Washington and Lee University

Henry Lee Letter on the Southern Campaign
George F. Scheere, Jr.

Note: The following is taken from the April 1943 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 51), pp. 141–50.


In the fall of 1780, after four bitter years of conflict up and down the American coast, British conquest of the southern colonies seemed altogether complete and the American cause for independence doomed. In May of that year Charlestown, veritable capital of the South, had surrendered to Sir Henry Clinton with a staggering American loss, and possibly with it went the last chance to wrest Georgia from British occupation. Not only a key city and state but also an army of 5,169 men and 297 officers, among them the commanding general of the Southern Department, Benjamin Lincoln, was surrendered. In August of that year, another army under Horatio Gates, victor of Saratoga, had been decimated at Camden in the greatest single battle defeat the Americans had experienced; no more than 700 men of a proud army of 3,052 survived in a pitiful remnant in North Carolina. In the closing months of that year, a line of British posts extended from Georgetown on the Carolina coast far west to a place called Ninety-Six, and only those die-hard partisans and state militiamen, Marion, Sumter, Pickens, and others of lesser distinction, kept the spirit of revolt and the flame of hope alive in South Carolina.

The Continental Congress, not discouraged but at a loss for the right man to redeem their arms to the southward to keep the enemy from rolling up the colonies from south to north, turned to Washington to select a commander for the Southern Department. He named General Nathanael Greene, a Quaker, who in every campaign had been his commander-in-chiefs right-hand man and whose monumental grasp of military affairs only Washington himself fully comprehended. The Congress conferred on Greene extraordinary powers and set him in command of all the continental forces to be raised from Delaware to Georgia for another attempt against the enemy in the south; he was subjected to the control only of his commander-in-chief, then active some 800 miles north of the Carolinas. Washington's control, as no one knew better than Washington himself, would be slight.

With an enormous task before him and an actual American force of 700 men in North Carolina, Greene ordered his regiments and started southward at the end of a dismal year, arriving at Charlotte, North Carolina, to take his command on December 4, 1780. Several of the best officers of the army applied to go with him, Steuben, Lafayette, John Laurens, and young Henry Lee. Washington had his own plans for Lafayette, but the others went.

Lee was then nearing his twenty-fifth birthday. He had been with the army since he was twenty, first as a Captain in Theodorick Bland's regiment of Virginia cavalry, then in Washington's horse. In January, 1778, he was promoted to a majority and put in command of a somewhat irregular force, consisting of three troops of cavalry and three companies of infantry and called “Lee's Legion.” When, eighteen months later, he performed one of the bright feats of the war by surprising the enemy post at Paulus Hook near New York, capturing 160 men, he was already being dubbed “Legion Harry” and cutting a fancy swath in the army.

A few days after Greene took his command, the Legion, 280 strong, in fit condition, joined the main army. The story of the war as it unfolded after that in the south during two hard-fought years and the story of Lee and his Legion were related in later years by Henry Lee in one of the most valuable of all volumes on southern revolutionary operations, his Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department. Of the hundreds of letters written by Lee while serving in that department, scores are preserved in various manuscript depositories and many reprinted either in his own book, in the book of his son, Henry Lee, who undertook to defend the memory of his father which had been roughly handled by William Johnson in his Life of Nathanael Greene, in Greene's life of Greene, and in other publications. In the main, however, the Lee papers are widely scattered. Six originals now repose in the files of the Virginia Historical Society; three of them, so far as we now know, have remained unpublished and are here offered with cognizance taken of those published and easily available.

The earliest of the six documents was written on January 9, 1781, from the Peedee river, South Carolina, to Lee's friend, Governor Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania. It is published in the 1869 edition of Lee's Memoirs, pp. 35–37, with the note that this letter was then (at the time of Robert E. Lee's editing in 1869) “much mutilated.” In the letter, Lee touches on the victory at King's Mountain, October, 1780, and some of the events of the subsequent months and discusses the general military situation in South Carolina. The second letter is a loose, hurried jotting of news to his brother who apparently had been a lax correspondent.

Camp [illegible]
April 4th '81 [1781]

My dear Charles:

So far we have done well—The fragments of the army of the year 80, the very army which was totally defeated on the 16th of August 80,1 with the small addition of my legion only, have retired [?] near two hundd miles pursued by the victorious & consummate general Cornwallis, without the loss of a single waggon2 has conquered a formidable detachment,3 has collected raw militia, recrossed the boundary of their retreat, fought a general action in which altho they lost thro accident the honor of the day they gained such essential [?] advantage as to become the pursuing army4— Cornwallis is as excellent in retiring as he is in advancing—We arrived on his ground on the banks of Deep River in four hours [?] after he left it—he left some dead unburied; We could not reach him sooner nor could we follow him farther—provision would not be had in time. We are about taking a decisive [?] part, & if triumph [?] favor us we shall make our country happy5—Why will you not write me: how is the Queen of Stratford.6 Your affec: brother

Henry Lee Junr

[Addressed:] Charles Lee, Esqr7 Leesylvania

The third letter was written after Lee had joined Marion and with him was moving against their second objective on the Santee.

