There are few families more important to the founding of Virginia than the Lee's. Beginning with Richard Lee who came to Virginia in the 17th century, the Lees were leaders of the colony, the American Revolution and the Civil War. The stories of their lives are fascinating not only for their impact on American history, but for the remarkable characters they reveal.
Hannah Ludwell Lee
The builder of Stratford Hall, Thomas Lee (1690-1750), may not be as famous as his later relatives “Light Horse Harry” or even Robert E. Lee. But he is vitally important for the rise of the clan’s fortune, and, through his sons, for the fame that would surround the name of Lee. Thomas took the family’s wealth to dizzying heights. He also greatly enhanced the reputation of the Lee family, rising to the pinnacle of Virginia politics and leaving a mark on the history of America’s expansion westward.
Thomas aggressively pursued the acquisition of both land and public office. As one of the crown’s naval officers in charge of customs for the South Potomac District, Thomas earned a sizeable income. Later as agent for the Northern Neck Proprietary (the great expanse of land of the Fairfax and Culpepper families that had made Robert “King” Carter the wealthiest man in Virginia), Thomas was paid handsomely for his services.
With his new fortune he purchased 16,000 acres between the Great and Little Falls of the Potomac in northern Virginia. In 1717 he bought a choice spot close to his ancestral home, Machodoc, on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck. Called the “Clifts,” because of the white cliffs that rose high above the river, the 1,443 acres tract of land would become the site for building Stratford Hall, the homestead of the Stratford line of the Lees.
One of the secrets of Thomas’s success was that reliable staple of all aristocratic Virginia families--marrying well. After a failed engagement to Jenny Willson, the daughter of a wealthy family, Thomas set his sights even higher, on the daughter of Phillip Ludwell of Green Spring, the ancestral estate of the former royal governor, William Berkeley. Hannah Harrison Ludwell (1701-1750) was a descendent of two of Virginia’s most powerful families, the Ludwells and the Harrisons who presided over a vast estate at Berkeley Plantation.
Before they moved to "The Clifts," Thomas and Hannah had lived in Richard Lee’s old rambling wooden house, Machodoc, in the Northern Neck. On the evening of January 29, 1729, they awoke to find the house in flames. Thieves had broken in and stolen the silver and other family treasures, and on their way out had set fire to the house. Hannah was forced to jump from a second story window causing a miscarriage.
Out of this tragedy came two of Thomas’s greatest successes. The first was the chance to rebuild his fortune on an even grander scale. Shortly after the fire one of Thomas’s greatest enemies, Robert “King” Carter, died, and Thomas was given his seat on the Council of State, partly out of sympathy for his recent misfortune. With the revenues of this and other government posts, Thomas was able to rebuild his fortune. He also used his positions to rise to very pinnacle of Virginia politics, becoming President of the Council in 1749.
Thomas moved his family to the new Clifts site and began construction of a new house in 1736-38. Everything needed to build a great manor house was on site--timber, oyster shells from the Potomac for mortar, clay for brick and a beautiful plateau setting back about a mile from the top of the cliffs. There were also plenty of skilled craftsmen in the area to help Thomas and Hannah build their dream house.
No one knows who the architect of Stratford Hall was, but it is believed that Hannah herself had a lot to say about the design. Her eldest son, Phil, insisted that Hannah made Thomas “put up this very inferior dwelling now over my head.” By the time Thomas and Hannah died, the estate had grown from 1,443 acres to around 4,800 acres. It was one of the greatest houses in the colonies, and a testament to the grit and determination of two very strong willed people.
As for Thomas’s legacy to history, his most enduring impact was the work he did on westward expansion. Realizing that bad relations with the Indians were a barrier to expansion, Thomas helped negotiate the Treaty of Lancaster with the Iroquois coalition in 1744. This treaty surrendered most of the Ohio basin and parts of western Maryland and Pennsylvania to the white man.
Thomas was instrumental in starting the Ohio Land Company in 1749 that tied the fever for land speculation to westward expansion. The hunger for land eventually clashed with French interests, leading to the French-Indian War, but long before most colonists understood the implications of the West, Thomas was there preaching that the future lay in the West.
Next to the first Richard Lee, Thomas Lee was arguably the most consequential founding father of the Lee clan. He had it all--ambition, success, wealth and, perhaps most importantly, he generated a bevy of offspring who would raise the fame of the Lee family to heights even higher than his own.
Thomas Lee’s eldest surviving son, Philip Ludwell Lee (1727-1775), was Hannah’s favorite child. Likely born at Machodoc along with the other Lee children, Philip was largely raised at Stratford Hall and became the main heir once his parents died.
