Thursday, March 10, 2005

Light Horse Henry Lee

I take a lot of pictures of buildings. You may have noticed. I don't take many pictures of people. Beyond holiday snapshots, never in my life have I made a serious attempt at photographing a person. That might change one day, but, for now, I'm still taking pictures of buildings. Really, I think shooting buildings is about as close as you can get to photographing people. It's all about character and transience. Larry Millet, an historian and photo aficianado, has said, "Although architecture is often thought of as the most monumental and enduring of the arts, it is actually among the most fragile." He also said, "...buildings provide a palpable link with the past, which in turn gives meaning to the present." So, that makes me feel a little better about myself. That said, this is a rare post with NO real buildings. Don't get used to it. It was Alec Soth's portrait photos that made me think about this in the first place. Oh yeah, we're still on Cumberland Island.

The skipper of Life and Times on the Florida North Coast graciously pointed out something that I did not know: Cumberland Island was the original resting place of Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. After looking into it, I realized Henry Lee's tale was sufficiently tragic to warrant inclusion here. Hurrah! Henry Lee III was born in Leesylvania, VA, (yes, LEEsylvania) on January 29, 1756. His mother was described as a "lowland beauty" and had been courted by George Washington. Henry went to Princeton, where his classmates were James Madison, James Monroe, and Aaron Burr. At school, no one liked young Henry. Historian Paul Nagel says Lee was "arrogant, vain, imperious, ambitious to a fault, and painfully sensitive." After graduation, the 17 year-old Lee got right into the thick of what would become the Revolutionary War. Commissioned as a captain in the Virginia Light Dragoons, Lee, daring and brave in battle, quickly became one of his mother's former beau's (i.e. George Washington) favorite soldiers. It was Lee's excellent horsemanship that earned him the nickname "Light Horse Harry." In fact, 200 British troops were sent to capture Lee and failed. Washington offered him a position on his staff, but Henry turned it down, replying "I am wedded to my sword." So, Washington made him a Major and commander of a corps of dragoons. (A dragoon platoon?) Henry wanted to undertake a major battle at Paulus Hook, New Jersey, and gained Washington's consent. However, wet muskets and a lack of men resulted in a bit of a fiasco. Still, Lee's force killed 50 Redcoats and captured 150. Washington congratulated him and Light Horse received the Congressional Gold Medal. Oh, and he was also court-martialed for lying about his date of rank when challenged by a commander in the field. Washington got him off the hook. This is not Light Horse's grave, but a former neighbor: Catherine Rikart, the Carnegie's French housekeeper. Died "In Dungeness", May 12, 1911.

In 1782, near the end of the war, Henry Lee unexpectedly left the military and went back home, where he married his 19 year-old cousin, "Divine Matilda" Lee. George Washington himself sent pipes of his best Madeira wine to the wedding. Matilda had inherited a large estate, Stratford Hall Plantation, from her father, and that's where the newlyweds set-up house. But Henry wasn't too keen on farming, so he got into politics, gaining election to the Virginia House of Delegates. He also got into land speculation and started to build a city, Matildaville, by the falls of the Potomac. He ALSO began work on a canal to go around the falls, at one time considered the greatest American engineeing feat of the 19th century. Yes, the NINETEENTH century. Lee made a seemingly endless series of bad business deals, including buying 300,000 acres of land that was really 133,000. He didn't even own the title to the land the doomed Matildaville sat on. But he kept buying, even after his friend Washington had begun selling. Eventually, he got desperate, offering land he didn't own for security, spending his daughter's dowry, and even passing a rubber check off on Washington. On the other hand, he was against slavery, was an outspoken supporter of the Constitutional Congress, and provided assistance to veterans, though he himself was broke. There's a name for this structure, but I've forgotten it. It's sort of like a greenhouse for rich people.

Then, after eight years of marriage and three children, Matilda died. Next, his first-born child, Nathanael Greene Lee (named after Lee's old commander), died. Light Horse was devastated. With two children to support he went back to the army and even considered joining the French Revolution. In 1792, Henry became Governor of Virginia, although the post was largely ceremonial. A year later he married his neighbor, Ann Hill Carter, the daughter of Charles Carter, one of the richest men in Virginia. Of the affect of the marriage on Ann, a friend wrote, "One fortnight was her dream of happiness from which she awoke to a life of misery." Ann's father quickly made sure Light Horse couldn't touch his daughter's inheritance. In 1794, Lee accepted the position of Major General from Washington and led a Federal Army against farmers in Pennsylvania opposed to whiskey taxation. His constituents in Virginia were not happy and Lee returned to find that he was no longer governor. This growing government of the people was not something Lee, who believed government should be the province of the educated few, supported. To that end, he hated Jefferson, who he considered a coward for not fighting in the war. More old gardening styles of the rich and famous.

