"Light Horse Harry Lee," Ben Huggins
Long before Robert E. Lee became famous as an American military genius at such battles as Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, his daddy set an early example at such battles as Paulus Hook, Springfield and New Garden.
Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee served during the American Revolution as one of the most capable subordinates under George Washington and Nathanael Greene, and on May 21 at the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond, historian Benjamin L. Huggins painted what he termed “a broad brush overview” of Henry Lee’s three greatest battles. Huggins is the co-author with Edward Lengel of an upcoming book entitled, Harvest of Glory: A Life of Light Horse Harry Lee.
Huggins noted that Paulus Hook (modern-day Jersey City) is probably Lee’s best known battle. Not only did Lee serve as the American commander on the Paulus Hook raid, he was also the one who presented the idea for a raid to George Washington. Lee thought the Paulus Hook garrison was vulnerable, and asked Washington for permission to assault the fort with 600 troops. Washington did not wish to commit that many troops to a raid but agreed to give Lee 400 men, 300 of whom would serve as assault troops. Lee’s mission was to attack the fort at night, kill and capture enemy troops and to bring back captured British supplies to Washington’s army.
Lee spent five days gathering intelligence on the Paulus Hook fort. The British thought their fort was impregnable, especially at high tide when rising water filled a nearby canal which emptied into the Hudson River.
On August 18, 1779 Lee assembled his troops at New Bridge for a 14-mile march to Paulus Hook. The march, which went through rough terrain such as marshes and woods, did not go well. His guides got lost along the way and by the time Lee’s troops arrived at the outskirts of Paulus Hook, they were three hours behind schedule and becoming fearful of the rising tide on the Paulus Hook canal, and with daylight looming in the not too distant future. In addition approximately 100 of his troops deserted him along the way, reducing his attack force from 300 to 200 men.
Despite feeling outnumbered against the British garrison, Lee launched his attack at 3:30 a.m. on August 19, 1779. His troops successfully forded the canal and completely surprised the British, storming into the outer fort quickly because the British had left a gate down. The Americans promptly secured the fort, except for a small redoubt which was defended by approximately 40 British troops. With daylight approaching and the very real possibility of British reinforcements arriving from New York City, Lee elected not to assault the redoubt.
Instead he retreated from the fort under the cover of darkness with approximately 150 prisoners and numerous captured supplies. His forces then retreated back to Washington’s army with the prisoners and supplies, which boosted morale in Washington’s army and the surrounding countryside.
Approximately one year after his raid on Paulus Hook, Lee fought another one of his best battles not too far away in Springfield, NJ. At the time Washington’s army was starting to move away from Morristown when the British army under Sir Henry Clinton was camped on Staten Island. Washington, who was down to approximately 6,000 effective troops, sent Greene toward Elizabeth Town with an advance corps of approximately 1,000 troops. Lee was serving as one of Greene’s subordinate commanders.
Heading toward Greene and Lee were approximately 5,000 soldiers under the command of Wilhelm, Baron von Knyphausen. On June 23, 1780 Greene elected to defend two key roads near the town of Springfield at bridges which crossed the Rahway River. Greene defended the bridge on Galloping Hill Road and assigned Lee the responsibility of defending the bridge on Vauxhall Road with 300-350 troops. Opposing Lee on the other side of the bridge were Loyalist troops three times the size of Lee’s forces under the command of John Simcoe.
“If Lee ever had a nemesis in the North the way he had Banastre Tarleton in the South, that nemesis was Simcoe,” said Huggins. “Simcoe wanted to crush Lee’s command.”
Simcoe’s goal was to destroy Lee’s forces who were defending on the Vauxhall Road and then to flank the remainder of Greene’s troops who were defending the bridge on the Galloping Hill Road.
Lee’s forces fought hard. At first his men slowed Simcoe’s troops at the Vauxhall Road bridge, and then retreated in an orderly fashion to a second defensive line on higher ground. By holding Greene’s left flank, Lee’s men prevented a route of Greene’s forces and the very real possibility of allowing the British and Loyalists to march into Morristown and seize vast quantities of American supplies. As more New Jersey militia arrived to support Greene and Lee’s troops, Knyphausen called off the attack and retreated his army back to Staten Island a few days later.
After the battle Lee’s nemesis Simcoe admitted to colleagues that Lee had held the bridge with “great obstinacy”. Lee also won the admiration of Greene who now regarded Lee as a subordinate on whom he could depend during critical battlefield moments.
Greene and Lee teamed up once again in another important battle approximately nine months later at the Battle of New Garden, just outside Greensboro, NC. Lee and William Washington were in charge of protecting Greene’s flanks near Guilford Courthouse while Greene attempted to assemble his infantry into several lines of defense against the oncoming army of Lord Charles Cornwallis.
Some of Lee’s scouts learned that British wagons and supplies were moving away from them toward Salisbury, NC while Cornwallis’ main army pursued Greene’s troops. Leaving behind his infantry, Lee advanced with his cavalry but ran into the enemy cavalry under the command of Banastre Tarleton.
“Lee and Tarleton hated each other but they also admired each other,” said Huggins.
The two sides drew pistols and swords near a meetinghouse on New Garden Road. Lee’s cavalry drove back Tarleton’s cavalry but then Lee made a mistake. In his effort to cut off Tarleton’s retreating troops, Lee sent troops down a different road where they accidentally ran into British infantry. The infantry, plus Tarleton’s cavalry, counterattacked and drove back Lee who made an orderly retreat to where his infantry could support him. This defense forced the British to end their pursuit of Lee.
The morning battle at New Garden on March 15, 1781 gave Greene several valuable hours to strengthen his defensive lines before Cornwallis launched his main attack at Guilford Courthouse later that day. In fact Lee also helped to boost the fighting spirit among Greene’s main forces when he returned to Greene’s front lines and showed soldiers his bloody sword. Lee reportedly said words to the effect, “I’ve been fighting all morning and now it is time for you men to do your duty as well.”
Huggins concluded his presentation by giving his opinion as to which of the three battles was Lee’s greatest.
“Paulus Hook was the one where Lee inflicted the most casualties on his opponent,” said Huggins. “It was also the one where the Second Continental Congress voted to award him a gold medal. However, I believe Springfield was Lee’s greatest battle because he saved Greene’s left flank and what could have become a route. If this had taken place, the British probably would have captured Morristown and all of its American supplies, and the whole northern army could have collapsed. It’s a shame that so little is known about this battle.”
Huggins is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and assistant editor at the Papers of George Washington project in Charlottesville. In addition to his upcoming book on Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee with Edward Lengel, Huggins has also written a chapter in A Companion to George Washington (Edward Lengel, editor) on Washington as commander-in-chief during the first years of the French alliance.--Bill Seward