He is remembered for three things. One was expanding the Stratford estate by adding land and embellishing the house and gardens; two, for living even more extravagantly than his parents had done; and three, as being a stingy executor of the Stratford Hall estate to his siblings.
Called “Colonel Phil” by his relatives, Philip was by all accounts a snobbish aristocrat. Educated at Eton and London's Inner Temple in England, a place he always called “home,” he tried to make Stratford Hall a haven for the kind of culture and sophistication he had seen in London. He turned the Great House into a center for music and lively parties.
When his father died in 1750, Philip inherited all of his father's lands in Westmoreland and Northumberland counties; all his lands on the eastern shore of Maryland plus two islands; more than 3,000 acres near the falls of the Potomac; more than 100 slaves over the age of ten, including all of the enslaved craftsmen. It was a huge bounty, making Philip one of the richest men in the colony.
Stratford Hall grew in size under Philip. The property expanded to around 6,600 acres, and by all accounts the operations ran smoothly despite the drop in tobacco prices. Phil began breeding race horses, acquiring the great thoroughbred Dotterell that was said to be the second fastest horse in England.
Working with the British trained architect and builder, John Ariss, Philip expanded and upgraded the Great House and surrounding gardens and grounds. He installed the elaborate paneling in the Great Hall, closed off the doors from the hall to the adjacent chambers, and expanded the passage ways. He built the Octagon and dependencies on the north lawn, added slave and servant quarters south of the house, and constructed a larger stable and coach house to house his 22 horses and coaches. He also added to and embellished the gardens.
As the oldest brother and executor of the estate with his brother Tom, Philip had received the lion’s share of the inheritance. The rather modest balance of the estate left over then had to be divided between the seven other children. Because four of them were not old enough to receive their inheritance, Phil felt entitled to dip into the estate’s assets to pay for upkeep and expansion of the estate. After they came of age, the youngest sons William and Arthur felt cheated. They constantly complained of Phil’s tardiness in paying their monetary bequests.
Philip married late in life to his young ward, Elizabeth Steptoe. She enjoyed the colony's lavish entertainment life as much as her husband did, joining him for the games at Robert Carter's Nomini Hall and the three day festival in January at Landon Carter's Sabine Hall. They had two daughters who lived to maturity, Matilda (1764-1790), who would later marry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, and Flora (1770-1795). They had a son, also named Philip Ludwell Lee, who was born the day of Philip's funeral in 1775. He died young and under tragic circumstances at the age of four, falling down the front steps of the Great House. His death left Matilda the heir of the estate.
Colonel Phil died in 1775 at the age of 48 and what remained of the estate was more or less evenly divided. But the bitterness and strain caused by the disputes remained. William and Arthur in particular never seemed to get over them.
RICHARD HENRY LEE
Unlike Philip Ludwell Lee, younger brother Richard Henry Lee (1733-1794) was devoted to his brothers. The third of Thomas’s sons, “R.H." as his brothers often called him, watched over the siblings Colonel Phil neglected.
As is often the case with Lees, personalities shaped—and limited--the course of their political careers. This was particularly true of Richard Henry Lee. He possessed all the “haughtiness” of his mother and father, and certainly none too little the passions of his mother. Physically frail—he was epileptic and lost fingers on his left hand from an exploding gun—he was nonetheless quite an imposing figure in public. He could give stem-winding speeches and, as one observer noted, possessed a "fine polish of language..."
Richard Henry had a fiery temper, and once he embraced a cause he would drive it like a teamster. But the same qualities that made him famous as a Patriot orator sparked hatred in the hearts of his enemies; British Governor Lord Dunmore, for example, once issued a proclamation labeling him an "outlaw."
Once committed to the patriot cause, Richard Henry became a lion of the independence movement. In 1768 he proposed the Committees of Correspondence that set up a systematic interchange of information between the colonies. He was chosen in 1774 as a member of the first delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
In the second Continental Congress he served on 18 committees, including the one that framed the Declaration of Independence. The bill that formally dissolved all ties to Great Britain, adopted on July 2, 1776, was introduced by Richard Henry Lee.
Richard was instrumental in forging the Virginia-Massachusetts alliance in favor of independence. Not Thomas Jefferson, who barely said a word in debates, or even George Washington who sat stone-faced in his uniform like a stoic giant, were as influential as he was. Richard Henry was John Adams main partner in the debates advocating independence
And yet it was precisely his hot temper that deprived Richard Henry Lee of an honor he felt he deserved. Eyeing the cautious voices in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, Adams and his allies feared Richard's involvement in drafting the Declaration of Independence would make it look too radical. Thus, when the time came to form the drafting committee, Adams and Benjamin Franklin chose the quiet Jefferson to be on it, not R.H. It was a humiliation that scarred him for life.
