Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley



Birth of Henry Lee—Private instruction at home—Goes to Princeton College—Is graduated—Takes charge of his father’s private business during his absence on public affairs—His remarkable abilities—Takes an interest in military affairs—Appointed Captain in Bland’s regiment of cavalry—Great want of cavalry in the army under Washington—Bland’s regiment joins the main army—Engaged in the Battle of Brandywine—Washington’s retreat after the battle—Lee sent on detached service with Colonel Alexander Hamilton—Singular adventures of the two officers—Their life-long friendship.

HENRY LEE was born at the family seat of the Lees, at Stratford, Westmoreland county, Virginia, January 29th, 1752. His family was highly distinguished for respectability and talent. He received the rudiments of his education from a private tutor, a common practice among wealthy families in the South. When thoroughly fitted for admission, he was sent to Princeton College, New Jersey, then under the presidency of the patriotic Dr. Witherspoon, where he was graduated in the eighteenth year of his age. In addition to the usual course of study, Lee, young as he was, appears to have paid particular attention to the Belles Lettres; and to have practiced the writing of English composition with success; a fair augury of his rather remarkable career in the republic of letters, as well as the camp and the council chamber.

In the year 1774, soon after his return home from college, young Lee was intrusted with the management of all the private business concerns of his father, whilst the latter was engaged in negotiating a treaty with some Indian tribes on behalf of the colony of Virginia. In the discharge of this complicated and laborious duty, Henry Lee displayed a degree of prudence, industry, and ability, far beyond his years.

The two years succeeding, viz: 1775, 1776, formed a period of intense excitement in Virginia, that colony having assumed a leading position in resisting by force of arms the oppression of the mother country, Henry Lee was among the foremost to take an active part in organizing and disciplining the militia; and the study of the art of war became now the main business of his life.

In consequence of the active part which he took in military affairs, Henry Lee, in 1776, was appointed captain in one of the twenty-six companies of cavalry, raised in Virginia, to remedy a very important deficiency in the Revolutionary army. These troops were destined to become the celebrated “Virginia Horse,” so lauded by Mr. Cooper in his novel of The Spy; and no part of the force was to become so famous as that which now and shortly afterwards was placed under the command of Henry Lee.

The reader will not fail to remember that about this time Great Britain was pouring large, and well appointed armies upon our shores. General Howe, the commander-in-chief, having under his command in the neighborhood of New York not less than thirty thousand men, while Washington could not muster a sixth part of this number.

The different colonies were duly impressed by the representations of Congress and of General Washington, with the indispensable importance of sending to the aid of the American commander-in-chief every possible reinforcement. In pursuance of this design, the twenty-six companies of cavalry were incorporated into one regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Theodorick Bland, and offered by the State of Virginia to Congress.

No offer could possibly have been more acceptable to Washington at that time, (1777.) During the campaign of the preceding year, the army under his command had suffered severely from the total want of efficient cavalry, and many of the disasters of that trying period of the war were attributable to this deficiency in the army.

Henry Lee’s company formed a portion of the Virginia Horse. Mr. Irving, in his life of Washington, thus notices young Lee’s entrance upon his new theatre of action:

At this time Henry Lee of Virginia, of military renown, makes his first appearance. He was in the twenty-second year of his age, and in the preceding year had commanded a company of Virginia Volunteers. He had recently signalized himself in scouting parties, harassing the enemies’ pickets. Washington, in a letter to the President of Congress (Aug. 30th), writes: “This minute twenty-four British prisoners arrived, taken yesterday by Captain Lee of the light-horse.” His adventurous exploits soon won him notoriety, and the popular appellation of “Light-horse Harry.” He was favorably noticed by Washington throughout the war. Perhaps there was something besides his bold, dashing spirit, which won him this favor. There may have been early recollections connected with it. Lee was the son of the lady who first touched Washington’s heart in his school-boy days, the one about whom he wrote rhymes at Mount Vernon and Greenway Court—his “lowland beauty.”

In his last statement respecting Henry Lee’s mother, Mr. Irving appears to have been mistaken, as a son of Lee has assured the writer of this memoir, that there is not the slightest foundation for this idea of the accomplished biographer of Washington, although he repeatedly returns to it when mentioning Light-horse Harry, for whom he, as well as Washington, had a decided partiality.

The common accounts say that Colonel Bland’s regiment joined the army under Washington in Sept. 1777. The following letter from Captain Lee to Colonel Bland shows that the regiment was already with Washington’s army in New Jersey in April 1777. It also affords pleasing evidence of the Captain’s solicitude for the good appearance of his men.

BOUNDBROOK, April 13th, 1777.

DEAR COLONEL,—Your favor by Lieutenant Peyton, I received yesterday, and am much obliged to you for your favorable sentiments of me and mine. I find my station is Chatham; you require that I march through Morristown. How happy would I be, if it was possible for my men to be furnished with caps and boots, prior to my appearance at head-quarters! You know, dear Colonel, that, justly, an officer’s reputation depends not only on the discipline, but appearance of his men. Could the articles mentioned be allowed my troop, their appearance into Morris would secure me from the imputation of carelessness as their captain, and I have vanity to hope would assist in procuring some little credit to the colonel and regiment. Pardon my solicitations on any head, respecting the condition of my troop; my sole object is the credit of the regiment. Yours affectionately, &38;c.

