Lee, Henry

Lee, Henry (1756-1818) American Revolutionary cavalry officer known as ``Light-Horse Harry'' Lee and father of Robert E. Lee, graduated from Princeton in 1773. He and his younger brother Charles entered Princeton in the summer of 1770 when they were fourteen and twelve, after a ten-day journey from Virginia, by stage and on horseback, with their friend James Madison 1771.

The Lee brothers roomed together in Nassau Hall. Charles, who graduated two years after Henry, later became attorney general of the United States. Henry was a good student, won prizes in classics, and read widely in English poetry. He spent one vacation making a line-by-line comparison of Pope's translation of the Iliad with Homer's original. He joined the Cliosophic Society but later transferred to its rival, Whig, of which Madison was a founder.

Lee came into prominence in 1779 when, as a twenty-three-year-old major, he led a daring capture of the British fort at Paulus Hook (now in Jersey City), New Jersey. Washington had previously invited him to become his aide but Lee had declined, preferring the more exciting opportunity of adventure in the field. He later served brilliantly as cavalry commander in the southern campaign under General Nathanael Greene.

After the war Lee was elected governor of Virginia and, later, a member of Congress. A close friend of George Washington all his adult life, Lee was the author of the historic tribute, ``first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.'' He used these words in the resolutions adopted by Congress on the death of Washington and again in a eulogy he delivered at the state funeral service held for the first president in Philadelphia.

Lee had been at his best as a dashing cavalry officer in the Revolution -- ``a Rupert in battle,'' Woodrow Wilson called him, ``a boy in counsel, highstrung, audacious, wilful, lovable, a figure for romance.'' He was less well fitted for civil and domestic life, and his later years were marred by financial reverses and long periods away from home. He lost heavily in land speculations and spent a year in debtor's prison when Robert E. Lee (his fifth child by his second wife) was only two. While in prison he wrote his memoirs of the Revolution. In 1812, in Baltimore, he was seriously injured while in the company of a group opposed to ``Mr. Madison's War,'' who were under attack by an angry mob. Madison denounced the rioters as barbarians and offered Lee a commission as major-general in the army, but he was too weak to accept. Ill and impoverished, he spent his last years in the West Indies in a vain effort to regain his health.

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee brought out a new edition of his father's memoirs, with a biographical sketch in which he showed a high regard for his military exploits.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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