The Other Indispensable Lee

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By the early Civil War summer of 1862, it appeared the Confederate States of America would soon be defeated. In the west Ulysses S. Grant ousted Southern troops from Tennessee and drove into northern Mississippi. At the same time, Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans and prepared to attack the all-important bastion at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which would ensure Union control of the Mississippi River. In the east, too, Union forces seemed on the cusp of victory. General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was less than ten miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond, close enough to hear the bells in the church steeples. At this critical moment, the South turned to one of its most talented officers — General Robert E. Lee. Within a month of taking command, Lee hurled McClellan away from the city and prepared to strike another army threatening his beloved Virginia. Among those he turned to for leadership was a young cavalry officer already known for his bravery and commitment to the Confederacy. He had previously served in the United States cavalry, and he was now one of Jeb Stuart’s most trusted subordinates. His name was Fitzhugh “Fitz” Lee, nephew of the commanding general. This is the story of how he helped turn the war’s momentum by his heroic actions during the victorious Second Manassas campaign in August 1862.

As a scion of Virginia’s foremost family, it was natural for Fitzhugh Lee to dedicate his life to his state and his nation. He was born in November 1835 on the estate of Clermont, west of Alexandria, Virginia to Sidney Smith Lee, a respected Navy officer. As a boy, Fitz, as family and friends called him, thrived on the adventures of his grandfather, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a cavalry officer in the Revolution, and Uncle Robert, who served under Winfield Scott during the 1846-48 Mexican War. His father too saw action in the war before joining Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1852. That same year, Fitz entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York where his uncle served as superintendent. He faired poorly academically and in discipline, graduating forty-fifth out of forty-nine in the Class of 1856, but he excelled in horsemanship. While at the Academy, he also befriended an upperclassman named James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart. After graduation, Fitz was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. 2nd Cavalry, a unit which included a large number of officers destined for greatness in the Civil War, including his uncle. He spent months traversing the plains of Texas in search of hostile Indians. On May 13, 1859 he fearlessly led dismounted troopers in attacking Comanches along Crooked Creek in Indian Territory, modern Oklahoma, suffering an arrow wound to the right lung. Upon recovering, he led an expedition to reclaim stolen livestock and killed an Indian in hand-to-hand combat in the process. By late 1860 Fitz, now back at West Point as a cavalry tactics instructor, enjoyed a reputation as a fierce warrior, but with war looming between the North and South, he had to choose whether his loyalty belonged to Virginia or to the United States.

Like most other Southern officers, including his father and uncle, Fitzhugh Lee believed his primary loyalty lay with his state and his family. Consequently, he resigned his commission in late April 1861 and joined the Confederate Army as a captain. As an aide to General Richard Ewell, Fitz was present at the July 21st Battle of First Manassas (or Bull Run as the North called it), but he spent the day marching and countermarching across the battlefield without seeing any action. Two months later, however, he was transferred to the 1st Virginia Cavalry with the rank of lieutenant colonel. There he was reunited with his old West Point classmate Jeb Stuart, and he quickly impressed Stuart, as well as army commander Joseph E. Johnston, by leading patrols into enemy territory around his native Alexandria and skirmishing with enemy troops. On November 18th, for example, he attacked a group of New York Zouaves at Falls Church, Virginia, and after heavy fighting, he captured ten “Red Legs,” as they were called for their bright red trousers. Fitz continued to monitor enemy activity throughout the winter of 1861-62, and in March 1862 he informed Stuart that Union General George McClellan was preparing to advance south. In the weeks to come, he covered the withdrawal of General Johnston’s army and led forays against the advancing enemy at Warrenton Junction. These bold attacks so surprised General McClellan he shifted his attention to the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Along with the rest of the army, Fitz Lee raced south to defend the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Riding at the head of the 1st Virginia, newly promoted Colonel Lee joined Confederate forces around Yorktown, Virginia in early April and spent the next month clashing with Union troops as they advanced up the peninsula. In May he struck the enemy at Slatersville and succeeded in slowing McClellan’s march so much Union troops were unable to reach the outskirts of Richmond until month’s end. Like his horsemen, Fitz was desperate to save the capital, and although he took no part in the fighting, he applauded Johnston’s assaults at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks on May 31st and June 1st. While likely saddened to hear of Johnston’s wounding, he must have cheered when told his Uncle Robert now commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. Eager to serve, Fitzhugh joined Jeb Stuart’s famed ride around McClellan’s army gathering intelligence on enemy troops. In the subsequent Seven Days’ Battles, Colonel Lee spearheaded Stonewall Jackson’s attacks at Mechanicsville on June 26th and Gaines’s Mill on June 27th before marching on the main Union supply base at White House, the home of his cousin and fellow colonel Rooney Lee. There Fitz attacked the gunboat USS Marblehead and drove the vessel away, after which he destroyed those supplies his men could not take with them. He then resumed pursuing the Army of the Potomac until it encamped at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Richmond was safe, but Fitz, now a brigadier general, had no time to rest on his laurels. Word had just arrived that another Union force was moving south into northern Virginia.

