Kathy Major has been volunteering in the Manuscripts Department at AAS for several years and just recently found a small collection of uncataloged Richard Henry Lee letters, which she writes about below. Kathy worked at AAS from 1976 to 1984 and was Keeper of Manuscripts for a portion of that time. After leaving the Society to care for her children, Kathy worked at the Gale Free Library in Holden, most recently as head of technical services, until her retirement in 2014.
The title of this post is from the lyrics of the amusing song, “The Lees of Old Virginia,” from the popular Broadway musical 1776. The character singing the lyrics is supposed to be Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794), the Virginia delegate in the Second Continental Congress who presented the motion for independence from Great Britain : “….that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states….” In addition to serving in the Continental Congress (1774-1779, 1784-1785, 1787), Lee signed the Declaration of Independence and also served as president of the Continental Congress and later became a U.S. senator. Certainly he would not have been very happy with his portrayal in the Broadway show (and later film) as vain and somewhat dim-witted. The actual Richard Henry Lee left behind a large correspondence, including three wonderful letters we’re integrating into AAS’s Miscellaneous Manuscripts collection. The assistant curator of manuscripts was concerned about the fairly large backlog of unprocessed manuscripts and had asked me to begin to go through them. Lo and behold, the three Lee letters turned up, and it was discovered that they have never been published.
The letters were donated to AAS almost thirty years ago by Mrs. Allan Carr McIntyre of Watertown, Massachusetts, and contain much valuable information about the military progress (or lack thereof) of the American Revolution from 1776 to 1778. Written in Philadelphia, all three were addressed to Col. John Page (1744-1808), then serving as lieutenant governor of Virginia. Page was also an officer in that state’s militia and eventually served in the U.S. Congress from 1789 to 1797.
On September 23, 1776, Lee referred to preparations on Harlem Heights for a confrontation with British General William Howe’s forces and to the mysteriously set “Great Fire” that destroyed a large portion of New York City. He added a disparaging comment about the American troops : “…these northern militias. They are immensely expensive and utterly useless.” Lee suggested that more ships should be converted to privateers in order to prey on British “sugar ships” from the West Indies, as well as the need to build “10 or 12 large sea galleys,” to keep open the Chesapeake Bay to prevent invasion.
On October 10, 1777, Richard Henry Lee wrote of “a wise and well concerted attack on the British force on or near German town.” He believed that the British were “surprised, forced, and actually beaten,” but that a thick fog caused confusion among the American forces, which led to their retreat, thus depriving the U.S. of “a brilliant victory.” There is no reference to General Washington’s forces squandering too much effort on the Cliveden house, but certainly Saratoga and Germantown showed the French that the American troops could fight.
The third letter, dated September 7, 1778, detailed the confrontation between the naval forces of Admiral Lord Richard Howe and French Admiral Comte D’Estaing known as the Battle of Rhode island, or the Siege of Newport, during which “the same storm that has damaged our crops so much in Virginia saved Lord Howe from ruin.” Lee mentioned that the French fleet was in Boston for repairs, and that American General John Sullivan’s army was forced to retreat, but Lee claimed victory for Sullivan due to “the enemy being driven from the field of battle in great disorder.” He added that the Battle of Rhode Island was “injurious to the enemy,” which “got a sound drubbing.” He wrote hopefully that the French would reinforce D’Estaing’s fleet shortly. This proved to be wishful thinking.
These three letters in no way support the character delineation of Lee as seen in the fun Broadway musical (Alexander Hamilton and hip-hop, anyone?). What they do convey are the commitment, dedication, industry, and determination of the Revolutionary War generation to secure independence for the united American states.
Please click here for images of all three letters!