• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.


 

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Speech Delivered January 19, 1962

By

Blake Tyler Newton

In the Senate of Virginia

 

My friends, we are met today for the purpose of paying sincere tribute to the memory and fame of a great member of the great house of Lee—General Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee—the Father of the peerless Robert E. Lee. Although in common with every other American, I feel the keenest pride in his brilliant career. I am not unmindful of my inability to do justice to a subject so well worthy of the loftiest praise and eulogy. Who was this man, this scholar, soldier statesman? He was the son of Henry Lee, of Leesylvania, and Lucy Grymes, the “lowland Beauty”, the first of George Washington’s unrequited loves. He was educated at Princeton College under the great Dr. Witherspoon. Here he made an enviable reputation as a student, his name appearing on both college literary debating societies, a distinction shared by only five others in the history of Princeton. With James Madison, Aaron Burr and John Witherspoon he shared the highest honors of his class. It had been his purpose when entering Princeton to finish there his classical education, and then pursue the study of law in the Middle Temple in London, but upon leaving Princeton at the age of eighteen he returned home to find that the fires of revolution which had for so long been smouldering had been fanned into full flame by continued tyrannies of the Mother Country. Born, raised and educated as he had been among a nest of devoted patriots, he heard with the greatest pleasure the decision of the Colonies to take up arms in the cause of freedom. Before reaching the age of nineteen we see him being commissioned a lieutenant in the company of dragoons commanded by Colonel Theodoric Bland. All thought of preparing for the Bar was now put aside and he embarked upon that career whose events were to follow such an ironic design.

In the early years of the war we se him in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, acting as the eyes and ears of General Washington’s Army. At times he is scouting for information of the enemy’s movements, sometimes foraging for food in order that life might be sustained in the tired bodies of the struggling army; at other times destroying and capturing enemy supplies, and in other ways harassing the movements of the opposing soldiers. The war was hardly two years old when by his gallantly conspicuous service he had so attracted the attention of his superior officers, that General Washington, through Colonel Hamilton, tendered him an invitation to become one of his aides. No greater honor could be given to a young Captain in the American Army. It meant promotion to a Lieutenant Colonelcy at once. It meant being personally known to all the general officers. It was a tempting, comfortable position. Always there would be a bed at night, meals at some bright tavern, and no fear of death from a British musket or bayonet. He would be among lively, agreeable young men—Alexander Hamilton, Henry Laurens, Robert Harrison, James McHenry, Tench Tilghman, Richard Kidder Mead—bu the aide-de-camp’s sleek way to fame was not the way Lee purposed to earn renown. He preferred to remain in the cavalry, taking his chance with sword and pistol, exerting  his keen and active mind in raids, assaults and long excursions; sleeping in a feather bed one night and under the stars the next. After weighing the invitation from every angle, and after waiting as long as he dared to reply, he wrote General Washington under date of March 31st his refusal. Among other things he said: “Permit me to promise that I am wedded to my sword, and that my secondary object in the present war is military reputation. To have possessed a post about your Excellency’s person is certainly the first recommendation I can bear to posterity; it affords a field for military instruction; would lead me into an intimate acquaintance with politics of the State, and might present more immediate opportunities of manifesting my high respect and warm attachment for your Excellency’s character and person; I know it would also afford true and unexpected joy to my parents and friends. On the contrary, I possess a most affectionate friendship for my soldiers, a fraternal love for the officers who have served with  me, a zeal for the honor of the cavalry, and an opinion that I should render no real service to your Excellency’s arms.” Having thus stated the reasons for declining this flattering offer, he awaited anxiously word from his beloved commander. He had not long to wait. The next day he received a letter from General Washington in which, among other things, he said: “The undisguised manner in which you express yourself cannot but strengthen my good opinion of you. As the offer on my part was purely the result of a high sense of your merit, and as I would by no means divert you from a career in which you promise yourself greater happiness from its affording more and frequent opportunities of acquiring military fame, I entreat you to pursue your inclination as if nothing had passed on this subject, and be assured of the good wishes of Dear Sir, Yours, etc., George Washington.”