Another letter to Colonel Bland, dated April 25th, explains his detention by General Lincoln at Boundbrook to assist in an attempt against the Hessian picquet.[note 1]

A letter from General Washington to Colonel Bland, dated Wilmington, August 30th, 1777, shows that Bland’s regiment was with the main army in Delaware, watching the movements of the British army. They had left Philadelphia with Washington and the main army on the 24th of August, and Wilmington was now the general’s head-quarters. The enemy had already landed at the head of Elk, and were proceeding towards the Brandywine. Distressed by want of horses, hemmed in by strong parties of the American Militia, and almost daily annoyed by the attacks of Captain Henry Lee’s and other smaller detachments of cavalry upon his pickets, Howe did not move forward till the third of September.

A letter from Colonel Bland to General Washington, without date, but written evidently a few days before the battle of Brandywine, communicates information respecting the enemy’s movements. On the day of the battle, before its commencement, Colonel Bland was employed in reconnoitering the enemy with his horse. At half-past one he writes to Sullivan and to Washington that he had discovered the position of a portion of the enemy’s force, and at two o’clock General Sullivan writes to Washington: “Colonel Bland has this moment sent me word, that the enemy are in the rear of my right, about two miles, coming down. There are, he says, about two brigades of them. He also says he saw a dust back in the country for above an hour.”

From these notices it is apparent that Bland’s regiment was actively engaged in the battle of Brandywine which was fought on the 11th of September, and in which, notwithstanding it has always been considered a perfect defeat of the Americans, they nevertheless put hors de combat not less than one fifth of the British troops,[note 2] and taught General Howe to respect the valor of American troops to that extent that he never afterwards ventured to encounter Washington in a pitched battle.

Of Captain Lee’s behavior in the battle of Brandywine, we find no written record; but he has given us in his “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States,” an interesting relation of certain events immediately following the battle, in which he took an active part. It is as follows:

Washington retired during the night to Chester;[note 3] whence he decamped the next morning. Taking the route to Philadelphia, and crossing the Schuylkill, he moved up that river, until he reached Swedesford, where he recrossed it, and gained the Lancaster road. On the 15th of September he advanced to meet the enemy, who, after three days’ repose on the field of battle, quitted the Brandywine, pointing his march to the upper fords of the Schuylkill. A violent storm, accompanied by a deluge of rain, stopped the renewal of battle on the following day, near the Warren tavern on the road from Philadelphia to Lancaster; for which the two armies were arrayed, and in which the van troops were engaged. Separated by the tempest, the American general exerted himself to replenish his ammunition, destroyed by the fall of water, from the insecurity of our[note 4] cartouch boxes and artillery tumbrels; while the British general pursued his route across the Schuylkill, directing his course to the American metropolis. Contiguous to the enemy’s route, lay some mills stored with flour, for the use of the American army. Their destruction was deemed necessary by the commander in chief; and his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton,[note 5] attended by Captain Lee,[note 6] with a small party of his troop of horse, were dispatched in front of the enemy, with the order of execution. The mill, or mills, stood on the bank of the Schuylkill. Approaching, you descend a long hill leading to a bridge over the mill-race. On the summit of this hill two videts were posted; and soon after the party reached the mills, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton took possession of a flat-bottomed boat for the purpose of transporting himself and his comrades across the river, should the sudden approach of the enemy render such retreat necessary. In a little time this precaution manifested his sagacity: the fire of the videts announced the enemy’s appearance. The dragoons were ordered instantly to embark. Of the small party, four with the lieutenant colonel jumped into the boat, the van of the enemy’s horse in full view, pressing down the hill in pursuit of the two videts. Captain Lee, with the remaining two, took the decision to regain the bridge, rather than detain the boat.

Hamilton was committed to the flood, struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains; while Lee put his safety on the speed and soundness of his horse.

The attention of the enemy being engaged by Lee’s push for the bridge, delayed the attack upon the boat for a few minutes, and thus afforded to Hamilton a better chance of escape. The two videts preceded Lee as he reached the bridge; and himself with the four dragoons safely passed it, although the enemy’s front section emptied their carbines and pistols[note 7] at the distance of ten or twelve paces. Lee’s apprehension for the safety of Hamilton continued to increase, as he heard volleys of carbines discharged upon the boat, which were returned by guns singly and occasionally. He trembled for the probable issue; and as soon as the pursuit ended, which did not long continue, he despatched a dragoon to the commander in chief, describing with feelings of anxiety what had passed, and his sad presage. His letter was scarcely perused by Washington, before Hamilton himself appeared; and, ignorant of the contents of the paper in the general’s hand, renewed his attention to the ill-boding separation, with the probability that his friend Lee had been cut off; inasmuch as instantly after he turned for the bridge, the British horse reached the mill, and commenced their operations upon the boat.

Washington with joy relieved his fears, by giving to his aid-de-camp the captain’s letter.

Thus did fortune smile upon these two young soldiers, already united in friendship, which ceased only with life. Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton escaped unhurt; but two of his four dragoons, with one of the boatmen, were wounded.