Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley


Colonel Lee's marriage—Neglect of his services by Congress—Favorable opinion entertained of him by Greene and Washington—His important services—Lee elected a member of the Continental Congress—His correspondence with Washington—Death of General Greene.

SOON after Lieutenant Colonel Lee's return to Virginia, he married Miss Matilda, the daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee, and settled at Strafford, the residence of his father-in-law, in the county of Westmoreland. A season of repose had become indispensable; for Lee had suffered greatly under the unceasing activity of body and mind to which he had been subjected during his recent campaigns in the South.

It is said that at the time of his quitting the army, Lieutenant Colonel Lee thought himself neglected, and his services underrated. Whether he entertained such an opinion or not, the fact is unquestionable that his rank at the time of his leaving the army was by no means so high as it should have been. The neglect of his remarkable merits and services is one of the numerous acts of injustice which are chargeable on the Continental Congress, who elevated to the rank of brigadier, and even major general, many officers who had not a tithe of his ability as a commander, and had not rendered to the country a hundredth part of the services which had been performed by Lee.

Washington always did him justice, and remained, as we shall see, his attached and zealous friend as long as he lived. Greene also well understood his merit, and a reciprocal esteem and friendship bound them firmly together. So highly did Greene appreciate Lee's achievements while under his command, that he declared without reserve, that “his services had been greater than those of any one man attached to the southern army.”

It is really trying to the patience of the reader of American history to find in our list of the generals of the revolutionary army, a number of men of whom scarcely anything is known but that they were generals; while Lee, whose brilliant exploits are traced through the whole history of the war, from '77 to its close, and who captured fort after fort from New York to Georgia, is permitted to retire from the army with the same rank which he held just after the long series of victories commenced, that of Lieutenant Colonel. It is much to his credit that he did not retire from the army till the great work was accomplished, and there was no more serious fighting to be done.

In the year 1786, Lee was elected a member of Congress from Virginia, and he remained in this high, responsible, but by no means agreeable office until the adoption of the Federal Constitution. During this period, Congress was not what it had been in the early days of the revolution. The master spirits of the nation had generally withdrawn from its legislative councils and the people, disgusted by the imbecility of their successors, paid little attention to its acts. But Lee addressed himself to his new duties with his accustomed ardor and patriotism. His correspondence with Washington at this period shows that he still retained the confidence of the Father of his country, who freely interchanged opinions with him on public affairs.

By the following extract from a letter from Colonel Lee to General Washington respecting the grand topic of the day, the free navigation of the Mississippi, it would appear that Lee was a believer in the doctrine that a representative must yield his own judgment to the instructions of his constituents. Lee says:

The eastern States consider a commercial connection with Spain as the only remedy for the distresses, which oppress their citizens, most of which they say flow from the decay of their commerce. Their delegates have consequently zealously pressed the formation of this connection, as the only effectual mode to revive the trade of their country. In this opinion they have been joined by two of the middle States. On the other hand, Virginia has with equal zeal opposed the connection, because the project involves expressly the disuse of the navigation of the Mississippi for a given time, and eventually they think will sacrifice our right to it. The delegation is under instructions from the State on this subject. They have acted in obedience to their instructions, and, myself excepted, in conformity to their private sentiments. I confess that I am by no means convinced of the justice or policy of our instructions, and very much apprehend, unless they are repealed by the present Assembly, the fatal effects of discord in council will be experienced by the United States in a very high degree.

With respect to the navigation of the Mississippi, you already know my sentiments. They have been uniformly the same, and, as I have observed to you in a former letter, are controverted by only one consideration of weight, and that is, the operation which the occlusion of it may have on the minds of the western settlers, who will not consider the subject in a relative point of view, or on a comprehensive scale, and may be influenced by the demagogues of the country to acts of extravagance and desperation, under the popular declamation, that their interests are sacrificed. Colonel Mason at present is in a fit of the gout. What his sentiments on the subject are, I know not, nor whether he will be able to attend the Assembly during the present session. For some reasons, however, which need not be mentioned, I am inclined to believe he will advocate the navigation of that river. But in all matters of great national moment, the only true line of conduct is dispassionately to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the measure proposed, and decide from the balance. The less evil, where there is a choice of them, should always yield to the greater. What benefits, more than we now enjoy, are to be obtained by such a treaty with Spain, as you have delineated, I am not enough of a commercial man to give my opinion on.

A few months before this correspondence General Greene died after a short illness near Savannah, Georgia, (June 19th, 1786,) aged forty-four, leaving a name that will ever shine with pre-eminent lustre in the annals of the country.

“Your friend and second,” said Mr. Lee in his letter to Washington, “the patriot and noble Greene is no more. Universal grief reigns here. How hard is the fate of the United States to lose such a son in the middle of life! Irreparable loss! But he is gone, and I am incapable to say more.”—July 11th. Congress voted, that a monument should be erected at the seat of government, “in honor of his patriotism, valor, and ability.”—Journals, August 8th.