Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape and they will prefer death to flight. — Sun Tzu

Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes




The Lees

Before we go deeply into the story of the son of Light Horse Harry it might be well to tell, shortly, something of his family and of his ancestors. So let us begin at the beginning, with the first of the name of Lee who crossed the ocean to the shores of the New World.

Colonel Richard Lee, one of the Shropshire Lees, of Moreton Regis, came from England to Virginia during the reign of Charles I. He settled in what was to be the beautiful county of Westmoreland, and there, in the almost unbroken wilderness, he cleared a wide tract of river-land on the banks of the Potomac, and built himself a fine country-house that he named Stratford, after a family estate in the elder country. Upon the surrounding plantations he gathered about him his dependants and servitors.

Colonel Lee was a devoted loyalist and adherent of the Stuart cause. He took no heed of the fact that there was any interregnum, as the dating of his will in 1663 sufficiently proved, for this document begins: "The sixth of February, in the sixteenth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord, Charles II., King of Great Britain, etc., and in the year of our Lord 1663." At that time the second Charles had been upon the throne but three short years.

Colonel Lee assisted Governor Berkeley in keeping the colony of Virginia loyal to the crown, and Cromwell was forced to send an expedition to reduce the colonists to subjection; and, strange to say, in the treaty that followed, Virginia was described as an "independent dominion." Richard Lee spent some time in England, and made three or four voyages between the shores of his old home and his adopted country. He died, leaving a large family, and his eldest son, John, dying a bachelor, his second son, Richard, after having received his education at Oxford, succeeded to the old homestead in Westmoreland. He was a member of the council of Virginia, and, crowned with years and honors, died in 1714, leaving five sons and one daughter. His eldest son, also named Richard, married in London and settled there, although subsequently his children returned to America.

Philip, the second son, removed to Maryland in 1700, and the Lee family of that State are descended from him. Francis, the third son, died a bachelor; but Thomas, the fourth, remained in Virginia, where he received what might be called a common-school education; but he was an apt scholar and a hard student, and became, despite his lack of university training, very proficient in Latin and Greek. Through his own endeavors and ability also he amassed a considerable fortune, and became so well known and respected that his name reached royal ears in London, and when the old Westmoreland house burned down Queen Caroline sent him a large sum of money out of her privy purse to assist in rebuilding his property.

Thomas succeeded Sir William Gooch as president and commander-in-chief of the colony, which position he held until the king regularly appointed him its governor. He died in 1750, and was buried only a few miles from Stratford, his old place, at Pope's Creek church, where, eighteen years before, George Washington had been baptized.

The great father of his country paid a tribute to the family at Stratford when, in 1771, he wrote the following words, "I know of no country that can produce a family all distinguished as clever men as our Lees." Thomas's granddaughter, Matilda, married her cousin, General Henry Lee, the "Light Horse Harry" of Revolutionary fame, whose father was Henry Lee, a son of Henry Lee, the fifth son of the second Richard. It is said Washington's affection for Harry, and his great admiration for the bold cavalryman's military gifts and dashing courage, were enhanced by the fact that he, Washington, was once supposed to have had a tender feeling for the young officer's mother, who, before her marriage, was the beautiful Lucy Grymes.

Light Horse Harry was born on January 29, 1756, passed his early life in Virginia, and was educated at Princeton. It was at first intended that he should take up the profession of the law, and also that he should go to England, as the sons of most wealthy planters did in those days, in order to follow out his course of study. But just as he was about to set sail the war broke out between the mother-country and the colonies. "The shot that was heard around the world "changed the direction of many thoughts and ambitions, and Henry Lee laid down his pen and his law-books and took up the sword, as hundreds of other young men did. At the age of nineteen he was nominated a captain of cavalry by Patrick Henry, and at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Springfield, and in many of the smaller actions in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, he drew the attention of his superiors by his courage, ability, and constant activity. Congress early recognized his services, and before he was five-and-twenty he was promoted and given command of an independent corps. His capabilities were so highly valued by the commander-in-chief that on more than one occasion the latter sought him out in order to secure his advice and co-operation in affairs requiring not only dash and bravery but cool judgment and military forethought. For his part in the brilliant action that resulted in the capture of Paulus Hook, New Jersey, he was presented by Congress with a gold medal, a distinction bestowed on no other officer below the rank of general during the war. On the obverse of the medal appears his bust, and under it the words, "Henry Lee, Legionis Equit; Praefecto Comitia Americana," and on the reverse is translated: "Notwithstanding rivers and entrenchments, he, with a small band, conquered the foe by warlike skill and prowess and firmly bound by his humanity those whom he had conquered by his arms. In memory of the conflict at Paulus Hook, August 19, 1775."