Meanwhile, Congress had been considering his promotion and in April President Reed notified him that he had been raised to the rank of Major, and might soon be given an additional company of men to be added to his own troop of dragoons, the whole to form an independent partizan [sic] corps under his leadership. While barely 21 years old, he had fought at Brandy Wine, Monmouth and Germantown. Acting as scout for the army in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York he had by sheer ability risen from Lieutenant to Major. Now he was called by General Washington to reconnoiter and find out the best and safest approach to the enemy stronghold at Stoney Point. For days Major Lee scouted this stronghold. While his share in the actual attack was small, yet his reconnaisance [sic] had shown the possibilities of the venture and his continued observance of the enemy contributed to its success. For fifteen days he was continually near the vicinity of Stoney Point. He killed all dogs in the neighborhood in order to insure silence on the night of attack. To General Washington’s mind, Lee’s operations were so important that he wrote General Wayne the day before the attack as follows: “As it is important to have every information we can procure, if you could manage to see Major Lee, it may be useful. He has been so long near the spot, and has taken so much pains to inform himself critically concerning the post, that I imagine he may able to make you acquainted with some further details.” He did. And on the night of the 15th, when Wayne’s Light Infantry Corps crossed the Donderburg on its way to Stoney Point, Lee, meeting Wayne with his latest information, was one of the officers who showed the way down the hill, over the flooded marsh and up the steep rocky side of the British stronghold, from which an American flag soon floated. Thus did General Lee contribute to the success of Mad Anthony Wayne’s brilliant victory.

While all America was singing the praises of Mad Anthony Wayne for capturing the almost unassailable and impregnable Stoney Point on the Hudson. Major Lee was revolving in his busy and active mind a plan whereby he was to perform a feat equally difficult of accomplishment as had been that of General Wayne; namely the capture of Paulus Hook, a fort occupied by the British on an isthmus between Hackensack and Hudson Rivers. This fort was protected in front by British ships lying in the Hudson and thousands of soldiers billeted in New York. Behind them flowed the Hackensack, with no way of crossing except by a bridge built 14 miles above the fort. To the South the land formed a hook, washed by deep water and patrolled by British troops. On the North, the isthmus was divided by a creek, the passage of which was guarded by a wide, deep trench and a double row of sharp stakes and underbrush extending along either bank. With such natural defenses, the garrison feared nothing. Yet it was this stronghold that Major Lee determined to capture. After carefully planning and reconnoitering, and after having secured the consent of General Washington, on a hot August day he set out at the head of his legion to capture this stronghold. We are told the march was long and weary; there were rivers to be crossed on hastily made bridges; there were creeks to wade and swim; there were marshes and bogs to be crossed, but after marching all day and all night, this gallant command, under their intrepid leader, rushed into the fort, whose guardians had been taken completely by surprise, and captured the entire garrison then present, save a few men who had taken refuge in the block house. After destroying stores and supplies, the garrison was safely taken back to the American Headquarters. For this brilliant exploit, Major Lee received the compliments of Lafayette and a personal letter from General Washington in which he said: “I have received your report, which I have forwarded to Congress. You will find my sense of your conduct, and that of the officers and men under your command, expressed in the general orders of the day, and in my letter to Congress. I congratulate you on your success.” Those congratulations were to Major Lee very gratifying, but there were to be repercussions not so pleasant, for through jealousy of some of the older officers, charges were preferred against Major Lee for his conduct of this campaign and he was, after having performed one of the most daring feats of the war, to be humiliated by being brought before a court martial for trial. At the trial, his defense was adequate, and the court could do no less than mark the charges against him as spurious. The opinion of the court was: “Major Lee’s conduct was uniform and regular, supporting his military character, magnanimity and judgment, and that he by no means acted derrogatory [sic] to the Gentleman and Soldier, which character he fills with honor to his country and credit to the Army.” Receiving the verdict of the court, General Washington wrote beneath it: “The Commander-in-Chief confirms the opinion of the Court,” and added, “Major Lee is released from arrest.”

