventual death as a mob in Baltimore attacked war protesters and severely beat him. He never completely healed and died at age 62 on March 25, 1818, at the home of General Greene's daughter on Cumberland Island, Georgia.

As the population of Virginia grew along its western frontier in 1792, part of Russell County became a county of its own, later adding part of Scott County. They named it Lee County, in honor of Light Horse Harry. It is the Virginia part of the Cumberland Gap, which opened the west into Kentucky and Tennessee, a fitting tribute to dashing and daring young leader.

Don't forget, you may download my books on Kindle free for the next few days. Volume I through Tuesday, December 29, 2015. And Volume II through Monday, December 28, 2015.


  1. " Cornered in a barn and out-numbed 50 to eight..." Spell-check's no good when you typed a valid word, but not what you wanted.
    I'd heard of Light Horse Harry, but nothing like as much as this.

    Doin' great, Don.

    1. Thanks. I'm numbed by thaat typo. -- fixing.