“Rev War Revelry” Light Horse Harry Lee Discussion

On January 29, 1756, Henry Lee III is born at Leesylvania Plantation in Prince William County, Virginia. Part of the prestigious Lee family of Virginia, his father was a cousin of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, two brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Henry Lee would blossom into one of the better cavalry commanders in the American Revolution, earning the nickname, “Light Horse Harry” Lee because of his accomplishments. With January being his birth month, Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes historian and author Mike Cecere, who will discuss his book, “Wedded to my Sword, The Revolutionary War Service of Light Horse Harry Lee.”

Cecere, former high school and community college history teacher is the author of thirteen books on the American Revolution, most focused on aspects of the colony of Virginia and/or her native sons.

This Sunday we hope you spend some time joining us on the next installment of “Rev War Revelry’ as we discuss the Lee that was born in January and became a military hero of the American Revolution. This historian happy hour will be live on our Facebook page at 7 pm EST.

(Yes, we do know there is another Lee that is born in January and plays a prominent role in history).

George Washington’s Commitment to the Southern Theater

Although the American Revolutionary War staggered into a period of inaction after the Battle of Monmouth Court House in June 1778, General George Washington, in charge of all Continental forces, remained steadfast in New York until the late summer of 1781. Even though the principal actions of the war moved to the southern colonies, resulting in catastrophic losses at Charleston, Waxhaws, and Camden in 1780 through 1781, Washington did his utmost to quell British incursions, reinforce public opinion, and provide whatever succor he could from a distance. What is evidence of his mindset and depth of concern for this theater of operations?

Simple. Look at the general officers he dispatched south from the main army to help the American cause in the Carolinas and Virginia. The list includes some of the most trusted officers that served Washington.

First, Benjamin Lincoln, who met his fate at Charleston, but had served ably in the north, even working in the tense environment of the Saratoga campaign, between the volatile Benedict Arnold and the complacent Horatio Gates.

Second, Nathanael Greene, who had overcome growing pains, the recommendation to hold onto Fort Washington in New York in 1776 comes to mind, to swallowing his pride and taking the thankless job of quartermaster general during the winter that won the war at Valley Forge. Greene was probably second to Washington in understanding the political, social, economic, even the geographical components of warfare. Although a decisive battlefield victory constantly eluded him, his leadership at Guildford Court House set in motion Lord Charles Cornwallis’s eventual demise at Yorktown in October of that same year.

Moving into the Old Dominion, Washington dispatched Baron von Steuben with Greene to recruit, train, gather supplies, and provide the steady hand that the Prussian born leader had shown so admirably at Valley Forge. As inspector general of the Continental army, Washington’s orders sending the baron south was a major testament to the importance of stopping British incursions into Virginia.

Following the baron, was another European born officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of Washington’s favorites. This independent field command showed the growing confidence in the young Frenchman who responded admirably to the task at hand, doing what he can and for the most part, swallowing his brashness, except at Green Spring when he precipitously attacked what he thought was a rearguard of the British. Yet, his actions, coupled with the next general to be discussed, helped keep Cornwallis in the area of operations that would lead to his demise.

“Mad Anthony” Wayne and his Pennsylvania Continentals were also ordered south to join Lafayette in campaigning in Virginia. Wayne, arguably the best combat general in the Continental army, bordering on reckless to his critics though, had masterminded the storming of Stony Point, the last major action in the northern theater. Lafayette and he would be a solid tandem as they worked with limited resources and supplies in the summer of 1781 to contain the British.

Besides these general officers of high rank, “Light Horse” Harry Lee also was sent south to assist Greene and militia, most notably Francis Marion. The partnership between Lee and Marion worked as close to perfection as humanly possible and a model for regular and militia force combined operations.

Another cavalry commander that was sent for duty in the southern colonies was a second cousin of George Washington, William. In charge of light dragoons, mounted infantry who could dismount to fight as infantry, he served admirably in the southern army until his capture at the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781.

William Washington

This list, not intended to be exhaustive but just exploratory, is an example of the importance the southern theater had to the strategic mindset of George Washington. Although the Virginian was fixated on the recapture of New York City until the opportunity to ensnare Cornwallis at Yorktown presented itself, he provided an amazing array of officers of capability to quelling British intensions in the southern theater.

Feel free to comment below on other officers that were sent south that played vital role in the ultimate American victory in this theater of operations.

“Judiciously Designed and Vigorously Executed”: The March to the Dan River

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Daniel T. Davis. 

