LEE, HENRY. (1756–1818). ("Light-Horse Harry"), Continental cavalry leader. Virginia. Born at Leesylvania and graduating from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at the age of seventeen, he was admitted to the Middle Temple and was about to leave for England when the war changed his plans. In June 1776 he was commissioned a captain in Theodorick Bland's regiment of Virginia cavalry. In 1777 his company was attached to the First Continental Dragoons and joined Washington's army in New Jersey. At this time Washington was engaged in the perplexing spring maneuvers preceding the Philadelphia campaign and badly needed cavalry for reconnaissance. Although only twenty-one years old at the time, Captain Lee favorably impressed Washington with his soldierly qualities, and they established a close, lifelong friendship. Lee's fine defense of the Spread Eagle Tavern (five miles south and slightly east of Valley Forge) on 20 January 1778 was the immediate cause of a resolution of Congress on 7 April that referred to him as a "brave and prudent officer." The resolution promoted him to major commandant and authorized him to enlarge his corps with two troops of horse. The further addition of three infantry companies in October 1779 resulted in the creation of Lee's Legion, one of the elite units of the war, which under Lee's leadership fought brilliantly in the South.
After the war Lee served in the Virginia House of Delegates, the Confederation Congress, the Virginia ratifying convention, and the U.S. Congress and held the office of governor of Virginia. His eulogy of Washington included the famous words, "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen." The father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, he spent the last years of his life in poor health and poverty.
Templin, Thomas E. "Henry 'Light-Horse' Lee: A Biography." Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1975.
revised by Frank E. Grizzard Jr.
Lee's military experience convinced him that American liberty depended on a strong central government led by proven patriots. He was a friend and supporter of George Washington, whom he eulogized as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” A staunch Federalist, Lee defended the Constitution at the 1788 Virginia ratifying convention and while serving as governor of Virginia commanded the 1794 Federal expedition against the Whiskey Rebellion.
In private life, Lee fared poorly. Failed speculations landed him in debtor's prison in 1808. Four years later, a Baltimore mob injured him after he attempted to defend the office of an unpopular newspaper. In 1813–18, he convalesced in the West Indies, but never recovered; he returned to die at the Georgia home of his late comrade, Nathanael Greene. One of his sons, Robert E. Lee, would become the leading general of the Confederacy.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
Thomas Boyd , Light‐horse Harry Lee, 1931.
Charles Royster , Light‐Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution, 1981.
Henry Lee, 1756–1818, American Revolutionary soldier, known as Light-Horse Harry Lee, b. Prince William co., Va. He was a cousin of Arthur Lee, Francis L. Lee, Richard H. Lee, and William Lee and was the father of Robert E. Lee. As a cavalry commander he established an enviable record in the Revolution. He first gained wide notice for his capture of the fort at Paulus Hook (now in Jersey City), N.J., on Aug. 19, 1779. His service under Nathanael Greene after 1780 in the Carolina campaign was notable for daring and brilliance and he distinguished himself at Guilford Courthouse and Eutaw Springs. After the war he was elected (1785) to Congress. He favored a stronger government and in 1788 was a leader in the struggle to have Virginia ratify the Constitution. He was (1791–94) governor of Virginia, and in 1794 he commanded the troops who suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion. A Federalist Congressman (1799–1801), he was author of the description of George Washington as
"first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen"
in the resolutions on the first President's death. A poor business manager, Lee was imprisoned (1808–9) for debt. In 1812 he was severely injured when an angry mob dragged Alexander Hanson, Lee, and others from a jail where they had gone for protection after Hanson's Federalist newspaper had denounced President Madison and the War of 1812. He wrote Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department (1812, repr. 1869 with a biographical sketch by Robert E. Lee).
See biographies by T. Boyd (1931) and N. B. Gerson (1966).