Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Congress retains Lee's Legion in remodeling the army—Lee advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel—Ordered to join the Southern Army under General Greene—Washington's opinion of Lee—General Greene proceeds to Richmond and Hillsborough—Account of North Carolina—Greene joins the army at Charlotte—Gates resigns the command to Greene and proceeds to Richmond—Noble conduct of the Virginia Legislature towards him—Condition of the army—Character and appearance of General Greene—His disposition of the forces—General Washington's successful stratagem at Rugley's farm—Army leave Charlotte—Greene takes a position on the Pedee near Cheraw Hill.
ON the 3d of October, 1780, Congress passed resolutions containing a plan for a new arrangement of the army, and by a separate resolve they were referred to the commander-in-chief for his opinion.
On the 11th of October, Washington, in a letter to the President of Congress, gave a written opinion on the new arrangement, and communicated his views on every part of it with that clearness and thorough understanding, which he was accustomed to evince on all public affairs. In this letter he says:
Besides the four regiments, I cannot forbear recommending, that two partisan corps may be kept up, commanded by Colonel Armand and Major Lee. Though in general I dislike independent corps, I think a partisan corps with an army useful in many respects. Its name and destination stimulate to enterprise; and the two officers I have mentioned have the best claims to public attention. Colonel Armand is an officer of great merit, which, added to his being a foreigner, to his rank in life, and to the sacrifices of property he has made, renders it a point of delicacy as well as justice to continue to him the means of serving honorably. Major Lee has rendered such distinguished services, possesses so many talents for commanding a corps of this nature, and deserves so much credit for the perfection in which he has kept his corps, as well as for the handsome exploits he has performed, that it would be a loss to the service, and a discouragement to merit, to reduce him, and I do not see how he can be introduced into one of the regiments in a manner satisfactory to himself, and which will enable him to be equally useful, without giving too much disgust to the whole line of cavalry.
The partisan corps may consist of three troops of mounted and three of dismounted dragoons, of fifty each, making in all three hundred.
Washington's recommendation was attended to, and Major Lee's corps was retained. About the same time he was advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Before the close of the month he was under marching orders for the south, to join the army of General Greene, who had just been appointed to the command of the southern army in place of General Gates.
Writing to a member of Congress,(0ctober 23, 1780,) Washington says, “Lee's corps will go to the southward. I believe it will be found very useful. The corps itself is an excellent one, and the officer at the head of it has great resources of genius.” This was a great deal for Washington to say of any man. But Lee never gave him reason to change his opinion, and never lost his confidence. The opinion above expressed respecting his future usefulness was fully justified by Lee's brilliant successes in the southern campaigns.
Making Lieutenant Colonel Lee his own biographer for this portion of the narrative, we now proceed to quote from his “Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States,” his own account of some of the more important movements of the southern army under General Greene, to which Lee's Legion was now attached.
General Greene, after employing a few days in preparing for his journey, relinquished, with reluctance, his inferior station to take upon himself the honorable though weighty command to which he had been called. He passed through the states of Maryland and Delaware, for the purpose of ascertaining the extent of the assistance to be obtained from that quarter.
Here he was informed that Brigadier Gist had been indefatigably engaged in executing the trust reposed in him; but such was the difficulty at this period of procuring recruits as to forbid the expectation of filling up the regiments without the substitution of some new mode. On this, and all other subjects, connected with his duty, he held full and free conferences with the state governments; and having made his final arrangements, pursued his journey to Richmond, the capital of Virginia.
