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Lee and Grant
A Dual Biography
By Gene Smith
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Eugene O. Smith
All rights reserved.
A Hero Grown Old
He was, they said, born to be a warrior. He had sprung from his mother's womb a soldier, his uncle said, and when the war came he left off his plans to go from Princeton to the Inns of Court in London for law studies, and instead raised a troop of cavalry.
Captain of light dragoons, he outfitted his men in bright-green jacket, high frilled stock, tight lambskin breeches, polished boots to the knee and a leather cap topped by flaring horsehair plume. It was all paid for by his family. From them he had also that Virginia air of command and the horseman gallantry and dash that went with it. "I am wedded to my sword," he said, and went flashing down upon British supply columns with his lightly equipped and fast-moving riders. He bluffed enemy formations, provisioned the troops at Valley Forge. In the long ago, Washington had loved the woman who became his mother; Washington learned to love and esteem the son. He offered an aide-de-campship. But that was too tame for the great gold-epauletted Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee, who now was always known as "Light Horse Harry." He preferred to go raiding, glory trailing behind.
He was not all thunder and dash and eloquent address to his men. He was a splendid strategist; it was by his plan that Cornwallis was lured from the Carolinas to be cooped up in tidewater Virginia with the French fleet at his rear. Washington and Lafayette listened when he spoke, and Nathanael Greene, who commanded the Continental Army in the South, said he was more in the debt of Lieutenant Colonel Lee than any other man who served under him. At Yorktown, Light Horse Harry could be counted as one of the two or three most outstanding officers who watched as the British laid down their arms. Lord Cornwallis showed poor form, he thought, to send an under-officer to offer his sword instead of doing it personally.
He was twenty-six, impetuous, swashbuckling — and petulant. They had not done enough for him, he said. He should have had more than a lieutenant colonelcy. Nathanael Green tried to mollify him, but, sulking, Lee resigned the army and went back to Virginia to marry a nineteen-year-old cousin so genuinely beautiful that she was known as "the Divine Matilda." She was also the heiress to 6,000 acres planted with tobacco plus additional lands all over northern Virginia, scores of slaves and the great tidewater estate of Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County.
His prospects could not have been more brilliant. As he went to the House of Delegates and then into the Continental Congress, he was spoken of as a coming President of the United States. But the England in whose fashion he lived grandly, after the imperious manner of an English duke or princeling, was cutting back its tobacco imports from Virginia. The great income from his wife's holdings, and his lesser ones, fell off. So he began to speculate in land, which was more exciting than farming. He spoke in expansive terms of canals to connect the tidewater country with the mountains to the west, and of new cities he would found; but the Divine Matilda, noting the carefully worded will in which her father-in-law had diminished Light Horse Harry's capacity to squander his inheritance arranged that most of her own holdings should go directly to their children, of whom soon there were four.
Henry Lee was a close friend to Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison had been his chum since Princeton days. Lee was even free to trade jests with Washington himself — once he made reference to the President's well-known tightness in matters financial and, when Martha Washington's giggle was followed by an imitating cackle from her parrot, Washington said it was obvious Lee was a funny fellow: "See, that bird is laughing at you" — but Lee had no magic touch at making money. His concepts were magnificent, glorious — but when, five years after their marriage, Matilda died, he had made very serious inroads into her wealth. Nothing worked. He bought lands with doubtful titles and then found the titles were spurious. His planned canals and cities came to naught.
He still had the name and the mantle of the past. He was still young, thirty-five. He ran for governor of Virginia and was elected. Two of his children by Matilda survived, the others having died young, and he needed another wife to care for them. Without neglecting his duties as governor, for they were not overwhelming, he was able to pay as much attention to women as to his office. He was "in love with every sweet nymph" he saw, he wrote Alexander Hamilton even as he asked the Secretary of the Treasury to divulge confidential details of government policy — which Hamilton would not do, even for Light Horse Harry. He borrowed money from Washington and repaid it with bonds whose face value was equal to the amount in question, but whose actual value was far below it. Elected governor again, he was bored. There came a possible new beginning in the form of an offer of a major generalcy in the revolutionary armies that had overthrown the King of France. He wrote asking Washington's advice. The President answered that he thought it would be a mistake to accept.
