Page images
PDF
EPUB

trusting to the strength of their works and the distance of the Americans, had grown somewhat careless. This the active Major Lee discovered and made known to Washington, volunteering to attempt to take the fort by surprise. There was no advantage to be gained by this. The fort could not be held for a day even if taken. It lay under the guns of the British fleet in the Hudson. But its capture would have a strong moral effect alike in alarming the enemy and in encouraging the patriots at home, and Washington readily gave Lee the privilege of making the attempt.

The time fixed for the perilous enterprise was the night of August 18, 1779, three hundred picked men being chosen for the daring exploit. During the day Lee succeeded in concealing his men without discovery in the vicinity of the works, and when the night had sufficiently advanced led them to the creek, which was crossed without difficulty or alarm to the enemy.

By good fortune a foraging party had been sent out from the fort that day, and the sentinels mistook the men they saw approaching for the returning foragers. Favored by this mistake the Americans seized and crossed the drawbridge without their identity being discovered, and by the time the sentinels learned their mistake the alert stormers were swarming into the intrenchments. In a twinkling they were masters of the fort, having taken it with as impetuous a dash as that which made Wayne master of Stony Point, only two or three men being lost in the enterprise. Of the garrison a number fell and one hundred and fifty-nine were taken prisoners, the remainder, with their commander, escaping to a blockhouse on the extremity of the fort.

Lee had no time to seek their capture. The firing

had given the alarm to the ships in the stream and the forts on the New York side, and a hasty withdrawal was necessary. But the prisoners were taken with them and carried in safety to the highlands. The skill and daring shown in this exploit in the very teeth of the British army, added greatly to the reputation of “Light-Horse Harry," and Congress rewarded him for his brilliant enterprise by voting him a gold medal.

In the following year Lee attempted an exploit which, if successful, would have added immensely to his reputation, no less a one than the capture of the traitor, Benedict Arnold, in the midst of the British army in New York. Washington had learned, through his spies in New York, that Arnold was occupying quarters near the river, with no precautions against danger, of which he did not dream. He thought it possible to seize him and carry him away from the midst of his friends, if a sufficiently shrewd agent could be found to manipulate the work.

Washington confided his project to Lee, asking him if he knew a man suitable for the delicate task. Lee suggested his sergeant-major, John Champe, a man of the greatest courage and persistence, of few words and a high sense of honor, safe to trust with any secret, and the most capable man he could think of for the work in view. The point to be overcome was his high sense of military honor. He must appear to desert and that he would object to most seriously. Lee, however, offered to see what could be done with him.

His task was a difficult one. Champe vigorously refused even to appear a traitor to his country and to win the scorn and hatred of his fellows by a show of desertion. Lee's powers of persuasion were almost exhausted before the worthy fellow would consent to make the effort. And then a mischance came near to spoiling the whole project. Champe had hardly set out, at eleven o'clock at night, before he was seen and challenged by a patrol. He put his spurs to his horse and fled at full speed and the patrol hastened to report the incident.

Captain Carnes, to whom the story was told, hurried to Lee's quarters with the news that a cavalryman had deserted and asked for orders to pursue him. Lee affected to be half asleep and it took some time for the captain to make him understand. Then he would not believe the story, and the whole squadron had to be mustered to see if any one was missing. It was found that Champe was gone, and with him his arms, baggage and orderly book.

Lee had no excuse for delaying the pursuit. If he had done so it would have aroused suspicion of his object. He gave the necessary orders, therefore, but by the time the party started Champe had been an hour on the road. Yet it happened that there had been a shower at sunset, softening the road so that the tracks of the fugitive were easily followed, and the pursuers were able to gain on him during the night. In the end he was pressed so closely that he was obliged to leap from his horse and into the river, swimming towards some vessels that lay some distance off-shore. A boat from these picked him up and the pursuers returned disappointed, to report their failure to Major Lee.

We shall not here tell in detail the adventures of the seeming deserter in New York, since they have nothing to do with the biography of Henry Lee. It must suffice to say that he was well received, was enrolled into Arnold's corps of loyalists and deserters, and studied his habits. Arnold's garden extended nearly

to the river and he was in the habit of walking in it at night. A plot was formed to seize and gag him and carry him to the river, where a boat was to be held in readiness. The river once crossed, help from Lee's corps would be at hand. Unluckily, on the very day fixed for the project, Arnold changed his quarters and the nearly successful plot failed. Soon after he set out on his expedition to Virginia, with Champe as an unwilling member of his force. The plotter had been caught in his own net.

As soon as possible, the deserter again deserted and made his way into North Carolina, where he found his old corps, then in that State. Great was the surprise of his comrades when Sergeant-Major Champe appeared in their ranks and Lee received him with the utmost cordiality. But their surprise was turned to admiration when the whole story was told and they learned that the man whom they had cursed as a traitor was really a comrade to be proud of and esteem.

Champe was richly rewarded, but was discharged from the service, since it was known that if taken prisoner he would be hanged. Seventeen years later, when Washington was preparing for a threatened war with the French, he inquired for John Champe, whom he desired to make a captain of infantry. To his sorrow he learned that the gallant sergeant-major was dead.

Lee's mission in the South was to take part in the expedition of General Greene, sent there to operate against Lord Cornwallis. Promoted lieutenant-colonel, Lee reached Greene with his famous legion in January, 1781. His command now consisted of about one hundred well mounted horse and one hundred and twenty infantry. He was quickly engaged in his old inde

pendent work, covering Greene's rear in his famous retreat, and then seeking a lurking place in the mountain from which he harassed Tarleton and the loyalists.

At Guilford Court-House Lee's legion proved more than a match for Tarleton's dragoons. When Greene afterwards marched south upon Camden, he despatched Lee and Marion on a secret expedition of great importance. They began their work by the capture of Fort Watson, an exploit which forced Lord Rawdon to abandon and burn Camden. They next crossed the Santee and captured Fort Motte. The story of this interesting capture is given in our sketch of General Marion.

Fort Granby, about thirty miles west of Fort Motte, was next taken, after a three days' siege, and the day after Lee marched to join Pickens, who was near Augusta, Georgia. After a short siege that place was captured, with Fort Cornwallis and three hundred men.

These successes of Lee were of the greatest aid to General Greene in his purpose of loosening the British hold on the South. Lee afterwards took a prominent part in the siege of Fort Ninety-Six and the battle of Eutaw Springs, and on the retreat of the British to Charleston followed so closely as to capture a large number of Rawdon's rear-guard.

He was present at the surrender of Cornwallis, and soon after resigned, becoming the master of Stratford House by marriage with his second cousin, Matilda Lee. In 1788 he was a member of the convention to ratify the Constitution, strongly supporting it, was elected Governor of Virginia in 1791 or 1792, and in 1794, as major-general, commanded the force sent to repress the Whiskey Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania. He married a second time in 1798, his wife

« PreviousContinue »