American Revolution: Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee

Light Horse Harry Lee
Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. Public Domain

Born at Leesylvania near Dumfries, VA on January 29, 1756, Henry Lee III was the son of Henry Lee II and Lucy Grymes Lee. A member of a prominent Virginia family, Lee's father was a second cousin of Richard Henry Lee who later served as President of the Continental Congress.  Receiving his early education in Virginia, Lee then moved north to attend the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he pursued a degree in classical studies.

Graduating in 1773, Lee returned to Virginia and commenced a career in law. This endeavor proved short-lived as Lee quickly took an interest in military matters following the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution in April 1775. Traveling to Williamsburg the following year, he sought a place in one of the new Virginia regiments being formed for service with the Continental Army. Commissioned as a captain on June 18, 1775, Lee led the 5th Troop of Colonel Theodorick Bland's light cavalry battalion.  After spending the fall equipping and training, the unit moved north and joined General George Washington's army in January 1776.

Marching with Washington

Incorporated into the Continental Army in March, the unit was re-designated the 1st Continental Light Dragoons.  Shortly thereafter, Lee and his troop largely began to operate independently from Bland's command and saw service in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania in conjunction with forces led by Major Generals Benjamin Lincoln and Lord Stirling. In this role, Lee and his men largely conducted reconnaissance, foraged for supplies, and attacked British outposts. Impressed with their performance, Washington effectively made the unit independent that fall and began issuing orders directly to Lee.

With the beginning of the Philadelphia Campaign in the late summer of 1777, Lee's men operated in southeastern Pennsylvania and were present, but not engaged, at the Battle of Brandywine in September. After the defeat, Lee's men retreated with the rest of the army. The following month, the troop served as Washington's bodyguard during the Battle of Germantown.  With the army in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Lee's troop earned fame on January 20, 1778, when it thwarted an ambush led by Captain Banastre Tarleton near Spread Eagle Tavern.

Growing Responsibility

On April 7, Lee's men were formally separated from the 1st Continental Light Dragoons and work commenced to expand the unit to three troops. At the same time, Lee was promoted to major at the request of Washington. Much of the rest of the year was spent training and organizing the new unit. To cloth his men, Lee chose a uniform featuring a short green jacket and white or doeskin pants. In an effort to ensure tactical flexibility, Lee had one of the troops dismounted to serve as infantry. On September 30, he took his unit into battle at Edgar's Lane near Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. Winning a victory over a force of Hessians, Lee lost no men in the fighting. 

On July 13, 1779, a company of infantry was added to Lee's command to serve a fourth troop. Three days later, the unit served as a reserve during Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's successful attack on Stony Point. Inspired by this operation, Lee was tasked with mounting a similar assault on Paulus Hook in August. Moving forward on the night of the 19th, his command attacked Major William Sutherland's position. Overrunning the British defenses, Lee's men inflicted 50 casualties and captured over 150 prisoners in exchange for two killed and three wounded.  In recognition of this achievement, Lee received a gold medal from Congress. Continuing to strike at the enemy, Lee raided Sandy Hook, NJ in January 1780.

Lee's Legion

In February, Lee received authorization from Congress to form a legionary corps consisting of three troops of cavalry and three of infantry. Accepting volunteers from across the army, this saw "Lee's Legion" expand to around 300 men. Though ordered south to reinforce the garrison at Charleston, SC in March, Washington rescinded the order and the legion remained in New Jersey into the summer.  On June 23, Lee and his men stood with Major General Nathanael Greene during the Battle of Springfield.

This saw British and Hessian forces led by Baron von Knyphausen advance in northern New Jersey in an attempt to defeat the Americans. Assigned to defend the Vauxhall Road bridges with the assistance of Colonel Mathias Ogden's 1st New Jersey, Lee's men soon were under heavy pressure. Though fighting tenaciously, the legion was nearly driven from the field until being reinforced by Brigadier General John Stark. That November, Lee received orders to march south to aid American forces in the Carolinas which had been severely reduced due to the loss of Charleston and the defeat at Camden.

Southern Theater

Promoted to lieutenant colonel and having earned the nickname "Light Horse Harry" for his exploits, Lee joined Greene, who had assumed command in the South, in January 1781. Re-designated the 2nd Partisan Corps, Lee's unit joined with Brigadier General Francis Marion's men for an attack on Georgetown, SC later that month. In February, the legion won an engagement at Haw River (Pyle's Massacre) as well as helped screen Greene's retreat north to the Dan River and evade pursuing British forces under Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Reinforced, Greene returned south and met Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15. Fighting commenced when Lee's men engaged British dragoons led by Tarleton a few miles from Greene's position. Engaging the British, he was able to hold until the 23rd Regiment of Foot arrived to support Tarleton. Rejoining the army after a sharp fight, Lee's Legion assumed a position on the American left and harried the British right flank for the remainder of the battle.

In addition to operating with Greene's army, Lee's troops worked with other light forces led by individuals such as Marion and Brigadier General Andrew Pickens. Raiding through South Carolina and Georgia, these troops captured several British outposts including Fort Watson, Fort Motte, and Fort Grierson as well as attacked Loyalists in the region.  Rejoining Greene in June after a successful attack on Augusta, GA, Lee's men were present for the final days of the failed siege of Ninety-Six. On September 8, the legion supported Greene during the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Riding north, Lee was present for Cornwallis' surrender at the Battle of Yorktown the following month.     

Later Life

In February 1782, Lee left the army claiming fatigue but influenced by a lack of support for his men and a perceived lack of respect for his accomplishments. Returning to Virginia, married his second cousin, Matilda Ludwell Lee, in April. The couple had three children prior to her death in 1790.  Elected to the Congress of the Confederation in 1786, Lee served for two years before advocating for the ratification of the US Constitution.

After serving in the Virginia legislature from 1789 to 1791, he was elected Governor of Virginia.  On June 18, 1793, Lee married Anne Hill Carter. Together they had six children including future Confederate commander Robert E. Lee. With the beginning of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Lee accompanied President Washington west to deal with the situation and was placed in command of military operations.

In the wake of this incident, Lee was made a major general in the US Army in 1798 and elected to Congress a year later. Serving one term, he famously eulogized Washington at the president's funeral on December 26, 1799. The next several years proved difficult for Lee as land speculation and business difficulties eroded his fortune. Forced to serve a year in debtor's prison, he wrote his memoirs of the war.  On July 27, 1812, Lee was severely injured when he attempted to defend a newspaper friend, Alexander C. Hanson, from a mob in Baltimore. Set upon because of Hanson's opposition to the War of 1812, Lee sustained multiple internal injuries and wounds.  

Plagued by issues relating to the attack, Lee spent his final years traveling in warmer climates in an attempt to relieve his suffering. After spending time in the West Indies, he died at Dungeness, GA on March 25, 1818. Buried with full military honors, Lee's remains were later relocated to the Lee Family Chapel at Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA) in 1913.   

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).