The Disgraced Hero: “Light Horse Harry” Henry Lee

The Ruins of Leesylvania Courtesy Library of Congress

Henry Lee III was born on 29 January 1756 to Henry Lee II and Lucy Grymes, a wealthy and prestigious family. The family home, Leesylvania was located outside of Dumfires, Virginia. Lee III proved a proficient child, excelling in his studies and in horsemanship. By the age of 14 Lee left for the College of New Jersey where he was in for a very demanding education. Nevertheless, Lee pulled through and earned his diploma. That is not to say he was a perfect pupil, he managed a few scrapes that could’ve gotten him expelled. His knowledge could be a unnerving though. It was a well-known fact that Lee could put his friends and family to sleep with his recitations and discussions regarding favorite authors.

As war loomed Lee’s loyalties leaned increasingly towards the American cause. After his graduation in 1773, Lee made his own quiet war preparations. As time passed and war became inevitable Lee was convinced the time was right to join the war effort. And so he did. Lee enlisted in his cousin’s regiment, the Virginia Dragoons. He was later made a captain and given his own command. Lee himself went around enlisting those who passed his rather rigorous test. When all was said and done, Lee’s troops were young, 24 years of age and under.

When Lee and his men joined General George Washington, the young captain found the troops a pitiful and hungry mess. So Lee set out to help the troops a bit. He and his men surprised the British and took over 20 of their supply wagons. In the coming days, Lee would distinguish himself with his raids and his skilled observations of the enemy (he provided the Continental Army with valuable information).

Light-Horse Harry Lee Courtesy Wikipedia

Lee was a thorn in British General William Howe’s side. To put an end to Lee’s little escapades, Howe sent troops out to capture the Rebel. The British surprised Lee and 50 of his men at Scott’s Farm. Lee kept a level head about himself and settled in for a fight with the redcoats. They steadily advanced and from inside the farmhouse Lee waited patiently. When the redcoats had come very close, Lee ordered his men to fire. The British took heavy losses and retreated to safety. But they weren’t about to give up. Instead they repeated their advance twice more and each time were driven back. Having had enough, but not ready to come away empty handed, the redcoats made an effort to set the American horses loose. What’s a cavalry without horses? But a bluff on Lee’s part caused them to hastily retreat. After the little incident Lee was offered a promotion and the position of aide-de-camp. Lee thought it over for some time, not wanting to snub Washington’s offer. But he wasn’t cut out to be a ‘pencil pusher’ and graciously declined. Instead Washington saw to it that Lee was promoted to major general.

At the Battle of Paulus Hook, Lee did much to bring victory to American forces. But he was in for a big surprise. In gratitude of his services, Lee was to attend his own court-martial. Jealous superiors officers were miffed at not having had a chance get in on the glory. Lee had been very secretive about the mission. With Washington’s support, and a great many other officers’, Lee was in no want of defenders. He was eventually acquitted and awarded a gold medal by Congress.

The years dragged on and the war persisted. The year 1781 found Lee in Yorktown lobbying for supplies for his good friend Nathanael Greene, whose troops were in great need. So far Lee had had no luck. As the joint American-French forces settled in for the siege of Yorktown, Washington allowed Lee to visit home. There he and his second cousin Matilda Lee made their intentions of marrying known. But the marriage would have to be put on hold. Lee was still a soldier and expected back with the army soon. The days slogged on and by 1782 Lee was ready to leave the army for good and return to a civilian life. Before he left, Lee’s troops made a ‘secret’ raid on a British outpost. They acquired the officer in charge’s sword, etched some of their names on the blade and presented it to Lee on the day of his departure. His men had always held “Light-Horse Harry” in the highest regard.

In March 1782 Lee and Matilda were married. Their first child Nathanael Green was born followed by Philip, Lucy and Henry. As a civilian Lee spent much of his time in politics. He served as a delegate in Congress, a member of the General Assembly, three one-year terms as governor of Virginia and later as Justice of the Peace. He would also return to war during the Whiskey Rebellion

The Lee’s Alexandria Home Courtesy Library of Congress

Lee was in for some hard times. His beloved Matilda died in 1790. While grieving her death Lee devoted nearly all of his time to the couple’s three youngest and surviving children. Lee lost interest in everything during his self-imposed exile. But ever so gradually Lee came around, going on to serve as governor. Sadly, in 1794 Lee also lost 10 year-old Philip to illness. By the next year he had married Anne Carter. But hardship wasn’t ready to let go of Lee. The couple lost their first child, but he was followed by Anne, Smith, Robert and Mildred. Lee also struggled with a mounting debt. Business deals gone sour and lending money to friends who couldn’t repay sent Lee into a downward spiral. In 1809, sick of eluding his debt-collectors Lee turned himself in and was placed in debtor’s prison. There he wrote his memoirs which he would live to see published. By 1810 Lee was free, but bankrupt. The family moved to Alexandria where they hoped to live peacefully.

