Lee's Legion of Lessons

By Akers, Becky | Freeman, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Lee's Legion of Lessons


Akers, Becky, Freeman


The state is a harsh taskmaster with a taste for eating its own. A man may devote much of his life to its violence only to find himself on the receiving end one day. The Bible warns that "all those who take up the sword perish by the sword." Yet distressing numbers of folks try to beat those odds for the sake of the power and wealth swords bring.

One such gambler took up his sword in the best of causes. Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee commanded a unit in the Continental Army and helped found a freer country. But he was a devotee of the state and its trademark, force.

Nor was he alone in this paradox. Many of the Continental Army's officers who pledged their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" to fight British tyranny in the 1770s imposed their own when they rose to power in the new country. Even the man whom Lee eulogized as "First in war-first in peace-and first in the hearts of his countrymen" for leading an army against British taxation crushed an American tax revolt when he was president.

The motives that drove George Washington and other Founding Fathers to forget their revolutionary ideals can be hard to discern. Not in Lee's case. His struggles are big, brash, transparent, and he paid a full and terrible price. Not only did his political principles eventually get him killed; his son Robert Edward would one day defy the very state his father championed.

Harry Lee was just 20 years old in 1776 when he enlisted with the Continental Army. Unlike other armies, the Continentals were not drafted, resentful ranks of the poor and powerless, kidnapped from fields and families to further a king's ambitions. Rather, they rose from the people themselves as they defended their rights that unforgettable spring of 1775. Nor did any ruler summon them to war. Instead, their neighbors Paul Revere and William Dawes warned them that Redcoats were marching to seize a colonial arsenal at Concord. Hundreds and then thousands of farmers, merchants, and laborers not only chased the soldiers back to their base in Boston but bivouacked around the city to keep them there.

From that was born the Continental Army. Though the Continental Congress was just a few years older, it adopted the army that June and appointed George Washington its commander.

Ironically, the Continental Congress resorted to the very tactics its army fought. It taxed-or tried to: it was too weak to do more than ask the states to tax on its behalf. And it continued the Non-Importation Agreements of the 176Os in which the colonists promised to boycott British manufactures. They promised that their neighbors would too, and then searched the homes, shops, and ships of those they suspected of breaking the "agreement." Their victims wondered why a warrantless search by one's neighbors should be preferred to a warrantless search by the King's customs agents: "tradesmen" in Boston asserted their right "to eat, drink and wear whatever we can honestly procure by our own labour; and to buy and sell when and where we please," regardless of agreements or Congress.

These inconsistencies may have perplexed some Continental officers, but not Captain Lee. He seems to have loved the Continental Army and even the war itself rather than the principles behind both; he described himself as "wedded to my sword" and "affectionately wedded to my officers & troops." One of his first exploits came during the horrific winter at Valley Forge, when he and seven other men held off the 200 Redcoats surrounding their quarters a few miles from the main camp. After killing three of the enemy, Lee shouted, "Fire away, men, here comes our infantry; we will have them all, God damn them!" The British believed him and scattered, making Lee the talk of the starving, shivering army.

The Captain eventually became a major. In 1779 he again proved his mettle by capturing Paulus Hook, one of the forts guarding the British stronghold of New York City. …

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