Review: Light Horse Harry is brought to life in new biography
'LIGHT HORSE HARRY' LEE IN THE WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE: A Military Biography of Robert E. Lee's Father. By Jim Piecuch and John H.Beakes Jr. The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Publishing Co. of America. 243 pages. $28.95.
In this second of a series of books on George Washington's best officers, historian Jim Piecuch and co-author and researcher John Beakes bring to life not only the stirring exploits of dashing cavalryman Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, but also the day-to-day life in the field of ordinary soldiers on both sides of the conflict as they struggled against each other in the 18th-century American wilderness from New York to the Carolinas.
Henry Lee was the scion of a distinguished Virginia family and a personal friend of Washington, a fact that both helped and hindered him in his military career. Active in both the northern and southern theaters of the war, Lee early on refused a position on Washington's staff, stating that he was, "wedded to his sword." Given an independent command at age 22, he led what became known as Lee's Legion, and remained in the saddle, very often on the front lines, for some six years.
A master of "rapid movement, intelligence gathering and hard-hitting combat efficiency," Lee helped supply the suffering troops at Valley Forge by continually raiding the British and Hessian armies.
In the South, he participated in multiple battles and was a key figure in neutralizing the power of the legendary and much feared British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. It was only after a misunderstanding following the Battle of Eutaw Springs, S.C. and an aborted attack on Johns Island when Lee's service in the Revolutionary War ended.
In his lifetime and later, Henry Lee was a controversial figure. Both famously brave and notoriously bad-tempered, he once ordered the decapitated head of a deserter to be publicly displayed, to Washington's disgust, and was court-martialed (and later exonerated) during an investigation of circumstances surrounding an attack on Paulus Hook, as island off the coast of New Jersey.
After the war, Lee entered politics and served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as governor of his home state. His business endeavors, however, were a disaster and led to his being placed in prison for debt (where he wrote his war memoirs), and to self-imposed exile in the West Indies.
The authors imply that Robert E. Lee's mother held his father up to him as an example of what not to be, yet the Civil War leader was proud of Henry's accomplishments and issued a new version of his memoirs in 1869.
Piecuch and Beakes have tapped into a prodigious trove of original documents to produce this beautifully written, small gem of a book. It is, however, primarily for buffs, who will savor not only the minute details of every battle described, but also the elegant military terms of the day, like "abatis" and "fascine," and the often brilliantly phrased communication between commanders that took place over long distances and through bloody fighting.
Piecuch's and Beakes' intent is to shed light on Henry Lee's military activities, instead of his long political career and economic woes, which have been dealt with by other biographers. In this they have succeeded mightily, leaving those interested in our country's armed struggle for independence hungry for another installment.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.