The Heart of Lee
Wayne Whipple


Thou art my father, and thy gain is mine.—Matthew Arnold.

ONE reason assigned for Washington’s partiality to Harry Lee can never be proven—that the young man was the son of his first love, a young lady older than himself, to whom he referred in a letter to another youth as “the Lowland Beauty.” But the identity of the object of this boyish love is shrouded in a mystery somewhat like that which surrounds “Junius” or “the Man in the Iron Mask.”

Whatever may have been the reason, it was well observed by many of General Washington’s friends that he showed a special fondness for the versatile young officer of the Revolution. To “Light-horse Harry’s” bravery and brilliancy were added his rare force and skill as an author, debater and orator. These seemed to intensify the admiration and love of the fatherly General and President, as in the case of his deep affection for Alexander Hamilton which stood the long strain of that young official’s temperamental touchiness and his unreasonable jealousy of Jefferson.

But Harry Lee made no such draft upon the friendship of his chief. He was an agreeable companion withal, both kind of heart and witty in conversation, which the First President enjoyed with all the gusto of a seasoned epicure. As he had no children of his own, it is rather pleasant to think of “Light-horse Harry” as the son of the lady he had loved and lost. Nor should it excite wonder if that father-hearted, childless man recognized the sonship of young Lee as truer than that of his wife’s grandson, who became his by an adoption enforced by the death of his stepson, this boy’s father. Whether or not Washington could bring himself to believe it, George Washington Parke Custis was a commonplace young gentleman whose sole claim to popular interest lay in the fact that he was the adopted son of the Father of his Country, and finally inherited the larger share of the great estate of his grand-father, who was Martha Washington’s first husband.

Although the master of Mount Vernon may never have acknowledged, even to himself, the true spiritual kinship of Henry Lee, that bright young officer was a man after his own heart. After being graduated from Princeton he joined the army in the Summer of 1777, along with Lafayette, another young man Washington soon learned to love. The French marquis was also a great admirer of Harry Lee—was it not, in part at least, to gain more favor with the great commander?

Although the General’s paternal interest in Lee was manifest in the field, there was no partiality shown in the matter of promotion until the young student had won his spurs. Washington did not have long to wait for this. At Valley Forge, already a captain of dragoons, Lee had also won the title which clung to him always—“Light-horse Harry.”

A British foraging party of two-hundred horse attacked a stable and warehouse which Captain Lee had to guard with only a few men. There is a note of boyish exulting in his report, to the chief, of this skirmish:

So well directed was the [our] opposition that we drove them from the stables and saved every horse. We have got the arms, some cloaks, etc., of their wounded. Their enterprise was certainly daring, though the issue was very ignominious. I had not a soldier for each window.”

Irving, in his “Life of Washington,” goes on to relate:

Washington, whose heart evidently warmed more and more to this young Virginian officer, the son of his “Lowland Beauty,” not content with noticing his exploit in general orders, wrote a note to him on the subject, expressed with unusual familiarity and warmth. . . .

In effect, Washington, not long afterwards, strongly recommended Lee for the command of two troops of horse, with the rank of major, to act as an independent partisan corps. . . .

It was a high gratification to Washington when Congress made this appointment; accompanying it with encomiums on Lee as a brave and prudent officer who had rendered essential service to the country and acquired distinguished honor to himself and to the corps he commanded.

“Light-horse Harry” was one of the heroes with “Mad Anthony” Wayne at Stony Point, where he was reported for bravery with the new rank of Major. Then came Paulus Hook, where he was in command, performing a feat so daring that he received another meed of praise from Congress, by whose order a medal was struck in commemoration of his brave exploit. General Washington, proud and happy, sent his young friend another letter of congratulation.

Colonel Lee spent the later years of the war in the South, as leader of his own company, called “Lee’s Legion,” under the immediate command of General Nathanael Greene, who wrote of him to the president of Congress that, as chief commander for the Southern States, he was “more indebted to this officer than any other for the advantages gained over the enemy in the last campaign.”