Last month, I heard Emerging Revolutionary War co-founder Phill Greenwalt remark “when you think about retreats, victory is a word that doesn’t come to mind.” The period of January 18 to February 14, 1781 is the exception to the rule. During this time frame, the American army under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and the British under Charles, Lord Cornwallis, marched across the backcountry of the Carolinas. Known as the “Race to the Dan”, this episode between the engagements at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, is a largely forgotten but consequential even in the Southern Campaign of 1781.

The Dan River (courtesy of Rob Orrison)

Continue reading ““Judiciously Designed and Vigorously Executed”: The March to the Dan River”

George Washington’s “Favorite” Charles Lee

When you mention the name “Charles Lee” in many Revolutionary War circles, one immediately thinks of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Though there was another Charles Lee and it can be argued provided more contributions to the United States than the British born military general.

Charles Lee, Courtesy of Department of Justice

Charles Lee was born in 1758 on his father’s plantation Leesylvania in Prince William County, Virginia. The 2,000-acre farm that sat on the Potomac River and neighbored other Potomac River families such as the Fairfaxes, Washingtons and Masons. Charles’ father, Henry Lee II, a political colleague and friend of George Washington, Charles was one of eight siblings and five males that would solidify the Lee family’s role as leaders in politics and society. Continue reading “George Washington’s “Favorite” Charles Lee”

Eutaw Springs

Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to welcome back historian Bert Dunkerly, who is the co-author (with Irene B. Boland) of the upcoming book; “Eutaw Springs; The Final Battle of the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign” slated to be released this month. 

Part One

The weather was warm and the men had been marching for days, but their morale was high.  They had been through a lot recently: caught off guard and defeated at Hobkirk’s Hill, a month of grueling siege work – and for naught, at Ninety Six.   Not to mention the engagements that many of them had fought in previously: Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and dozens of smaller battles.

Yet the army that General Nathanael Greene led forward on the morning of September 8, 1781, was confident and ready to come to grips with its adversary.  Everyone from the private in the ranks on up to the commanding general knew that ahead lay an opportunity.

Battles in the Revolution were, in fact, rare opportunities for commanders.  Engagements were the short, pulse-pounding events that broke up the monotony of marching and maneuvering.  An army spent most of its time in garrison, in camp, or on the road.  In battle the infrequent opportunity came to crush an opponent and influence the outcome of a campaign, or the war.  These chances were few and far between.

Fig 8
“Eutaw Springs” by Benson Lossing

Both commanders at Eutaw Springs appreciated this fact.  General Nathanael Greene’s forces had experienced a series of close calls at Guilford Courthouse, Ninety Six, and Hobkirk’s Hill.  The American army fought well in all of these engagements, save Hobkirk’s Hill, yet they met defeat in every one.  Greene hoped Eutaw Springs would put the finishing touches on his South Carolina campaign, and end it with a clear cut victory.[i]

Eutaw Springs was a rare chance for Greene to pick the time and place of engagement, array his forces to his choosing, and initiate the battle, and control its \tempo.  It was the only set engagement of the campaign, other than Guilford Courthouse, in which Greene chose the ground and initiated the battle.  Commanders do not often have this luxury, and Greene earnestly hoped to make the most of it. Continue reading “Eutaw Springs”

“The whole story soon became known to the corps” The Unknown Legend of John Champe

Part III of III

The past few months of John Champe’s life were probably the most memorable. In the fall he was asked to go on a mission to capture the recent traitor Benedict Arnold. The mission was ordered by George Washington himself and only known to Washington and “Lighthorse” Harry Lee. Champe, a trusted member of Lee’s Legion, was promised a promotion for undertaking the daring mission. He successfully fled from the American camp, gained the trust of British General Sir Henry Clinton and Arnold and was given a commission in Arnold’s Loyalist regiment. He worked with patriots in New York and recruited others to help him in his plan to kidnap Arnold. Now it was December and the next day was the day to kidnap Arnold and return him to Washington.

Then the day before the kidnapping was planned, Clinton set into motion a plan to finally use Arnold militarily. Arnold would take his Loyalist troops and some British regulars and invade the Virginia Capes.  Virginia had largely dodged the hardships of war and Clinton believed this would be a great opportunity for Arnold to prove himself. With only Virginia militia located in the colony, Arnold should have no problem wreaking havoc on the Commonwealth.

