Charles Lee’s description was typically hyperbolic, but it is nonetheless true that as a flamboyant boy-soldier, Henry Lee appeared every inch the beau sabreur. Dashing and gallant as he looked, however, Lee was a much more complicated figure. He earned fame as an orator and wrote a celebrated history of the Revolutionary War. He reached the pinnacle of glory by age 25, but failure, disgrace, and depression that are the stuff of great tragedy marked his subsequent life. Descended from Virginia’s illustrious line of Lees, he was born at the family estate of Leesylvania, overlooking the Potomac near the town of Dumfries, on January 29, 1756. As the scion of a clan prominent in the colony’s affairs for over a century, young Henry was bred to command. He excelled at horsemanship from an early age and a series of tutors ensured that he gained a solid grounding in the classics, as well as in fencing and handling firearms. Well-to-do southern aristocrats typically sent their sons north to be educated; accordingly, at 14 Henry matriculated to the College of New Jersey in Princeton, where his fellow students included James Madison and Aaron Burr. There he became “Harry” to his intimates and read Greek, Latin, philosophy, and history. Upon completing this curriculum, Lee planned to pursue a legal career that-again following the day’s custom-would have taken him to London for further studies and an apprenticeship when hostilities broke out between the American colonies and the mother country.
Harry’s older cousin Richard Henry Lee ranked as one of the principal movers for independence in the Continental Congress and most others among the extensive Lee “cousinry” also supported this course, so perhaps inevitably Harry adopted it too. Family connections quickly gained him a commission in a cavalry regiment commanded by one of his innumerable relatives in high places. In the summer of 1776 Captain Lee, by now grown into a blue-eyed and fair-skinned young man of slight build and medium height, began recruiting and training his own troop of light dragoons. Initially the regiment remained in Virginia on guard against a British seaborne incursion or an Indian uprising along the western frontier. By early 1777, however, the unit had joined Washington’s army in New Jersey.
Lee’s troop acted in an independent capacity-foraging, scouting, and gathering intelligence. Here Lee enrolled in the harsh school of war, or what he more grandiloquently called “the study of Mars.” Though daring, he was not reckless and he developed his trademark battlefield habit of prudent risk taking. He was a strict disciplinarian, but a miser with his men’s lives and solicitous of their welfare. They responded accordingly. While other units melted away through desertion or refusal to reenlist, almost to a man Lee’s troopers elected to stay with him when their original terms expired. Their fancy uniforms-purchased in part by their commander-were soon in tatters, but their appearance was that of a hardened, veteran corps d’elite. Along with his performance and impeccable manners, his family’s close connections with Washington made Lee one of the commander in chief’s favorite junior officers. While spared much direct combat, he participated in the 1777 Pennsylvania campaign. At Brandywine he served for the first time under Nathanael Greene, with whom in the south he would later win his greatest fame. After Philadelphia fell to the British in late September, Lee scourged enemy supply lines in two directions by assailing their eastward connections to New York City and southern communications with the Chesapeake. During one of these forays, he and Washington’s senior aide, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, experienced a near brush with death when a British patrol stumbled upon them. Both barely escaped; as Lee later wrote, “Thus did fortune smile upon these two young soldiers, already united in friendship, which ceased only with life.” And at Germantown Lee’s troop had the honor of accompanying Washington as his personal bodyguard.
The army went into its winter quarters at Valley Forge at the end of 1777. Lee understatedly commented on this ordeal that “the hardy character of the troops did not degenerate by feminine indulgences.” Meanwhile, he continued to torment the British, gathering much-needed supplies for the hungry patriots in the process. Lee’s activities so plagued the British that they spied out Lee’s bivouac, about 6 miles southeast of the main encampment at Valley Forge, and on the night of January 19, 1778, secretly launched a large mounted expedition intended to kill or capture the troublesome dragoon. The next morning’s fight at Scott’s Farm made Lee famous throughout the army and turned him into something of a national hero as well. Surprised and heavily outnumbered, Lee and a few of his men barricaded themselves in the main house. He then resorted to the type of clever ruse that characterized his combat career. After repelling several assaults, Lee encouraged his men by loudly shouting that supporting infantry were on the way to rescue them. This spooked his assailants, already chagrinned at their inability to break into the strongpoint, and they fled the scene. Washington praised Lee in an order of the day and newspapers throughout the country soon picked up-and embellished-the story.
