The tragic life of Lighthorse Harry
Thea Marshall looks at the tragic life of Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee.
Well, it's begun, the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War and stories will abound about one of its greatest heroes, Robert E. Lee.
But I'm about to tell you a tale about his father, Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a flawed hero if there ever was one. I often wonder what it is about flawed heroes that make them so attractive. Harry was no exception, a war hero, close friend of George Washington, not much good with money, actually landed in prison twice because of his debts. Married twice, his first wife was called Divine Mathilda; I call her High-maintenance Mathilda. She died after only eight years of marriage. He married again a couple of years later, to another great beauty, much younger than he, from the wealthy Carter clan, Anne Hill Carter.
Both marriages brought lots more Lees into the world, including Robert E. I tend to think of Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee as an almost theatrically tragic figure. He came back from Princeton to fight heroically under George Washington, and they became fast friends, so close that Harry was asked by Congress to deliver Washington's eulogy.
It became renowned, you remember, describing Washington as "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Harry was also a fine statesman, elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, later a governor of Virginia. Lighthorse Harry's talents did not include financial horse-sense. His land speculations landed him in debtors' prison, but in spite of his humiliation, he kept on keeping on, writing in his tiny prison cell his war memoirs.
After his release, the family moved from Stratford, where all the children had been born, to a very modest house in Alexandria. Later, he was nearly killed in a political riot in Baltimore, while defending the editor of an anti-war newspaper. Harry was beaten so badly by the mob that he was permanently injured.
He left his family for the West Indies to recuperate. Some historians use the words "deserted" his family, or "abandoned" his family. I don't agree. He wrote his family frequently, both to his wife Anne and the children.
His death, like so much of his life, had an ironic twist. He was attempting, still very ill, to rejoin his family from his self-exile. On the steamer journey home, well, he knew he wouldn't survive the trip, and he asked to be put ashore on Cumberland Island, Georgia. He died there in the family home of George Washington's favorite general and Lee's war-time comrade, Nathaniel Green.
Son Robert E. Lee never really knew his father, so perhaps for Robert, his father never died.
This is Thea Marshall.