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, or “Light Horse Harry” Lee, commander of ‘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 , 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 ain 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 theon July 21, 1861. Soon afterward he forged a close friendship with then-Colonel . When Stuart rose to command all Confederate mounted units in the Eastern Theater, Lee became lieutenant colonel, then , 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.
In late July, when Stuart’s command was expanded to a division, he selected Lee to lead a brigade consisting of the 1st and four other Virginia outfits. Lee served ably at(1862), (1862), (1862), Hartwood Church (1863), and Kelly’s Ford (1863). At on May 2, 1863, his scouts located the unanchored right flank of ‘s . Lee personally conducted into position for the attack that routed Hooker’s troops and decided the battle.
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(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.
In the autumn of 1863, when Stuart gained corps command, both Lee and Hampton were assigned divisions and promoted to major general. They continued to vie for Stuart’s favor until he was mortally wounded atin May 1864. Both men jockeyed to succeed their fallen superior, but Robert E. Lee, fearing a public rift that would harm morale, refused to officially replace Stuart. When serving apart, each general reported directly to army headquarters; when operating in tandem, Hampton commanded on the basis of seniority.
At times Lee appeared to abuse the independence granted him. At, 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.
The awkward command arrangement persisted until August 1864, when Lee was transferred to theto serve under . The action enabled Robert E. Lee to announce Hampton as Stuart’s successor. Lee served under Early in several skirmishes before receiving a disabling wound at the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19. At year’s end, having recuperated, he rejoined Early’s forces, but early in February 1865 he returned to the Army of Northern Virginia for the latter stages of the .
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(1865) his command fought tenaciously but was roughly handled by the better-supplied troopers of Sheridan. When the army lay down its arms at , Lee refused to surrender. At the head of a small force, he slipped around the flanks of the enemy and made his way to , Virginia. Three days later, realizing the futility of continued resistance, he returned to Appomattox and gave himself up.
After the war, Lee tried to start a new life as a “model farmer” in Stafford County. His efforts were threatened by a federal grand jury that indicted him for treason, along with his uncle; his cousins, former Confederate generals George Washington Custis Lee and William Henry Fitzhugh (“Rooney”) Lee; and thirty-three other Confederate military and civilian officials. At some point—doubtless after the indictment was withdrawn in February 1869—Lee secured a government pardon for his Confederate service.
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.
In 1874, after serving in various civic organizations including as ex officio president of the Lee Monument Association, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the General Assembly. Three years later he failed to gain the nomination of the(a fusion of Democrats and moderate ) for governor of Virginia. In 1885—his statewide popularity enhanced by high-profile speaking engagements as a paid employee of the Richmond-based Southern Historical Association—he won not only the nomination of the renamed but also the general election. His margin of victory was quite narrow: 16,000 votes out of 290,000 cast.
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. The painful defeat ended his attempts to win public office.
Fitzhugh Lee and Cuba
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.
In November 1900 Lee, frustrated by his inability to influence occupation policy, vacated his post. He completed his military career as commander of the Department of the Missouri, headquartered at Omaha, Nebraska. On March 2, 1901, he was retired as a brigadier general in the regular service. Returning to Virginia, he spent his final years in Charlottesville. At the time of his death, April 28, 1905, during a business trip to Washington, D.C., he was president of the Jamestown Exposition Company, formed to commemorate theof the settlement of the nation’s first permanent English-speaking community.