When Greene reached Richmond, he found the government engaged in preparing means of defence against Leslie, who had established himself at Portsmouth. Relying upon this state for his principal support in men and stores, he was sensibly affected by the difficulties in which he found her. But active and intelligent, penetrating and laborious, he persevered in his exertions. Having brought his arrangements to a satisfactory conclusion, he proceeded south, leaving Major General Baron Steuben to direct the defence of Virginia, and to superintend the reinforcements preparing for the southern army. From Richmond he hastened to Hillsborough, the seat of government of North Carolina. Here he found the executive, apprised of the dangers by which the state was threatened, well disposed to exert their authority in preparing means to resist the advancing enemy. This state very much resembles Virginia in the manners and habits of the people, so much so as to induce the conclusion of its being settled principally by emigrants from that state. Its population, though double that of South Carolina, was very disproportionate to the extent of its territory.
North Carolina is watered by many rivers; few of which are navigable for ships. Cape Fear is the most considerable; and that only navigable to Wilmington, situated not very distant from the sea. In a state of war, when naval superiority is conclusively in favor of the enemy, as was the case in our contest, this privation of nature was replete with advantage to us, though extremely incommodious in peace. This state is only to be assailed with effect through Virginia or South Carolina, through each of which her foreign commerce passes. At present it was threatened on both sides, as Leslie still continued in Virginia, waiting, as was presumed, for the advance of Lord Cornwallis. Although in this state, horses, bacon, Indian corn, and beef, which constitute the most essential supplies of an army, could be found in abundance, yet, from the thinness of population, the collection of them was inconvenient.
The mountainous region of North Carolina was inhabited by a race of hardy men, who were familiar with the use of the horse and rifle, were stout, active, patient under privation, and brave. Irregular in their movements, and unaccustomed to restraint, they delighted in the fury of action, but pined under the servitude and inactivity of camp. True to the American cause, they displayed an impetuous zeal, whenever their wild and ardent temper prompted the contribution of their aid. In the middle and Atlantic sections lived a race, less capable of labor, and less willing to endure it; who were much divided in political opinions, and incumbered with that dreadful evil, which the cruel policy of preceding times had introduced. The prospect of efficient aid from a state so situated, was not encouraging. But the fertile genius of Greene, deriving new influence from his conciliating manners, soon laid the foundation of a support, which would have been completely adequate to his purpose, had the quality of the troops corresponded with their number. Having finished his preparatory measures, he hastened to Charlotte, pleased with the hope of rescuing the state from the impending calamities. On the 2d of December, 1780, he reached the army, and was received by General Gates with the most cordial respect. The translation of the command was announced in general orders on the ensuing day. After devoting a short time to those communications, which were essential to the information of his successor, Gates took leave of the army, and proceeded to meet the inquiry into his conduct, which had been ordered by Congress. His progress was slow, his manners were grave, his demeanor was condescending, his conversation reserved. On his long road, no countenance shed the balm of condolence; all were gloomy, all scowling. The fatal loss on the 18th of August was acutely remembered; but the important victory of Saratoga was forgotten. The unfortunate general at length reached Richmond, where the general assembly of Virginia was in session. Great and good men then governed the state. Instructed by history, guided by the dictates of virtue, and grateful for eminent services, they saw a wide difference between misfortune and criminality, and weighed the exploits in the North against the disasters in the South. These fathers of the commonwealth appointed a committee of their body to wait on the vanquished general, and “to assure him of their high regard and esteem: that their remembrance of his former glorious services was never to be obliterated by any reverse of fortune; but, ever mindful of his great merit, they would omit no opportunity of testifying to the world the gratitude which Virginia, as a member of the American Union, owed to him in his military character.”
General Gates had supported his fall from splendid elevation to obscurity, with apparent fortitude and complacency. He was sensibly affected and comforted by this kind reception, and retired to his farm in the county of Berkeley, where the keen regrets of disappointment and misfortune were softened by the soothing occupations of agriculture, and the condolence of the state in which he resided.
General Greene directed his whole attention to the high duties of his command. On reviewing his army, he found its total not more than two thousand, of which the major part was militia. Notwithstanding the exertions of his predecessor to establish magazines, he found three days' provision only on hand, and the country around him exhausted. His supply of ammunition was very scanty; and Virginia was the nearest point from which a replenishment could be obtained.