After the Revolution Colonel Henry Lee entered upon a political career quite as brilliant as his military achievements. He was a delegate to the convention which met to approve the Constitution, and took an active part in its deliberations. From 1792 to 1795 he was Governor of Virginia. While acting in this capacity, President Washington appointed him to lead the fifteen thousand militia sent to quell the “Whisky Insurrection” in certain counties of western Pennsvlvania, and accompanied him from Philadelphia, then the national capital, to Bedford, in the southwestern part of that State.

After the First President retired to his long-yearned-for “vine-and-figtree” at Mount Vernon, ex-Governor Lee was his most frequent guest. It was observed that Harry Lee could “say things” to the ex-President which would never be tolerated from any one else. Mrs. Washington would flush and purse her lips at these liberties until she noticed, with some surprise, that “the General” did not mind them. Still, this vivacious visitor kept the good lady of Mount Vernon in a constant state of nervous excitement.

One day, at table, the host mentioned that he was in need of a span of carriage horses.

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

“Why not?” Washington asked, surprised.

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

This left-handed compliment to the General’s shrewdness in a horse-trade made Mrs. Washington laugh nervously. A parrot, perched near her, joined in the immoderate merriment. This set General Washington laughing too, and he responded without resenting his guest’s sally:

Ah, Lee, you are a funny fellow. See, that bird is laughing at you!

Ex-Governor Lee was elected to the national House of Representatives in 1799. General Washington died in December of that year. There was a special fitness in George Washington’s

“Brother at once and son”

being chosen to deliver the eulogy in honor of the Father of his Country before both Houses of Congress. The actual words which Henry Lee pronounced for the first time on this great occasion were:

First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens,

but the last word has been changed by popular authority to “countrymen.”

Henry Lee first married his cousin Matilda Ludwell Lee, through whom “Stratford” came into his possession. Matilda and her children having died, he married, as his second wife, Anne Carter of “Shirley,” a sightly estate on James River. Robert Edward, born in 1807, was five years old when war was declared against Great Britain, and his father was made a Major-General. But before General Henry Lee could enter this war he was badly injured while defending from an angry mob his friend who was a newspaper editor in Baltimore. So he had to go to the West Indies in search of health instead of going again into his country’s service.

In this place of his banishment, General Lee—no longer the “Light-horse” or the “Light-heart Harry” of other days—penned his “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department.”

Meanwhile he kept on writing faithfully and fondly to his wife and “the little ones at home,” asking especially what his boys—Charles Carter, Sydney Smith, and Robert Edward—were doing; if they were learning to ride horse-back and to shoot straight. He also tried to impress truths upon them, of religion, morality and learning. “Fame,” he charged them, “in arms and art, is nought unless betrothed to virtue.”

Once he wrote to his wife: “Robert was always good, and will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever-watchful and affectionate mother. Does he strengthen his native tendency?”

After nearly five years of this sad separation, the devoted father, at last giving up hope of recovery, started home to die, as Lawrence Washington journeyed back from Barbados, sixty years before. On the way General Lee became so ill that he begged to be put ashore on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, where the family of his old friend, General Greene, still lived. The general’s daughter did all she could to relieve his sufferings, which at times were so excruciating as almost to rob him of his reason.

A skillful surgeon, who was called to see him, urged him to undergo a certain operation, in the desperate hope of saving his life. General Henry Lee’s answer was an illustration of the “ruling passion strong in death”:

My dear sir, were the great Washington alive and here, joining you in advocating it, I would still resist!

He did not live long after this. “Light-horse Harry” was denied even the boon of gathering his famity around his dying bed. In almost his last utterance he breathed the dear name of Washington. He was buried in the garden near the grave of General Greene. His son Robert was only eleven, the age of little George Washington when he lost his father, and was left to be the stand-by “of his mother, and she was a widow.”

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