While in Baltimore, Lee got in a scrape with a mob. They beat him senseless and left him lying in a Maryland street. Doctor’s learned of Lee’s identity while tending to the poor man. The news made headlines, as Lee began his slow and painful road to recovery. Thanks to the rapscallions Lee would never fully recover from his injuries. Lee and Anne decided it would be best if he went to the West Indies to recover. And he did, but he never stopped dreaming of the day he could return home. That day came in February 1818. He was sailing home. Near Georgia, Lee asked to be let off near the now deceased General Greene’s home. Still suffering from illness Light-Horse Harry Lee died there on 25 March 1818.

Source: Gerson, Noel B. Light-Horse Harry: A biography of Washington’s Great Cavalryman, General Henry Lee

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65 thoughts on “The Disgraced Hero: “Light Horse Harry” Henry Lee

    • Yes, but it is kind of sad. He did so much for the Revolution and then he dies in poverty. Then that tussle with those ragmuffins in Maryland, what a shame! But his poverty was partially his own fault. There was one incident that Matilda and nearly everyone else warned him against.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  1. Another fascinating personality in our history. I feel sad for the troubles that plagued him in later life and am grateful to you for the story.

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    • You’re welcome and thanks for your comment!

      It does seem unfair. Too bad no one was in the mood to give him a hand. But then Lee may have been too proud to have wanted to accept charity.

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  2. Ligh Horse Harry has local connection with us: a summer cabin given to him for his war service, extracted out of Lord Fairfax’s land. It is now part of Lost River State Park, in West Virginia.
    Oscar

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  3. An interesting story. He seems a little unusual in being so devoted to his family and cutting himself off from the fighting side for a time. Most of these war heroes seem to be more along the lines of absent family men, don’t they.

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    • Yes, that is one of Lee’s more unusual traits. Something his brother Charles didn’t have, according to Lee’s biography by Noel Gerson.

      He was very devoted to Matilda and their children. Her death really crushed him. I thought it a little odd how his son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was the only one to visit his father’s grave. Even Anne Carter Lee, never got around to it, although she made plans. I wonder, as much as he loved his family, how he felt about none of them being present at his death.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    • Although I love old graveyards I suppose that not everyone sees their families graves the same way. My Grandparents (who I loved very much) are buried not too far away but I only go there when I accompany my mum. I don’t really feel them there, that is not ‘their place’. I feel them much more when we are all together as a family as that was their thing, not a sad and windy hill, surrounded by strangers. Maybe Anne had her own way of remembering him.

      I can’t imagine Lee being too happy about reaching the end of his life without his beloved family around him though. :(

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    • I hadn’t thought of that. I know she never remarried. There’s an interesting myth surrounding Anne. In 1805 she was pronounced dead. Only she wasn’t. She was placed in a vault, but a week later a sexton heard her cries and she was set free. This was supposedly shortly before Robert E. Lee’s birth.

      I love the graveyards too. Have you ever heard of the website Find-a-Grave?

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    • That is an interesting myth. If it was true that would explain her reluctance to visit her fathers grave!
      I hadn’t heard of Find a Grave, I’ll have to look it up.

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    • Yes it would.

      Find-a-Grave, which provides me with a use for my hobby of photography of gravestones, is made up if volunteers. People photograph the stones and upload the ‘memorials’ onto the site.

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  4. Thanks for the post. It is always great to hear information concerning one’s progenitors. Harry’s sister, Theodocia, is my 7th great grandmother on my father’s side. I’m told my resemblance to picture above is spooky.

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  5. I really enjoyed this post. As others have said I had heard of Light Horse Harry, but didn’t know much about him. I like to read about their accomplishments, but especially like knowing about them as people, in this case his devotion to his family. Excellent read :-)

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    • Thank you, I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it!

      I like to know the ‘human’ side of people in history. To me it makes them feel more real, if that makes sense. Thanks for your comment!

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    • Yep, if he was anything, it was determined.

      I think I may have also forgotten to mention that he was reported to have a very nasty temper during his college days and before. I don’t recall him unleashing it on his family, but mostly on acquaintances who angered him. Thanks for your comment!

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