Throughout out his career, Richard Henry Lee was constantly worried that the revolution was going off the rails. He played an important role in ensuring that a bill of rights was added to the Constitution. And his presence in office helped shape the infant federal government. Partly because of his role in ratification, Richard Henry was (with William Grayson) elected as Virginia’s first Senator in 1789. He was also elected president pro tempore of the Senate.
However, by the early 1790s he was a man out of his time. In 1792 he resigned from the Senate citing his “feeble” health. Two years later he was dead.
Richard Henry Lee was undoubtedly a great man, and for the independence resolution alone the country owes him a debt of gratitude. But like many other Lees he was a man of contradictions. He was a slave trader, and yet in 1759, at a time when practically no one in Virginia questioned slavery, he spoke out against it and proposed imposing a heavy duty on importing slaves "to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic." He was also an early supporter of women’s suffrage for widows and unmarried females who own property.
He was a man ahead of his time, and yet still steeped in it. And yet through it all, Richard Henry Lee stands out as one of the great names of the Lee family and as the most notable of Thomas Lee’s sons.
Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734-1797), “Frank” as he was known to his family, is a much calmer character than Richard Henry Lee. Of all the Stratford Lee brothers he was the most admired by the family.
Frank shunned the public life whenever he could, and yet as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776 he helped his brother, Richard Henry, advance the cause of independence. He was along with R.H. a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Never as ambitious as his other brothers, Frank liked to remain behind the scenes in Williamsburg and Philadelphia, preferring backroom political chats over ale to a debate or knock-down-drag-out row in public.
Frank was deeply devoted to his wife, Rebecca Tayloe, and he spent his last years tending his farm at Menokin near Warsaw, Virginia, dying in 1797.
Thomas Ludwell Lee (1730-1778) was the second eldest son of Thomas Lee. With Philip he was appointed as co-executor of Thomas Lee's estate.
Like his father before him, he held a number of important colonial offices, including serving on the Committee of Safety that ran the colony in Lord Dunmore’s absence. As a member of Virginia Senate from 1776-1778, Thomas helped his brothers in Philadelphia by co-authoring a resolution directing the Virginia delegation of the Second Congress to support independence. This not only sealed Virginia’s support for independence but also helped establish a momentum that spread to other colonies. Thomas remained a Virginia legislator after independence and was much admired for work to revise state laws.
His life was cut short in 1778 when he died of rheumatic fever at the age of 48.
The two youngest of the Lee brothers were William (1739-1795) and Arthur (1740-1792) Lee. Living in England at the time of the independence crisis, their contribution to the cause of independence has often been overlooked. They were essentially America's first spies. At much risk to their personal safety, they sent back valuable information to the colonies on the motives of King and Parliament.
Like his brother Richard Henry, William had at first wanted a career in British politics. While living in England, he was, to everyone's surprise, elected Sheriff of London in July 1773. He was later appointed City Alderman. There was a time when he thought about running for a seat in Parliament, but the American crisis cut those aspirations short.
Unlike his brother Arthur who never married, William married very well indeed. On March 7, 1769, William married Hannah P. Ludwell, a woman not only from his mother’s family but of the same name. After many family controversies and near endless legal disputes over inheritances, William and Hannah took control of Green Springs, Hannah’s ancestral estate, and its more than 7,000 acres of land in 1771. As mother Hannah’s son, it must have made William very proud to inherit her family’s famous plantation.
Arthur Lee graduated with honors from Edinburgh University with a degree in medicine. He also studied law in London. As the debate over the American break with Britain raged, William abandoned these careers and began writing political pamphlets in support of the Patriot's cause. Writing under a pen name, his pamphlets helped to make the case for independence in both Europe and America.
As war grew near, Arthur and his brother William became embroiled in intrigue. The Continental Congress named Arthur a secret agent in London. Working with the French agent, Beaumarchais, he helped organize the flow of supplies between France and America. In 1776 he was made a member of the Continental Congress's Commission to the Court of Versailles, along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. William was appointed the Continental Congress's commercial agent in French ports.
Arthur's tenure on the Franklin commission was tumultuous. He feuded constantly with Franklin and Deane. Later he was named commissioner to Berlin and Vienna, where he made overtures to establish diplomatic relations with Spain and Germany, which did not succeed. His feud with Deane, however, became all-consuming, resulting in Deane accusing Arthur of colluding with the British. Even though the charges were never proven, Congress grew tired of the controversies surrounding the Lee brothers and eliminated their posts. It was a bitter blow to the brothers' reputations and left a lasting bad memory in the legacy of the Lee family.
Hannah Lee as a Baby
The story of Thomas Lee's daughter, Hannah (1729-1782), is as fascinating as that of her famous brothers.