These new developments ruined Champe and Lee’s plans. When Arnold got orders from Clinton, he moved his headquarters – one day before Champe was to carry out his plan. Furthermore, Champe was also moved to another part of New York and was not able to get word to Lee that the plan was off. Lee and his dragoons waited and waited at Hoboken with no sight of Champe. Soon Lee returned to camp without any word on what happened to Champe. Lee and Washington worried that the worst had happened and Champe was “discovered.”[i]

Grave at John Champe, Prickett Cemetery, Fairmont, WV

Champe soon found himself on a transport in New York harbor with Arnold’s “American Legion.” The destination was unknown to most of the men. Soon though Champe learned that he was to be part of an invasion force against his native state! The thoughts that must have gone through his mind; he had risked everything to capture Arnold – labeled a deserter and now he would have to go into battle against his fellow Virginians. The two week trip to the Virginia Capes must have afforded Champe plenty of time to ponder how close he was coming to succeeding and now what he was called upon to do.

Champe was involved in most of Arnold’s campaign against Virginia. He was part of the force that captured Richmond and found himself in several battles and skirmishes against his fellow Virginians. Arnold was replaced by Gen. William Philips and soon Cornwallis’s army joined Philips in Virginia in May 1781. Sometime after this, Champe was able to “escape” the British army and headed west to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Champe then worked his way south and finally by July he was back with Lee who was then with Nathaniel Greene’s army in the Carolinas. Lee was delighted to see his devoted cavalryman. Surely Champe and Lee had a lot to discuss.

Though Champe was promised a promotion, it was believed by Lee and Washington that it would be too dangerous for Champe to take the field again. If he was captured, the British would surely execute him as a spy. Champe was offered an unknown sum for a reward and headed back home to Loudoun County. His legendary adventure was over.

Sergeant Major John Champe Memorial
Sergeant Major John Champe Memorial, Aldie, VA

After the war, Champe did not seek fortune or fame from his exploits. He led a simple life and was a middle class farmer.  He struggled to support his family and continuously looked for cheaper and more fertile land to the west.  It was due to his desire for new land that he was on a trip looking at land near Morgan Town (modern day Morgantown, WV) in 1798 where he became ill and died. Washington did not forget Champe. In 1798 Washington was appointed by President John Adams commander of the American army in preparation for war with France. Washington called on Champe to be an officer in his army, only finding out that he had recently died.[ii]

Though Champe disappeared mostly from the history books in 1781, his family fought for nearly 100 years to gain the compensation that was due to Champe. Champe was never paid a pension nor given bounty lands that were owed to him for his service. Plus, his promised promotion was never given and they argued that the owed pension should be based off of the rank that was promised him personally by Washington.  Unfortunately, the mission was so secret, that very few could confirm it. In petitions filed with Congress in 1818 and 1839, Champe’s widow was finally given a life time pension, though in an amount not reflecting his rank.  Finally in 1847, a Congressional act provided for compensation in the amount of $1,200 to the heirs of John Champe and granted him the promotion that was promised to him by Washington. [iii]

Champe has remained a local hero in Loudoun County. In 1861, a local Confederate unit15_magnet_9 went off to war as the “Champe Rifles” (8th VA Infantry).  In the early 20th century, the location of his home was marked with a small obelisk (reportedly made by stone from the foundation of the home).  Today the monument sits on the south side of Route 50 a few miles west of Aldie.

In 2001, his grave was finally properly marked with a head stone and a full ceremony. Most recently Champe has been bestowed the highest honor a local hero can be given, a high school in his honor. John Champe High School was opened in Aldie in 2012 and one hopes that his name and legacy will be no longer be forgotten.

Lyrics from Sergeant Champe, ca. 1781

Come sheathe your swords!                                                                                                                      My gallant boys,                                                                                                                                          And listen to the story,                                                                                                                             How Sergeant Champe, one gloomy                                                                                                   night,                                                                                                                                                                 Set off to catch the tory

[i] The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee; DeCapo Press, 1998, 409.

[ii] Ibid., 410.

[iii] Pension Application of John Champe W4153, National Archives and Records Administration

“The whole story soon became known to the corps” The Unknown Legend of John Champe

Part I of III

Sergeant Major John Champe Monument
Sergeant Major John Champe Monument

Along Route 50, west of Aldie, Virginia is a small obelisk in the middle of a cow pasture. Thousands of car drive by the marker, not knowing what it is or who it is for. Most people that come to this area of Virginia for history are interested in the American Civil War. In this region of Virginia the legendary John S. Mosby operated behind Union lines for two years. Also here were the hard fought cavalry battles that preluded the Battle of Gettysburg.  But this monument doesn’t refer to anything in the Civil War.  This monument commemorates a local American Revolutionary War hero.  A man that has been mostly forgotten until recently.

