Fitzhugh Lee (1835–1905)


Fitzhugh Lee was a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and governor of Virginia (1886–1890). The nephew of Robert E. Lee, “Fitz” Lee commanded the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia during the last months of the conflict. Neither an innovative tactician nor an astute strategist, he achieved modest success during his Confederate service. Thirty years after the war, he became a national hero thanks to his well-publicized promotion of American interests as United States consul general in Havana, Cuba, on the eve of the Spanish-American War (1898). At the time of his death he was hailed as “Our Dear Old Fitz,” a celebrated symbol of postbellum reconciliation.

Early Years

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.

Map of the Battle of Kelly's Ford

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 Second Manassas (1862), Antietam (1862), Fredericksburg (1862), Hartwood Church (1863), and Kelly’s Ford (1863). At Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, his scouts located the unanchored right flank of Joseph Hooker‘s Army of the Potomac. Lee personally conducted Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson 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 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.

After Gettysburg

General Fitzhugh Lee and Lieutenant Charles Minnigerode

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 at Yellow Tavern in 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 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.

Battle of Opequon or Winchester

The awkward command arrangement persisted until August 1864, when Lee was transferred to the Shenandoah Valley to serve under Jubal A. Early. 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 siege of Petersburg.

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.

Postwar Life

Ellen Fowle Lee

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.

Political Career

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.

For Governor of Virginia Gen. Fitz Lee.

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 Conservative Party (a fusion of Democrats and moderate Whigs) 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 Democratic Party 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 Thomas Staples Martin. The painful defeat ended his attempts to win public office.

Fitzhugh Lee and Cuba

Early in 1895, U.S. president Grover Cleveland awarded Lee a patronage job, collector of internal revenue for the western district of Virginia. The following April he was appointed United States consul general in Havana, a city he had once visited in company with Cleveland. Early on, Lee clashed with the island’s Spanish rulers, including its governor general, whom he described as wielding “the arbitrary power of a czar.” He supported the island’s efforts to throw off Spanish oppression partly out of sympathy with the local people and partly from the belief that a free Cuba would be a viable trading partner with the United States.

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 the 300th anniversary of the settlement of the nation’s first permanent English-speaking community.

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.
  • Longacre, Edward G. Fitz Lee: A Military Biography of Major General Fitzhugh Lee, C.S.A. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2004.
  • Readnor, Harry W. “General Fitzhugh Lee, 1835–1905: A Biographical Study.” MA thesis. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1971.
APA Citation:
Longacre, Edward. Fitzhugh Lee (1835–1905). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lee-fitzhugh-1835-1905.
MLA Citation:
Longacre, Edward. "Fitzhugh Lee (1835–1905)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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