Captain Lee’s Genius


April 28, 2014
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


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Captain Henry Lee III’s promotion to Major in April, 1778, capped a year of impressive service for the 22 year old cavalry officer from Virginia.  Lee and the rest of Colonel Theodorick Bland’s 1st Continental Dragoon Regiment had joined General Washington’s army in New Jersey fifteen months earlier.  As commander of a troop of cavalry (consisting of 35 horsemen and a handful of officers), Captain Lee and his troopers had spent much of 1777 on detached duty conducting patrols that frequently engaged the enemy.   By 1778, patriot newspapers such as the New Jersey Gazette trumpeted Lee’s bold deeds:

A troop of dragoons in Bland’s regiment, seldom having more than 25 men and horses fit for duty, has since the first of August last, taken 125 British and Hessian privates, besides four commissioned officers, with the loss of only one horse.  This Gallant Corps is under the command of Captain Lee, Lt. Lindsay and Cornet Peyton whose merit and services it is hoped will not be passed unnoticed or unrewarded.1

Captain Lee’s fame extended to the enemy, as well, and when they learned on January 18th, 1778, that Lee was at an isolated farmhouse a few miles outside of the American encampment at Valley Forge, they sent a large cavalry detachment to seize him.  An aide to British General William Howe noted the effort in his diary:

At 11 o’clock at night, 40 dragoons were detached by a long roundabout way to seize a rebel dragoon captain by the name of Lee, who has alarmed us quite often by his boldness….2

Captain Johann Ewald of the German Jagers made a similar observation, but claimed the size of the British force was eighty dragoons.

Today the English Major Crewe was sent out with eighty horsemen to surprise the partisan Captain Lee, who stood with forty horse on this side of Valley Forge and constantly alarmed our outposts.3

The British rationale for the attack (to seize a bold American officer who had become a nuisance) was also mentioned in at least one American account of the affair.  The New Jersey Gazette attributed the British attempt to seize Captain Lee to General Howe, who desired

 To rob the Americans of this gallant young officer, whose attention in observing [Howe’s] motions, and address in surprising his parties, perplexed him so much the last campaign.4

Captain Lee was posted at Scott’s Farm (about 16 miles west of Philadelphia) with a lieutenant and handful of dragoons.  A Major John Jameson of the 1st Continental Dragoons was also at the farm visiting Lee.  The majority of Lee’s dragoons were on patrol leaving the handful of officers and men at the farm.

The British force arrived about dawn undetected.  According to an account of the engagement in the New Jersey Gazette, Lee’s men

Scarcely had time to bolt the doors before [the enemy] began a smart firing into the windows, and demanded the immediate surrender of the house…. [Captain Lee refused to surrender], returned the fire from the windows with spirit, and, by showing themselves at different places, made as great an appearance of numbers as possible.”5

The British dragoons repeatedly tried to storm the stone farmhouse but were driven back each time.  Frustrated, some of them began plundering the outbuildings which prompted Captain Lee to brazenly taunt the enemy commander.

Comrade, shame on you, that you don’t have your men under better discipline.  Come a little closer, we will soon manage it together!6

After about a half hour, the British gave up and withdrew with eight casualties.7  Although four of Lee’s dragoons on patrol were captured by the British on their way back to Philadelphia and another was captured at the farm early in the engagement when he tried to flee, Lee and his men emerged victorious from the affair and were showered with praise.  General Washington publically acknowledged Lee’s brave stand, thanking Lee and his men in the day’s general orders.

The Commander in Chief returns his warmest thanks to Captn Lee & the Officers & men of his Troop for the Victory which by their superior Bravery and Address they gain’d over a party of the Enemys dragoons, who trusting in their numbers – and concealing their march by a circuitous road attempted to surprise them in their quarters.  He has the satisfaction of informing the Army that Captn Lee’s Vigilance baffled the Enemy’s designs by judiciously posting his men in his quarters, although he had not a sufficient number to allow one for each window, he obliged the [enemy] disgracefully to retire after repeated but fruitless attempts to force their way into the house.8

General Washington followed this glowing public praise for Lee with a private letter to the young captain that hinted at a reward to come.

Altho I have given you my thanks in the general Orders of this day for the late instance of your gallant behavior I cannot resist the Inclination I feel to repeat them again in this manner.  I needed no fresh proof of your merit, to bear you in remembrance – I waited only for the proper time and season to shew it – these I hope are not far off…. Offer my sincere thanks to the whole of your gallant party and assure them that no one felt pleasure more sensibly, or rejoiced more sincerely for yours & their escape than Yr, Affectionate.

                                                      G. Washington 9

Lee’s “reward” arrived in late March when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton delivered General Washington’s request that Captain Lee join Washington’s staff as an aide-de-camp.  Lee was likely overwhelmed by the offer; to serve as an aide to General Washington was highly coveted.  Lee had sought a similar post three years earlier under General Charles Lee (no relation), but his request was intercepted by the British and never delivered to General Lee.  After months of fruitlessly waiting for a response, Henry Lee turned to the cavalry.

With nearly two years of service as a dragoon commander, service that he enjoyed immensely, Captain Lee found himself with a difficult decision to make.  He wrote to General Washington in late March to express:

The high sense of gratitude I feel from your Excellency’s approbation of my conduct.  I assure you, Sir, to deserve a continuance of your Excellency’s patronage, will be a stimulus to glory, second to none in power, of the many that operate on my soul….10

Lee also acknowledged the honor and opportunity Washington’s offer presented.

