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.
A gifted cavalryman, Lee distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War. He was a cunning officer who had a skill for conducting guerrilla-style raids and scouting missions, and deceiving the enemy. In 1778, at Washington’s urging, he was promoted to major and given command of a partisan unit of cavalry and infantry. His skill earned him the nickname Light-Horse Harry, and his unit was known as Lee’s Legion. At the Battle of Paulus Hook, New Jersey, on August 19, 1779, Lee’s unit inflicted more than 200 British casualties at a cost of only a handful of men. In a letter to John Jay, Washington wrote that Lee “displayed a remarkable degree of prudence address enterprise and bravery upon this occasion, which does the highest honor to himself and to all the officers and men under his command.” The Continental Congress awarded Lee a gold medal for his conduct and praised him for his valor.
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.
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.”
With his marriage to Anne, who was seventeen years his junior, Lee allied himself with one of the wealthiest families in Virginia. Five of the six children born to the couple lived to adulthood: Charles Carter Lee, a poet and lawyer; Anne Kinloch Lee, who sided with the Union during the American Civil War (1861–1865); and Sidney Smith Lee, an officer in the U.S. and Confederate navies; Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War; and Mildred Lee.
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.
Lee served as a delegate to the Confederation Congress from 1786 to 1788, supporting the stronger federal government that was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. (Throughout his political career, he identified as a Federalist and tended to support other Federalists, although his erratic personality won him enemies in all factions.) He served in the General Assembly from 1789 to 1791 and, beginning in 1791, served three consecutive one-year terms as governor of Virginia. His governorship came to an abrupt end in 1794, after Washington—now president—made Lee a major general in the U.S. Army and asked him to lead a federal militia to western Pennsylvania to suppress the tax protest known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Lee’s forces quelled the rebellion, but Washington’s actions spurred a backlash among those who feared the federal branch of the government was too powerful. Furthermore, the General Assembly embarrassed Lee by invoking a law stating that no Virginian could accept a federal office while serving as governor. The assembly declared the governorship vacant before the end of Lee’s term.
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.
From 1809 to 1810 Lee was jailed in Westmoreland and Spotsylvania counties for nonpayment of debts. In prison, he wrote Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (1812), a two-volume work that presented his exploits in the best light possible while also attacking the wartime record of his political enemy, Thomas Jefferson. The memoir did not sell well.
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 briefly joined his family in Alexandria, but his injuries and his creditors plagued him. He decided to leave the country. He traveled throughout the Caribbean, communicating with his wife and family through his letters. In early 1818, his health failing, Lee returned to the United States. He landed at Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, where he stayed at the home of Louisa Shaw, the daughter of his former commander Nathanael Greene. Lee died on March 25, 1818.
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)