On September 24th, Congress passed resolutions providing that $15,000.00 be distributed among the non-commissioned officers and men in such manner as the Commander-In-Chief should direct, “and Major Lee was complimented for the remarkable prudence, address and bravery displayed” in recognition of which “a gold medal, emblematical of the affair,” was ordered to be struck off and presented to him by the Government. For four years Major Lee had fought with Washington in the North. He is now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Legion and detached to the Army of the South. Late in 1780 he reported to General Nathaniel [sic] Greene in North Carolina. We could follow him in this dashing Southern campaign, but time does not permit. We see him as the strong arm of his beloved commander, General Greene, at Guilford, the Cow Pens, Kings Mountain and all the fighting incident to the capture of the British forts between Camden, Ninety Six and Charleston.

The war is over. Independence from the Mother Country has been achieved. Lee, at the age of 26, returns to Virginia. For some time he had been in love with the charming daughter of Stratford – and now that the clash of arms had ceased, he took time to press his suit and so shortly after his retrun [sic] from the battlefields of the South, he was united in marriage to “the Divine Matilda.” He then settled down here at Stratford to become a gentleman farmer, riding about the broad acres, supervising the planting of crops, the operation of the fisheries and mills of his large estate. But to one of his temperament, this secluded and quiet life did not appeal. He longed for a larger field of operation, the field of statecraft with the clash of sharp, keen minds. So it was inevitable that he should be drawn into politics. In the fall of 1785 he was elected to Congress. Taking Matilda with him, he journeyed to New York for the Session, where, with Colonel Carrington, Colonel Grayson and James Monroe, he represented Virginia. His service there was short, he remaining only one term and being supplanted by James Madison, his old schoolmate at Princeton. Again he returned to Stratford, but he had tasted the flattery of political importance and was not content to remain on his plantation, acting as one of the Gentlemen Justices of Westmoreland. His mind was occupied with national matters and he continually thought of the state of the nation, bound together with only a loose confederation, and continually being threatened with dissolution; because of the jealousies of the states toward each other and the impotence of the Government in settling civil disturbances and rebuking foreign insults. He wanted a strong central government that would be able to protect its citizens and encourage shipping and trade with foreign countries. Accordingly, when the Constitution was proposed, as a member of the convention called for ratification, we find Colonel Lee, a delegate from Westmoreland, one of the leaders who championed the cause of ratification. This was no light task, for arrayed upon the side opposed to ratification were some of the brainiest and most masterful leaders and patriots in Virginia. At the head of this array of talent was Patrick Henry, the Grand Sachem of the people of the West; with him were allied such leaders of opinion as George Mason, the great lawyer; Colonel Theodoric Bland, who led the first regiment of dragoons to the war; Colonel Grayson, long a leading member of Congress; Richard Henry Lee, the mover of the Declaration of Independence. With these and many others against ratification, the contest promised to be long and stormy. But Lee was rarely embarrassed by finding the majority against him, and never daunted by the stature of his adversaries, even when they took on the proportions of Patrick Henry and George Mason. Upon entering the packed hall where the convention was to be held, he assumed that the business of the meeting was not for argument, but for quick ratification of the Constitution, and so, with sharp brevity, suggested that the matter be taken up immediately. This at once brought objections from Colonel George Mason, who said, “Precious as time is, we ought not to run into discussions before we have the proper means.” Lee knew that that speech was designed to delay ratification until the document was amended to give power to the states and less strength to the Federal Government. And it opened the way for the old and gaunt, but still powerful Patrick Henry to lead off with his powerful argument against ratification. The issue was joined; these giants held each other in close battle for days. Although James Madison, Governor Randolph and all the other leaders of ratification were in the hall, it was Lee who took up the gauge of battle thrown down by Patrick Henry and who directly met Henry’s arguments. “Mr. President,” Lee said after acknowledging the “dignified and brilliant talents” of Mr. Henry, but declared that they had now been devoted to describing imaginary horrors, “was it proper to appeal to the fears of this House? I trust that he and every other gentleman of this House comes with a firm resolution, cooly [sic] and calmly, to examine, and fairly and impartially to determine.” He then proceeded in a powerful and brilliant argument to tear to shreds the contentions of Mr. Henry and to point out the great advantages which he felt that ratification would bring to the country. Nothing daunted, the powerful Henry returned to the attack and launched against the proposal all the logic and eloquence at his command; particularly against what he considered the dangers of a Federal Army. To this, on June 9th, Lee replied: ‘having led the forces of the American Army for six years, he was peculiarly fitted to defend the army and plead for a strong national defense.’ This he did in a brilliant speech which, if time permitted, I would read to you. And so the battle raged until June 24th, when the vote was taken, and by the barest majority, ten out of 168 votes, Virginia entered the Federal Government. Colonel Lee was jubilant. The ideal for which he had fought for six long years upon the field of battle, the campaigns in which he had participated from the Hudson in New York to the Pedee in the Carolinas, had not been in vain. The suffering and privation of himself and others through these weary years was yet to bear fruit in the blossoming of the strong national government which would have the power to protect its citizens against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, which had the power to promote commerce and prosperity among its people. And he, by the power of his strong sword and the eloquence of his tongue, had had no small part in its accomplishment. And so, my friends, at this time, 174 years after the ratification of our great Constitution, which eminent and impartial observers have said is the greatest document ever struck off by the hand of man at a given time, and under which the greatest nation in the modern world has grown and prospered, it is well for us to pause and pay our tribute of respect and admiration to the great patriot whose efforts contributed so largely in giving us this blessing.