The elder of the two sisters, Hannah was a strong and independent woman. In 1747 she married Gawin Corbin II of Peckatone Plantation. They were first cousins once removed. Not much is known about Hannah and Gawin’s life together, other than that their house was a social center in the Northern Neck.
We do know that Hannah was highly educated and that her shelves were stacked with fine books. It may be that their marriage had not been a happy one because upon Gawin’s death, likely in 1759, he stipulated in his will that Hannah should surrender the bulk of her inheritance if she should remarry. It may be—and this is pure speculation for there is no real proof—that Gawin was suspicious of Hannah’s feelings for his physician, Richard Lingan Hall, who moved into the Peckatone house after Gawin’s death.
A huge scandal ensued after Hall took up residence at Peckatone. Brother Arthur exclaimed that Hannah was “irrevocably lost.” Making matters worse, Hall was a Baptist, a fact that horrified the Anglican Lee family. Eventually Hannah herself became a Baptist, and her conversion served a practical as well as spiritual purpose. By not officially marrying in the eyes of the Anglican Church, it allowed her to avoid surrendering the estate. It may be that Hannah and Richard believed they were living as husband and wife inside the Baptist faith. There is no record that Baptist marriage ceremony took place, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen privately.
Perhaps channeling the egalitarian principles of the Baptist faith, Hannah (like her brother Richard Henry) believed widows and unmarried women with property should have a voice in choosing the legislature. After she read the Declaration of Independence, she wrote her brother Richard complaining that denying women suffrage was a kind of taxation without representation.
Like many in the gentry, the mistress of Peckatone lived beyond her means and ran up debts in London. She spent freely on luxury items such as silk, morocco slippers, books, carriages, china and cutlery, and despite her proclamations against “worldly grandeur,” she lived like a typical Virginian aristocrat. Eventually her precarious economic situation caught up with her. Hannah lost Peckatone in 1769 when her daughter Martha married.
When the “Widow Corbin” died in 1782, she was in debt up to her ears. Sales after her death of what remained of the estate fell far short of what was owed. All her life she had been living off borrowed time and money, and by the end of her life she had been exiled from the two great houses of her life—Stratford Hall and Peckatone.
Hannah’s sister, Alice, lived a life equally beset by family troubles and personal tragedies. Whereas Hannah had a fiery temper, Alice was known for her “heavenly mildness.”
Alice Lee had hoped to settle in England but while there fell in love with Dr. William Shippen, Jr., the son of great Philadelphia family. “Billy” and Alice married in 1762 and they took up residence in the Shippen’s Philadelphia residence where Alice became one of the most prominent women in the city. She was widely admired for her poise and generosity, and her home was one of Philadelphia's main social centers. Unlike Hannah, Alice had a close and loving relationship with her husband that sustained her in a life filled with personal tragedies.
Alice was a sensitive soul. She suffered from severe bouts of depression largely caused by the loss of several infant children. Her desire for privacy often clashed with the public duties of being a Philadelphia Grande Dame. Billy’s professional travails also caused her heartache. He was court-martialed for malpractice while in charge of the Continental Army’s medical department.
But nothing compared to the distress caused by her daughter, Nancy. Doted over as a child, Nancy was a beautiful, well educated and spoiled young woman. Lee family historian Paul C. Nagel describes her as a “merciless coquette” as she played various suitors off one another. After turning down a French count, Nancy married Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston from a prominent family in New York. Almost immediately the marriage began to fall apart. Livingston refused to give up his mistresses, and he had several illegitimate children. The couple remained estranged for the rest of their lives. There was a constant struggle with Livingston’s family over who would raise Nancy's and Henry’s daughter, Peggy. In the face of all this turmoil, Alice became depressed even more and retreated from society for nearly four years.
Her life darkened even more when her son, Tommy, died relatively young of tuberculosis in 1798. And yet Alice carried on. Despite her rather vagabond existence in her final years—she bounced from one residence to another--because of her longevity and sweet disposition, Alice Lee Shippen became an honored figure in the Lee family. She died on March 25, 1817, the longest of Thomas Lee’s Stratford children to survive.
The beginning of the end of Stratford Hall as a great Virginia house begins with Henry Lee III, known as Light-Horse Harry Lee (1756-1818). Henry was the son of Henry Lee II and Lucy Grymes, the grandson of Henry Lee I, the founder of the Leesylvania line. He is most famously known as the father of Robert E. Lee. But the man is important in his own right, and even though his life ended tragically, there is something about him that inspires admiration despite all his glaring flaws.
Born at Leesylvania near Dumfries, Virginia, Henry Lee was a handsome blond and blue-eyed youth who impressed everyone who met him. He was educated at Princeton and was well known to be a skilled horseman. There was something about him that attracted fierce loyalty, a trait that would serve him well as a cavalry officer in the American Revolution.