This new army, ironically styled the Army of Virginia, was led by General John Pope, a braggart who claimed his “headquarters [were] in the saddle,” and whose purpose it was to draw Lee’s troops away from Richmond and into open battle. Realizing McClellan was no longer a threat, Robert E. Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson to engage Pope’s command and readied the rest of the army, including Fitz’s brigade, to follow. Before moving north, however, the cavalry had to confront Union raiders operating along the Virginia Central Railroad. The rail line was not only the army’s lifeline to the Shenandoah Valley, the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” but it was also the thoroughfare Robert E. Lee intended to use to move the army north. Knowing he must safeguard the army’s march, Fitz led his brigade to the Rappahannock River, and on August 6th, he spied Union infantry and cavalry at Massaponax Church, Virginia. Without hesitation, the daring officer unsheathed his sword and struck “like a thunderbolt upon the enemy,” according to Jeb Stuart. Riding at the forefront of the 3rd and 4th Virginia, Fitz plunged into the rifles of the 6,000-man force. Pistol shots filled the air as did the clang of sabers, and in minutes, the enemy was in full retreat with Fitz’s men in hot pursuit. He captured over eighty prisoners and eleven wagons, but more importantly, he ensured safe passage for the army as it marched northeast to battle “those people,” as Uncle Robert called the Union forces.

As Fitzhugh moved to support Confederate infantry, his uncle prepared to turn the Army of Virginia’s left flank, but due in part to captured dispatches, Pope became aware of the danger and fell back. Still, the Confederate commander refused to abandon his strategy and ordered his nephew forward in pursuit. In the coming days, Fitz Lee engaged Union General John Buford’s cavalry along the Rappahannock River, in one fight capturing the greatest prize for a cavalryman — a regimental guidon. He also ferociously battled his old West Point classmate George Bayard at Rappahannock Station. Still, the Confederates could not deliver the fatal blow to Pope’s force. Realizing more audacity was required, Fitz circumnavigated Pope’s right flank and stormed the Union rear. He struck a Union garrison protecting Pope’s headquarters at Catlett’s Station and so surprised the enemy troops that many surrendered without firing a shot. In addition to forage and other supplies, he captured General Pope’s uniform, which he delighted in modeling for his fellow officers. He also secured vital documents outlining Pope’s disposition of forces as well as details concerning George McClellan’s imminent arrival with reinforcements. Fitzhugh quickly passed this news on to General Stuart who in turn passed it on to Robert E. Lee, who decided to attack Pope before McClellan arrived.

Early on August 26th General Fitzhugh Lee and his brigade left camp and accompanied Stonewall Jackson’s infantry on a march towards the old Manassas (Bull Run) battlefield where Jackson’s troops engaged a brigade of New Jerseymen. During the night of August 27th, Fitz advanced on Fairfax Court House to cut off the brigade’s retreat and to prevent Union officials in Washington, D.C. from resupplying Pope’s army. The next morning the brigade ran into Union cavalry just outside of town, and Fitz quickly realized Pope’s command was attempting to reach defensible ground along Bull Run creek at Centreville. Eager to slow the march, he ordered his cousin Rooney to attack, and he watched in pride as the Union troopers fell back into the arms of waiting infantry. Try as he might however, he could not drive the infantry away, so he rejoined Jackson’s force at Groveton, Virginia. Taking up his position along the Confederates’ left flank, he spent August 29th watching Pope attempt to dislodge Jackson’s force, only to be routed by James Longstreet’s counterattack on August 30th. In the aftermath of the victory, Fitzhugh energetically pursued the fleeing enemy until they reached the safety of Washington, D.C. For the Confederacy, the nearly disastrous summer of 1862 was coming to an end. Though his was not a major part in the actual three day Battle of Second Manassas, Fitz Lee’s relentless attacks throughout the campaign helped ensure John Pope was driven from Virginia. The valor and courage displayed during the campaign only served to enhance his reputation as one of the Confederacy’s greatest cavalry officers.

