Henry Lee III

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"Light Horse" Henry Lee III

Henry Lee III ("Light Horse" Harry Lee, 1756-1818) was a cavalry officer for the Continental Army and statesman for Virginia and the early United States of America. He was the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and he famously gave the eulogy for George Washington's funeral, pronouncing him "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Later in life Henry Lee would become a historian.

Though less successful in his closing years, Lee was remembered and honored for his achievements during the American Revolutionary War. A biographer described him as "the foremost soldier of his years in the entire Revolutionary army."[1]

Early life

Henry Lee III was born at Dumfries in northern Virginia on January 29, 1756. His parents were Henry Lee II and Lucy Grymes Lee, both of them descended from English Cavalier settlers of the 17th century and thus part of the "First Families of Virginia" aristocracy that dominated the colony. Like others of this group, the Lee family (including Henry Lee III's cousin Richard Henry Lee, a future president of the Continental Congress) tended to support the English Whig Party and to be stubborn and outspoken defenders of their colonial prerogatives and their traditional rights as English subjects.

Lee was educated by private tutoring at the family home, his father intending for him to become a lawyer. In 1770, he matriculated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and graduated in 1773. Though he received good marks during his time of study, he was said to have given less attention to the law than to the classics, especially the ancient Romans and their ideas on virtue, perhaps indicating that he was already looking forward to a future test of wills with the British over their policies of American taxation.

Revolutionary War Soldier

In 1777, Lee was commissioned (by then-governor Patrick Henry) as a captain in the 1st Continental Light Dragoons, a cavalry regiment led by Colonel Theodorick Bland, a relation of the Lees. He and his unit first saw significant combat in 1778, with Lee (by now promoted to major) distinguishing himself in the defeat of a Hessian regiment outside New York City in September. At other times, he was highly successful in carrying out the conventional duties of the cavalry: gathering intelligence on enemy movements, screening the Continental Army's own movements from the British, and raiding around and behind enemy lines to gather supplies and cause disruption. It was these exploits that earned Lee the nickname "Light-Horse Harry," and a grateful General Washington offered him a position on his staff. Lee declined, however, preferring a field command; as he put it, "I am wedded to my sword." Impressed, Washington saw to the creation of an independent unit under Lee's command that would later include both cavalry and infantry and come to be known as "Lee's Legion."

Lee and his Legion distinguished themselves at the Battle of Paulus Hook in New Jersey in August 1779, raiding a British fort and inflicting some 200 casualties at a cost of only a dozen of their own. In recognition of this exploit, Lee was again promoted, to lieutenant colonel, and presented by the Continental Congress with a gold medal and $15,000, the latter to be distributed to his soldiers.

Lee in military dress

Shortly after this feat, in response to the deteriorating situation in the Carolinas, Lee's Legion was reassigned to the Southern Army. There, in 1780 and early 1781, Lee joined with local partisan leaders such as Francis Marion in raiding and harassing British outposts in South Carolina, while also performing highly effectively as regular cavalry for the army under Nathanael Greene, who once referred to Lee as his "right eye." In January and February 1781, Lee screened the northward retreat of Greene's army to Virginia, then scattered Loyalist militia in North Carolina at the Battle of Haw Creek, also known as "Pyle's Massacre." Lee would subsequently take part in the Battle of Guilford Court House, the siege of Ninety-Six, and the Battle of Eutaw Springs, and be present at the Battle of Yorktown and the surrender of Charles Cornwallis.

Public career

Despite his acknowledged military talents and accomplishments, Lee had by the time of Yorktown become unhappy with his place in the army, due in part to his anger at members of the Congress who had slighted the role of veteran Continental Army officers like himself in favor of the various state militias; by contrast, Lee felt the war had been won in spite of, not because of, the militia units. Feeling disrespected, Lee resigned from the army in early 1782 and returned to Virginia. There, he married his second cousin, Matilda Ludwell Lee, and sought a career in politics.

He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1785, and in 1786 became a representative to the Continental Congress. While a member, Lee consistently advocated a strengthening of the Articles of Confederation, which he saw as necessary to effectively protect America against foreign aggression. He also feared the weak Confederation government would lead to anarchy and the destruction of liberty; at one point he predicted to friends that if incidents like Shays' Rebellion continued, the result would be "a mob government for a time, which will terminate in despotism among ourselves or from abroad." For these reasons, Lee supported the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and represented, with James Madison and others, the Federalist cause at the Virginia ratification convention in 1788.

Virginia Governor

Lee continued to serve in the Continental Congress until his term expired in 1788, shortly before that body was replaced by the new United States Congress, and was elected to the Virginia General Assembly. Though Lee had up to this time acted as a Federalist and moderate nationalist, he soon reversed his stance in response to the centralizing policies of other Federalists, especially the financial system advocated by Alexander Hamilton. He joined the ranks of the Anti-Federalists, calling for the adoption of a Bill of Rights and other measures to restrain the federal government, and was especially concerned about the potential for a Northern-dominated Congress to oppress the Southern states.