Such means and resources badly comported with the grand design of arresting the progress of the conqueror, and restoring the two lost states to the Union. Capable of doing much with little, Greene was not discouraged by this unfavorable prospect. His vivid plastic genius soon operated on the latent elements of martial capacity in his army, invigorated its weakness, turned its confusion into order, and its despondency into ardor. A wide sphere of intellectual resource enabled him to inspire confidence, to rekindle courage, to decide hesitation, and infuse a spirit of exalted patriotism in the citizens of the state. By his own example, he showed the incalculable value of obedience, of patience, of vigilance, and temperance. Dispensing justice, with an even hand, to the citizen and soldier; benign in heart, and happy in manners; he acquired the durable attachment and esteem of all. He collected around his person, able and respectable officers; and selected for the several departments, those who were best qualified to fill them. His operations were then commenced with a boldness of design, well calculated to raise the drooping hopes of his country, and to excite the respect of his enemy.
This illustrious man had now reached his thirty-eighth year. In person he was rather corpulent, and above the common size. His complexion was fair and florid; his countenance serene and mild, indicating a goodness which seemed to shade and soften the fire and greatness of its expression. His health was delicate, but preserved by temperance and regularity.
The British army still remained at Winnsborough. General Greene determined to draw in the detachment under Smallwood, which was advanced some distance in his front, and to risk the division of his force by taking two distant positions on each flank of the British army.
Previous to this movement, Brigadier Morgan, who commanded the van of Smallwood's detachment, attempted to strike a foraging party of the enemy, which had penetrated the country between the two armies. But the vigilant adversary eluded the blow, and returned in safety to Camden, Lieutenant Colonel Washington, at the head of the cavalry, having taken a more extensive range than the infantry, discovered that a party of loyalists were stationed at Rugeley's farm about twelve miles from Camden. He moved instantly towards them, in expectation of carrying the post by surprise; but in this he was disappointed, as they occupied a barn, surrounded by abattis, and secure from any attempt of cavalry. Rugeley and his friends were delighted with the safety their precaution had produced, and viewed the approach of horse with indifference. Short was their repose. Washington, well informed of the character of his enemy, shaped the trunk of a tree in imitation of a field piece; and, bringing it up in military style, affected to prepare to cannonade the barn. To give solemnity to the device, he sent in a flag, warning the garrison of the impending destruction, which could be only avoided by immediate submission. Not prepared to resist artillery, Colonel Rugeley seized with promptitude the auspicious opportunity; and, with his garrison, one hundred men surrendered at discretion! No circumstance can more strongly demonstrate the propriety of using every effort in war. A soldier should intimately know the character of his enemy, and mould his measures accordingly. This stratagem of Washington, although conceived and executed with little hope of success, was completely successful; and enabled him to effect an object, which, at first view, most would have abandoned as clearly unattainable.
The return of Smallwood's detachment to camp was followed by the immediate departure of the army from Charlotte. The division, intended for operations in the western quarter, was composed of four hundred continental infantry under Lieutenant Colonel Howard, of the Maryland line, two companies of the Virginia militia under Captains Triplett and Taite, and the remnants of the first and third regiments of dragoons, one hundred in number, under Lieutenant Colonel Washington. It was placed under the care of Brigadier General Morgan, who was to be strengthened on his march by bodies of mountain militia from Carolina and Georgia. He was ordered to pass the Catawba, and take post in the country between the Broad and Pacolet rivers. Greene, with the main body, moved down the Pedee, and took a position on its eastern bank, nearly opposite Cheraw hill. By this disposition, General Greene secured an abundance of wholesome provisions for his troops; afforded safe rendezvous for the militia in the East and West, on whose aid he necessarily relied; re-excited by his proximity the spirit of revolt, which preceding events had repressed; menaced the various posts of the enemy, and their intermediate communications; and compelled Lord Cornwallis to postpone his advance into North Carolina, until he should have cleared the country to the west of his enemy.