Following Second Manassas, Fitz led his men north as part of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, fighting at Turner’s Gap and Boonsboro before again supporting Stonewall Jackson’s men during the September 17th Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history. He and his brigade then served as the rear guard as the army withdrew across the Potomac River into Virginia. Union troops pursued and subsequently attacked Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg on December 13th. Though Fitz saw no action during the battle, he was instrumental in directing Stonewall Jackson’s attack on the Union right flank at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Following that victory, he was part of Jeb Stuart’s controversial ride around the Union army just prior to the climactic Battle of Gettysburg, a glory-seeking maneuver which ended up depriving the commanding of vital intelligence and earning Stuart a stern rebuke from General Lee. Rejoining the army on July 3rd, Fitz attacked General George Armstrong Custer at the same time George Pickett led his legendary charge up Cemetery Ridge — both of which were defeated. That fall Fitzhugh was promoted to major general, and in May 1864 he faced Philip Sheridan’s Union horsemen at Spotsylvania and Yellow Tavern. At Yellow Tavern Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded, dying of his wounds on May 12th. Despite the heartbreaking loss, Fitz continued to serve the Confederate cause, first in the Shenandoah Valley and then as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry corps. He remained by his uncle’s side during the war’s final weeks in early 1865, and after briefly considering further resistance, he surrendered to Union authorities on April 12th.

With the war over, Fitzhugh Lee settled on the estate of Richland in Stafford County and became a “model farmer,” as he called himself. In addition to the land, he embarked on several lucrative enterprises, such as a stud farm, which allowed him to remain financially stable, even through the depressions that rocked the country in the late nineteenth century. Fitz’s reputation also enjoyed a surge in popularity after he began writing and lecturing on his war experiences and calling for reconciliation. This national appeal led him to enter politics, and in 1885 he was elected governor. In that capacity, he sought to reform Virginia by championing state-sponsored public schools and the state’s industrialization through Northern investment and immigration of Northern craftsmen. After leaving the governor’s office, Fitz served as U.S. Consul General to Cuba where he enthusiastically supported Cuban independence. After the battleship USS Maine was destroyed in Havana harbor in February 1898, Fitz returned home, and following America’s declaration of war, he was commissioned major general of volunteers. He reported for duty in Florida, but the old warrior was to see no action, as his command was still forming when fighting ended in early July. He did, however, head the Department of the Province of Havana after Spain surrendered. After two years of occupation duty, Fitz returned to the homeland to command the Department of the Missouri. He retired from the Army in March 1901 and died four years later at the end of April 1905. He was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, not far from his old friend and commander Jeb Stuart, beside whom he had so proudly fought as a young officer in Confederate gray.

Throughout his long life of service, Fitzhugh Lee was a credit to his family, his state, and his nation. Despite the prestige of the family name, he was certainly his own man. He gallantly served in both blue and gray, but irrespective of the uniform, he was ferocious in battle. In every engagement he was found in the thick of the fight, unleashing his fury on his opponents. Thanks to him, the Confederate cavalry was feared by its enemies and loved and respected by its people. The campaign he waged in the summer of 1862 helped change the momentum of the war, though the ultimate outcome could not be avoided. Of his importance, Robert E. Lee could only say, “I cannot spare General Fitz Lee.” For a Southern officer, no higher praise existed.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Other Indispensable Lee

  1. Jake, what a fantastic “Take” you have given us! I knew nothing of this warrior and I appreciate being given the impetus to seek more knowledge. Well done and thank you!

  2. Mark Bushell

    Thanks Jake – Great biography – Captured ‘Fitz’ as one of those fearless fighters – who also adjusted/ gave back after the war… Great story!
    🙂

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