Lee was elected governor of Virginia in 1791, serving until December 1794. In this capacity, he opposed the formation of the Bank of the United States, Hamilton's policy of assuming state debts by the federal government, and any upsetting of a balance of power between the Northern and Southern states. Though these positions brought Lee closer to the Democratic-Republicans under Thomas Jefferson, he never united with that party, chiefly because of their support for the French Revolution, which he despised, and his fears that they would foment similar social unrest in America. The outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 marked his return to the Federalist camp, taking command (while still governor) of a force of militia sent to Pennsylvania to restore order.

Later life

Lee's tenure as governor ended while he was still on duty in Pennsylvania. Though he would hold office again in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1795 to 1798, and as a member of the House of Representatives from 1799 to 1801, he was no longer a leading figure in the political debates of the day (though he would take part in the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, upholding the actions of the Adams administration). He was alienated from the Republicans now politically dominant in Virginia, and his personal life, from the 1790s onward, became overshadowed by financial troubles, brought on by bad investments in land speculation and other enterprises. Eventually he became unable to pay his debts, and in April 1809 was jailed, first in Westmoreland, then in Spotsylvania County. During this time, he wrote A Cursory Sketch of the Motives and Proceedings of the Party Which Sways the Affairs of the Union, an attack on the policies and character of Jefferson, especially during his time as governor during the war.

After being released from jail in March 1810, Lee moved his family for a time to Alexandria, Virginia. In July 1812, after the outbreak of the War of 1812 with Britain—a war he had opposed—Lee was involved in a riot in Baltimore, Maryland, when he and several other Federalists defended a Federalist newspaper office against a Republican mob. Following the disorder, Lee and his friends were jailed; the mob subsequently broke into the jail and beat the men so badly that one later died, and Lee himself was left with permanent injuries, both physical and mental. He returned to Alexandria to recover (only partially successfully), then left the country in May 1813, touring the West Indies to fully regain his health. After fruitless wandering through the Caribbean, Lee began his return to the country in early 1818, but made it only as far as Cumberland Island on the Georgia coast, dying on March 25 at the plantation of Nathanael Greene's daughter Louisa.

Character and Beliefs

Historian M. E. Bradford described Lee as "the definitive military Federalist." Like many officers in the Continental Army, his frustrations in dealing with the limitations of the state governments and militias and of Congress under the Articles of Confederation led him to support a more powerful federal government, one that could above all adequately defend the nation in time of war. Before the writing of the Constitution, he wrote to a kinsman, "[We need] wisdom & vigor in a supreme power, created by the whole." As a member of the Virginia gentry, and a man steeped in tales of ancient virtue, he also feared that America under the Articles was drifting towards radical democracy, with its threats of anarchy and demagogic rulers. The Constitution was, to him, a check on the potential for mob rule.

At the same time, Lee's nationalism did not extend to support for a complete centralization of government power. The economic policies of such Federalists as Alexander Hamilton quickly alienated him, and he came to fear that the new national authority would attempt to usurp the rightful powers of the states. In addition, as a Southerner, Lee worried early on that the federal government would become dominated by Northerners, who would run it for the benefit of their section alone. As early as April 1790, he contemplated the possibility of Southern secession as a response to this threat, writing to James Madison, "To disunite is dreadful to my mind, but dreadful as it is, I consider it a lesser evil than union on the present conditions"—these being Hamilton's "funding and assumption" proposal, among other things.

Though not as openly religious as some of the Founding Fathers, Lee was nonetheless a firm Christian. He was a member of the Episcopal Church throughout his life, and his opposition to the French Revolution (which sparked his return to the Federalists) was based partly on his view of it as a mortal threat to Christian civilization. In one of his last letters, he urged his sons to place their trust in the Christian faith, without being dogmatic about their particular branch of it.

Biographers of Lee's son Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate general, have sometimes argued that his father's life was a formative experience for him: on the one hand, Robert strove to uphold the nation and the principles his father had fought for; on the other hand, he was careful to avoid the debts and disgrace that had come upon Henry Lee late in life.


Lee was married twice: first, in April 1782, to his second cousin Matilda Ludwell Lee (1764-1790), known variously as "the divine Matilda" and "the queen of Stratford," then, on June 18, 1793, to Anne Hill Carter (1773-1829), descended from the powerful Carter family of colonial Virginia.

Lee had nine children by his two wives, seven of whom lived to adulthood. By Matilda Ludwell Lee:

  • Philip Ludwell Lee (1784-1794)
  • Lucy Grymes Lee (1786-1860)
  • Henry ("Black-Horse Harry") Lee IV (1787-1837), a historian and speechwriter first for John C. Calhoun and later Andrew Jackson

By Anne Hill Carter:

  • Algernon Sidney Lee (1795-1796)
  • Charles Carter Lee (1798-1871)
  • Anne Kinloch Lee (1800-1864)
  • Sydney Smith Lee (1802-1869), captain in the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War
  • Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870), commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War
  • Mildred Lee (1811-1856)


  1. Defending the Barbarians, M.E. Bradford (1992), p. 114