Besides renown, more tangible results accrued from this gallant episode. Washington, who had long kept his eye on Lee, offered him the post of personal aide de camp. This prestigious billet not only promised intimacy with the great man himself, but also included a double promotion to lieutenant colonel. Nevertheless, Lee’s great ambition ran in a direction different from access to patronage and rank. In a delicately worded declination, Lee told Washington that he was “wedded to my sword” and that his object was the military reputation that could only be won in the field and not on the staff. Washington, far from being put off at Lee’s refusal, persuaded Congress to award him a major’s commission. Further, Congress augmented Lee’s troop with additional cavalry units and established it as an independent partisan force that operated at Washington’s personal direction. In endorsing this action, the commander in chief praised Lee’s “exemplary zeal, prudence and bravery” and declared “Capt. Lee’s genius particularly adapts him to a command of this nature.”
Lee’s hard-riding new outfit rapidly added to his already formidable reputation with its comprehensive intelligence collection, successful skirmishing, and slashing raids. It was during this period that he acquired the nickname “LightHorse Harry.” To his personal mortification, Lee was on detached service and missed the battle of Monmouth Court House in June 1778. Afterward he wrote his friend, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, that “the name Monmouth reproached me to the very soul.” Little more than a year later, Lee’s cavalry furnished an invaluable service to Wayne by its thorough reconnaissance of the British outpost at Stony Point on the Hudson just below West Point. His detailed information about the works and British dispositions were instrumental to Wayne’s success in taking the place by storm in the predawn hours of July 16, 1779, with his light infantry corps.
Lee’s own coup de main and his most famous exploit in the northern theater occurred the next month. By this time, the war there had settled into a stalemate with the main British force of 10,000 or so occupying New York City and outlying points, and Washington’s army arrayed in an arc above it, anchored on West Point and the surrounding Hudson highlands. Washington, while guarding the line of the Hudson and hoping ultimately to drive the British out of Manhattan, eagerly sought low-cost ways to strike the enemy. Wayne’s assault on Stony Point was one such limited operation. Washington’s desires and Lee’s ambition to emulate Wayne’s success combined to set the stage for another surprise blow against an isolated British outpost.
Lee had minutely surveiled Paulus Hook, New Jersey-site of present-day Jersey City-a narrow, sandy spit of land projecting into the Hudson directly opposite Manhattan, about a mile and a half away. Approximately 200 redcoats, Hessians, and Loyalists manned the site, which was well protected by natural obstacles that included a salt marsh and a creek. Additionally, the British had constructed a tidal moat, a wall, and several redoubts. Lee recommended this place as a raid target. Although at first concerned that an attack there might be too dangerous, Washington eventually acceded to Lee’s proposal and reinforced him with several companies of Virginia and Maryland infantry.
Lee’s plan had to account for complex time-distance factors as well as light and tide data. On the morning of August 18, 1779, he assembled 400 men, including dismounted elements of his partisan cavalry, at Paramus, New Jersey, some 22 miles north of the objective. He intended to march this force so as to reach Paulus Hook under cover of darkness, assault before high tide-which would make the surrounding waterways well-nigh unfordable for both his assault and withdrawal-and make his getaway before first light at 4:00 a. m. Boats would be waiting 2 miles to the west of the objective at Bergen to ferry the retiring raiders across the Hackensack River, helping shield them from pursuers on the return march north. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has practiced or studied the art of war, friction imposed itself as the operation unspooled. A wrong turn in the dark caused the column to get lost en route, costing valuable hours while exhausting and frustrating the troops. Further, just as the patriots were occupying their assault position 500 yards from the objective, Lee discovered that a company of his Virginia infantry had somehow straggled and gotten separated from the force. It was now well after high tide and dangerously close to dawn. Lee sent a subaltern forward to see if the creek and moat were at all passable. When answered in the affirmative, Lee gave the word to advance.