Matilda Ludwell Lee
Before we turn to his life story, we syould understand how it was that Light-Horse Harry Lee took possession of Stratford Hall.
Henry married his second cousin, Matilda Lee, who was the daughter of Colonel Phil, Thomas Lee’s main heir. Phil’s only male son, a boy named Philip, had died young falling down the stairs in the front of the house. This left the estate to be divided between Matilda, her sister Flora and their mother, Elizabeth Steptoe Lee. When Henry married Matilda in 1782, he had hoped to tap into this family’s wealth to pay off his debts and possibly to rebuild the plantation. But instead he found himself battling commissioners of the estate who resisted deciding matters in his wife's favor. His hopes were dashed when Matilda's mother, Elizabeth, was given the great house. Henry and Matilda moved in with Elizabeth, but neither he nor his wife owned Stratford Hall.
It wasn't long before Henry’s luck changed. Elizabeth married and moved away to Alexandria, leaving the estate to be managed by Henry. It was a huge mistake. Almost immediately he began selling off properties to pay off his rising debts. By 1789 the property had been reduced from the 6595 acres from Phil’s time to around 4000 acres. When Matilda got title to the manor house after her mother died, Henry gained control of the property for a short period of time. But Matilda soon died as well, and ownership of the property was back up in the air. Not trusting her husband with the family’s property, Matilda put the house and other properties in a deed of trust controlled by two cousins. She may have thought doing so would protect Stratford Hall from Henry’s creditors, but she was wrong. One of the trustees was Henry’s younger brother, Richard, whom Henry could easily influence. It wasn’t long before Light-Horse Harry resumed his land speculations, not to mention his corrosive practice of selling off properties to pay his debts.
What was it about this compulsive, flamboyant man that made his so reckless? Light-Horse Harry Lee was no farmer and certainly no businessman. He was, above all, a soldier who dreamed of fame and glory. He entered the revolutionary war as a young captain in a unit of Virginia dragoons commanded by his cousin, Colonel Theodorick Bland. He was soon given a commission as a cavalry officer and impressed George Washington with his bravery and leadership skills. He got the nickname “Light Horse Harry” from his exploits as the leader of an independent partisan corps called Lee’s Legions.
He was undoubtedly a courageous and charismatic leader, but he had a very mixed reputation as a soldier. On the one hand he was admired not only by most of his troops but by Washington and Nathanael Greene. On the other hand, he was plagued by controversies throughout his military career. He was, for example, court-martialed in 1779 for having committed grave errors of command during a raid in New Jersey. Although acquitted and fully exonerated by Congress, it was a traumatic experience that damaged his reputation and gravely injured his pride.
Thereafter it seems as if Henry always had something to prove. Toward the end of the war he was assigned to the southern department. Not seeing as much action as before he became bored. Indulging in that hallmark character flaw of the Stratford Hall Lee sons—self-pity—Henry pronounced himself to be “disgusted with human nature.” He abruptly resigned his commission in 1782 and returned home to marry Matilda. Some saw him as a hero. Others thought he was a quitter. Henry saw himself as something altogether different, as a superior man who lived by his own rules. He was always on the hunt for the easy, main chance of striking it rich quickly, and for this he was widely viewed as reckless. A friend of the Lee family said of Henry, "Light-Horse Harry Lee a fool was born, a fool he lived and a fool he died.”
After the war Henry had an equally controversial political career. He briefly served in Congress and was elected Governor of Virginia in 1791. Despite reaching the highest office in the state, Henry was still restless and continued behaving erratically. To the horror of his friends and family, he toyed with the idea of emigrating to France to fight in the French Revolution. When the Whiskey Rebellion broke out, he rode off at the head of the Virginia militia to fight the rebels in Pennsylvania. But he did so against the wishes of his legislature, which summarily removed him from office. To make matters worse, Henry had a habit of making powerful enemies. He mercilessly attacked Thomas Jefferson, for example, and often turned family and friends alike into foes by not paying his debts.
Ann Hill Carter Lee
Despite his setbacks, Henry did one thing that all Lees seemed to excel at. He married well. After Matilda died Henry made another seemingly brilliant marriage to Anne Hill Carter, the daughter of the master of Shirley Plantation. A descendent of King Carter and the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the colonies, Anne sparked in Henry the hope of easing his financial difficulties. Alas, it was not to be. Anne’s father, Charles, who knew very well the cavalier reputation of his future son-in-law, was determined to protect his estate from Henry’s reckless ways. He was even stingy with Anne’s dowry, doling it out slowly in small amounts. It was a smart move as far as the Shirley estate was concerned, but it was ruinous to Stratford Hall. Bereft of funds, Henry resumed his practice of selling off Lee acreage to pay his debts. He repeatedly turned to a dismayed family for money, often deceiving and cheating them in the process. The great house fell into disrepair, and Henry soon was forced to sell furniture and other items of value to pay his debts.