Benbew [?] Ferry on Black river
2d May—81

My dear General

I have the honor of your letter of yesterday. It is the first that ever arrived in proper time: the Express has done his duty—

Be assured that no difficulty & prospects shall prevent my Joining you on the first notice of his Lds approach, or of the arrival of the Cavalry8

By a letter from Peedee 30th Apl Kolbs Ferry [?] the British Troops were still in Wilmington.

It appears dubious what his Lordship intends: his pride will urge him to continue the prosecution of his plan for the campaigne: however repugnant to the interest of his King such is human nature If he adopts this conduct we must prove to the world how futile british conquests are, and force mankind to admire the Vigor of your operations.9

Much will depend on us, and no human exertion shall be wanting. I feel an assurance of brilliant success, which will be pleasing in every point of view, but especially so, as it must tend to make happy a General they fling without materials against a well appointed Veteran Army.

The movements you have in contemplation, I hope may be carried into execution. It will countenance our proceedings, give a face of Vigor to your Operations, & will render [my?] junction much more ready.

Genl Marion can supply y[ou] if he will, with 150 good dragoon h[orses]10


[Endorsed on edge] To G. Greene from H. L. May 2nd 81

A fourth letter in the files of the Society is addressed by Lee to Major Hezekiah Maham of South Carolina, under date of 8 July, 1781, informing him of his appointment by Greene to a lieutenant-colonelcy with instructions for raising a corps of cavalry. It is not reprinted here because its interest lies in Maham rather than in Lee.

On August 20, 1781, Lee wrote to Greene from the Congaree river, south of Howell's Ferry; the original of this letter is in the Lee papers of the Society and is found reprinted in Henry Lee's The Campaign of 1781 in the Carolinas, pp. 447–450. Comparison reveals that the published version, while not adhering to the original so far as exactness of abbreviation and punctuation is concerned, is exactly reproduced so far as text is concerned, and it is not considered necessary to reproduce it here.

The final letter in the small group is addressed to an unknown correspondent, and is a fresh summary of the famous action at Eutaw Springs; there is nothing in this document at variance with the account Lee wrote many years later for his Memoirs.

Southern Army H. hills of
Santee Octr 2d 81

When my last letr to yourself or brother T was wrote, if my memory serves me the enemy were at Orangeburgh on the Edistoriver & General Greene had moved to this position because of its convenience & salubriety.11

The wants which the British commander experienced in his camp on Edisto, his policy to interrupt our supplys of grain which came down the Congaree river & his desire to assume the manners of an advancing General, to arouze the zeal of his partizans among the inhabitants might have induced him to take the resolution of making the forward movement to Mottes post12 or Thompsons13 on the Congaree river, which took place in August. The distance between the two camps was about ten miles, but the Congaree & Wateree which flowed between us, rendered the most direct route for an army difficult & tedious to either camp. G. Greene felt himself cramped in his position by the deprivation of his communication up the Congaree & would not brook the insolence of an attempt to rob his victorious Troops of the character of superiority which they had established by the most gallant & laborious exertions.

In a contention for the confidence of a people, alternately the subjects of each contending power, it is matter of the highest consequence to preserve the appearance of superiority, if in reality inferior, for such decisive weight has interest in the conclusions of the heart, that the man must believe he will ultimately receive protection from your arms before he can persuade himself to become your avowed assistant. These reasons could not fail to produce offensive [?] exertions from a leader of G. Greene['s] temper. The Legion was ordered to cross the Santee in rear of the enemys camp, to traverse their position & to take post, so as to circumscribe the ravages of their Light troops & to gain intelligence of the adversary's intention.

We passed the Santee with great difficulty & in the evening of the same day met with a large forage detachment. A Skirmish ensued which terminated in the capture of half the cavalry that were out. This was followed by other small advantages which served to confine the enemy to their camp. Gen. Greene the moment his militia were collected passed the Wateree at Cambden, & moved by assiduous marches for the Congaree; which river he crossed eighteen miles above the enemy.14

On learning the approach of our army, the B. commander Colo Stuart15 retired from Thompson's taking the Santee road to uptown.

