Fitzhugh Lee was born on November 19, 1835, at Clermont, near Alexandria, Virginia. His father, Sidney Smith Lee, older brother of Robert E. Lee, was an officer in the United States Navy. His paternal grandfather was Henry Lee III, or "Light Horse Harry" Lee, commander of George Washington's cavalry during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and later governor of Virginia and a U.S. congressman. Fitzhugh Lee's mother, Ann Maria Mason Lee, was the great-granddaughter of George Mason, author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, the basis of the Bill of Rights.
Lee graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1856, ranking near the bottom of his class, partly the result of repeatedly violating the rules of cadet conduct. Posted to the 2nd United States Cavalry, in May 1859 he received a near-fatal wound while fighting Comanche Indians in what is now Oklahoma. When Virginia passed a secession ordinance in April 1861 (ratified by public referendum the following month), Lee resigned his first lieutenant's commission and his position as assistant instructor of cavalry tactics at his alma mater.
Rise to Command
Lee began his Confederate career as a staff officer, seeing little action at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861. Soon afterward he forged a close friendship with then-Colonel J. E. B. Stuart. When Stuart rose to command all Confederate mounted units in the Eastern Theater, Lee became lieutenant colonel, then colonel, of the celebrated 1st Virginia Cavalry. He led the regiment in several skirmishes as well as on Stuart's "Chickahominy Raid" of June 12–15, 1862. For his conduct on that expedition, he was promoted to brigadier general the following month.
Fitz Lee was known for his joviality and joie de vivre. Because he prized friendship over sectional affiliation, he had numerous friends on both sides of the war. Yet he frequently clashed with Stuart's senior subordinate, Wade Hampton of South Carolina, a nonprofessional soldier and a former commander of infantry. The contentious relationship, fueled by Lee's resentment of Hampton's seniority and access to Stuart, affected command relations in the cavalry over the next two years.
During the Gettysburg Campaign (1863) Fitz Lee accompanied Stuart on his controversial eight-day ride around the Army of the Potomac, which deprived Robert E. Lee of mobile reconnaissance support during his invasion of Pennsylvania. On July 3, 1863, the third day at Gettysburg, Lee repeatedly attacked the Union cavalry of David M. Gregg and George A. Custer, but without decisive result. When the army abandoned Pennsylvania and returned to Virginia, he effectively guarded its rear and flanks.
At times Lee appeared to abuse the independence granted him. At Trevilian Station, Virginia, on June 11, 1864, he was late in joining Hampton for a two-pronged movement against the Union cavalry of Philip H. Sheridan. Lee never explained his failure to conform to the carefully planned attack, which nearly cost the Confederates the battle. Some of Hampton's subordinates considered Lee's tardiness deliberate, but Hampton declined to make an issue of it.
With Hampton's transfer to South Carolina, Lee led the army's cavalry until the war's end. Despite strenuous efforts, he could not overcome its deficiencies in remounts, forage, equipment, weaponry, and ammunition. During the Appomattox Campaign (1865) his command fought tenaciously but was roughly handled by the better-supplied troopers of Sheridan. When the army lay down its arms at Appomattox Court House, Lee refused to surrender. At the head of a small force, he slipped around the flanks of the enemy and made his way to Lynchburg, Virginia. Three days later, realizing the futility of continued resistance, he returned to Appomattox and gave himself up.
With the help of his five brothers, Lee gradually expanded his family's commercial interests to include a gristmill, a fishing pier, and a stud farm. In April 1871 the thirty-five-year-old Lee married eighteen-year-old Ellen Bernard Fowle of Alexandria. The union produced seven children, five of whom reached maturity. As befit their father's military affiliation, the two surviving sons were commissioned into the 7th United States Cavalry; each of his daughters married officers in their brothers' regiment.
By 1875, financially secure as a result of an inheritance, Lee was able to indulge noncommercial interests and hobbies. He contributed articles on his war service and that of his famous uncle to the Southern Historical Society Papers. In later life he published a biography, General Lee (1894), that remains a helpful source of information on Robert E. Lee's family background and military career.
Lee's term as governor produced no major achievements, reforms, or innovations. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was establishing the basis for resolving Virginia's wartime debt, which exceeded fifty million dollars. Accepting the impracticality of full funding, he tried to mediate a compromise between the General Assembly and a council representing foreign investors and other bond holders. His efforts failed, but at his urging the Assembly established a joint commission that eventually produced an acceptable arrangement.