Soon after his great triumph in helping to bring about the ratification of the Constitution, he suffered a cruel blow in the death of his first wife, Matilda. She was only 26 years old, was in her finest bloom, and her death left the distracted husband desolate. “Something always happens” he wrote years later, “to mar my happiness.” Never was this regarded by Henry as the maxim of his life, more true than in the loss of Matilda. He was only 34, and found relief by plunging into public life. His speeches in the Virginia Constitutional Convention had extended his fame; the greatest American of his day was his friend and backer; and thus Light Horse Harry’s election in 1791 as Governor of Virginia, an office that had been filled by Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph, and other great Virginians, seemed quite in keeping with the eminence he had attained. He served as Governor three years, being re-elected twice. It was in 1793, while he was Governor, that he paid court to Ann Hill Carter of Shirley, and married her. Of her little is known except that she was a woman of noble character and breeding. The only portrait of her hangs in the Crypt of the Lexington Church that contains the boy of her son, Robert E. Lee. She wears as her most conspicuous ornament, a miniature of George Washington inscribed “From Washington to his dear Ann.” This is a picture of a handsome lady, well poised, with slightly wistful eyes, and re-enforce the impressions handed down from Ann’s contemporaries. We have the estimate of her of William H. Fitzhugh in his letter to the Secretary of War, recommending Robert E. Lee as a candidate for West Point when he says that “Lee’s mother is one of the finest women that the State of Virginia has ever produced.” Then we have some of her letters—a dozen or so—preserved in the Library of Congress that tell the story of her character. The handwriting is as neat and as copy-plate a variety as that of Thomas Jefferson himself. The whole tenor of her thought is sincere and unaffected. The predominating trait of Ann, as of her son, was simplicity, old fashioned religion, old fashioned virtue; and old fashioned manners made her moral world. All she asked of her boys was that they be “honorable and correct”; that they “practice the most inflexible virtue”; and “indulge in such habits only as are consistent with religion and morality.” These insights into her character, and the fact that she bore and reared that peerless gentleman, Robert Edward Lee, leave no doubt in the minds of all of us that she was everything that a woman should be, and that she was indeed one of the finest women the State of Virginia—or any state, for that matter—ever produced.

