Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Lighthorse" Harry Lee

"Lighthorse" Harry Lee
  Most biographies that I have read about Robert E. Lee seem to cast Lee's father "Lighthorse" Harry Lee in a bad light. Harry accrued a lot of debt later in life and spent some time in a debtors prison and would die an early death. Biographers of Robert E. Lee always imply that he felt abandoned and ashamed of his father. This was his motivation to lead a more virtuous life and avoid his fathers pitfalls. The more I read about Harry the more I have come to respect him as a historical figure and his character as a man. When it came to leadership he was a great leader of men, just like his son. He was a favorite of George Washington. A man whose character can never be doubted. Harry led Washington's cavalry in every phase of the American Revolution from the northern theater through the southern theater. Lee was called "Lighthorse" because of his skilled horsemanship. He would not resign until 1782, which was less than a year before the official end of the war. He was elected to Congress and as Governor of his home state of Virginia. In the bravery department he was as brave as his son. He was attached to a Virginia Dragoon detachment which was part of the 1st Continental Light Dragoons as a captain. His troops were Washington's bodyguard at the battle of Germantown. In 1778 he was promoted to major and given command of a mixed corps of cavalry and infantry known as Lee's Legion. Lee's troops generally used guerrilla tactics. At Paulus Hook in 1779 he surprised the British Army and Lee was awarded a gold medal for this battle by Congress which was an award never given to a soldier below the rank of general. 

  He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was assigned to the command of Nathaniel Greene in the southern theater. His many battles are too numerous to mention here but he was loved by Washington for his noble qualities and General Nathaniel Greene said "No man, in the progress of the Southern campaign had equal merit with Lee". After the war, during the Whisky Rebellion, he was chosen to lead the government troops sent by Washington to put down the rebellion. Lee was chosen to give the eulogy for Washington upon his death in 1799 which he stated the now famous line. "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen". One can argue that the bravest act of his life was the day that he stood up to an angry mob in defense of the 1st Amendment. Alexander Hanson was the founder and publisher of a newspaper called the Federal Republican and Commercial Gazette in Baltimore Maryland. In June 1812 America declared war on England which was the beginning of the War of 1812. Hanson was a Federalist and opposed to the war and his newspaper was naturally a mouthpiece for that opposition. For the most part Federalists were strongly opposed to the war. The Republican Party, which was not the Republican Party of today, strongly supported the war. Republican was the original name for what came to be the Democratic Party. President Madison was a Republican and the city of Baltimore was predominately Republican and supportive of Madison and the war. On June 22nd 1812 an angry mob tore down the building that housed Hanson's newspaper and destroyed his presses. Hanson left Baltimore and established his newspaper in Georgetown. In the meantime the mobs in Baltimore attacked people on the streets, destroyed property belonging to blacks and dismantled ships in the harbor. Rightly or wrongly Baltimore earned the name "Mobtown" 

  One could call Hanson very brave or very stupid because he moved his newspaper back to Baltimore. On July 27th a crowd formed in front of the three story building housing Hanson's newspaper. About a week later another mob comprised of riffraff, militia and such respectable citizens as a Dr. Thadeus Gale tried to storm Hanson's newspaper office. Hanson was ready for them this time. He had about two dozen armed Federalist supporters protecting his building. "Lighthorse" Harry Lee was one of them. The drunken mob stormed the building and Dr. Gale was shot and killed. Hanson was charged with murder but declared not guilty. A truce was declared and 23 of Hanson's supporters were transported to the city jail. Meanwhile the mob grew in size and looted and destroyed the building housing Hanson's new paper. They then marched to the jail where the mayor tried to calm them but he was unsuccessful because the mob stormed the jail. About a dozen Federalists escaped but the rest were beaten and tortured, including Hanson, a general of the American Revolution named James Lingan and "Lighthorse" Harry Lee. "Lingan was fatally stabbed in the chest while on his knees, begging for mercy as the crowd danced with glee. Children clapped their hands and women shouted, “Kill the Tories.” Hot candle wax was poured into the victims eyes Hanson, Lee, and others were nearly beaten to death by the mob. The beating would shorten their lives. Hanson would serve in Congress but suffer relapses until his death at the young age of 33. Hanson suffered internal injuries, damage to his spinal chord and collarbone, wounds to his head and hands, and a broken nose. About a dozen of the others were bludgeoned, stripped of clothing and piled into a heap. He would die on December 23, 1819. Lee would suffer extensive internal injuries, head and face wounds which also affected his speech. He would sail to the West Indies in an effort to improve his health. Lee died just after disembarking his ship on his return to the United States at Dungeness, Cumberland Island Georgia. He was buried with full military honors. In 1913 his remains were removed to the Lee family crypt in Lexington Virginia. I had the honor in 2005 to visit Robert E. Lee's tomb and family crypt in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. "Lighthorse" Harry and many other Lee family members are entombed in a wall in the basement. I would be extremely proud to have a father as courageous, and patriotic as "Lighthorse" Harry Lee.
Alexander Hanson

Memorial to James Lingan
       

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