France would have meant uniforms, fife and drums — adventure, glory — but another voice, even more binding than that of Washington, bade him not to go. Charles Carter was perhaps the richest man in Virginia. He had a daughter, Ann, twenty years old, who had noted Governor Lee's unsuccessful pursuit of a cousin. "Maria, you do not know what you are throwing away," Ann had said, and set her cap for the rejected suitor. He responded. But her father would not permit the match unless Lee promised not to take the French commission.
They were married June 30, 1793, at Shirley Plantation on the James River, which was the magnificent center of the miles-long Carter estate serviced by 1,000 slaves. The bride knew nothing of life beyond that of the mansion in which she had been raised amid polished mahogany and old silver and the portraits of her ancestors. She saw the glamorous hero-governor but not the self-indulgent dreamer who had gone through one wife's fortune and would immediately set to work upon that of a second. He had deceived her in respect to finances; now he deceived her in other ways. "Her affections were trampled on by a heartless and depraved profligate," wrote a relative. "I am right as to time. One fortnight was her dream of happiness from which she awoke to a lifetime of misery."
They lived in Stratford Hall when not in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, but it could be regarded as only a temporary abode, for the Divine Matilda had left it to her son by Henry, who could take it over when he reached his maturity. Governor Lee often went on long trips, his speculations wilder than before, leaving his new wife alone. Eventually Ann became pregnant, gave birth, became pregnant again. He failed in all his money-making schemes, sold her lands, horses, everything. Stratford Hall, with its 30-foot-square Great Hall, 17-foot-high ceilings and double doors opening upon a great staircase leading to the magnificent lawns reaching the Potomac, went into decline. Weeds grew in the walks and formal park after the unpaid overseer packed up and left. Where ocean-going ships had once tied up, wharves sank into the river.
One last moment of glory was left. The farmers of Pennsylvania and the areas surrounding that state rebelled at the imposition of a 7-cents-a-gallon tax on the whiskey that was their main product. Government inspectors were assaulted, and thousands of farmers were in open rebellion. President Washington faced the most serious threat yet presented to the law of the Constitution. He ordered the enlistment of a militia army of 15,000 men from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Light Horse Harry was named to command with the rank of major general. Now he was back in his element — in uniform, wearing his saber, on a charger, in front of his men. Before this force the Whiskey Rebellion evaporated, and soon he was back home juggling his debts and stalling creditors as his governorship ended. Years passed and he was reduced to hanging chains across the entrances to his home to keep out sheriffs with writs, and when friends came they found him peeking from behind the curtains to see if it was safe to open the door.
He ran for Congress, and Washington, his constituent, put aside resentment at the matter of the debt paid in questionable bonds, and came to vote for his old comrade. When the Father of His Country died in 1799, Congress asked Light Horse Harry to deliver the eulogy. Lee made a great effort, coining the phrase ever after associated with the first President's name: First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.
Ann became pregnant again, and still again. Often she went back to Shirley Plantation to live the life she had known and lost, while Lee — so it was said — asked the loan of a pair of horses from a friend. He had to take another of those endless trips in connection with another speculation. The friend sent along a slave to care for the horses. Weeks passed. The horses' owner by chance ran into his slave. He demanded to know where the horses were. "Well, you see," the black man said, "Marse Henry sold those horses." "He did, did he? Why didn't you come back and tell me about it?" "Well, you see, Marse Henry sold me, too."
He made a giant plunge into vast land speculation and tried to get the financier Robert Morris, who had done so much in the Revolution, to go with him. Morris was short of funds just then, and so by pulling all possible strings, Light Horse Harry raised $40,000, which he lent to Morris to put in. The enterprise, like all his enterprises, failed. And in the end Morris could not pay back the money. Lee was utterly ruined.
From Shirley Plantation his pregnant wife wrote him of her father's death and asked that he come take her back to Stratford where her other children had been born, in a room which saw earlier the births of two signers of the Declaration of Independence. "I trust, my dear Mr. Lee, you will certainly bring a conveyance for me. Do not disappoint me, I conjure you." He did not come. She borrowed an open carriage, in November, and came back to Stratford across the bleak fields and through the winds of the approaching winter of 1806. She caught a cold she could not shake.
Stratford Hall that winter was freezing, and there was coal enough only for one portable brazier. When she moved from room to room she pushed it in front of her. She huddled over it in the Great Hall empty of the sold-off paintings and furniture. One of the house's many dependencies collapsed, but there was no one to put back the bricks that tumbled to the ground, no one to till the fields. Vines engulfed the carriage house from which the horses had long departed. Christmas came, New Year's. She was in the final stages of a pregnancy made very difficult because of the cold which settled in her chest. There was only wood enough to light the fireplace of the room in which she lay desperately ill.
