History, History Column

Henry Lee & the War of 1812

By 1812 Virginia’s political dynasty was well entrenched.  Democratic-Republican President James Madison, who succeeded Democratic-Republican President Thomas Jefferson, was preparing for re-election. Madison’s Secretary of State James Monroe was also Democratic-Republican.  Treachery dominated the high seas, the 1806 Monroe-Pinckney Treaty failed and American sailors remained in peril. England and Napoleon’s France were at war.

“To go to war with England and not France divides the Republicans, and arms the Federalists with new matter,” President James Madison wrote on May 25, 1812.  “To go to war against both presents a thousand difficulties.”  America declared war, Mr. Madison’s war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

Henry Light-horse Harry Lee
Henry Light-horse Harry Lee

For army Major General, later Federalist Congressman Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee the War of 1812 was deja vu.  Henry Lee—born in Leesylvania, Virginia in 1756—was commissioned to serve but did not.  British impressment was not his issue.  National unity was.

Like George Washington Lee—a Virginia dragoon in the Continental Army—understood the complexities of war.  He “placed professionalism above regional ties” and favored a strong central union.  Without a federal union, Lee felt commercial states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware would “become ‘tributary disunited provinces’ of warring European nations.”  In 1814 Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong “went so far as to seek a separate peace.”

“I went up to Alexa[ndria] to an Election of a Representative,”  retired President George Washington wrote on April 24, 1799.  Washington voted for Federalist Henry Lee.  “Light-horse Harry” Lee was a Princeton College graduate who served under General Washington in the Revolutionary War, then—as Virginia Governor—mustered with President Washington to suppress Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Insurrection in 1794.  It was US Representative Lee who, upon Washington’s death proclaimed him “first in war, first in peace…”

Unlike George Washington Lee’s political career was not wholly successful.  Lee resented Jefferson’s rampant ambition.  He also disliked Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican philosophy.

“My experience of the art, industry, & resources of the other party has not permitted me to be prematurely confident, yet I am entirely confident that ultimately the great body of the people are passing over from [the Federalist Party],” presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson wrote on April 30, 1800.  “This may require one or two elections more; but it will assuredly take place.  The madness & extravagance of their career is what ensures it.  The people through all the states are for republican forms, republican principles, simplicity, economy,  religious & civil freedom.”  President Jefferson downsized the nation’s military.

The military was Lee’s constant.  In January 1800 eleven Virginia Congressmen voted to reduce the army.  US Representative Henry Lee objected.  “Light-horse Harry” Lee, still a soldier, favored a uniform militia.

Federalist Henry Lee described the 1812 war as deplorable.  Profit and trade may agreeably fluctuate, but the United States was otherwise unprepared.  America’s political parties were divided, the war was underfunded, and Britain had more than five hundred warships in inventory.  By March 6, 2013 seventeen British warships had entered the Chesapeake, a sum equal to the total of the American fleet.

In July 1812 Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee, a resident of Federalist-leaning Alexandria since 1810, traveled to Baltimore, a Democratic-Republican stronghold, at the request of anti-war newspaper editor A.C. Hanson.  “Silence would be treason,” Hanson wrote in his Federal Republican and Commercial Gazette.

A constitutional champion—a delegate to the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention—Lee favored freedom of the press.  Democratic-Republican Maryland Governor Robert Bowie was rallying residents on behalf of the war and, as of June 22, the Baltimore newspaper was under attack.  Hanson, a Federalist who otherwise lived in Georgetown, was determined to “steadily pursue the course.”

“Passengers in the stage last evening from Baltimore report that a Mob gathered with artillery, in that devoted city on Monday evening [July 27] about ten o’clock for the purpose of demolishing a house and wreaking their vengeance,” The Alexandria Daily Gazette reported on July 29, 1812.  Retired military officer Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee was among the armed band protecting the property.  The Baltimore mob, a Maryland mob hyped on war, nearly killed him.

“In addition to the information given yesterday in relation to the proceedings of the Baltimore mob, we learn verbally that a party of the military of that place interfered on the morning of Tuesday, to whom those gentlemen who had undertaken to defend [the house], surrendered themselves on a promise of protection from the fury of the lawless banditti, and were escorted to the jail for safe keeping,” the Alexandria Daily Gazette continued on July 30, 1812.  “That on the evening of that day a large party forcibly broke into the jail with sledges and other instruments, and took out the gentlemen who had been lodged, one by one, and beat them in so shocking a manner that the lives of nine of them are despaired of and Gen. Lingan of Montgomery county, Md. is dead.  During the perpetration of this horrid outrage upon Society, we do not learn that any attempt was made either by the military or civil authority to quell it.”

“Light-horse Harry” Lee remained forever infirmed.  George Washington Parke Custis, “who saw Napoleon as ‘the modern Zenghis Kahn,’” delivered Gen. Lingan’s eulogy. Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key declined the speaking request because he feared more violence.

Lee, taken by horse-drawn carriage to Pennsylvania, “was black as a negro, his head cut to pieces [and] without a hat or any shirt but a flannel one which was covered with blood.  One eye [was] apparently out, his clothes torn and covered with blood from tip to toe, and when he attempts to stir he tottered like an infant just commencing to walk.”  He was severely wounded.

President Madison remained true to party and did not call the Baltimore act sedition.  “When our country is engaged in an open and declared war with one of the most powerful nations of Europe, it is the part of patriotism—it is the spirit of harmony and concord, to avoid all internal broils and domestic disturbances,” Maryland Governor Bowie alleged.  Bowie lost his re-election bid.

Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee returned to Alexandria; his second wife Ann Hill Carter, their children and his siblings.  He described his health as “deranged & inconvenient” referring frequently to the “extraordinary atrocity of the unpunished Baltimore mob.”   Lee remained at their 607 Oronoco Street home, his son Robert E. Lee’s Boyhood Home only briefly.  “Light-horse Harry” was anguishing, anxious to leave America behind.

In May 1813 a decrepit Henry Lee departed Alexandria for the last time.  He traveled to the island climes, hoping to heal.  Lee left his family in financial distress; wrote them often but did not return.  Then, on March 10, 1818 he came ashore in Cumberland Island, Georgia.  Lee felt death approach and wanted his family near.

Henry Lee died on March 25, 1818 at Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene’s daughter’s Georgia home.  A fitting end, perhaps, for the cavalryman whose 1812 Memoirs of the [Revolutionary] War in the Southern Department of the United States still live.  Wrote General Greene to Lt. Colonel Lee on January 27, 1782:

“From our earliest acquaintance, I had a partiality for you, which progressively grew into friendship…I am far from agreeing with you in opinion, that the public will not do you justice.  I believe few officers, either in America or Europe, are held in so high a point of estimation as you are.  Substantial service is what constitutes lasting reputation….”

Was the War of 1812 America’s second revolutionary war?  It is not obvious what the War of 1812 in fact accomplished.  The United States enjoyed some military victories: Lake Erie, Fort McHenry, and the Battle of New Orleans.  However when Great Britain’s war with Napoleon’s France ended so did Great Britain’s impressment of American sailors.

Yes, America’s international status changed.  Independence was reconfirmed.  The military, especially the Navy emerged stronger and coastal fortifications eventually improved.  However the 1814 Treaty of Ghent said little regarding commercial rights.

Lee-Fendall House, a historic Alexandria house museum located on property once owned by Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee, celebrates the Lee legacy on January 25.  The program: Robert E. Lee, Not Just a Soldier.  For more information, visit http://www.leefendallhouse.org.

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Written by: Sarah Becker

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