To have possessed a post about your Excellency’s person is certainly the first recommendation I can bear to posterity.  [It] affords a field for military instruction, would lead me into an intimate acquaintance with the politics of the States, and might present more immediate opportunitys of manifesting my high respect and warm attachment for your Excellencys character and person.  I know it would also afford true and unexpected joy to my parents and friends.11

These factors, however, could not overcome the sentiments he held for the cavalry service.

Permit me to premise that I am wedded to my sword, and that my secondary object in the present war, is military reputation…. I possess a most affectionate friendship for my soldiers, a fraternal love for the two officers who have served with me [Lieutenant Lindsay and Cornet Peyton] a zeal for the honor of the Cavalry, and an opinion, that I should render more real service to your Excellency’s arms.12

Lee concluded his reply to Washington by expressing his pleasure that his conduct had earned General Washington’s approval and that he would cheerfully serve in whatever capacity Washington deemed necessary.  It was clear, however, that Captain Lee preferred to remain in the cavalry, and in the cavalry he stayed.

Captain Lee’s decision to forsake General Washington’s offer undoubtedly surprised and disappointed the commander-in-chief.  Although Washington was not familiar with such rejection, he assured Captain Lee that he understood Lee’s sentiment and held no ill will towards him.

The undisguised manner in which you express yourself cannot but strengthen my good opinion of you.  As the offer on my part was purely the result of a high sense of your merit, and as I would by no means divert you from a Career in which you promised yourself greater happiness, from its affording more frequent opportunities of acquiring Military fame, I entreat you to pursue your own inclinations, as if nothing had passed on this Subject….13

Days after he re-assured Captain Lee that there were no hard feelings, General Washington wrote to Congress to request a promotion for the bold cavalry commander.

Captain Lee of the light Dragoons and the Officers under his command having uniformly distinguished themselves by a conduct of exemplary zeal, prudence and bravery, I took occasion…to express the high sense I entertained of their merit, and to assure him, that it should not fail of being properly noticed…. I had it in contemplation at the time…to make him an offer of a place in my family.  I have consulted the Committee of Congress upon the Subject, and we were mutually of opinion, that giving Capt. Lee the command of two troops of Horse on the proposed establishment with the Rank of Major, to act as an independent partisan Corps, would be a mode of rewarding him, very advantageous to the Service.  Capt. Lee’s genius particularly adapts him to a command of this nature, and it will be most agreeable to him, of any station, in which he could be placed.14

Congress acted quickly on General Washington’s request and passed the following resolution on April 7, 1778.

Whereas Captain Henry Lee, of the light dragoons, by the whole tenor of his conduct during the last campaign, has proved himself a brave and prudent officer, rendered essential service to his country, and acquired to himself, and the corps he commanded, distinguished honour, and it being the determination of Congress to reward merit,

Resolved, That Captain H. Lee be promoted to the rank of major commandant; that he be empowered to augment his present corps by inlistment to two troops of horse, to act as a separate corps.15

Within two months of Lee’s promotion, a third troop of cavalry was added to Major Lee’s command.  His force would eventually grow into an independent legion of cavalry and infantry, 300 strong.  It was with this command in 1781 that Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee performed perhaps the greatest year of American military service of the war and earned the nickname from future admirers of Light Horse Harry Lee.



1 New Jersey Gazette, 14 January, 1778.

2  Edward G. Lengel, ed., “Captain Muenchhausen’s Diary,” The Papers of George

  Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 13, (Charlottesville and London, University of Virginia Press, 2003), 292-293.

3 Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 121.

4 Frank Moore, ed., “New Jersey Gazette, 28 January, 1778,”  Diary of the American Revolution, from Newspapers

    and Original Documents, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner, 1860), Reprint, New York: New York Times &

Arno Press, 1969, 10.

5 Moore, ed.,“New Jersey Gazette, 28 January, 1778,”  Diary of the American Revolution, from Newspapers

    and Original Documents, Vol. 2, 10.

6 Ewald, Diary of the American War, 121.

7 Lengel, ed., “Captain Henry Lee Jr. to General Washington, 20 January, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 13,  293.

8 Lengel, ed., “General Orders, 20 January, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 13,  286-287.

9 Lengel, ed., “General Washington to Captain Lee, 20 January, 1778,”  The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 13,  294.

10 David R. Hoth, ed., “Captain Henry Lee Jr. to General Washington, 31 March, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 14,  368-369.

11 David R. Hoth, ed., “Captain Henry Lee Jr. to General Washington, 31 March, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 14,  368-369.

12 David R. Hoth, ed., “Captain Henry Lee Jr. to General Washington, 31 March, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 14,  368-369.

13 Hoth, ed., “General Washington to Captain Henry Lee, Jr., 1 April, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 14,  379.

14  Hoth, ed., “General Washington to Henry Laurens, 3 April, 1778,” The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 14, 390-391.

15 Worthington C. Ford, ed., “7 April, 1778,” Journals of the Continental  Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 10, (Washington, D.C., 1904-37),   315.

One thought on “Captain Lee’s Genius

  • Wherever my readings encounter “Light Horse” Harry Lee, it is always in the brightest light. In researching a recent article for the Journal I came across his employment by Washington to supervise an effort to capture Benedict Arnold after he had fled to NY. Based on Washington’s desire to bring Arnold to justice and the need to take Arnold alive, it’s clear from this one incident alone how much trust and faith Washington had in Lee. Thanks for an interesting article on a hero of the War.

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