It was a sad, hard time for Stratford Hall. The glory days of Thomas and Colonel Phil were gone. Under Light-Horse Harry’s stewardship, Stratford Hall had become a pale shadow of its former self, decrepit and neglected, and even subjected to the indignities of sheriffs and bailiffs banging on the door to make collections of Henry’s debts.
Henry's financial woes caught up with him in 1809. He was incarcerated first in the Westmoreland County jail and later to the Spotsylvania County prison. While a prisoner there he wrote his revolutionary war memoirs that he hoped to sell to help settle his debts. After he left prison, Henry’s life went even further downhill. He was almost killed in a political brawl in Baltimore in 1812, and to escape a swarm of debtors, a year later he jumped bail (leaving his youngest brother with the bill) and went into exile in the Caribbean. He roamed the islands looking for a place to settle, but he always dreamed of returning home.
He never made it back. He became ill and died on March 25, 1818, on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. He was attended to by the daughter of his old defender, Nathanael Greene, who like Washington always had a soft spot in his heart for the young dashing hero. As a credit to his service, the old soldier was given a full military burial. A hundred years later his remains were brought to Lexington, Virginia, to be interred alongside those of his son, Robert E. Lee.
Light-Horse Harry is remembered for many reasons. Not only is his gallant service in the revolutionary war recalled, but so, too, his support for ratification of the Constitution. He’s also known for his eulogy to George Washington, whom he famously said was “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen . . . .” Nevertheless, what Henry is most known for is being the father of his renowned son, Robert E. Lee. This memory is inevitable. But Henry needs to be celebrated in his own right, as a war hero and as a man who played not an insignificant part in the founding of the nation.
As far as the Stratford Hall story goes, Henry’s legacy is nothing less than catastrophic. He was the man who launched Stratford Hall on the path to ruin. No, the house was not entirely wasted by the time he died. There were still ample resources left when his son Henry (by Matilda) took over the estate. Furthermore, he cannot be blamed entirely for the the great house’s decline. Colonel Phil’s wife, Elizabeth Steptoe Lee, was not particularly attentive to her inheritance, and she should have known better than to leave the management of Stratford in the hands of a man as financially irresponsible as Henry. Moreover, it must be admitted that these were tough economic times. The days of the great tobacco plantations were largely over. Declining crop prices and the break with England during the American Revolution created economic havoc in Virginia, and it forced many great houses to downsize.
And yet it cannot be denied that Henry’s singular abuse of the Stratford Hall estate’s fortune--especially the selling off land and properties to pay his debts--was the single biggest cause of its ultimate decline as a great Virginia estate.
Henry’s legacy is thus decidedly mixed. In the 19th century his children, especially Carter Lee, strove mightily to resurrect his reputation. In 1868 Carter published a new edition of Light-Horse Harry’s memoirs with input from his younger brother Robert E. Lee. It drew heavily on a selection of high-minded letters from Harry to his children while he was in exile. The brothers’ recollections of their father paint him as a suffering saint. Carter was especially laudatory celebrating the “grandeur” of his father’s soul. Robert went along with the project, and he was always respectful of his father. But he was less enthusiastic than Carter. Perhaps he was too busy, or maybe he was hampered by his increasing illness after the war, but he was a lackadaisical editor at best. It's also possible that he remembered all too well the truth about this father, especially the humiliation of a struggling childhood of which Henry had been a principal author.
Light-Horse Harry Lee had three children from Matilda, the heir to the Stratford Hall estate. One, Philip, had died young, and only two—Lucy Grymes Lee (1786-1860) and Henry Lee IV (1787-1837)—lived to old age. Of the two, the key figure is Henry who, because of his scandals and controversies, earned the nickname “Black-Horse Harry Lee.” He was truly a tragic figure. Historian Paul Nagel believes he suffered from a serious personality disorder. Whatever the cause of his problems, he was that child whom every great family fears and loathes—the heir who lets the estate slip from the family’s hands.
Henry Lee IV grew up at Stratford, which actually makes him more of an authentic Stratford Hall Lee than his father was. There were no funds to send him to Princeton, the college his father attended. He went instead first to Lexington College in the Shenandoah Valley and later to the College of William and Mary. He was a delegate to the General Assembly for a short time, and was commissioned as major in the infantry during the War of 1812, serving on the Canadian border. But he could never quite settle on a career. He tried rather unsuccessfully to get appointments through family connections, but it wasn’t until his marriage to yet another rich heiress, Westmoreland neighbor Ann Robinson McCarty, that his fortunes started to turn around.
