Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Lee's Legion placed by Washington under marching order for the South—Sets out—Stopped and ordered back to New Jersey by Washington—Arrives and ordered to take post in rear of the army —Knyphausen's marauding inroad into Jersey—Lee's active and useful services in the battle of Springfield described by General Greene—Lee again ordered on important and confidential service by Washington—To take the command at Monmouth, to await the arrival of the French fleet.
EARLY in the year 1780 it appears to have been the determination of Washington to detach the corps under the command of Major Lee from the main army for service at the south. The corps which already consisted of three companies of cavalry had been further augmented by the addition of a body of infantry, and in order that it might be designated by a term which should be applicable to both kinds of the force it comprised, and at the same time include the name of its commander, it was thenceforth known in the army as LEE'S LEGION, a name under which it acquired imperishable fame.
On March 30th, 1780, in a letter from Washington at his headquarters, Morristown, to Major Lee, he says, “You will be pleased upon receipt of this, to take the most expeditious measures for putting the whole force, both horse and foot, in readiness to march. If you move, your destination will be South Carolina. The horse will go the whole way by land; the foot will go down the Chesapeake Bay by water, and meet the horse at Petersburg. As soon as you have given the necessary orders at Burlington, you had best repair to Philadelphia, and apply to the Board of War, to whom I have written on the subject, for the articles wanted to equip the corps for so long a march.”
Lee set out on his march southward soon after receiving these orders. But the arrival of the Marquis de Lafayette, with the promise of more aid from France, appears to have occasioned a change in Washington's decision, respecting the theatre of operations for Lee's Legion. Writing to Lafayette, from Morristown, May 20th, 1780, Washington says, “I send a letter with this to stop Lee's corps.”
Lee was wanted for confidential service near the Commander-in-chief. He does not appear to have reported himself and his corps as ready for service in Washington's neighborhood until June, when he received from him the following letter:
HEAD-QUARTERS, NEAR SPRINGFIELD, 11 June, 1780.
DEAR SIR—I have received your favour of this date. The spirit which has been exhibited by your corps gives me pleasure, and, be assured, meets with my thanks and approbation. As your rapid progress must have fatigued the cavalry in some degree, I wish you for the present to take post somewhere in our rear. Perhaps Chatham, or its vicinity, is as well calculated to afford you forage as any other place. You will, however, when you have fixed on the spot, be pleased by a line to point it out to me. I shall be glad to see you at my quarters to-morrow morning. I am, &c.
A few days after Lee's receipt of this, General Knyphausen made his infamous marauding incursion into Jersey, sacking Connecticut Farms, and burning Springfield, without any other apparent motive than that of inflicting distress upon the inhabitants. At Springfield he was met by a detachment under General Greene, and a spirited action ensued, in which Lee's Legion took an active part.
General Greene in his despatch to Washington, 24th June, 1780, giving an account of the battle of Springfield, says:
The enemy advanced from Elizabethtown about five o'clock in the morning, said to be about five thousand infantry, with a large body of cavalry, and fifteen or twenty pieces of artillery. Their march was rapid and compact. They moved in two columns, one on the main road leading to Springfield, the other on the Vauxhall road. Major Lee, with the horse and pickets, opposed the right column, and Colonel Dayton with his regiment the left, and both gave as much opposition as could have been expected from so small a force. Our troops were so extended, in order to guard the different roads leading to the several passes over the mountains, that I had scarcely time to collect them at Springfield and make the necessary dispositions, before the enemy appeared before the town; when a cannonade commenced between their advance and our artillery posted for the defence of the bridge.
The enemy continued manœuvring in our front for upwards of two hours, which induced me to believe they were attempting to gain our flanks. My force was small, and from the direction of the roads my situation was critical. I disposed of the troops in the best manner I could, to guard our flanks, secure a retreat, and oppose the advance of their columns. Colonel Angell, with his regiment, and several small detachments, and one piece of artillery, was posted to secure the bridge in front of the town. Colonel Shreve's regiment was drawn up at the second bridge to cover the retreat of those posted at the first. Major Lee, with his dragoons, and the pickets commanded by Captain Walker, was posted at Little's Bridge, on the Vauxhall road; and Colonel Ogden was detached to support him. The remainder of General Maxwell's and General Stark's brigades were drawn up on the high grounds at the Mill. The militia were on the flanks. Those under the command of General Dickenson made a spirited attack upon one of the enemy's flanking parties, but his force was too small to push the advantage he had gained.
While the enemy were making demonstrations to their left, their right column advanced on Major Lee. The bridge was disputed with great obstinacy, and the enemy must have received pretty considerable injury; but, by fording the river and gaining the point of the hill, they obliged the major with his party to give up the pass. At this instant of time their left column began the attack on Colonel Angell. The action was severe and lasted about forty minutes, when superior numbers overcame obstinate bravery, and forced our troops to retire over the second bridge. Here the enemy were warmly received by Colonel Shreve's regiment; but, as they advanced in great force, with a large train of artillery, he had orders to join the brigade.
The enemy after these movements set fire to almost every house in Springfield, and then precipitately retreated to Elizabethtown Point, where they remained till midnight, and then began to send their troops across to Staten Island. “By six o'clock this morning,” continues Greene, in his despatch, “they had totally evacuated the Point and removed their bridge. Major Lee fell in with their rear guard; but they were so covered by their works, that little or no injury could be done them.”
On the 11th of July, 1780, Washington writes to Lee:
You will proceed to Monmouth and establish yourself in that vicinity. When you arrive there, you will see General Forman, who is charged with despatches for a French fleet expected at the Hook, and to keep a look out for its arrival. You will give such assistance as will be necessary. Pilots will be stationed in that quarter, who will put themselves under your protection. Should a fleet appear, which you have good reason to believe is a French fleet, General Forman and you will immediately go on board with the despatches, and offer your service to the general and admiral for everything in which you can be useful to them.
You will instantly impress every kind of refreshment the country affords, cattle, vegetables, and the like, for the use of our allies; for which purpose you will make previous arrangements, and execute them in the manner most effectual, and least grievous to the inhabitants, giving certificates for everything taken. Should there be any State troops or militia in service, not under a superior officer, you will take command of them. If there should be a superior officer, you will endeavor to engage him to coöperate with you. Advise me instantly of anything important that happens on the coast; of all vessels coming in and going out, and of whatever may be doing at the Hook and in the Bay. On the appearance of the fleet, send immediately a dragoon to head-quarters, and another to the minister of France, with advice of the arrival.
It is sufficiently apparent that this was another confidential and highly honorable mission, confided to Major Lee by the commander-in-chief.