In the latter part of 1780 he was given the title of lieutenant-colonel, and certain it is that the corps he commanded deserved the description then given to it as the finest that made its appearance on the arena of the Revolutionary War. It was composed of picked men from the cavalry and infantry, and both officers and privates were veterans whose metal had been tried.

General Nathanael Greene, who commanded in the South, where Lee's legion saw its active work, wrote to him as follows, "No man in the progress of the campaign had equal merit with yourself, nor was there one so reported; everybody knows I had the highest opinion of you as an officer, and you know I love you as a friend."

During a good part of the campaigning in the Southern department of the United States, Colonel Lee had opposed to him the renowned Colonel Tarleton, and it was the aim of his life to bring this resourceful and cold-blooded Englishman to book, and upon several occasions they were opposed to each other.

In Lee's account of his campaigns and actions there is a strange note of frankness and justness. He always wrote of himself in the third person, and criticised his own mistakes and errors where he thought they existed, as if he had had no personal interest in them. He also, in every case, gave his enemy credit where credit was due, and praise in many cases when apparently the feelings of the partisan might have swamped the judgment of the historian.

But it was not altogether for his military prowess that Henry Lee was distinguished. Shortly after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown his military career was abandoned for a time and he took up the service of his State. He was a member of the convention that met in Virginia in the year 1778 to consider the ratification of the federal Constitution. In 1786 he was a delegate to the Continental Congress. For three years he was Governor of Virginia from 1792 to 1795—and during all this time he possessed the close friendship of Washington, and enjoyed his confidence as few of those close to the great commander-in-chief enjoyed it. On the death of Washington he was appointed to deliver the address in commemoration of the great man's services, but owing to illness he did not deliver it in person. But one sentence of the oration as he wrote it, although often misquoted, has remained in the memory of every school-boy; and who has not heard the career and character of the father of his country epitomized in the immortal words, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens."

The influence of his ideas and convictions, of his duty towards his country, and his duty towards his State and commonwealth, doubtless bore fruits in the future action and decisions of his sons, for he wrote, in 1792, at the end of a letter replying to the offer of the command of an army to be destined for the protection of the Western frontier, these words, "No consideration on earth could induce me to act a part, however gratifying to me, which could be construed into disregard or faithlessness to this commonwealth."

Henry Lee was married twice, first, as we before stated, to his cousin Matilda, who bore him four children, two sons dying in infancy. After the death of his first wife General Lee married Annie Hill Carter, daughter of Carter, of Shirley, and four sons and two daughters, all but one of whom reached middle age and became renowned in their walks in life, were born at Stratford. The eldest son, Algernon Sydney, died when a little child; the names of the other sons, in order of their birth, are as follows: Charles Carter, Sydney Smith, and Robert Edward, who was born at the old homestead January 19, 1807. The daughters' names were Anne and Mildred. Charles studied law and was graduated from Cambridge with honors. Sydney entered the United States navy at the age of fourteen. He advanced rapidly, and when Commodore Perry made his famous voyage that opened up the mysterious land of the Mikado to the eye of the foreigner, and awoke the possibilities of the slumbering nation, Lee was in command of the commodore's flagship. Subsequently, he was appointed commandant of the naval academy and then was placed in charge of the navy-yard at Philadelphia. In 1861 he was in Washington, and like his more distinguished younger brother, imbued with the almost fanatical love that the Lees held for their native State, he resigned his commission and declared for the Confederacy.

But despite the greatness of Henry Lee's services and the record of his duties well performed, it is the figure of his youngest son that comes before us as the great Lee when mention is made of the family name. In the heart of the Southerner his name occupies a place that no other name can ever occupy. But the pride in his military career belongs to the whole nation and to no single section of the country. People are familiar with the campaigns of the great general, the commander-in-chief of the army of the Confederacy, but of the time when Robert E. Lee was yet known as "the son of Light Horse Harry," when he was winning his spurs under the eyes of men who remembered his illustrious father, and when, as an officer still under middle age, he had gained no slight renown, little had been said. And so we come to the story which opens early in the year of 1812.