Fitzhugh Lee was born on his family’s plantation, Clermont, in Fairfax County, Virginia, on November 19, 1835. He was the fourth of seven children born to Captain Sydney Smith Lee and Anna Maria (Mason) Lee. Fitzhugh hailed from a distinguished lineage on both sides of his family tree.
Lee’s paternal grandfather, Harry “Lighthorse” Lee, was a Continental Army officer during the American Revolution, a delegate to the Confederation Congress, Governor of Virginia, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Lee’s father, Sydney, was a U.S. naval officer who served in the Mexican-American War and who accompanied Commodore Matthew C. Perry during his expedition to Japan in the 1850s. During the American Civil War, Sydney Lee commanded the naval forces of the Confederate States.
Fitzhugh’s uncle, Robert E. Lee, commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, and later, all Confederate ground forces during the Civil War. Fitzhugh’s maternal great-grandfather, George Mason IV, authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights (which served as a template for the American Bill of Rights), and he served as a delegate to the U. S. Constitutional Convention.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Like his more famous uncle, Robert E. Lee, Fitzhugh Lee attended the United States Military Academy. A member of the class of 1856, he rubbed elbows with another future Confederate cavalry luminary who would impact his career, J. E. B. Stuart, who graduated two years before him. Lee graduated forty-fifth in his class of forty-nine cadets (but at the head of his class in horsemanship) on July 1, 1856.
U.S. Army Officer
Severely Injured in Texas
Upon leaving West Point, army officials brevetted to second lieutenant and assigned him to the Cavalry School for Practice, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he served until 1858. On January 1, 1858, Lee received a commission as a second lieutenant with the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and deployed to Texas where he served under Albert Sidney Johnston, and alongside a who’s-who of future Civil War general officers including William J. Hardee, John B. Hood, Edmund Kirby Smith, George H. Thomas, Earl Van Dorn, and his uncle, Robert E. Lee.
In Texas, Lee garrisoned at several posts while campaigning against American Indians. On May 12, 1859, a Comanche brave inflicted a near-fatal arrow wound on Lee at Crooked Creek in the Kansas Territory. Despite considerable damage to one of his lungs, plus effusive internal hemorrhaging, Lee survived and was back on duty in Texas by January 1860 following an extended convalescence.
Confederate Cavalry Officer
In December 1860, Lee returned to West Point as an assistant instructor of tactics. Promoted to first lieutenant on March 31, 1861, Lee resigned from the army just two months later, on May 21, 1861, to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the Confederate cavalry. He first served as a staff officer under General Richard S. Ewell. After taking part in the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Lee joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry serving under fellow West Point graduate Colonel J. E. B. Stuart. When Confederate officials promoted Stuart to brigadier general (September 24, 1861), the members of the regiment elected Lee as their lieutenant colonel on September 30, 1861. After officials regimented the brigade in 1862, the men elected him as regimental colonel on April 23.
Eastern Theater Service
During the Peninsula Campaign (March 17 – August 14, 1862), Lee commanded the 1st Virginia Cavalry and he participated in Stuart’s “Ride around McClellan” (June 12 – 15, 1862), which provided strategic information that helped General Robert E. Lee launch a counteroffensive that drove the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond. Six weeks later, on July 24, 1862, Confederate officials promoted Lee to brigadier general and placed him in command of a brigade in Stuart’s Cavalry Division of the Army of Northern Virginia.
During the next two years, Lee served under Stuart in nearly all the major campaigns in the Eastern Theater. Commanding Lee’s Brigade of Stuart’s Cavalry Division, Lee took part in the Northern Virginia Campaign (July 19 – September 1, 1862), the Maryland Campaign (September 4 – September 20, 1862), the Fredericksburg Campaign (November – December 1862), the Chancellorsville Campaign (April – May 1863) and the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3 – July 23, 1863).