There was no money to pay a doctor. Lee dodged down alleys in fear of creditors when he went to Alexandria or Richmond in attempts to raise money for new harebrained schemes. Ann was in despair at the thought of another mouth to feed, and in January of 1807 wrote a sister-in-law, also pregnant, that she hoped for the sister-in-law the best of luck with her coming baby, but dearly wished that she herself was not in the same fix. Eight days later, January 19, Ann Carter Lee's baby boy came. It was a difficult birth and rumors spread in the neighborhood that the infant had been delivered of a dying woman, but they got through it all right, and she named him for her brothers, Robert and Edward.
Light Horse Harry owed for his hat, some rope, gun flints, powder, and Peter would no longer lend him enough to pay Paul; and what had menaced him for years materialized: debtors' prison. Relatives came to his aid and he was briefly released only to be imprisoned again. For almost an entire year between 1809 and 1810 he was behind bars, still hoping for a windfall as he wrote a history of the military operations he had participated in during the Revolution. It would make a fortune and bring him back, he said. When at last they let him out he had nothing, nothing at all, and his wife had nothing beyond the income from not overly large trust funds willed her by her father and a sister.
Even the decaying roof over their heads was no longer available to shelter them, for the ex-convict's son Henry by the Divine Matilda had come into his maturity and wished to take possession of his property. Ann Carter Lee was ill, suffering from fainting spells and what was called "dropsy," but she got a broken-down carriage and prepared to leave. Three of the children were seated and Nat, a loyal slave they had retained, was on the carriage box when they realized that Robert, three and a half, had wandered away. One of his sisters went past the chestnut tree that Robert had helped their mother to plant, back into the echoing rooms of the empty mansion, and found him in his nursery where he had gone to say good-bye to two cherubs sculpted in metal in the fireplace.
They went to Alexandria to settle in modest lodgings. Her income was less than $25 a week and it had to support a family which now numbered seven, plus Nat and Nat's wife. Light Horse Harry was by then more a guest in his wife's home than the head of the house, but at least he was present and not off on wild money-raising schemes or in pursuit of other women. And he was good with the children, a wonderful storyteller, warm, colorful, gay despite all their troubles. Alexandria looked upon him as a model of a hero who has long outlived his exploits to become a professional ex-soldier turned something of a nuisance. A King Street merchant used to play chess with him occasionally, but the merchant had duties to perform also, and often his clerk was instructed to say he was out. The day came when Light Horse Harry resented it. "You lie, young man, and know he is in, and you are trying to deny me to him!" But the day was gone when people were in awe of Henry Lee. The clerk sprang forward and pointed to the door and said, "Leave this store immediately or I'll find a way to make you." Lee turned, folded his old military cape about himself and walked slowly but majestically out. It hurt.
In 1812 there came a final cruel blow. A friend's newspaper was threatened by political enemies, and Light Horse Harry went to the rescue. The affair turned ugly — more than ugly — and a crowd broke down the door to get at the newspaper editor and his defenders. They were beaten unconscious and thrown out into the street where thugs battered them. A drunk flung hot candle grease into Lee's eyes and then slashed at his face with a knife. From that time he was thin and frail, horribly scarred and never well. White-haired and staring-eyed in his shabby hat and worn clothing, he appealed to President Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe, still friends in spite of all, for aid to go to the islands of the Caribbean where perhaps he might recover his health. They helped him, and always short of money and lonely for the past and for his children he wandered for six years in the sun, never regaining his strength. In Alexandria his wife referred to herself as Widow Lee, and slowly his children forgot him.
Weak and crippled, emaciated, he decided in 1818 to go home. He fell deathly ill on the ship and at his request it docked at Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast. Nathanael Greene, his old commander, was buried there on what had been his estate in life. At the dock there was a fifteen-year-old boy, the nephew of Greene's daughter. "Tell your aunt," Light Horse Harry said, "that General Lee is at the wharf and wishes the carriage sent for him. Tell her I am come purposely to die in the house and in the arms of the daughter of my old friend and compatriot."
Excerpted from Lee and Grant by Gene Smith. Copyright © 1984 Eugene O. Smith. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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