In the short space allotted to me I shall not go into the details of Henry’s and Ann’s marital affairs. Suffice it to say that Harry Lee’s life is divided into two phases; the first, in which he plays the part of a soldier and statesman; the second, in which his failure in practical matters brought misery to himself and his family. It was Matilda’s fortune to share the era of fame and splendor; it was the fate of Ann to participate in the time of collapse. I would that I could stop right here in this account, for in the flush of his great triumphs, Lee was happy, but, “the moving finger writes—and having writ—moves on,” and we must follow him yet further. He is yet to win great honors and also, my friends, to drink the bitter dregs of disappointment and defeat. Three terms in the Governor’s chair of Virginia, his native state, await him. The leadership of the American forces in the campaign to subdue the Whiskey Rebellion, with all of its attendant woe, is yet before him. Membership in the Sixth Congress; that dramatic session which saw the disintegration of his party, the Federalist. The death of his idol and friend, George Washington, was yet to be borne. The great memorial address on Washington, in which he incorporated his immoral tribute, of which he was the author but for which another had received the credit, “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen,” was yet to be delivered. Penury and poverty had not yet overtaken him. There was yet to come that dastardly assault by the Baltimore mob, received in his protection of the house of a friend, the effect of which was to make him a cripple and a sufferer for the balance of his days. He had yet to experience the bitterness of separation from his wife and children and wander in a foreign land seeking the return of that health and strength which he had poured out so lavishly in the defense of his people and country. These and other anguishes he had to suffer. Failing in his search of health among the islands of the sea, he took ship for home, but enroute he was taken desperately ill and was put ashore, strange as it may seem, at the home of his former beloved commander, General N. Greene. The old general was no more, but Lee’s necessities were ministered to by Mrs. Shaw, a daughter of General Greene. But he was too far gone. The ravages of wounds, disease and mental anguish had wrought well their work and so he passed on to that great beyond on March 25, 1817.

Since young manhood, the events of Henry Lee’s life had followed a crazily ironic pattern. He had performed one of the most famous exploits of the Revolution, the capture of Paulus Hook, and had been court-martialed for his valor; he had fought hard for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, and, winning, had felt it turn like a too flexible sword in his hand, endangering his own and the prosperity of the South. As Governor of Virginia he had been tumbled from the summit of prosperity, to be persecuted for having taken command of the Federal Army with which President Washington had entrusted him against the Whiskey Insurrectionists; at Washington’s death, his brilliant mind had coined the phrase, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen,” which had been promptly credited to John Marshall, who introduced the resolution in Congress. Toward the end of his life he was to fall unwittingly into the hands of the mob in Baltimore, at whose hands he sustained such brutal treatment. He had a strange career, yet it was a colorful and brilliant one. No man of his time burned more ardently with the fires of true patriotism. None accomplished more for freedom. None labored harder and with more zeal to secure a strong Federal Government, the advantages of which had been so dearly won by the sword. He typifies to American youth, more nearly than does anyone else, the conception of the “Plumed Knight,” “The Happy Warrior.” “Who is the happy Warrior? ‘Who is he that every man in arms should wish to be?’ It is the generous spirit who doomed to go in company with pain and fear and bloodshed, turns his necessities to glorious gain.” “This is the Happy Warrior; this is he that every man in arms should wish to be.” Such a man was Light-horse Harry Lee, the father of the peerless Robert E. Lee.  

 

Resolution

 

Whereas, for a century the people of Virginia have looked upon the sterling character of Robert Edward Lee with reverence and have used it as a point upon which to rally in times of stress; and

Whereas, Lighthorse Harry Lee, his Father, by blood and precept, passed to his son many of those qualities for which we revere the son; and

Whereas, Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman spent many tireless years in the biographical analysis and interpretation of Robert Edward Lee and all of his exemplary qualities for our guidance and for the direction of all posterity; now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate of Virginia; That when the Senate adjourns today that it adjourn in honor of Lee, the man, Lee, the father, and Dr. Freeman, the biographer

 

 

 

Source: Vertical files, Valentine Museum, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 February 6

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