Governor Lee promoted several causes and programs of benefit to his state, not all of which received the support of his party's leadership. Bucking Democratic tradition, he strove to increase appropriations to Virginia's public schools. He endured criticism for backing programs to support state education with federal funds, including one that promised to benefit African American students. He espoused legislation to increase funding for institutions of higher learning, to upgrade the state militia, to reform Virginia's penal system, to expand state services to farmers, and to promote industrial interests, especially railroads. Although he sometimes took controversial stances, his personal popularity never waned. When he left office on January 1, 1890, the Richmond Dispatch declared that "Virginia never had a governor who was more beloved or tried more conscientiously to do his duty."
Diplomatic and Late Military Career
After leaving office, Lee briefly served as president of two companies that promoted the industrial potential of western Virginia. Late in 1893, although originally considered a shoo-in for the prize, he failed to secure the Democratic nomination for United States senator, losing to Thomas Staples Martin. The painful defeat ended his attempts to win public office.
Lee's undisguised support of Cuban independence and his vigorous defense of American citizens and business interests on the island prompted Spanish officials to demand his recall. Some of his actions embarrassed the president and State Department officials. Lee's popularity at home, however, prevented his removal, and Cleveland's Republican successor, William McKinley, supported his policies. Despite his jingoistic inclinations, Lee recommended against sending the USS Maine to Cuba, and when the battleship exploded and sank in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, killing 266 American sailors, he counseled unsuccessfully against a rush to conflict. On April 9 he was the last American to evacuate Cuba before the United States declared war on Spain.
Once war came, Lee supported it publicly, and he was offered a major general's commission in the volunteer forces earmarked to invade Cuba. His command, the Seventh Army Corps, was still in training camp in mid-July when the fighting ended in American victory. In September he returned to the island to lead an occupation command, the Military Province of Havana, to which was later added the province of Pinar del Rio. During his two-year stint, he strove to ease the suffering of a people long mired in subjugation and poverty, but his efforts were hampered by his government's lack of a clear-cut plan for Cuba beyond its pacification.
November 19, 1835 - Fitzhugh Lee is born near Alexandria.
July 1, 1856 - Fitzhugh Lee graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and is posted to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
May 13, 1859 - Fitzhugh Lee is wounded in action against Comanche Indians in what is now Oklahoma.
May 21, 1861 - Fitzhugh Lee's resignation from the U.S. Army is accepted by the War Department. Six weeks later he is commissioned in the army of the Confederate States of America.
September 30, 1861 - Fitzhugh Lee is promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, a regiment formerly led by General J. E. B. Stuart.
April 23, 1862 - On the reorganization of the 1st Virginia, Fitzhugh Lee is elected colonel of the regiment by vote of the rank-and-file.
June 12–15, 1862 - Fitzhugh Lee accompanies J. E. B. Stuart on his celebrated Chickahominy Raid, during which one thousand cavalrymen circumvent the Union Army of the Potomac east of Richmond.
July 26, 1862 - Fitzhugh Lee is promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade in J. E. B. Stuart's cavalry division in the Army of Northern Virginia.
May 2, 1863 - Scouts from Fitzhugh Lee's brigade locate the vulnerable right flank of the Army of the Potomac, key to Confederate victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
July 3, 1863 - Fitzhugh Lee leads his brigade in a dramatic series of mounted and dismounted attacks against the far right flank of the Army of the Potomac three miles east of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
August 3, 1863 - Fitzhugh Lee is promoted to major general to command a division in the newly formed Cavalry Corps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
June 11, 1864 - Fitzhugh Lee's late attack on Union forces at Trevilian Station jeopardizes the Confederate battle plan and nearly costs the cavalry a hard-earned victory.
September 19, 1864 - Fitzhugh Lee, now commanding Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley, is wounded in the thigh by a rifle ball in the Third Battle of Winchester. His recuperation lasts more than three months.
February 11, 1865 - Fitzhugh Lee is named commander of cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, which he leads during the final weeks of the siege of Petersburg and through the subsequent Appomattox Campaign.
April 12, 1865 - Having evaded surrender at Appomattox Court House, Fitzhugh Lee gives himself up to Union authorities and is eventually pardoned for taking up arms against the U.S. government.
January 1, 1886 - Fitzhugh Lee is sworn in as Virginia's tenth elected governor. He espouses several notable programs to improve the state's financial, educational, agricultural, and industrial climate.
April 10, 1896 - Fitzhugh Lee accepts appointment as U.S. consul general in Havana, Cuba.
May 4, 1898 - Fitzhugh Lee dons a blue uniform for the first time in thirty-seven years when appointed major general of U.S. volunteers.
November 15, 1900 - Fitzhugh Lee ends a twenty-seven-month stint as commander of an occupation district in Cuba.
March 2, 1901 - Fitzhugh Lee is retired from military service as a brigadier general in the regular army of the United States.
April 28, 1905 - Fitzhugh Lee dies in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond.
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First published: March 9, 2010 | Last modified: March 19, 2014