In 1798, Lee was elected to Congress and, a year later, upon Washington's death, delivered his most famous words after being asked to compose a tribute: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." But the next year Henry was out of the legislature with creditor's knocking. To escape, he tried to get a foreign appointment, but the new Jeffersonian government would have none of it. On January 19, 1807, Ann gave birth to the couple's fifth (and last to survive) child. She named him Robert Edward Lee, after two of her favorite brothers. Robert E. Lee. Robert was just a toddler when Light Horse went off to debtor's prison. Indeed, Robert would rarely see his father, and assumed control of the household at age 12. With nothing but time while living in a 12' x 15' foot cell, Henry wrote "Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States," a still-popular text on the Revolutionay War. In 1810, when Henry got out of prison, the Lee's scaled-down and moved to Alexandria, finally able to use some of Ann's inheritance. Henry left prison just as France and England were starting to mix it up. By 1811, support for declaring war on Great Britain was building, a move Lee was against, believing England's forces were superior.

In July 1812, a newspaper in Baltimore, owned by Alexander Hanson, publicized its fervent opposition to the war, which was now moving forward. As a result, Hanson's press was burned down, but the proprietor reopened and published shortly after. Then a mob came after Hanson and his associates. Lee was in the vicinity and banded together with Hanson. When escape seemed impossible, the men accepted "shelter" at the local jail. This was a trap and, upon arrival at the jail, the party was attacked. Revolutionary War veteran General Lingan was killed, and at least one man tarred and feathered. Light Horse Henry Lee was savagely beaten and left to die. Lee didn't die, but was broken, afflicted with internal injuries. Now he wanted to fight the British, but could not. So, he went to Barbados for his health, a violation of his release from debtor's prison. His brother, Richard, had put up the bond for his release, now forfeited, sowing the seeds of Richard's own financial ruin. Behind Dungeness are a fleet of decaying luxury cars, one for each era of the early automobile. There's a Model T and a 1920's era gangster-type car, a car from the 1940's and, finally, a sports car from the early 1950's. Here's the entry from, I believe, the 1930's.

At first, Henry Lee tried to be a diplomat in Barbados and work for peace between England and America. But no one wanted to hear from him. So, he gave up. The Caribbean wasn't improving his condition, and he decided to come back to America to die. He made it all the way to Cumberland Island, where he sought refuge at Dungeness, dream home of Nathanael Greene, Lee's former commander and namesake of his deceased first-born. He died a few days later on March 25, 1818 and was buried nearby. Robert E. Lee visited his father's grave in 1862 and 1870, and the grave was moved to the Lee family crypt in Virginia on May 30, 1913. A broken failure at his death, considered "a heartless and depraved profligate" by some, Lee's legacy lives on through his famous son. Of course, back in my younger days, the family name became synonymous with a certain orange stock car...

As Willow (No, not the one from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This one wouldn't look nearly as good as a black witch!) pointed out, Cumberland Island will not be roadless for much longer. Legislation was tacked onto last year's budget bill opening the northern part of the island to vehicles, including eight bus or van trips per day. Land deals are always complex and, while I made it seem like the Park Service owned the island, it's really more a patchwork of titles and long-term leases. In fact, there's 300 acres to which the NPS has no claim. Some of this is land owned by the Ferguson's, Carnegie's descendants, who operate the only hotel on the island, the Greyfield Inn. At $395-$475 a night, those tourists have big dollar signs for heads. And so, there's another part of the country you won't have to get out of your car to see. Geez, what a relief. Information for this post was collected from "Almost a Great Man" and the Stratford Hall Plantation, great (and occasionally contradictory) historical sources associated with the Lee family homes. Finally, no, I don't know what Dungeness means. The house was possibly named after an English harbor, and there's a similarly-named ghost town on the Washington coast. Also, a species of large crab. Otherwise, I dunno, a female dungeon keeper...


G N Bassett said...

Thanks so much for filling in the detail. I had read this account some years ago and forgotten many of the high points. As God is my witness, I got goosebumps when I read the part where his youngest son was named (drum roll) Robert E. Lee (like I didn't already know that?). My favorite American historic figure of all time is, and always will be, Robert E Lee (and I'm a yankee by birth... go figure). I think this chapter in history is important in understanding how young Lee's character was formed. Nice job on the post.

