Lee, Fitzhugh (1835–1905)

By: Thomas W. Cutrer

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: August 3, 2020

Fitzhugh Lee, a general in the Confederate States Army and the United States Army, the son of Sydney Smith and Anna Maria (Mason) Lee, was born at his family's plantation, Clermont, in Fairfax County, Virginia, on November 19, 1835. He was a nephew of Robert E. Lee on his father's side and of Samuel Cooper, adjutant general of the United States Army, on his mother's. His father was a United States, and later a Confederate, naval officer. Young Lee entered the United States Military Academy at West Point on July 1, 1852, graduated forty-fifth of the forty-nine cadets in the class of 1856, and was brevetted a second lieutenant and assigned as a cavalry instructor at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1856, he was transferred to the Second United States Cavalry, in which Robert E. Lee was serving as lieutenant colonel. Lee accompanied Capt. Earl Van Dorn's punitive expedition into the Comanche heartland and was dangerously wounded in action at Crooked Creek, Kansas Territory, on May 12, 1859. In this fight Lee led a successful attack against a flank of the Indian position and captured a number of women and children. After returning to his lines with his captives, he was confronted by a Comanche warrior who loosed an arrow at Lee the same instant that Lee fired his revolver. The Comanche was instantly killed, but his arrow passed through Lee's right side, penetrating his lung. The wound was at first thought to be fatal, but after a 200-mile evacuation on a litter strung between two army mules and considerable internal hemorrhaging, the lieutenant recovered. On January 1, 1858, he was promoted to the substantive grade of second lieutenant. In January 1860 he led a patrol in pursuit of a band of Comanches who had stolen a number of horses from the vicinity of Camp Colorado, where Lee was stationed. After chasing the raiders for three days, partly during a blue norther, the troopers overtook and attacked them near Pecan Bayou. Lee singled out one warrior and chased him for seven miles before the Indian dismounted and hid among the rocks. As Lee approached his hiding place, the Comanche fired at him, shattering the stock of his carbine. Soldier and warrior then wrestled for possession of Lee's revolver and the Indian's knife until Lee's overcoat and cape were shredded by knife slashes, but at last he recovered his pistol and shot his adversary in the head.

After his tour with the Second Cavalry Lee served at West Point as an assistant instructor of tactics from December 29, 1860, until May 3, 1861. Although promoted to first lieutenant on March 31, 1861, he resigned from the United States Army on May 21 to offer his services to the Confederacy. He served on the staff of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and was elected lieutenant colonel of the First Virginia Cavalry in August 1861. After distinguished service during the Peninsular campaign he was promoted to brigadier general on July 24, 1862. He fought in all of the major battles of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 and 1863-Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg-after which he was promoted to major general on August 3, 1863. Lee's cavalry division made an especially vital contribution to the Confederate defense of northern Virginia in the spring of 1864, when it frustrated Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's attempt to outflank Robert E. Lee's army between the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Subsequently, detached to Gen. Jubal A. Early's command in the Shenandoah Valley, Lee was seriously wounded at the battle of Winchester (September 19, 1864), where he had three horses shot from beneath him. He was incapacitated by his wound until January 1865 when, after the death of Gen. James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart at the battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864, and the transfer of Gen. Wade Hampton to North Carolina in January 1865, he became the senior cavalry officer in the Army of Northern Virginia and commander of the remnant of its cavalry corps. When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Fitzhugh Lee led a portion of his command through Union lines and into the Shenandoah, where he at last surrendered on April 11 at Farmville.

After the war he farmed in Stafford County, Virginia, and on April 19, 1871, married Ellen Bernard Fowle. The couple had five children. Of his life as a farmer Lee wrote, "I had been accustomed all my life to draw corn from the quartermaster, and found it rather hard now to draw it from the obstinate soil." But he did so until he was elected governor of Virginia in 1885. He was defeated in a run for the Senate in 1893, then appointed consul general at Havana by President Grover Cleveland. In 1894 he published a life of his famous uncle, General Lee; Robert E. Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, declared the book "a standard work" and its author "a facile writer." During the Spanish-American War, Lee served as major general of volunteers and in Cuba as a brigadier general in the regular United States Army. For a time thereafter he commanded the Department of Missouri. He was honorably discharged from the volunteer service and retired from his regular rank on March 2, 1901. General Lee died in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 1905, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (2 vols., Washington: GPO, 1903; rpt., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965). Harold B. Simpson, Cry Comanche: The Second U.S. Cavalry in Texas (Hillsboro, Texas: Hill Junior College Press, 1979). Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War

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

Thomas W. Cutrer, “Lee, Fitzhugh,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lee-fitzhugh.

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August 3, 2020

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