Major General and Corps Commander
Because Stuart singled out Lee for his leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign, Confederate officials promoted him to major general on August 3, 1863. Five weeks later, Robert E. Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, elevating Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to corps status under Stuart’s command. He selected his nephew and Major General Wade Hampton to lead the new corps’ two divisions (Special Orders, No. 226, headquarters Army of Northern Virginia). Fitzhugh Lee served as one of Stuart’s divisional commanders during the Bristoe Campaign (October 13 – November 7, 1863), the Mine Run Campaign (November 26 – December 2, 1863), and during the first week of the Overland Campaign (May 5 – June 24, 1864).
On May 11, 1864, during the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Union Private John A. Huff mortally wounded Stuart. Following Stuart’s death, Robert E. Lee initially did not name a replacement. Instead, he partitioned the cavalry corps into independent divisions commanded by Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, and Rooney Lee.
Wounded during the Battle of Opequon
Later that summer, after Union officials dispatched Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s newly created Army of the Shenandoah to the Shenandoah Valley, Robert E. Lee again merged the army’s horse soldiers into a single corps commanded by Hampton, on August 11, 1864. The Confederate leader then detached Fitz Lee’s Division from Hampton’s Corps and ordered them to ride to the aid of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s beleaguered Army of the Valley District as it braced for a showdown with Sheridan. On September 19, 1864, when Sheridan and Early engaged at the Battle of Opequon, Yankee soldiers shot three horses from under Fitzhugh Lee before he received a severe bullet wound to the thigh that took him out of action for three months.
Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps
Following an extended convalescence, Lee returned to duty during the Petersburg Campaign. On January 19, 1865, Robert E. Lee ordered Hampton to South Carolina to bolster Confederate defenses against Major General William T. Sherman’s impending incursion into the Carolinas. With Hampton gone, Lee appointed his nephew as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps on February 11, 1865.
Surrender at Appomattox Court House
Fitzhugh Lee’s tenure as a corps commander was short-lived. On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered most of his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The cavalry corps was still attempting to cut its way through the Union forces around Appomattox when Fitzhugh Lee learned that his uncle’s capitulation included his troopers. Consequently, Fitzhugh Lee returned to Appomattox Court House in time to stack arms for the formal ceremony on April 12.
Following the Civil War, Fitzhugh Lee returned to farming on his estate in Stafford County, Virginia. As with other Confederate officers, the federal government eventually pardoned him for taking part in the rebellion.
On April 19, 1871, Lee, who was thirty-six years old, married eighteen-year-old Ellen Bernard Fowle of Alexandria, Virginia. Their marriage produced two daughters and three sons. Upon reaching adulthood, each of the sons enlisted in the United States Army and rode with the 7th Cavalry.
As Lee grew older, he became active in politics as a member of the Democratic Party. In 1885, Virginia voters elected him as the state’s governor. Serving from January 1, 1886, to January 1, 1890, Lee encouraged and supported legislative initiatives to improve Virginia’s public programs, especially education.
Following his term as governor, Lee made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1893. Out of public office, he spent the next year completing a biography of Robert E. Lee that he published in 1894.
Consul-General to Havana, Cuba
On April 10, 1896, U.S. President (and fellow Democratic Party member) Grover Cleveland offered Lee an appointment as Consul-General to Havana, Cuba. Lee accepted the position, and apparently performed satisfactorily because Republican President William McKinley kept him after he took office on March 4, 1897. During Lee’s tenure, he protected American interests on the island as Cuban separatists pressed for independence from Spain.
When the Spanish-American War erupted, Lee returned to the U.S. and joined the volunteer army, receiving a commission as a major general on May 4, 1896. During the war, Lee commanded the 7th Army Corps. His unit saw no combat, but they were part of the occupation force that remained in Cuba to establish order and protect American interests after the war. Along with his peace-keeping duties, Lee served as military governor of Havana and Pinar del Río from December 30, 1898, through April 17, 1899.
Return to the Regular U.S. Army
Just prior to leaving Havana, Lee mustered out of the volunteer army on April 12, 1899. The War Department commissioned him as a brigadier general in the regular army on the same day. Afterward, Lee commanded the Department of the Missouri in the U.S. Two years later, he reached mandatory retirement age and left the U.S. Army on March 1, 1901.
Four years after his retirement, General Lee suffered a stroke in Washington, D.C., and died on April 28, 1905. His remains are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.