The men slogged forward with unprimed muskets to avoid alarming the garrison by the premature discharge of a weapon. In the event, wading through the moat’s chest-deep water fouled everyone’s powder, so that the bayonet became by necessity the tool of choice for the work at hand. The Americans gained complete surprise and were upon the enemy before they could mount much of a defense. Dozens of stunned redcoats surrendered; Lee ultimately made off with 158 prisoners. He had intended to burn the barracks and other buildings, but discarded this plan when he learned that soldiers’ families and other camp followers occupied them. Approaching dawn, signs of enemy activity across the river in Manhattan, and unyielding resistance from a platoon of Hessians in one of the redoubts compelled Lee to give the withdrawal signal after less than half an hour on the objective. All went smoothly until Lee reached the Hackensack River and the fortunes of battle played their final trick. The expected boats were no where in sight; since the operation was so far behind schedule, the officer responsible for the craft assumed that it had been cancelled. Lee’s men thus had to retrace their long, original route north with all the attendant dangers of enemy pursuit. Indeed, at mid-morning they skirmished with a redcoat patrol, but fortunately had reunited with the previously lost Virginians, whose dry powder enabled them to drive off the enemy. Tired, but justly elated, Lee’s raiders reentered friendly lines having suffered only a handful of casualties in return for pulling off a brilliant feat of arms.
Lee’s immediate included hearty congratulations from Washington, Greene, and Knox among others-and a court-martial. Lee’s success attracted envy as well as admiration within the army and his privileged position as a favorite of the commanding general, as well as his perceived arrogance, earned him further enmity from some quarters. Shortly after Paulus Hook, Wayne had warned him, “be well guarded my friend … there are not a few, who would not feel much pain on a small Disaster happening to either you or me.” This underlying resentment impelled a handful of officers to demand a court-martial to determine whether Lee had exceeded his authority at Paulus Hook by improperly superseding others on the expedition who were senior to him by date of rank. Other charges included that he had behaved inappropriately by not burning the barracks and by retreating too precipitately. Washington had no choice but to sanction the proceeding. Lee was, by turns, bemused and outraged as the mill of military justice ground on. Eventually, a board presided over by none other than General Wayne found him innocent on all counts, specifically noting that while several other officers involved were senior to Lee, Washington had personally entrusted him with the overall command. Congress, which had figuratively held its breath until the verdict was in, then bestowed a special gold medal upon Lee, one of just eight it awarded to Continental Army officers during the war and the only one given to an officer below the rank of general.
Through another long year Lee continued to act as Washington’s eyes and ears in the no man’s land between New York and the Hudson highlands. In addition to traditional cavalry patrolling, Lee also operated an espionage network for the commander in chief, running agents in and out of British lines. The most spectacular covert operation occurred immediately after Benedict Arnold’s treason in September 1780. Resembling something out an eighteenth-century spy thriller, at Washington’s order Lee sent a handpicked volunteer-a noncommissioned officer pretending to be a deserter-over to the British with the mission of getting close enough to the recently defected Arnold to kidnap and bring him back to the American side. Although the plan miscarried due to bad luck-the sergeant, however, eventually made it safely back to American lines, albeit empty handed- it illustrates the sort of derring-do that Lee loved and excelled at.
