Lee was born on January 29, 1756, at Leesylvania, a plantation near the small tobacco port of Dumfries in Prince William County. He was the eldest son of Henry Lee, a planter, politician, and lawyer, and Lucy Grymes Burwell, the widow of Carter Burwell. Lee was one of eight children. His brothers included Charles Lee, who served as attorney general in the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, and Richard Bland Lee, who served in the House of Representatives from 1789 to 1795.
Little is known about Lee's childhood. Tutors instructed him at home, where Lee exhibited a passion for classical literature and horseback riding. From 1770 to 1773, he attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He planned to study law in England after graduation, but with war looming, he chose to focus on a military career. He was commissioned a captain of a company of light dragoons in Virginia in 1776 and mustered into the Continental army in 1777.
Afterward, Lee was promoted to lieutenant colonel and transferred to the southern theater of war. One of his most storied victories took place on February 25, 1781, in present-day Alamance County, North Carolina. That day, the Loyalist John Pyle mistook Lee for the British cavalryman Banastre Tarleton and Lee's men for British troops. Lee kept up the ruse and, when met by English forces, ordered his men to fire into the enemy ranks. Lee had roughly 600 men, while the English troops numbered 300 to 400. In the lopsided victory, Lee lost no men, while most of the Loyalist militia were injured or killed. He also took part in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, in North Carolina, and the Siege of Ninety-Six and the Battle of Eutaw Springs, both in South Carolina, and was present for the British surrender at Yorktown.
But Lee's military legacy is mixed. Although well liked by his men and praised by his superiors, he often frustrated his fellow officers, who considered him reckless and thin-skinned. He was court-martialed more than once—first in 1777 for "disobedience of orders," and again in 1779 for his conduct at the Battle of Paulus Hook. (Charges were dropped in the former case; in the latter, he was tried, acquitted, and then commended for his valor.) And he could be a harsh disciplinarian: in one case, he had a deserter beheaded and ordered the head displayed in camp as a warning to his men. Washington approved of executing deserters, but disapproved of beheading them. Though he advised Lee against the practice, he did not censure him.
Peace did not sit well with Lee. Bored and frustrated, he resigned from the army in 1782. In April of that year, he married Matilda Ludwell Lee, daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee and the heiress of Stratford Hall, a bustling plantation in Westmoreland County. Harry Lee had secured wealth and status, but, once married, he began a series of risky financial investments that ultimately ruined him. He began buying large tracts of land on credit, loaning and borrowing tens of thousands of dollars, and making deals that his assets could not cover—for example, speculation in a town to be called Matildaville, located at the falls of the Potomac River.
Lee's family soon lost faith in his ability to manage his finances. When his father died in 1787 he left Lee some land, but none of the slaves, cash, or furniture bequeathed to his other children. As for Lee's wife, she put Stratford Hall in trust to their three children, Henry, Lucy, and Philip, on her deathbed—and placed the trust not in her husband's hands, but in those of her cousin Ludwell Lee and her brother-in-law Richard Bland Lee. When Lee remarried in 1793, to Anne Hill Carter of Shirley Plantation, Carter's father placed his daughter's inheritance in trust, "free from the claim, demand, let, hindrance, or molestation of her husband, General Lee, or his creditors directly or indirectly."
Lee's political career and financial dealings often took him away from home; in the wake of his frequent absences, Stratford fell into disrepair. Lee barricaded the mansion against creditors and others seeking money owed them. His financial mismanagement had set his family on a path to lose Stratford Hall in the 1820s. His son Henry Lee IV was the last of the Lees to be the master of Stratford.
In 1799, Lee won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia's Nineteenth Congressional District. Shortly after the first session opened, Washington died. Congress commissioned Lee to write his old friend's eulogy. "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," Lee wrote, "he was second to none in the humble and enduring scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting." His words, which became famous after being published in pamphlet form, set the tone for how American presidents are memorialized.
Lee emerged from prison bankrupt. A few years later, he lost his last remaining asset: his health. In July 1812, he traveled to Baltimore to defend his friend Alexander C. Hanson, editor of the Federal Republican newspaper and an outspoken critic of the War of 1812, against his detractors. On July 26, 1812, a drunken, angry mob attacked a house occupied by Lee, Hanson, and their supporters. Police arrived and moved the men to a jailhouse for their protection, but the mob followed and beat down the door. They beat Lee badly, slicing his cheek with a pocketknife and trying to gouge his eyes, and left him for dead. He survived, but never fully regained his health.
Lee was buried on the island, which his son Robert visited during the Civil War and later as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University). In 1913, Lee's remains were reinterred in the crypt at Lee Memorial Chapel at Washington and Lee University. Lee is buried next to his son Robert, whom he barely knew in life.
A Funeral Oration in Honor of the Memory of George Washington (1800)
Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (1812)
January 29, 1756 - Henry Lee III is born at Leesylvania plantation in Prince William County.
1770–1773 - Henry Lee III attends the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).
1776 - Henry Lee III is commissioned a captain of light dragoons in Virginia.
1777 - Henry Lee III is mustered into the Continental army. Later in the year, he is court-martialed for "disobedience of orders," but the charges are dropped.
1778 - Henry Lee III is promoted to major and given command of a partisan unit of cavalry and infantry. The unit becomes known as Lee's Legion.
August 23, 1779 - In a letter to John Jay, George Washington writes that Henry Lee III "displayed a remarkable degree of prudence address enterprise and bravery" at the Battle of Paulus Hook, New Jersey.
February 25, 1781 - After being mistaken for British troops, Henry Lee III and his men defeat Loyalist forces under John Pyle.
April 1782 - Henry Lee III and Matilda Ludwell Lee marry. They settle at Stratford Hall, the Lee family plantation in Westmoreland County.
1786–1788 - Henry Lee III attends the Confederation Congress, in New York, as a delegate from Virginia.
1789–1791 - Henry Lee III represents Westmoreland County in the General Assembly.
1791–1794 - Henry Lee III serves three consecutive one-year terms as governor of Virginia.
1793 - Henry Lee III and Anne Hill Carter marry.
1794 - George Washington commissions Henry Lee III to lead a federal militia to western Pennsylvania to suppress the tax protest known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
1799 - Henry Lee III wins election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia's Nineteenth Congressional District.
December 28, 1799 - Henry Lee III's eulogy for George Washington is presented to Congress. The piece is later published as A Funeral Oration in Honor of the Memory of George Washington (1800).
1809–1810 - Henry Lee III serves time in jails in Westmoreland and Spotsylvania counties for nonpayment of debts.
1811 - The Lee family—including Henry Lee III, his wife Ann Hill Carter Lee, and their son Robert—moves to Alexandria.
July 26, 1812 - A mob attacks a house in Baltimore, Maryland, occupied by Alexander C. Hanson, editor of the Federal Republican newspaper; his friend Henry Lee III; and their supporters. Both Hanson and Lee are badly beaten and left for dead.
1813 - Badly beaten by a political mob and dodging his creditors, Henry Lee III skips bail to sail for the West Indies, abandoning his family. His son Robert never sees him again.
March 25, 1818 - Henry Lee III dies on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia.
May 30, 1913 - Henry Lee III's remains are reinterred in the crypt at Lee Memorial Chapel at Washington and Lee University.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Woodward, C. E. Henry Lee (1756–1818). (2017, December 8). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lee_Henry_1756-1818.
- MLA Citation:
Woodward, Colin Edward. "Henry Lee (1756–1818)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 8 Dec. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 9, 2017 | Last modified: December 8, 2017
Contributed by Colin Edward Woodward, editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall.