The second son of Robert E. Lee, W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee was a cavalry commander in the Army of Northern Virginia who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 50th to the 52nd Congresses from March 4, 1887, until his death on October 15, 1891.
Early Life and Education
William Henry Fitzhugh Lee was born on May 31, 1837, at Arlington House on his family’s plantation near Arlington, Virginia. He was the second son and the third of seven children born to Robert E. Lee and Mary Anna Randolph Custis. William’s parents named him for his mother’s uncle, William Henry Fitzhugh, but at an early age, his family members began calling him “Rooney” (sometimes spelled “Roony”), possibly to differentiate him from his first-cousin Fitzhugh Lee.
After attending private schools, Lee aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother George Washington Custis Lee and attend the United States Military Academy. It was not to be, however, probably due to an unofficial academy policy of not concurrently enrolling members of the same family. Whatever the reason, Lee’s fallback was to enroll at Harvard University in 1854. A strapping young man standing over 6′ 3” tall and weighing about 220 pounds, the physically gifted Lee was a member of Harvard’s rowing team during his time at Cambridge. His athletic prowess, however, outweighed his academic accomplishments. Consequently, he left Harvard without graduating in 1857 to accept a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.
U.S. Army Officer
The army assigned Lee to the U.S. 6th Infantry in the American West, serving under future Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. He joined his unit in time to take part in the mostly bloodless Utah War (also known as the Utah Expedition). After two years of army life, including a stint in Oregon, Lee resigned his commission in 1859.
Gentleman-planter and Marriage
Upon leaving the army, Lee returned to Virginia where he married his cousin, Charlotte Georgiana Wickham, on March 23, 1859. The couple took up residence at White House, a 4,000-acre plantation on the Pamunkey River that Lee had inherited from his maternal grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis, in 1857. Their union produced two children, both of whom died in infancy.
Confederate Army Officer
Rooney Lee’s life as a gentleman-farmer was short-lived. After Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee organized a company of volunteers known as the Virginia Rangers or Lee’s Rangers and joined the ranks of the Confederate forces as a captain on May 6, 1861. Before the month was over, Confederate officials promoted him to major. Soon after being mustered into the Confederate Army, officials sent Lee’s unit to western Virginia. Serving under Brigadier General William H. Loring, Lee’s Rangers sparred with Union troops commanded by George B. McClellan for control of passes through the Appalachian Mountains during the second half of 1861.
Army of Northern Virginia
On October 22, 1861, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin issued General Orders, No. 15 announcing the establishment of the Department of Northern Virginia commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston. Soon thereafter, Confederate officials began referring to the troops in the new department as the Army of Northern Virginia. On January 18, 1862, Johnston reorganized his army and assigned Lee to the newly created 9th Virginia Cavalry as a lieutenant colonel. Three months later, on April 28, 1862, the regiment’s enlisted men elected Lee as their colonel.
Throughout the Peninsula Campaign (March 17-August 14, 1862), Lee commanded the 9th Virginia Cavalry, assigned to Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry brigade. On June 1, 1862, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia after General Johnston was seriously wounded during the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862). Under orders from his father, Lee rode with his cousin, Colonel Fitzhugh Lee, during Stuart’s daring “Ride around McClellan” (June 12-15, 1862). Upon their return, Lee’s regiment took part in the Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862), which turned the tide of the Peninsula Campaign in favor of the South.
Northern Virginia and Maryland Campaigns
Throughout the next two years, Lee served under Stuart in nearly every major campaign in the Eastern Theater. Commanding the 9th Virginia as a part of Fitzhugh Lee’s Brigade of Stuart’s Cavalry Division, Lee took part in the Northern Virginia Campaign (July 19-September 1, 1862) and the Maryland Campaign (September 4-September 20, 1862). On September 15, during the Confederate withdrawal from the Battle of South Mountain, Lee was injured when his horse was killed and fell on him. Two days later he was well enough to take part in the Battle of Antietam but saw little action because Stuart used his unit as a diversion. By September 19, 1862, a badly bruised Rooney Lee joined the Army of Northern Virginia’s retreat as his father’s invasion of Maryland came to an inglorious end.
Following the Maryland Campaign, Confederate officials promoted Lee to brigadier general on October 3, 1862, to date from September 15, 1862. One month later, J. E. B. Stuart led 1,800 handpicked cavalrymen on a daring invasion into Pennsylvania. Because Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee was convalescing from an injury, Stuart selected Rooney Lee to lead the 600 troopers selected from his cousin’s brigade.
Soon after the successful foray, on November 10, 1862, Confederate officials reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry and they placed Rooney Lee in command of his own brigade comprising the 5th, 9th, 10th, and 15th Virginia regiments, and the 2nd North Carolina Regiment (Special Orders, No. 238, Headquarters, ANV).
In contrast to Lee’s ascendancy in the army, tragedy scarred Lee’s personal life during this period. On June 30, 1862, typhoid fever claimed the life of his two-year-old son, Robert E. Lee, Jr. Four months later, the same disease took the life of his sister, Annie. On October 9, 1862, Lee’s wife, Charlotte gave birth to a sickly daughter who died on December 6. Making matters worse, the pregnancy and loss of two children contributed to Charlotte’s declining health during her prolonged struggle with tuberculosis.
Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville
On the battlefield, one month after the cavalry division’s reorganization, Rooney Lee’s brigade saw limited action during the Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11 – 15, 1862). The next spring, however, Lee’s troopers played an important role in defeating the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863).
Wounded at Brandy Station
Buoyed by his success at Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee planned a second invasion of the North in June 1863. To prepare for the invasion, J. E. B. Stuart began concentrating his cavalry division near Brandy Station, roughly ninety miles northwest of Richmond, and seventy-five miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
Unsure of Stuart’s intentions, and still smarting from his defeat at Chancellorsville, Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, went on the offensive. Hooker ordered Major General Alfred Pleasonton to lead his cavalry corps, augmented by 3,000 infantrymen, in a two-pronged attack to “disperse and destroy” Stuart’s cavalry. During the ensuing Battle of Brandy Station, which was the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War, a saber cut and a more severe rifle wound to the thigh forced Rooney Lee from the field.
Captured and Imprisoned
Following treatment at a field hospital, Lee traveled to Hickory Hill Plantation, the estate of his wife’s uncle, William Fanning Wickham, in Hanover County, Virginia, to recuperate. Nursed by his wife and his mother, Lee was on the mend when a small group of Union cavalrymen rode onto the plantation on June 26, 1863. Upon discovering the wounded Confederate general, the Yankees placed Lee under arrest.
Federal officials sent Lee to a Union hospital at Fort Monroe, Virginia, to continue his recuperation. Afterward, they imprisoned him at Fort Lafayette, New York. On February 25, 1864, Union officials exchanged Lee for Neal Dow, a Union brigadier general from Maine who was a prominent prohibitionist before and after the Civil War. Sadly, during Lee’s imprisonment, his wife, Charlotte, succumbed to tuberculosis on December 26, 1863.
Despite the magnitude of his personal loss and the longevity of his imprisonment, Lee returned to service with the Army of Northern Virginia after his release. Soon after his reunion, Confederate officials promote Lee to major general on April 23, 1864, and placed him in command of the 3rd Division of General J. E. B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps. Less than three weeks later, Stuart was mortally wounded during the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864. Following Stuart’s death, Robert E. Lee initially did not name a replacement for his cavalry corps commander. Instead, he partitioned the cavalry corps into independent divisions commanded by Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, and Rooney Lee.
Later that summer, the Confederate commander merged the army’s horse soldiers into a single corps commanded by Hampton on August 11, 1864 (Special Orders, No. 189, ANV). The new corps comprised three divisions commanded by Colonel Matthew C. Butler (Hampton’s Division), Fitzhugh Lee, and Rooney Lee.
Rooney Lee’s Division engaged in numerous cavalry skirmishes and operations during the Petersburg Campaign (June 1864 – March 1865). Notable among Lee’s achievements during the campaign was his dogged pursuit of federal troops during the Wilson-Kautz Raid (June 22 – July 1, 1864). He also took part in the “beefsteak raid” (September 14- 17, 1864), which rustled nearly 2,500 head of cattle to feed his father’s starving Confederate army.
On January 19, 1865, Robert E. Lee ordered General 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, Fitzhugh Lee, as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps on February 11, 1865. Rooney Lee spent the rest of the war serving as one of three divisional commanders reporting to his cousin during the Appomattox Campaign (March 29-April 12, 1865). Lee’s leadership was exceptionally conspicuous at the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865) where his outnumbered men held off a Union assault for several hours in what turned out to be a losing effort. A week later, Lee and his division, along with the rest of his father’s army, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Post-Civil War Civilian Life
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Rooney Lee returned to farming at White House plantation. On November 28, 1867, he married Mary Tabb Bolling of Petersburg, Virginia. Their union produced five children, two of whom survived to adulthood. In 1874, Lee and his family moved to Ravensworth manor, in Fairfax County, Virginia, which he inherited following the death of his great-aunt Anna Maria Fitzhugh.
After serving several terms as the president of the State Agricultural Society, voters elected Lee to the Virginia State Senate where he served from 1875-1879. In 1886, voters of Virginia’s 8th District elected Lee to represent them in Congress. Lee served in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 50th to the 52nd Congresses from March 4, 1887, until his death on October 15, 1891.
On the evening of October 15, 1891, Rooney Lee suffered a heart attack and died at his home, Ravensworth, while Congress was in recess. His remains are buried in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, alongside his parents and siblings.