Lea, Albert Miller (1808–1891)

By: Thomas W. Cutrer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: February 24, 2011

Albert Miller Lea, soldier and engineer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on July 17, 1808, the younger brother of Pryor Lea. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point on July 1, 1827, and graduated fifth in the class of 1831. He was brevetted second lieutenant in the First United States Artillery on July 1, 1831, was transferred to the Seventh United States Infantry on August 11, 1831, and was promoted to second lieutenant on March 4, 1833, the day that he was transferred to the First Dragoons at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Lea served mainly as a topographical engineer, and his Notes on the Wisconsin Territory, published in 1836, gave the state of Iowa its name. Lea resigned from the United States Army on May 31, 1836. In 1837 he was appointed chief engineer of Tennessee and later was appointed to the commission to survey the boundary between Missouri and Iowa. In 1841 he was appointed chief clerk of the war department, and from 1844 until 1851 he taught at East Tennessee University, Knoxville. At the same time he was engaged in the manufacture of glass and served as city engineer. After a brief tenure as acting secretary of war under President Millard Fillmore, Lea moved to Texas, where from 1857 until 1861 he was chief engineer of the Aransas and the Rio Grande, Mexico and Pacific railroads. His article "The Gulf Stream, Its Effect on the Climate of Texas" appeared in the Texas Almanac in 1861.

Lea may have been a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, who aspired to establish a slaveholding republic around the rim of the Gulf of Mexico. In February 1860 he wrote Governor Sam Houston that Robert E. Lee, the new commander of the Eighth Military District, might, with government approval, aid Houston in his scheme to impose a protectorate over Mexico. Although Houston made a trip to San Antonio to talk with Lee, presumably about Mexico, the joint effort envisioned by Lea never materialized.

During the Civil War Lea served as a brigade commissary at Knoxville, Tennessee, from August 26, 1861, until his transfer to the staff of Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer on September 10, 1861. After Zollicoffer's death at the battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, on January 19, 1862, Lea was promoted to captain and transferred to Florida, where he served as assistant adjutant general on the staff of Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan. He was subsequently promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed engineering officer on the staff of Brig. Gen. Hamilton P. Bee. Lea was present at the battle of Galveston, where his son, an officer on the federal ship Harriet Lane, was killed. Lea officiated at his son's funeral the following day. After the war he settled first in Galveston, where in 1866 he was appointed city engineer and later sold real estate. In 1874 he moved to a farm near Corsicana. There he died on January 16, 1891. Albert Lea, Minnesota, is named in his honor.

Austin Statesman, January 17, 1891. Charles C. Cumberland, "The Confederate Loss and Recapture of Galveston, 1862–1863," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 51 (October 1947). Roy Sylvan Dunn, "The KGC in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 70 (April 1967). S. W. Geiser, "A Century of Scientific Exploration in Texas," Field and Laboratory 7 (January 1939). Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (2 vols., Washington: GPO, 1903; rpt., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Time Periods:
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas W. Cutrer, “Lea, Albert Miller,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lea-albert-miller.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 24, 2011

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