Anonymous said...

I am sure you knew about Lighthorse Harry Lee's connection with Augusta, and just didn't have time to mention it. With Elijah Clarke and Andrew Pickens, Lee commanded the good guys at the Second Battle of Augusta in June 1781. Yes, AFTER Yorktown! The notorious Thomas 'Burnfoot' Brown holed up in Fort Cornwallis, where St Paul's Church stands today. Near today's Cotton Exchange building the Patriots built a tower that they used to shoot down inside the fort.

A deserter came over once the tower started building. I guess his story was he knew the tower made the defense hopeless. Lee kept looking at the guy and finally realized this was a spy, sent out to gain a bit of time by gaining the Patriot's confidence then burning the tower down.

Brown had cleared houses away from the fort as best he could, so the Patriots wouldn't have a place to hide and shoot at his men, but a couple were still standing when the siege began. After the gun on top of the tower had beat the fort to a pulp, the Patriots planned their final attack when suddenly the houses exploded. Brown had mined them and left them as lures. Some things never change but fortunately for us his timing in this case was off.

Anyway, Brown didn't give up easy. His nickname came from having his feet held in a fire by the Augusta Sons of Liberty, who in keeping with tradition tarred and feathered him as well. Brown got his revenge by running a Quantrell-style raiding campaign until he was finally able to strongarm his way into Augusta. After the surrender of Fort Cornwallis, Lee put a special guard on him to protect his life. Like others of the bloody Southern tories Brown lived long after the war.

Anyway sorry to see you go - come back soon

Jeff LeRoy Davis said...

Light Horse Harry was my 4th great grand uncle. Thank you for this web site.

Jmhouse said...

Fourth grand uncle, eh? That's pretty cool. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.



Amanda Sheheen said...

Yes I am reading this because I am researching my family connection to Light Horse Henry Lee. I live in Camden, sc and my Grandfather's mother was a strickland. In our family papers which we are researching, it states that my great great Grandmother was a nurse that took care of Henry lee when he was on the Island in Georgia and she had an illegitimate son and they gave him the name of Strickland rather than Lee because they were not married. Many of my Grandfather's family is burried there in Ga. so I am also researching that. No person in my mother's family cared about this but my Grandfather's sister who is dead. My father has papers that have been passed down to him and my mother and I am the one who has chosen to find out the truth. For the person who was the 4th cousin of Robert Lee, if you read this please contact Amanda Sheheen at

Jmhouse said...

Very interesting! The information I found seemed to imply that the ailing Henry Lee was only on Cumberland Island a few days before dying. However, there's no telling if that's truly accurate. Hopefully anybody reading this who can offer insight will get in touch with you. Please keep us posted on your findings. If true, this would be a virtually unknown chapter right at the end of Henry Lee's life. You would also be related, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way, to General Robert E. Lee. That would make for good conversation at parties!

Thanks for your fascinating comment and good luck on your search!


Anonymous said...

Correct original graveyard for "Light Horse Harry" but the tombstone shown is not his. In 1913he was reinterred in the Lee Crypt at Washington & Lee University.

Jmhouse said...

Nah, it's definitely not Light Horse Harry's grave. It belongs to a former neighbor: Catherine Rikart, the Carnegie's French housekeeper. Died "In Dungeness", May 12, 1911.

I didn't know Light Horse was reinterred at the Lee Crypt though. Thanks for the info!!


weezanne said...

Regarding Amanda's comment - there is also an oral history in my family about an illegitimate son of LHH. My 4th great grandfather (James Jackson Lee) was supposedly this child (born in 1818). His mother's name was also Lee (Elizabeth Lee, who was only about 18 yrs old and no relation to LHH). I heard the same story about her taking care of LHH on Cumberland Island (Elizabeth's family was from the area) towards the end of his life. She later married some guy named Malphus and some records have him as the father, but James Jackson Lee was recorded as illegitimate in a land lottery at the time. There is a book called Billy's Island that describes this story. Interesting that there are 2 such similar stories circulating!

jmhouse said...

Wow, it's very interesting indeed that two essentially identical stories exist regarding Henry Lee having one last (illegitimate) child, conceived while dying on Cumberland Island. Especially as both mention a nurse, but one has her as Elizabeth Lee and the other as Strickland! The names of the children are quite different, too: James Jackson Lee (Malhpus) and Strickland. And, of course, the information I've come across has Henry Lee in very bad shape when he lands at Cumberland Island, surviving on the island only a few days before passing.

You know, I'd love to know what the truth is. When there are two stories that are so similar, I have to think there's a kernel of truth in there somewhere. But just where, I can't say!

Anyway, many thanks, Weezanne, for your post. Fascinating info! Anbody out there able to add anything else?


J.Lee said...

Well my dad did a lot of Lee family geneology back when I was a kid. (i'm in my 60s now and should have paid more attention) He was from Ohio but came up with a lot of Documentation about Lee's that had come to Ohio from the south (Mainly Virginia) prior to the Civil War. He was well aware of James Jackson Lee via Letters and Oral Family history. He used to joke that he had named me James before he knew there could be a connection. We went to a Wax museum in Colonial Williamsburg and by looking at the statue of Henry you could have sworn they were twin Brothers,even stragers in the crowd commented on it.

jmhouse said...

That's an impressive lineage! I wish I knew more about my families geneology, too. And now most of the principals aren't around to ask. In your case, I guess you can get some information right out of the history books.

Thanks for the comment, Mr. Lee!


BJ_BOBBI_JO said...

Im another one who is confused about Henry Lee the 2nd and have been researching him. He supposedly is the father to my 4xgreat grandma Sarah Lee. Sara Lee married Peter Ruckman. Sarah herself states the above info in historical records of Ohio.

But when I look at Henry's children she isnt listed. I figure that if he is her dad she must have been from an affair. Sarah Lee never mentions her mother's name. It all makes me wonder if Henry Lee the 2nd could have possibly had a child with a slave, anyones slave. Back in those days the babies born to unmarried couples, especially mixed race slave/white couples, probably would not have been considered "real" or "worthwhile" Sadly those children were probably not excepted and treated so well.

jmhouse said...

I think there is enough evidence accumulating to at least consider that PERHAPS Light Horse Henry Lee had an illegitimate child. Or two. Or three. Where there's smoke there's fire, right? One account has a son named Strickland produced from a union with Lee's nurse. Another has the mother as Elizabeth Lee (no relation to Henry) and the son as James Jackson Lee. Now we also have an undocumented Sarah Lee as Henry's daughter, possibly conceived with a slave (a birth which I think might easily NOT have been recorded at the time). Very interesting indeed.

I do have one question though, BJ_BOBBI_JO, are you referring to Light Horse Henry Lee (who is Henry Lee III) or his father (Henry Lee II)? I assume the former.

Either way, thanks for your comment. The intrigue builds! JM

Anonymous said...

anyone have a site where I can get an accurate (yeah, I read he had some extra children around) genealogy for Henry Lee 2 and on down?
I have a relative Chas. Hatfield who marries Sarah Merrell in NYC. Sarah's mother is Rebecca Lee of NY. Story is that she was a cousin of Robert E. Lee.

jmhouse said...

Oh yeah, as the above comments attest, the genealogies of BOTH Henry Lee II and III are wildly muddled, if not downright contentious. I'm honestly not sure what's considered to be the most reliable source for tracing the family tree. Is there one? Perhaps someone will read this and offer some suggestions.

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous! It's always cool to hear from someone with potential links to the Lee family. JM

Anonymous said...

It is my understanding that the illegitimate child of Light Horse Harry Lee was a female and she was about 16 and the nurse to the gentleman while he was an invalid .
That daughter would be my Great Grandmother 's mother ...or to me my great -great -grandmother
This child of Harry Lee left and settled in Texas ..
And the oral history of my family is VERY QUIET AS TO OUR LINEAGE but all agree we are the descendants of Robert E Lee's father..
My great - grandmother was born in 1883 and her mother was always referred to as ' mother Mary '
And my greatbgrandmothersmaiden name was ELLIE LEE.

jmhouse said...

Anonymous, many thanks for letting us know how you might be related to Light Horse Henry Lee. At this point, it seems possible to me that Henry Lee might've had more than one child out of wedlock, as it were. What we need is a genealogical historian/detective to untangle the lineage!

Thanks again, JM

Gary L. Hutchinson said...

I failed to edit my comment accurately. Light Horse Harry Lee was moved from Cumberland Island in 1913 and interred in the basement of Lee's chapel. His mother Ann Hill Carter Lee and his siblings are there also. Thanks much!

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the update, Gary L. Hutchinson! I appreciate you taking the time to add a little more detail and accuracy to the public record, such as it is here at CoD!

Best Regards, JM