Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 2

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter II
“LIGHTHORSE HARRY”

Henry Lee, distinguished in the Revolution as “Lighthorse Harry,” the father of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was horn January 29, 1756, at Leesylvania, Prince William County, Va., the eldest son and child of his parents, Henry and Lucy (Grymes) Lee. After schooling at home he entered Princeton College where he graduated in 1773. While at Princeton, he was diligent as a student and regular in his habits. On leaving college he planned to study law, but with the outbreak of the Revolution he turned soldier, taking an active part in organizing and drilling militia. In 1776 Governor Patrick Henry appointed him captain of a company of cavalry, one in the regiment of Col. Theoderick Bland. He soon won the favorable notice of General Washington, whose confidence and friendship he enjoyed throughout the remainder of Washington’s life. In April, 1778, Congress voted him a complimentary resolution, promoted him to the rank of major-commandant, and authorized him to enlarge his cavalry force which was to act as a separate corps. After his successful surprise attack upon Paulus Hook, New Jersey, in July, 1779, he again received the thanks of Congress. His body of light dragoons became famous as “Lee’s Legion” and their commander as “Lighthorse Harry.”

After serving for three years in the campaigns in the northern states, Lee, with the commission of lieutenant-colonel, was ordered south to join General Greene with whom he served until his retirement from the army after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October, 1781. Greene declared that “no man in the progress of the campaign had equal merit.” This was high praise, all the more so when we remember Lee’s gallant associates—Morgan, Marion, Pickens, Sumter, and others. His service and talents were spoken of also in the highest terms of approbation by Washington.

In the autumn of 1780 “Lee’s Legion” was placed in one of the regular regiments by Congress, in a process of reorganization. This change was opposed by Washington and was resented by Lee. His retirement from the regular service was due largely to discontent. On January 27, 1782, General Greene wrote to Lee:

I have beheld with extreme anxiety for some time past a growing discontent in your mind, and have not been without my apprehensions that your complaints or[i]ginated more in distress than in ruin of your constitution.

Greene wrote him again the next month:

You are going home and you will get married, but you cannot cease to be a soldier; should the war rage here, I shall call for you in a few months, unless I should find your inclination opposed to my wishes.

Soon thereafter, in the spring of 1782, Lee did marry—his first wife, his cousin, Matilda Lee, daughter of Philip Ludwell and Elizabeth (Steptoe) Lee, of Stratford, Westmoreland County, Va. They had four children: Nathaniel Greene, who died in infancy; Philip Ludwell, who died in 1792, aged seven; Lucy Grymes, who, in 1803, married Bernard Moore Carter; and Henry, who died in Paris in 1837. For some years after 1782 “Lighthorse Harry” lived at Stratford.

After the death of his first wife in May, 1790, Lee thought of going to France where, as he wrote Washington, he was offered a major-general’s commission. In view of the turmoil in France, Washington discouraged the idea, as did also Charles Carter of Shirley, whose daughter, Anne Bill Carter, Lee married on June 18, 1793. They had six children: Algernon Sidney, Charles Carter, Anne Kinloch, Sydney Smith, Robert Edward (January 19, 1807), and Catherine Mildred. All except Catherine Mildred were born at Stratford; she was born in Alexandria, February 27, 1811.

Home of Gen. Henry Lee (“Lighthorse Harry”)
On Cameron Street, Alexandria, Va., across
Washington Street east from Christ Church.

In Alexandria the Lees lived at two or three places: for some time on Cameron Street, a short distance east of Christ Church; at another time on Oronoco Street, in a house adjoining on the east the house of Benjamin Hallowell, the distinguished Quaker school-master. (See Wayland’s “Historic Homes,” pages 534–541.)

From 1785 to 1788 “Lighthorse Harry” served as a delegate in the Continental Congress; in 1788 he was a member of the Virginia Convention to take action on the Federal Constitution, the adoption of which he favored; from 1791 to 1794 he was governor of Virginia; in 1794 President Washington appointed him commander of the troops sent to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, which he accomplished with little or no bloodshed; on July 19, 1798, he was appointed a major-general in the U.S. Army—honorably discharged in June, 1800; from March 4, 1799, to March 3, 1801, he was a member of the national House of Representatives. At the end of his term in Congress he retired permanently from public life.

Being a member of Congress in December, 1799, when Washington died, he was called upon to memorialize the “Father of His Country,” and on December 26, 1799, in Philadelphia, before both houses of Congress, his famous oration was delivered. In this occurred the celebrated 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, just, 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.

[Map: Stratford Hall and Environs]

General Henry Lee’s last years were distressed by illness and financial misfortunes. Like Robert Morris and other prominent figures of his time, the entered into extensive speculations which proved disastrous. In 1809 he wrote his “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States” while in a debtor’s prison. He spent periods away from home to escape like confinement. In Baltimore, in 1814, while aiding in the defense of a friend’s house against a mob, he was seriously injured. Later he made a voyage to the West Indies, seeking a restoration of his shattered health. On his way back he landed at Cumberland Island, Ga., the home of his old friend and commander, General Greene, where he died on March 25, 1818. In his last illness he was kindly cared for by General Greene’s daughter and was buried in the garden. In January, 1862, his son, Gen. Robert E. Lee, returning from Florida, went to Cumberland Island, and wrote to his wife:

While at Fernandina I went over to Cumberland Island and walked up to “Dungeness,” the former residence of General Green. It was my first visit to the house, and I had the gratification at length of visiting my father’s grave. . . . The spot is marked by a plain marble slab, with his name, age, and the date of his death. Mrs. Green is also buried there, and her daughter, Mrs. Shaw, and her husband. (See “Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee,” by Captain Robert E. Lee, edition of 1924, page 61.)

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