Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley


Private life—Pecuniary embarrassments—Literary pursuits—Memoirs—The Baltimore mob—General Lee wounded and General Lingan killed in defending the liberty of the press—General Lee’s health ruined—He goes to the West Indies—Returns—Visits Mrs. Shaw in Georgia—Dies on her plantation—Character of General Lee.

ON his retirement to private life, General Lee found himself seriously embarrassed in his pecuniary affairs. His military services had obtained for him more honor than profit. His subsequent appointment to high civil offices had been by no means lucrative; but had imposed upon him the necessity of entertaining a great deal of company; and his disposition being genial and hospitable, he had spent more money in exercising the rites of hospitality than he could well afford.

This led to the gradual accumulation of debt upon debt, and in 1809, we find him confined within the bounds of Spotsylvania county, on account of pecuniary obligations. It is fortunate for the literature of our country that this was the case; for, in the succeeding three years, he produced the work on which his literary reputation will hereafter rest, the “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.” This is one of the best works which has ever been written on the Revolutionary War. As we have copiously quoted from it, in the present work, it is superfluous for us to make any remarks on its style; but we may be permitted to observe that so far as regards the war in the Southern States, it is complete, clear, circumstantial, and satisfactory. In all matters in which the writer himself was concerned, it has all the vividness and graphic force which might be expected from an intelligent eye-witness; and in those actions where he was not personally present, he has had recourse to the best written authorities, and to the testimony of other officers who were his personal acquaintance. All subsequent writers on the Revolution have had recourse to this work, and have regarded it as reliable authority. It was published in Philadelphia in 1812.

General Lee’s brilliant career as a military commander, and as a statesman, would naturally lead the reader to anticipate a peaceful and glorious termination to his eventful life. But unfortunately this was not his destiny. When war was declared by the United States against Great Britain, (June 18th, 1812), General Lee was in Baltimore. He was the personal friend of Mr. Hanson, the Editor of the Baltimore Federal Republican which was published in that city. Two days after the declaration of war, June 20th, an article appeared in this paper announcing a determined opposition to the war and its supporters. Two days after this publication a mob pulled down the printing office, occupied by the editors of the paper, and destroyed their printing press.

While the rioters were being prosecuted for this breach of the peace, Mr. Hanson and his friends took possession of a building in Charles Street, renewed the paper, and armed for the defence of the office. It was soon attacked by the mob, and defended by Hanson and his friends, and several of the assailants were killed and others wounded by fire arms. A field piece was brought to bear upon the building, when the civil authorities interfered. What followed we copy from the report of a committee of the city councils made to the Mayor of Baltimore:

The assailants with their field piece by the interposition of several citizens were restrained from firing upon the house, under an assurance that the persons in it would surrender themselves to the civil authority; the military soon after appeared and placing themselves in front of the house no further injury occurred, a negotiation took place with those within the house, and upon being assured that a military guard would be furnished, and every effort used by the mayor and the general to ensure their safety from violence, they surrendered themselves to the civil authority about seven o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, and were conducted to jail and committed for further examination; they were Alexander C. Hanson, General Henry Lee, General James M. Lingan, William Schrœder, John Thompson, William B. Bend, Otho Sprigg, Henry Kennedy, Robert Kilgour, Henry Nelson, John E. Hall, George Winchester, Peregrine Warfield, George Richards, Edward Gwinn, David Hoffman, Horatio Bigelow, Ephraim Gaither, William Gaither, Jacob Schley, Mark U. Pringle, Daniel Murray, and Richard S. Crabb. After the removal of the persons, the interior of the house was greatly injured, and the furniture in it destroyed and dispersed.