For a short time it worked. Henry used his wife's money to refurbish the house, and it seemed as if Stratford Hall was set for a comeback. But it was not to be. Accompanying Ann to Stratford was her younger sister, Elizabeth “Betsy” McCarty. She was by all accounts a beautiful young woman. Henry became Betsy's legal guardian, and she took up residence in the big house with Henry and Ann.
It was a fateful turn of events. After Henry’s and Ann’s daughter was killed by falling down the stairs of the mansion’s front stoop (as Colonel Phil’s son had done years before), Ann fell into a deep depression and became addicted to morphine. Henry sought solace in another way, in the arms of Betsy. It may be that Betsy became pregnant from Henry, but the record is unclear.
What is clear is that Henry and Betsy got caught. Soon all of Westmoreland County learned of the scandal, and Henry’s and Betsy's name became mud in the parlors of their neighbors. Instead of accepting responsibility, Henry blamed the “unenlightened” attitudes of his countrymen for his plight. Interestingly, it was the charge of incest, not philandering, that bothered Henry the most. His affair was not incest, he insisted, but simply an affair with a beautiful young womanto whom he was unrelated by blood.
It was all a very sordid affair, and Henry's reputation never recovered. The debts and infamy he incurred from his relations with Betsy left him destitute, and in June 1822 he sold the mansion to an old friend, William C. Somerville of Maryland.
Thus, less than a century after it been built by that empire builder Thomas Lee, Stratford Hall passed out of the hands of the Lee family.
But that is not where the story of the Stratford Hall Lees ends. When President Andrew Jackson offered Henry the post of U.S. Consul to Algiers, he shipped off to Europe anxious to take up his new job. It was a premature move. Back home Senators poured over the graphic details of Henry’s affair with Betsy on the Senate floor, information that had been provided by Virginia Senator John Tyler and Betsy’s uncle, William Robinson. As a result, the Senate refused to confirm Henry’s nomination.
Left without employment, but unable to return home, Henry and Ann settled in Paris where he tried to make a living as a writer. As always was the case with Henry, a restless inability to focus marred his prospects. He had loved literature, and he had once entertained the idea of writing a biography of Andrew Jackson. But he never finished it. Instead he wrote a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, which did nothing to improve his reputation either as a writer or as a loyal American.
Like so many Lees before, Henry loved a good feud, especially those with historic family enemies. He was especially intent on settling scores with his father's old nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. While in Europe he authored an extremely malicious pamphlet against Jefferson that was full of scurrilous and substantiated rumors. It was poorly received and only besmirched his reputation even further.
Toward the end of his life he and Ann were very ill (it is likely Ann never shook her morphine habit), and for much of the time they lived in a modest apartment above a shop in Paris. It was a long way from the trumpet-heralding coaches and grand banquets of Grandfather Phil
Henry Lee IV died impoverished in 1837, apparently of influenza, and is buried in am unmarked grave in Montmartre Cemetery. Members of the family, including Robert E. Lee, tried to help Ann out, but she, too, died penniless three years later in 1840. After their deaths, it was if a black curtain had been drawn down over their memories. They were seldom if ever mentioned by family members, and many knew nothing of the details of their downfall.
Betsy McCarty was also largely forgotten by the Lee family, but she got her revenge on them in a spectacular way. In 1828 a certain Mr. and Mrs. Storke bought Stratford Hall. Somerville had never been able to make things work; partly because of the debts Henry had left behind (debts of which Somerville had been unaware). But the biggest surprise of all was who this Mrs. Storke was. She was none other than the former Betsy McCarty, the very woman who had helped bring Henry down. Betsy married Henry Storke after she left Stratford Hall, and in one of the oddest twists of fate in the Lee's family history, she was now returning triumphantly as mistress of the great house, the very one that had once witnessed her humiliation and ruin.
As if to add a punctuation mark at the end of an ironic remark, Betsy ended up being the longest surviving mistress of Stratford Hall, living in the mansion for 50 years. Betsy’s life in this great house gives credence to the old adage that reality is indeed stranger than fiction.
Robert E. Lee is only technically a Stratford Hall Lee. He was born in the great house in 1807, but he left there when he was four years old. Like his father, Robert is a Leesylvania Lee—a direct descendent of Thomas Lee’s brother, Henry. Ownership of Stratford Hall descended through Light-Horse Harry’s first deceased wife, Matilda, who was the granddaughter of the builder of Stratford Hall, Thomas Lee, and the daughter of his son, Colonel Phil. Robert’s mother, Ann, being a Hill-Carter, had no claim on the property, and she was forced to vacate the place and move to Alexandria once her husband became destitute.
