Arthur Tracy Lee, painter and United States Army officer, was born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in 1814 and studied art in Philadelphia as a youth, reportedly under Thomas Sully. On October 8, 1838, through the influence of Simon Cameron, later secretary of war in the Lincoln administration, Lee was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Fifth United States Infantry. On November 1 of the same year he transferred to the Eighth United States Infantry. He was stationed for a time on the Saint Lawrence River but in 1840 assisted in the removal of the Winnebago Indians from Wisconsin. He was promoted to first lieutenant on March 4, 1845, and to captain on January 27, 1848. After service against the Seminole Indians in Florida, Lee's regiment was placed under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor and transferred to Texas in September 1845 with the "Army of Occupation." At the outbreak of the Mexican War, Lee was given command of a company of the Eighth Infantry that he commanded at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. After receiving a brevet promotion to captain, he was detached on recruiting duty at Rochester, New York, from September 1846 through July 1848. During the late summer and fall of 1848 he once more was involved with Winnebago removal, this time from Minnesota. Late in 1848 he returned to his regiment in Texas as commander of Company C. He remained in the state for twelve years, at Fort Croghan, the building of which he supervised, and then at Fort Martin Scott, Fort Graham, Fort Mason, Fort Chadbourne, Ringgold Barracks, and Fort Davis. Twice during this period he was placed under arrest, presumably due to misunderstandings with his superior officers. In October 1854 he helped to establish Fort Davis in a location in Jeff Davis county that he described as "beautiful beyond description." After serving as temporary commander there, Lee was sent with two companies of the Eighth, in September 1858, to establish Fort Quitman, some 120 miles to the west. After that duty he served briefly in the so-called "Cortina War" (see CORTINA, JUAN N.) at Fort Brown.
In addition to his capabilities as a soldier, Lee was a talented painter in oils, a poet, a musician, an essayist, a historian, a landscape architect, an engineer, and an administrator. He is best remembered for his watercolors. Of his 154 extant paintings, all but two are in this medium, and at least thirty are of Texas scenes. These include views of the Rio Grande, Brazos, and Guadalupe rivers; San Antonio, Rio Grande City, and Brownsville; and forts Croghan and Davis and their environs.
Lee's company was stationed at Fort Stockton when news of Texas secession came. Marching for the coast by way of Fort Clark and San Antonio, Lee and his company were intercepted in San Antonio on April 21, 1861, and Lee, although himself a slaveowner, was placed under arrest and released on parole. He was appointed major of the Second Infantry on October 26, 1861, but could not do active duty without violating the parole that he had been given in San Antonio. Exchanged at last, he saw service with the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War and received a promotion to brevet lieutenant colonel "for gallant and meritorious conduct" at the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, where he was seriously wounded in the right ankle and hip. Lee retired from active duty on January 20, 1865, but on July 28, 1866, received a retroactive promotion to the rank of colonel. From 1867 through 1872 he served as deputy governor and then governor of the Soldiers' Home in Washington, D.C., a position of considerable social importance. In 1871 he published two literary works, Army Ballads and Other Poems and, in the History of the Eighth U. S. Infantry, "Reminiscences of the Regiment." After 1872 Lee and his wife, Margaret, retired to Rochester, New York, and spent their summers at Shelter Island on the eastern end of Long Island, where he continued to paint. Colonel Lee died in Rochester on December 29, 1879, and is buried there in the Ashley family plot in Mount Hope Cemetery.