John Champe was born in ca. 1755 from a family that was well established on Virginia’s Northern Neck. His family owned substantial land in King George, Stafford and Prince William Counties. At some point, his family moved to the Aldie region of Loudoun County, where John was born. The men of the Champe family were involved in the local militia and civil office as road builders. Though the family had substantial land holdings and slaves, John was one of many siblings and sought out his future with the military at the outbreak of the American Revolution.

John Champe enlisted as a private in the 1st Regiment, Virginia Light Dragoons in December 1776. Champe’s abilities were quickly noticed and saw himself promoted to corporal by 1778 and then a sergeant by 1779. Champe’s abilities were quickly noticed by his commander, Major “Lighthorse” Harry Lee. Lee described Champe as “rather above the common size – full of bone and muscle; with a saturnine countenance, grave, thoughtful and taciturn – of tried courage and inflexible perseverance.” [i] Though Champe might have quickly risen in the non-commissioned ranks, he desired more.  His opportunity for promotion and a date with history came on September 27, 1780 at West Point, NY.

The treachery that took place on September 24th at West Point by once beloved American General Benedict Arnold is well documented.  Arnold planned on turning over the fortress at West Point to the British (thus giving up the vital Hudson River).  Arnold, receiving command of the post at West Point in August 1780, quickly reduced the viability of the fortifications by neglecting repairs and sending troops away from the post.  Arnold’s treachery was not exposed until British officer, Major John Andre was captured, carrying on him copies of letters and Arnold’s plans.  Luckily for Arnold, he learned on the morning of September 24th of Andre’s capture and he quickly fled to the HMS Vulture then on to safety in New York City.

Benedict_Arnold_1colorWashington also learned of Arnold’s treason on September 24th during his planned visit to West Point.  Washington reportedly took the news calmly and began to investigate the depth of treason in his officer corps.  Maj. Lee assisted Washington in his investigation, and both found no evidence of other American officers involved in the plot.  Washington then turned to the capture of Arnold, and that is where our “hero” comes into the story.

In October of 1780, Washington looked to Lee to find someone in his talented cavalry command that could “defect” to the British and carry out an elaborate plan to capture Arnold. Calling Lee to his headquarters, Washington and Lee discussed the proposition of capturing Arnold and how to carry out such a plan.  Lee was tasked with finding someone in his command that could successfully carry out the plan. Lee soon wrote to Washington that he had two men in mind, but his top choice was a sergeant in his cavalry unit

“The chief of the two persons is a sergeant in my Cavalry; to him I have promised promotion…if your Excellency approves of what is done, the sergeant will desert from us tomorrow; the sergeant is a very promising youth of uncommon taciturnity and inflexible perseverance…I have incited his thirst for fame by impressing on his mind the virtue and glory of the act.” [ii]

Washington quickly responded and agreed to Champe’s terms of promotion and soon the mission was hatched. Champe would desert to the British and only Lee and Washington would know about it.  He would be labeled a traitor and his family name tarnished.  If he was captured by the Americans, he would be executed and if he was exposed as an American spy to the British, he would also be executed.  Champe accepted the risk and on the night of October 21st, Champe mounted his horse and made way for the Hudson River where he hoped to find either a British picket line or ship. With him Champe carried his orderly book, saddle bags and five guineas (provided to him by Lee).

Quickly Champe was challenged by an American patrol and he quickly fled,.  This is exactly what Champe and Lee wanted, for the British to believe him, his desertion had to seem real.  Soon the patrol reported to Lee about Champe’s departure.  Lee delayed the pursuit, by first inquiring with other patrol members.  Surely a man of Champe’s stature was not defecting. Soon though Lee knew he had to order a pursuit, he just hoped Champe had put enough distance between him and the Americans to make his escape.

“Light Horse” Harry Lee



Though Lee’s delay allowed Champe some time, it was not enough to break away cleanly. As Champe was making his way to the Hudson River, the American patrol was on his heels and calling for his halt. In front of him were British warships in the Hudson River and a British patrol on the banks for the river.  Now was the time of decision, he could be shot dead by the British or captured and executed by the Americans.  The plan to capture Arnold and punish the traitor was already at its first “Rubicon.”



[i] The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee; DeCapo Press, 1998, pg. 396.

[ii] “Sergeant John Champe and Certain of His Contemporaries”; William and Mary College Quarterly, April 1937, pg. 153.