Gen. Greene arrived in a few days after at the enemys camp, where he halted for the refreshment of his troops.16 Being only equal in infantry from the inferior quality of some of our force it was not very desirable to force an action. But the retreat of the enemy incited a farther advance on our side, in the hope that it would produce a second retrograde from them, for [?] they had halted at the Eutaw Spring, sixty miles from Thompsons & sixty miles from Chstown.17

We were superior in cavalry, which secured us in case of disaster; our regular troops had but three months to serve, a few excepted, which was an additional temptation to wish an action. These reasons were so forcible as to influence us to continue advancing. On the evening of the 7th of Septr we encamped within eight miles of the enemy, & early on the morning of the 8th, pursued our march for their camp.

The Legion composed the van-guard supported by So. Carolina state-troops, the Militia, the front line, the regulars, the second line & the 1st. & 3rd regt, of cavalry with the Delaware Infantry formed the reserve.

Between 8 & 9 we met a large body of the enemys foot with all their cavalry. They advanced on us, & were met half way, we soon rendered it prudent for them to retire to their friends for support, which they performed in a great hurry with some loss.18 We continued our march, & after a little while came into general action.

Our first line behaved with great propriety & kept up a severe close fire, but being opposed with the utmost gallantry & being liable to the charge of bayonet, they got into disorder, which produced a dispersion of the greatest part of the line. On the coming up of the 2d line a general charge was ordered & executed with unpararelled vigor. The enemy could not stand the shock, but fled to their camp. They were persued with the loss of five hundd prisoners & all their artillery; a brick house with a palasadoed garden met us full in front, after driving them from the front line of their encampment—into this defense they had wisely thrown a body of troops—their opposition checked our progress—during which halt the enemy rallied in a hollow way under cover of the house—Our artillery was brought up to batter down the brick walls, & our troops inclined to the right to push the victory in a quarter, where success would be conclusive, & where no annoyance would arise from the fire from the house—This necessary maneuvre threw the troops in array at a distance from the artillery.

The zeal of the pursuit had intermixed regiments, the great loss of officers prevented an immediate restoration of order. The cavalry both on the right & left, had made the most gallant efforts to break into the plain & by a rapid push, to keep the fugitives from rallying, but were stopped by the black-jacks which surround the field, & were shot down within ten yards, without being able to strike a stroke. Poor Washington19 was personally unfortunate & is a prisoner. His officers were all wounded but one or two; his men were but little hurt.

My troops were not so unfortunate, only in men & horses.

The enemy seized this favorable moment & by a resolute charge recovered their camp & all their artillery, but one piece, with two of ours, which had been opposed to the house. Altho they did not dare to advance beyond their camp, the irregular condition of our army & the cry for water, obliged us to move to the nearest stream, which was our old camp, leaving light party[s ?]—near the enemy.

The dead & wounded lay partly with us, partly with them.

You will feel for our mortifying disappointment, after carrying victory for two miles by an intrepidity never before exhibited so generally, during the war.

The extraordinary loss we experienced in officers, the brick-house & adjacent strong ground, the impossibility of introducing the cavalry at the critical moment, for the reason before assigned; & the open order into which the troops had got in their order of advance prevented the actions terminating in the complete ruin of the B. army. The next day was so rainy as to oblige both armys to lay still; Gen Greene detached Marion & myself towards Monks corner to prevent any reinforcement from Chstown joining Col. Stuart, before a renewal of the action. In this intention the General was disappointed by Col. Stuarts moving in the night of the 9h. He was joined on his retreat by Lt. Col. McArthur, notwithstanding he continued to retire from our pursuing troops, till he reached fair lawn,20 a fortified post within thirty miles of Chstown on the Cooper river. Gen. Greene halted fourteen miles below the Eutaw finding it impossible to overtake the flying British. After refreshing his army one or two days he returned to this ground, the sickly season rendering it imprudent to continue in the lower country.

My Legion lost every fourth man engaged, which is the proportion of loss in the army. Upwards of 500 were killed & wounded, the enemy suffered, including prisoners, between 10 & 12 hundred.21

Gen. Greene is very active in preparing to follow the blow as soon as the sickly season will permit him, when I am confident he will confine the proud conquerors of the So States to the towns of Chstown & Savannah, which is all that can be done without a navy.22

These successes with the probable result of the operation in Virga must rid us of our savage enemy.23

It is impossible for Cornwallis to escape, without a repetition of the b[l]unders of Savannah, which cannot take place where Gen. Washington commands.24

I hope to visit you this winter, in the mean time accept my best wishes for your health & happiness, which be so good as to present to your lady, & my cousins.

I have been exceeding ill of a fever which took me while below—I followed the army in a litter—the heat of the weather, & the exertions in the field of Eutaw brought it on me.

I am now well—this will apologize for my not writing sooner. I am, my dear Sir, Most warmly your friend & obt h. Ser

Henry Lee Jur.

Aylette is laboring under the fever but has almost mastered it. He begs his respects to you & his relations.

H. Lee Octr 2nd 1781 [No address Endorsed]