Over the last fifty years, one of the most effective forms of combat has been guerilla warfare. The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have proven that a skillful, small force can disrupt the strategy of a superior enemy force, a concept known as asymmetric war. During the American Revolution, some of America’s best tactical commanders were those who depended on quick strikes rather than large-scale engagements. One of these commanders was a Virginia cavalryman who successfully utilized his own style of lightning strikes. His name was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. This is the story of how he displayed tactical brilliance with his guerilla raids against British outposts.
Henry Lee’s early life set the stage for the crucial role he would later play in the fight for American independence. He was born on January 29, 1756 into one of Virginia’s most prestigious families. His youth was spent on his family’s plantation riding horses and reading classical literature. These readings convinced him the welfare of a nation largely depended on the character of its leaders. Some of these leaders were members of his own family. As a young boy he visited the colonial capital of Williamsburg where his father, two uncles and three cousins served in the House of Burgesses. By age fourteen, he determined to follow in their footsteps. He took the first step when he entered Princeton University. He spent hours studying Latin and Greek in addition to law books. After graduation in 1773, he considered visiting Britain to complete his education, but rising tensions between Britain and her colonies made it impractical. Instead he returned to Virginia where his love of country convinced him that America’s survival was the key to the survival of liberty. He was only nineteen years-old when the Revolution broke out in 1775, but he soon became one of America’s first great cavalrymen.
With the advent of hostilities between America and Britain, Lee left his mark on the infant American cavalry. He waited to join the army until 1776, but he used that time to “acquaint myself with the art of war.” Upon entering military service, he was commissioned a captain and given command of a dragoon company, soldiers who could fight either mounted or dismounted. Having only twenty-five soldiers, he decided the best approach was to launch a series of surprise raids against superior enemy forces and then disappear before the enemy could regroup and attack the raiders. He participated in the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown but largely gained fame for his raids, which by early 1778 had succeeded in capturing British supplies and over 120 prisoners. Lee deliberately planned each raid and ensured it was prudently executed. The enemy began to tire of these raids and targeted Lee’s dragoons during the army’s winter encampment at Valley Forge. During a British surprise attack, Lee and seven dragoons holed up in a farmhouse where they stubbornly held off the advancing troops until the Redcoats fell back. His skill evading capture persuaded George Washington to offer him a place on his staff. Lee turned down the offer in favor of staying in the field. Acquiescing, General Washington urged the Continental Congress to create an “independent partisan corps” and appoint Lee as commander.
Promoted to major, Henry Lee assumed command of the corps in early 1779. He was pleased to discover all the troops had signed on to serve for the duration of the war, unlike most American soldiers who enlisted for set periods of time. He ensured every soldier had a uniform and a swift horse. He intended them to be ready for battle at a minute’s notice. By the beginning of August, Lee believed the time had come to test the mettle of his troops. He knew the perfect target for his soldiers to prove themselves. Not far from his position was a British fort on Paulus Hook, New Jersey defending the approach to British-held New York City. He sent out scouts and quickly learned the British soldiers garrisoning the fort had become lax in their responsibilities. This gave the Americans an opportunity. Lee marshaled his troops together and marched on the fort. In the early morning hours of August 19th, Lee’s soldiers crossed over marshy ground and a canal in front of the fort. His men’s powder now wet from the march, Lee ordered his soldiers to fix bayonets and storm the fort. The attack was over in twenty minutes. With the fort’s fall, Lee captured 158 prisoners. He was proud of the accomplishment, but he knew he could not stay in the area. British troops were preparing to retake the fort, so he chose to withdraw. The attack inspired those who heard of it and proved just how successful lightning strikes could be. For his daring, Lee was awarded a gold medal by Congress, the only field-grade officer to receive such an honor. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was given command of a Legion made up of both cavalry and infantry. He also gained a new name for himself. From that day on, Americans knew him as “Light Horse Harry.” Soon after the attack, the war in the north settled into a stalemate, so Lee turned his attention towards the southern theatre where his mastery of lightning-quick strikes was sorely needed.