The committee further report, that during the course of the day the mayor applied to the sheriff to use particular precaution in securing the doors of the jail, which he promised to do, and about one o’clock application was made by the mayor and other justices, to the brigadier general to call out the military to preserve the peace and quiet of the state. Orders were issued calling out a regiment of infantry, two troops of cavalry, and two companies of artillery, to parade at an appointed time and place. The mayor, the general, and many citizens repaired to the jail early in the afternoon, at which a number of persons had assembled, the much greater part of whom were peaceable and orderly citizens; those of a different temper of mind upon being remonstrated with, appeared to yield to the admonitions of others, and to be appeased with the assurances given that the party in gaol should not be bailed or suffered to escape during the night, it became the prevailing opinion about the prison that no mischief would be attempted that night; in consequence of which, and of the insufficiency of the force assembled, the military, by the order of the general, with the approbation of the mayor, were dismissed; and many persons left the prison and went to their homes. Shortly after dark, the number of the disorderly increased, and an intention was manifested of breaking into the jail; the mayor, with the aid of a few persons, succeeded for some time in preventing the prison door from been forced open; they being overpowered by the increased numbers and violence of the assailants, the mayor was forced away; and the door having been previously battered, and again threatened, was opened by the turnkey.[note 1] Upon the entry of the assailants, they forced the inner doors and pressed into the room in which the persons above-mentioned were confined. Here a scene of horror ensued which the committee cannot well describe. The result was, that one of the persons (General Lingan) was killed, eleven others dreadfully beaten, eight of whom were thrown together in front of the jail, supposed to be dead.

Thus far the report of a committee who themselves at the time the report was made, were no doubt in terror of another Baltimore mob, and glossed over the affair as well as they could. Its horror and atrocity has never, we believe, been surpassed in the history of mobs.

General Lee was among those who were severely wounded; and the injuries which he received then and there, so effectually broke down his naturally firm and strong physique, that he never knew a moment of respite from disease and suffering for the remainder of his life; though he lived near six years after this brutal attack on his person.

In the hope of some benefit from change of air, he repaired to the West Indies. But this was of no avail.

Returning from the West Indies in 1818, he paid a visit to Mrs. Shaw, the daughter of his old commander General Greene, who was then residing on Cumberland Island, near St. Mary’s, Georgia; and at this place on the 25th March, 1818, General Lee breathed his last.

From a member of the family we learn that General Lee was married a second time, and that one of the sons by this marriage is an officer in the Navy of the United States. Other details of his family connections we have not been able to obtain.

After the account which we have given of General Lee’s life and actions in the foregoing pages, it seems almost superfluous to attempt a portrait of his character. We have seen the purity of his patriotism, his undaunted courage, his high sense of the claims of honor and humanity, his ability as a military commander, his unceasing care of the welfare of his men, his constant vigilance as a disciplinarian, and his brilliant success in military undertakings which had baffled the efforts of officers older and supposed to be abler than himself. We have witnessed his patriotism and ability as a statesman and politician; and we have had frequent occasion to observe that the illustrious Washington, one of the keenest detectors of the real traits of human character that ever lived, and who never tolerated the slightest dereliction from truth and honor, distinguished Lee by the warmest friendship, from the moment when he mustered his troop at Morristown in 1777, till the Father of his country breathed his last at Mount Vernon. Washington advocated Lee’s claims for promotion with Congress; and distinguished him by placing him always in the noblest theatre for active military service; and when Lee was placed in the legislative councils of the nation, and Washington in the supreme executive chair, the latter often consulted the former in relation to important public measures.

In private the friendship of these illustrious men was still more remarkable. Lee seems to have been almost the only man living who could take a personal liberty with Washington, without instant and stern rebuke. The following anecdote which we transcribe from Irving’s Life of Washington will illustrate this point:

Colonel Henry Lee, too, who used to be a favored guest at Mount Vernon, does not seem to have been much under the influence of that “reverential awe” which Washington is said to have inspired; if we may judge from the following anecdote. Washington one day at table mentioned his being in want of carriage horses, and asked Lee if he knew where he could get a pair.

“I have a fine pair, general,” replied Lee, “but you cannot get them.”

“Why not?”

“Because you will never pay more than half price for any thing; and I must have full price for my horses.”

The bantering reply set Mrs. Washington laughing, and her parrot perched beside her, joined in the laugh. The general took this familiar assault upon his dignity in great good part. “Ah, Lee, you are a funny fellow,” said he,—“see, that bird is laughing at you.”[note 2]

To have been on such terms of intimacy at Mount Vernon, implies a very amiable and estimable character; and convinces us that with the high qualities of a great commander and sound statesman, Lee united the gentle amenities of private life.

Among the brave and able men whose military services gave liberty and independence to the United States, General Lee will always be placed in the highest rank. On this point there can be no debate. History bears testimony to his invaluable services; and posterity will not fail to recognize his claims to immortal honor.