Robert E. Lee thus never owned or had any inheritable rights to Stratford Hall. He visited it a couple of times late in life, and during the Civil War he even dreamed of purchasing the old place and living out his remaining years there. But Stratford was not his real home. His childhood memories were formed elsewhere in Alexandria and places like Shirley Plantation and Arlington where he had played as a child. His main affection was always for Arlington, his wife’s inherited estate.
Robert E. Lee with his son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee in 1845
Robert’s life and character, however, were definitely shaped by the people who lived at Stratford Hall. From his father he inherited not only his good looks and physical strength but his military bearing and strong sense of duty. From his mother he received a soft nature that would be born out in a deep and abiding love for his family.
Robert learned as well from the hard childhood circumstances that had originated at Stratford Hall. His father’s failures in managing the estate were always a negative object lesson in his life. Where his father was reckless Robert was cautious. Where Henry had been passionate his son was coldly rational. Where Henry had been impatient Robert was stoical. Many of the character traits that made Robert E. Lee a great leader were diametrically opposed to those that had brought the downfall of his father. And yet Light-Horse Harry’s memory as a military hero burned as bright in Robert’s mind as his failures, and no doubt it inspired him to want to follow his example.
Lee’s character was shaped by his family’s history as well. All Lees were extremely ambitious, and Robert was no different. Despite his professed asceticism, he was always on the lookout for advancement. Indeed his disappointment with himself up until the Civil War was largely the result of frustration over the slow pace of his career.
General Lee during the Civil War
That all changed during the Civil War. Lee’s drive to win can be seen everywhere during the war, from his hankering for command in the early days of the war to his audaciousness on the battlefield during the Seven Days campaign and the Battle of Chancellorsville. Such boldness was doubtlessly a by-product of a burning ambition.
And yet if ambition were the only key to Lee’s character, why would he turn down the opportunity to command the Union’s forces? After all he must have known the Union had the upper hand in the conflict? Surely something else was at play.
Something was indeed at play, namely, a sense of honor that was inextricably linked to his family history. All Lees had been a proud people, and it was no less so for Robert. Pride was understood not only as the attribute of wealth and position but as a calling to public service. The Lees may have been as acquisitive as anybody in colonial Virginia (even more so in many cases), but most of them, going back to the first Richard Lee, combined self-interest with public service.
The Lees were masters at balancing self-interest with public service. Most Lees saw themselves as superior to everyone else ("haughty" was the word heard most often to describe them). Defending that claim of preeminence, however, required more than haughtiness; it necessitated achievement and fame. And yet the path to this fame was public service, which we saw not only in Richard Henry Lee but his brothers Arthur and William.
Such a legacy was not lost on Robert. He was not personally haughty or vain, but he had been taught well the meaning of honor. It meant not just ambition, but sacrifice. It was an old-world, aristocratic creed, one that seems quaint by today's standard of crass self-promotion as the key to success. And yet it was a creed sincerely held.
Even by the standards of his day such a creed was archaic. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had always feigned disinterestedness and humility while methodically pursuing advancement, but Robert E. Lee was willing actually to sacrifice his ambition if it conflicted with his sense of honor as he understood it. If he had wanted real power--the kind represented by the likely winning side--he would have accepted Secretary Blair's offer to lead the Union Army. But he didn't accept it, and in that decision was an insight into his personal character. He believed that he couldn't raise his sword against his state, family and neighbors, and even though the cause for which he fought was morally reprehensible, it was not chosen expressly for the political and ideological ideas and values it represented. Indeed, Lee was a known critic of slavery and opponent of secession, which was possibly a factor in Lincoln's choosing him as army leader.
After all is said and done, there are actually two stories to Robert E. Lee’s life. One is the biographical reality of the man born of a famous family who nonetheless struggled most of his life with career and money. The other is the famous lore of Robert E. Lee as the marbled hero of the Civil War. The interaction of these two stories is not only a fascinating study of the human character, but of American history, especially of how people tried to overcome the tragedy of that terrible war.
Robert E. Lee never saw himself as some great hero. If anything he looked upon himself as a tragic figure. For most of his life he was disappointed with something—his slow moving military career, his ailing wife and even some of his children who worried him incessantly. As he aged he became more religious and fatalistic, even believing at times that God was punishing him for something; indeed after the war he expressly said that "the Lord has decided against me."
What is most striking about Lee’s life is that it is akin to a Greek tragedy. His fate as a tragic hero was sealed the moment he walked down the steps in Arlington and told his wife of his decision to join the Confederacy. He had chosen between two ideals he held dearly. He had to pick between his state and his country, which as far as his military service was concerned, should have been the United States, but which honor and family history dictated was Virginia.
Go to Full Website to Download