‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee of Virginia
by Tom Morrow
Editors note: Our new “Historically Speaking” is a weekly feature designed to entertain history lovers and inspire young people about some of our important figures of our past. Tom Morrow has been writing this column for more than a year. It appears in “The Paper,” a weekly North County publication, as well as a number of weeklies throughout the U.S., and Canada. These short “snap-shots” are designed to be shared with history lovers of all ages . We hope you enjoy it.
Henry Lee III (1756 — 1818), and his son, Robert E. Lee (1809-1870) were two of America’s greatest military generals, both serving in rebel armies.
Henry Lee, affectionately known as “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, started out as a captain in the cavalry of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War when the 13 colonies “rebelled” against Great Britain.
Robert E. Lee rose to the rank of colonel in the Union Army and was superintendent at West Point when the Civil War broke out. President Lincoln offered him a high leadership position in the Union Army, but Robert E. resigned his U.S. commission after 32 years of service and returned to his native Virginia, becoming a rebel Confederate general in the Army of Northern Virginia.
“Light Horse” Harry had an illustrious career, not only during the Revolutionary War, but in politics as Governor of Virginia and later as the Virginia Representative to the United States Congress.
But it’s Harry’s son, Robert, who has gone down in history books as one of the most popular of American generals, leading the Confederate Army to multiple victories even though he often was out-manned, out-gunned, and woefully under-equipped.
Harry was the second cousin of Richard Henry Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Upon graduating from college (which is now Princeton University), Harry became an attorney, but when the Revolutionary War began, he joined the Virginia dragoons as a captain, attached to the 1st Division of the Continental Light Horse cavalry.
In 1778, Lee was promoted from captain to major and given command of a mixed corps of cavalry and infantry. His agile horsemanship in battle earned him the nickname of “Light Horse” Harry. Much to the chagrin of the British, his dragoons and infantry would attack with “hit and run” guerrilla tactics. His troops became known as “Lee’s Legion.”
For his battle successes, the Congress awarded Harry a “gold medal,” an honor given only to officers of general rank. Then Harry was promoted to lieutenant colonel and sent to South Carolina where he joined up with “The Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion.
Harry was present at Yorktown when British General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington. Harry ended his military career in 1781 as a major general. He left the Army to serve in state and federal government.
When George Washington died in 1799, Harry eulogized the nation’s first President at his funeral attended by 4,000 mourners.
Harry fell upon hard financial times during the Panic of 1796–1797 and served one year in debtors’ prison when his son, Robert E., was only two years old.
Later, during a brawl, Harry suffered internal injuries as well as head and face wounds. He sailed to the West Indies in an effort to recuperate from his injuries. “Light Horse” Harry Lee died on March 25, 1818, on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia where he was buried with full military honors. In 1913, Harry’s remains were moved to the Lee family crypt on the campus of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
History has more or less forgotten “Light Horse” Harry Lee, but he was briefly remembered with the fictional character of “Colonel Burwell” in the recent Mel Gibson film, “The Patriot.” The Burwell character is believed to have been inspired by the Revolutionary War exploits of “Light Horse” Harry Lee.
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