Henry Lee - Light Horse Harry Lee
Henry Lee, Jr. was born to Henry and Lucy Grimes Lee on January 29, 1756, on their plantation, Leesylvania, which was located in Prince William County, Virginia, a few miles outside of the town of Dumfries. The sprawling Lee family was wealthy, extremely well established in Virginia's social circles, and inter-connected with all of the leading citizens of the time. Henry received the best education that money could buy in Virginia, and then attended the College of New Jersey in Princeton, which was presided over by the indomitable Reverend Dr. John Witherspoon. Among his classmates were James Madison and Aaron Burr. During this period of his life everyone started calling him Harry and the only time that he used Henry was when he signed a legal document. James Madison and Philip Freneau wrote political satire while at school and Harry joined them in forming The Plain Dealers which later changed it's name to the American Whigs. In the context of rising tensions between London and the American colonies this organization was increasingly critical of British policies in the New World and soon began calling for independence. In 1771, during his second year at school, at fifteen years of age, Harry led a group of fellow students in an organization that successfully intimidated the merchants of Princeton and forced them to boycott English goods. Harry did well in school and won prizes for his mastery of Greek and Latin. He also proved himself to be a gifted horseman, on several occasions eliciting comment to his father from family friend George Washington. Harry graduated from Princeton with honors in 1773.
The family had hoped that after college, their son would go into the legal profession; first in London and then in Virginia, but relations between the colonies and the mother country continued to deteriorate. Harry's cousin, Richard Henry Lee, together with Patrick Henry had been instrumental in organizing the Committees of Correspondence in each of the thirteen colonies and Harry was increasingly antagonistic toward the policies of George III and his Prime Minister, Lord North. At the same time he and his father were staunch supporters of law and order and found it difficult to consider treasonous rebellion against their sovereign. Harry vacillated as to what course he should take, but privately began improving his marksmanship. In 1775, in Massachusetts, the Boston Tea Party took place and the British retaliated by closing the city's port. Not long after, in Virginia, Patrick Henry and cousin Richard Henry Lee succeeded in getting a resolution through Virginia's House of Burgess calling for the support of Massachusetts in their disagreement with London. Lord Dunsmore, the British Governor of Virginia, dismissed the sitting assemblymen and called for the election of a new body. Harry's father was elected to Dunsmore's new House of Burgess. Harry remained indecisive, but continued to prepare himself for the role of a soldier. Even after the Battles of Concord and Lexington and the formation of the Continental Army, Harry stayed home debating the legality of the revolution with his moderate father.
Early in 1776, Harry finally told his father that he intended to enlist in the state militia as a private. His father, who was close to Patrick Henry (soon to be the patriot's choice for governor of Virginia), counseled patience and invited cousin Theodorick Bland to dinner at Leesylvania. Bland offered Harry a place in a new regiment of light dragoons that he was organizing. Harry accepted with the understanding that although he would enter service as a private he would be commissioned an officer soon thereafter. In July 1776, the Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence. Harry and his father understood this document to be legal justification for his joining the rebellion against the crown. Patrick Henry created the Virginia Light Dragoon Regiment, gave Bland command, and Harry was immediately commissioned a second lieutenant. He was given command of the as yet non-existant Fifth Troop and immediately set about recruiting men to serve in it. He sought and obtained only the very best horsemen and attempted to weed out all but those he considered to be the most courageous. He was not able to recruit his full compliment of one hundred officers and men, but he did not compromise regarding the qualities he sought in his recruits and was satisfied with eighty-two officers and men, the oldest of which was a twenty-four year old sergeant.
Fearing attack by British supplied Indians along the state's western borders, Governor Henry ordered Colonel Bland's dragoons to remain in Virginia and not join General Washington in New York. Now that he was at last committed to the revolution, Harry wanted to fight. He was disappointed by the orders that kept him out of the impending battle between Washington and the new British commander in New York, General Howe, and he made his feelings known. In September 1776, after the American rebels were forced to retreat from New York, Governor Henry instructed his militia to join General Washington. Harry was ordered to proceed north as part of the regiment's 1st Battalion, but he moved faster than the rest of the battalion and reported to General Washington before his superiors arrived. Washington was glad to see his young friend, but was preoccupied with the problems of a difficult retreat. Harry received no orders or instructions of any kind, but noting that supplies were inadequate to support the rebel force decided on his own to do something about it. Washington had prohibited his forces from requisitioning supplies from private citizens. Harry agreed and decided to take what he needed from the pursuing British instead. He caught the British by surprise and succeeded. Washington was impressed not only by Harry's effectiveness, but also by his initiative. He permitted Harry to continue operating as an independent field commander and the Fifth Troop of Dragoons continued to be successful in their raids on the pursuing British.
Washington's daring attack on British forces in Trenton, in late December 1776, was facilitated by reconnaissance provided by Harry and his troop. Following the battle, Harry complained openly that he did not receive enough credit for his role in their victory. His irritation did not appear to bother the general, but was noted by Washington's staff. Harry was in the process of gaining something of a reputation as a glory seeker among some officers who were probably jealous of him and envious of the trust that their commander placed in the wealthy, well-educated, twenty-one year old firebrand. Throughout the revolutionary struggle Harry was in correspondence with his family in Virginia and knew that his mother would be showing his letters to her friend, Martha Washington, who was, of course, in regular communication with her husband, George. Harry's letters were uniformly complimentary of his commander. The young man's feeling of respect for his leader was genuine, but he probably also understood that the expression of that respect in his letters home didn't hurt much in the politics of army life. In 1777, after Washington went into winter quarters in Pennsylvania, Harry reverted to his earlier activities as a procurement officer drawing down British stores in a daring series of small actions over a three month period. Harry's attacks were misinterpreted by the British who concluded that they were exploratory thrusts preliminary to a general attack. Howe reinforced his garrisons in response and Washington was delighted. Not only was Harry providing much needed food and other supplies, he was also inconveniencing the British, and raising the morale of rebel forces.