In November 1780 Lee received a promotion to lieutenant colonel and three infantry companies reinforced his cavalry. This mixed unit became known as Lee’s Legion. Its commander personally designed their fancy uniforms of dark green tunics and white breeches, topped by plumed helmets. Meanwhile, Nathanael Greene had been chosen by Washington to recover patriot fortunes in the southern department and he desperately required high-quality Continental troops to assist him. Washington could not spare many men, but he did send him Lee’s mobile and hard-hitting new command. Lee reported to Greene at Cheraw, South Carolina on January 13, 1781, with 280 troopers and was almost immediately dispatched farther south to bolster Francis Marion’s partisans. After some misadventures in locating the peripatetic Swamp Fox’s lair, Lee tracked him down and the two raided the British garrison at Georgetown. Lee later recalled that the operation “although conceived with ingenuity, and executed with precision, was too refined and complicated for success.” Nevertheless, it served as a dress rehearsal for future triumphant collaborations between the two leaders. As Marion appreciatively wrote to Greene, “Col. Lee’s Interprizing Genius promises much.” For the instant, however, Daniel Morgan’s stunning triumph over the British at Cowpens had stirred Lord Cornwallis, the royal commander in the south, to vow the American army’s destruction and Lee was ordered back to join Greene.
Lee caught up to him at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, on February 7. Cornwallis was only 25 miles away and Greene considered making a stand, but his subordinates, including Lee, dissuaded him. Instead, Greene decided to make for the Dan River and cross into Virginia to refit his tattered army. He gave command of the all-important rearguard to Colonel Otho Williams, whose assignment was to delay Cornwallis long enough to permit the American main body to escape. The key element in Williams’s 700-man task force was Lee’s Legion. Williams and Lee accomplished their mission initially by luring the British toward fords on the upper Dan when, in fact, Greene intended to cross by ferry farther downstream. Initially duped, Cornwallis discovered this stratagem on February 13, changed course, and was soon nipping at the rearguard’s heels. That morning Lee engaged one of Tarleton’s detachments in a vicious scrimmage that left 18 enemy dragoons dead. This clash also revealed the rage of which Lee was capable. His 14-year-old bugler-“a beardless, unarmed youth, who had vainly implored quarter”-had been ridden down and hacked to death by the British contrary to all humane practice. Lee prepared to hang a captured captain on the spot in retaliation and would have but for Williams’s intervention.
February 13 was a long, hard day for both armies. Late that afternoon, Lee and his men, thinking they had safely distanced themselves from the enemy, finally stopped for breakfast. “Criminal improvidence!” remarked Lee in his memoirs. “A soldier is always in danger, when his conviction of security leads him to dispense with the most vigilant precautions.” The remorseless Tarleton unexpectedly interrupted the meal and the chase resumed. Moving at a killing pace over muddy, rutted trails in freezing weather, the British covered the final 40 miles in the last 24 hours of their pursuit. But the Americans traversed this same distance in 16 hours, thus winning the “race to the Dan.” Greene and the main body passed the river late on the 13th. The rearguard crossed the next evening. Fittingly, Lee himself took the last boat over.
As Cornwallis fell back toward Hillsborough, North Carolina, in an effort to attract Loyalists to the crown’s standard, Greene decided to assume the offensive. As a prelude, on February 18 he sent Lee’s Legion, reinforced with two companies of Maryland Continental infantry, back into North Carolina to join forces with Andrew Pickens’s militia. Their instructions were to harass enemy foraging parties and discourage the general Loyalist uprising that Cornwallis hoped to inspire. A week later fortune handed them a prime opportunity to achieve this. Getting wind that 300 Loyalists under the command of Colonel John Pyle were headed to join Tarleton at Hillsborough, Lee hatched a typically ingenious scheme. He and his legion-whose uniforms closely resembled those of Tarleton’s men- impersonated the British dragoon and his outfit. Meeting up at a ford on the Haw River, Pyle and his Loyalist recruits were completely taken in by the deception. Lee was in the process of shaking hands with Pyle and about to offer him the alternatives of surrendering, disbanding, or joining the patriot side when firing broke out between Pickens’s militia and the tail of Pyle’s column. Lee’s Legion, aided by the militia, violently turned upon the startled Loyalists, killing nearly 100, scattering the rest, and effectively ending any chance of royalist sympathizers in the area rallying to Cornwallis.