The war in the south was more suited towards Lee’s type of fighting, but it was also more brutal than the war in the north. Lawless bands of men on both sides patrolled the countryside butchering their enemies and pillaging their homes. Lee was initially appalled at this violence, and he attempted to prevent retaliation by his troops when they captured Loyalist prisoners, as demonstrated by his leniency at Augusta, Georgia. He began to change his mind, however, after he heard reports of the atrocities committed by British officers, the most notorious of whom was Colonel Banastre Tarleton. His men had savagely murdered Lee’s unarmed bugler. On another occasion, a group of British regulars executed a militia colonel named Isaac Hayne. Having had enough, Lee finally ordered the Legion to take no prisoners when they attacked British units. He even directed his men to execute British officers in retaliation for Hayne’s death. In early February 1781, the Legion caught up with eighteen of Tarleton’s dragoons and killed them all. A little over a week later, on February 25th, the Legion encountered John Pyle’s Loyalist militia. A disguised Lee convinced Pyle his men were part of Tarleton’s dragoons. The Loyalists approached in welcome, at which point Lee’s soldiers made their true identity known, killing one hundred and wounding another two hundred. Later in May, he captured a garrison and hanged three Loyalists. Despite participating in this backwoods warfare, Lee more often chose to assault British garrisons.
Throughout his time in the South, Lee boldly attacked British forces that specifically targeted him. He occasionally joined forces with the most famous American guerilla fighter, Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion. On one occasion, after extensive planning, the two marched on the British garrison stationed in Georgetown, South Carolina with the intent of capturing the fort. Upon arrival, however, they found the fort too strong to break through without great loss of life. Always judicious with the lives of his men, Lee decided not to take the risk and withdrew. His caution did nothing to undermine his reputation. He still had the trust of General Nathanael Greene who considered him without equal — “one of the first Officers in the world.”
Lee was continually given the toughest assignments. He served as part of the army’s rearguard during Greene’s campaign to lure British General Lord Cornwallis away from his base of supply. He struck out at British forces that came too close to the army. In March 1781 he defended the army’s left flank in the Battle of Guilford Court House, North Carolina against British attacks and tried to stop militiamen from withdrawing in panic. After the battle, Lee and his Legion returned to South Carolina. In September he led the Legion’s infantry against the British at the Battle of Eutaw Springs, South Carolina. In October Greene ordered him to Virginia to seek the assistance of the French navy in evicting the British from Charleston, South Carolina. While there he had a front row seat to Cornwallis’ surrender. Unable to persuade the French to come to Greene’s aid, Lee still returned to South Carolina with the intention of liberating the state from British rule. He scouted the British garrison on Johns Island and conceived a daring attack. A low tide would allow him to lead the Legion across the water and trap the garrison on the island. Unfortunately, the rear of Lee’s column got lost and he had to call off the attack. The war was winding down, and shortly afterwards, citing ill health and other problems, he left the army and returned home to Virginia.
After the Revolution ended, “Light Horse Harry” Lee found another way to serve his country. Virginians celebrated his wartime heroics and elected him to the Continental Congress where he grew to understand the need for a strong national government. He supported ratification of the Constitution and served in the Virginia General Assembly and the office of governor during President George Washington’s first term. Fearing for the safety of Virginia, he used his powers to eliminate the threats posed by Indians and rebellious slaves. His fears also caused him to switch from opposing national policies to supporting them. He initially opposed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s policies, such as assumption of the federal debt, but he saw that excessive internal dissension could lead to civil war. The dissolution of the union frightened him more than the policies themselves, so he declared his support for them. The most serious threat to arise was the revolt by western Pennsylvanians over a federal tax on whiskey. Lee offered to help put down the “Whiskey Rebellion” and was appointed commander-in-chief of the army that subdued the rebels. He continued to support the Federalist Party and became a fierce opponent of Thomas Jefferson. He feared civil unrest so much that he protected a Baltimore newspaperman from a mob at the outset of the War of 1812. He was badly injured in the altercation, and his health began to fade as a result. At the same time, he was bankrupt from failed commercial ventures. He was forced to leave Virginia and spent the next five years in the West Indies. On March 25, 1818, “Light Horse Harry” Lee died on American soil at Cumberland Island, Georgia. He was buried with full military honors. He left a heroic legacy to his country and to his son, Robert E. Lee.
Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee proved just how successful guerilla tactics could be when used against an opposing force. Ahead of his time in some respects, he understood that disruption of supply lines and continual harassment could wear down the enemy quicker than any defeat dealt on the battlefield. In a war in which his side was outmatched in men and material, Lee’s was a strategy for victory that maximized results and minimized casualties. It was thanks to him and other partisan warriors that General Cornwallis withdrew from the Carolinas to Yorktown where encirclement by American and French forces eventually compelled surrender. Today, “Light Horse Harry” Lee is sometimes only remembered for being the father of Robert E. Lee. In truth, however, he stands tall in his own right beside Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion as the first of America’s partisan rangers.