Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley



Position of Lee favorable to advancement—His attention to discipline—His conduct noticed by Washington—Events after the battle of Brandywine—Lee commands Washington’s body guard at the battle of Germantown—Situation of the American army at Valley Forge —Of the British army in Philadelphia—Lee employed in harassing the British lines and cutting off foraging and marauding parties—Attempt to surprise him—Admirable defence—Promoted to be Major and to command an independent partisan corps—Correspondence with Washington.

YOUNG Harry Lee’s position in the army was favorable to his acquiring distinction, by great ability and prudence combined with spirit and enterprise; but all these qualities were essential to success, and fortunately he possessed them in an eminent degree.

In order to increase the efficiency of his company, he maintained a very strict discipline, was always attentive to the comfort and well being of his men, and what was of equal importance, he exacted from them the utmost care of their horses and accoutrements. The last was not so very difficult, as all the world knows that a Virginian naturally and instinctively loves a horse, and cherishes him as the apple of his eye; takes pride in his beauty and his speed, and does his utmost to increase his efficiency. Under these circumstances, perhaps, it is not to he wondered at that Lee’s company speedily became noted for its achievements, and that its commander was often charged with services in which it was required for the company to move with celerity, and strike the enemy hy surprise with certainty and success.

After the battle of Brandywine, which is but a day’s march from Philadelphia, it was naturally to be expected that General Howe would instantly take possession of Philadelphia, then the metropolis of the United States. But Washington by his able strategy kept him at bay for two weeks, and it was not till the 26th of September that Howe took Philadelphia, or rather, as Dr. Franklin shrewdly remarked when he heard the news at Paris, “Philadelphia took General Howe.”

Captain Lee’s activity and prudence, during this period, attracted the particular attention of General Washington. At the battle of Germantown he ordered Captain Lee, with his company, to act as his body guard, a distinction of no ordinary kind, when we consider the remarkable sagacity of Washington in the choice of persons to whom he entrusted any duty of an important and confidential nature.

The winter which followed the battle of Germantown, was passed by General Howe and his array in inactivity and dissipation in Philadelphia, and by Washington and his patriot army in suffering and want at the dreary camp of Valley Forge.

Stedman, a British historian, who was in Howe’s army at this time, thus describes the condition of Washington and his army as well as that of Howe:


“The American general determined to remain during the winter in the position which he then occupied at Valley Forge, recommending to his troops to build huts in the woods for sheltering themselves from the inclemency of the weather. And it is perhaps one of the most striking traits in General Washington’s character, that he possessed the faculty of gaining such an ascendancy over his raw and undisciplined followers, most of whom were destitute of proper winter clothing, and otherwise unprovided with necessaries, as to be able to prevail upon so many of them to remain with him during the winter, in so distressing a situation. With immense labor he raised wooden huts, covered with straw and earth, which formed very uncomfortable quarters. On the east and south, an intrenchment was made—the ditch six feet wide and three in depth; the mound not four feet high, very narrow, and such as might easily have been beat down by cannon. Two redoubts were also begun, but never completed. The Schuylkill was on his left, with a bridge across. His rear was mostly covered by an impassable precipice formed by Valley Creek, having only a narrow passage near the Schuylkill. On the right his camp was accessible with some difficulty, but the approach on his front was on ground nearly on a level with his camp. It is indeed difficult to give an adequate description of his misery in this situation. His army was destitute of almost every necessary of clothing, nay, almost naked; and very often on short allowance of provisions; an extreme mortality raged in his hospitals, nor had he any of the most proper medicines to relieve the sick. There were perpetual desertions of parties from him of ten to fifty at a time. In three months he had not four thousand men, and these could by no means be termed effective. Not less than five hundred horses perished from want and the severity of the season. He had often not three days’ provision in his camp, and at times not enough for one day. In this infirm and dangerous state he continued from December to May, during all which time every person expected that General Howe would have stormed or besieged his camp, the situation of which equally invited either attempt. To have posted two thousand men on a commanding ground near the bridge, on the north side of the Schuylkill, would have rendered his escape on the left impossible; two thousand men placed on a like ground opposite the narrow pass, would have as effectually prevented a retreat by his rear, and five or six thousand men stationed on the front and right of his camp, would have deprived him of flight on those sides. The positions were such, that if any of the corps were attacked, they could have been instantly supported. Under such propitious circumstances, what mortal could doubt of success? But the British army, neglecting all these opportunities, was suffered to continue at Philadelphia, where the whole winter was spent in dissipation. A want of discipline and proper subordination pervaded the whole army; and if disease and sickness thinned the American army at Valley Forge, indolence and luxury perhaps did no less injury to the British troops at Philadelphia. During the winter a very unfortunate inattention was shown to the feelings of the inhabitants of Philadelphia, whose satisfaction should have been vigilantly consulted, both from gratitude and from interest. They experienced many of the horrors of civil war. The soldiers insulted and plundered them, and their houses were occupied as barracks, without any compensation being made to them. Some of the first families were compelled to receive into their habitations individual officers, who were even indecent enough to introduce their mistresses into the mansions of their hospitable entertainers. This soured the minds of the inhabitants, many of whom were Quakers.But the residence of the army at Philadelphia occasioned distresses which will probably be considered by the generality of mankind as of a more grievous nature. It was with difficulty that fuel could be got on any terms. Provisions were most exorbitantly high. Gaming of every species was permitted, and even sanctioned. This vice not only debauched the mind, but, by sedentary confinement, and the want of seasonable repose, enervated the body. A foreign officer held the bank at the game of faro, by which he made a very considerable fortune; and but too many respectable families in Britain had to lament its baleful effects. Officers who might have rendered honorable service to their country, were compelled, by what was termed a bad run of luck, to dispose of their commissions, and return penniless to their friends in Europe. The father who thought he had made a provision for his son by purchasing him a commission in the army, ultimately found that he had put his son to school to learn the science of gambling, not the art of war. Dissipation had spread through the army, and indolence and want of subordination, its natural concomitants. For, if the officer be not vigilant, the soldier will never be alert.

Sir William Howe, from the manners and religious opinions of the Philadelphians, should have been particularly cautious. For this public dissoluteness of the troops could not but be regarded by such people as a contempt of them, as well as an offence against piety; and it influenced all the representations which they made to their countrymen respecting the British. They inferred from it also, that the commander could not be sufficiently intent on the plans of either conciliation or subjugation; so that the opinions of the Philadelphians, whether erroneous or not, materially promoted the cause of Congress. During the whole of this long winter of riot and dissipation, General Washington was suffered to continue, with the remains of his army, not exceeding five thousand effective men at most, undisturbed at Valley Forge: considerable arrears of pay due to them; almost in a state of nature for want of clothing; the Europeans in the American service disgusted, and deserting in great numbers, and indeed in companies, to the British army, and the natives tired of the war. Yet, under all these favorable circumstances for the British interest, no one step was taken to dislodge Washington, whose cannon were frozen up and could not be moved. If Sir William Howe had marched out in the night, he might have brought Washington to action; or, if hee had retreated, he must have left his sick, cannon, ammunition, and heavy baggage behind. A nocturnal attack on the Americans would have had this further good effect: it would have depressed the spirit of revolt, confirmed the wavering, and attached them to the British interest. It would have opened a passage for supplies to the city, which was in great want of provisions for the inhabitants. It would have shaken off that lethargy in which the British soldiers had been immerged during the winter. It would have convinced the well-affected that the British leader was in earnest. If Washington had retreated, the British could have followed. With one of the best appointed, in every respect, and finest armies (consisting of at least fourteen thousand effective men) ever assembled in any country, a number of officers of approved service, wishing only to be led to action, this dilatory commander, Sir William Howe, dragged out the winter without doing any one thing to obtain the end for which he was commissioned. Proclamation was issued after proclamation, calling upon the people of America to repair to the British standard, promising them remission of their political sins, and an assurance of protection in both person and property; but these promises were confined merely to paper. The best personal security to the inhabitants was an attack by the army, and the best security of property was peace; and this to be purchased by successful war. For, had Sir William Howe led on his troops to action, victory was in his power, and conquest in his train. During Sir William Howe’s stay at Philadelphia, a number of disaffected citizens were suffered to remain in the garrison; these people were ever upon the watch, and communicated to Washington every intelligence he could wish for.

We have copied this passage from Stedman with a view to show the contrast between the situation of Washington and Howe, and their respective armies, as exhibited by an enemy to our cause. It is literally the contrast between virtue and vice. The final result shows that Providence, in permitting the occupation of Philadelphia by the British army, was really promoting the cause of human liberty.

Fortunately for America, says Marshall, there were features in the character of Washington which, notwithstanding the discordant materials of which his army was composed, attached his officers and soldiers so strongly to his person, that no distress could weaken their affection, nor impair the respect and veneration in which they held him. To this sentiment is to be attributed, in a great measure, the preservation of a respectable military force, under circumstances but too well calculated for its dissolution.

Through this severe experiment on their fortitude, the native Americans persevered steadily in the performance of their duty; but the conduct of the Europeans, who constituted a large part of the army, was, to a considerable extent, less laudable; and at no period of the war was desertion so frequent as during this winter. Aided by the disaffected, deserters eluded the vigilance of the parties who watched the roads, and great numbers escaped into Philadelphia with their arms.

In a few days, the army was rescued from the famine with which it had been threatened, and considerable supplies of provisions were laid up in camp. It was perceived that the difficulties which had produced such melancholy effects, were created more by the want of due exertion in the commissary department, and by the efforts of the people to save their stock for a better market, than by any real deficiency of food in the country.

This severe demonstration seems to have convinced Congress that their favorite system was radically vicious, and the subject was taken up with the serious intention of remodeling the commissary department on principles recommended by experience. But such were the delays inherent in the organization of that body, that the new system was not adopted until late in April.

At no period of the war had the situation of the American army been more perilous than at Valley Forge. Even when the troops were not entirely destitute of food, their stock of provisions was so scanty that a quantity sufficient for one week was seldom in store. Consequently, had General Howe moved out in force, the American army could not have remained in camp; and their want of clothes disabled them from keeping the field in the winter. The returns of the first of February exhibit the astonishing number of three thousand nine hundred and eighty-nine men in camp, unfit for duty for want of clothes. Scarcely one man of these had a pair of shoes. Even among those returned capable of doing duty, many were so badly clad, that exposure to the cold of the season must have destroyed them. Although the total of the army exceeded seventeen thousand men, the present effective rank and file amounted to only five thousand and twelve.

While the sufferings of the soldiers felled the hospitals, a dreadful mortality continued to prevail in those miserable receptacles of the sick. A violent putrid fever swept off much greater numbers than all the diseases of the camp.

If then during the deep snow which covered the earth for a great part of the winter, the British general had taken the field, his own army would indeed have suffered greatly, but the American loss is not to be calculated.

Happily, the real condition of Washington was not well understood by Sir William Howe; and the characteristic attention of that officer to the lives and comfort of his troops, saved the American army. Fortunately, he confined his operations to those small excursions that were calculated to enlarge the comforts of his own soldiers, who, notwithstanding the favorable dispositions of the neighboring country, were much distressed for fuel, and often in great want of forage and fresh provisions. The vigilance of the parties on the lines, especially on the south side of the Schuylkill, intercepted a large portion of the supplies intended for the Philadelphia market; and corporal punishment was frequently inflicted on those who were detected in attempting this infraction of the laws. As Captain Lee was particularly active, a plan was formed, late in January, to surprise and capture him in his quarters. An extensive circuit was made by a large body of cavalry, who seized four of his patrols without communicating an alarm. About break of day the British horse appeared; upon which Captain Lee placed his troopers that were in the house, at the doors and windows, who behaved so gallantly as to repulse the assailants without losing a horse or man. Only Lieutenant Lindsay and one private were wounded. The whole number in the house did not exceed ten.[note 1] That of the assailants was said to amount to two hundred. They lost a sergeant and three men, with several horses, killed; and an officer and three men wounded.


The following is Captain Lee’s report of this affair to General Washington: “I am to inform your Excellency of an action, which happened this morning, between a party of the enemy’s dragoons and my troop of horse. They were near two hundred in number, and by a very circuitous route endeavored to surprise me in quarters. About daybreak they appeared. We were immediately alarmed, and manned the doors and windows. The contest was very warm; the British dragoons trusting to their vast superiority in number, attempted to force their way into the house. In this they were baffled by the bravery of my men. After having left two killed and four wounded, they desisted and sheered off. We are trying to intercept them. Colonel Stevens has pushed a party of infantry to reach their rear. So well directed was the opposition, that we drove them from the stables and saved every horse. We have got the arms, some cloaks, &c. of their wounded. The only damage I at present know of, is a slight wound received by Lieutenant Lindsay. I am apprehensive about the patrols. The enterprise was certainly daring, though the issue of it very ignominious. I had not a soldier for each window.”—January 20th.

Again; “We have at length ascertained the real loss of this day. Four privates, belonging to the patrol at the square, were taken. I am told they made a brave resistance. The quartermaster-sergeant, who imprudently ran from our quarters prior to the commencement of the skirmish, was also taken. The loss sustained stands thus: one sergeant and four privates taken; one lieutenant and two privates wounded. By what I can learn from the people of Derby, the enemy’s loss is as follows: three privates dead; one commissioned officer, one sergeant, and three privates wounded.”

The following letter of General Washington to Captain Lee attests his sense of the merit of his young protege:


MY DEAR LEE,—Although I have given you my thanks in the general orders of this day, for the late instance of your gallant behavior, I cannot resist the inclination I feel to repeat them again in this manner. I needed no fresh proofs of your merit, to bear you in remembrance. I waited only for the proper time and season to show it; those, I hope, are not far off. I shall also think of and will reward the merit of Lindsay, when an opening presents, as far as I can consistently; and I shall not forget the corporal, whom you have recommended to my notice. Offer my sincere thanks to the whole of your gallant party, and assure them, that no one felt pleasure more sensibly, or rejoiced more sincerely for your and their escape, than your affectionate, &c.

Washington soon afterwards so strongly recommended Captain Lee to Congress, that he was appointed to the command of two troops of horse with the rank of major. This body of troops was to act as an independent partisan corps.

The following is Washington’s letter to the President of Congress, soliciting Lee’s promotion:


Captain Lee of the light dragoons, and the officers under his command, having uniformly distinguished themselves by a conduct of exemplary zeal, prudence, and bravery, I took occasion, on a late signal instance of it, to express the high sense I entertained of their merit, and to assure him, that it should not fail of being properly noticed. I was induced to give this assurance from a conviction, that it is the wish of Congress to give every encouragement to merit, and that they would cheerfully embrace so favorable an opportunity of manifesting this disposition. I had it in contemplation at the time, in case no other method more eligible could be adopted, to make him an offer of a place in my family. I have consulted the committee of Congress upon the subject, and we were mutually of opinion, that giving Captain Lee the command of two troops of horse on the proposed establishment, with the rank of major, to act as an independent partisan corps, would be a mode of rewarding him very advantageous to the service. Captain Lee’s genius particularly adapts him to a command of this nature; and it will be the most agreeable to him of any station in which he could be placed.I beg leave to recommend this measure to Congress, and shall be obliged by their decision as speedily as may be convenient. The campaign is fast approaching, and there will probably be very little time to raise and prepare the corps for it. It is a part of the plan to give Mr. Lindsay the command of the second troop, and to make Mr. Peyton captain-lieutenant of the first.

In May, 1778, Major Lee’s partisan corps of light dragoons was increased from two companies to three, and the appointment of the additional officers was referred by Congress to General Washington.