Fitzhugh Lee, the Confederate General who returned to the U.S. Army for the Spanish-American War

Fitzhugh Lee. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Fitzhugh Lee served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and rejoined the United States Army in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War. Lee, who was born in Virginia, was the nephew of Robert E. Lee and attended West Point. He served in the U. S. Army before resigning to join the Confederate Army at the start of the Civil War. Lee rose to the rank of Major General and fought in most of the major campaigns in the Eastern Theater. After the war, he returned to Virginia, became involved in politics, and served as the Governor of Virginia from 1886 to 1890. In April 1896, President Grover Cleveland appointed him as Consul-General to Havana, Cuba. When the Spanish-American War started, Lee joined the Volunteer Army, as a Major General. Although his unit saw no combat, it was part of the occupation force that remained in Cuba to establish order and protect American interests after the war. Lee also served as the military governor of Havana and Pinar del Río until April 1899. Lee finally retired from the U.S. Army in 1901.

The Illustrious Lee Family of Virginia

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. He came from a distinguished lineage on both sides of his family tree.

  1. His paternal grandfather, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, was a Continental Army officer during the American Revolution, a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation, Governor of Virginia, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  2. His 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.
  3. His uncle, Robert E. Lee, commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, and later, all Confederate ground forces during the Civil War.
  4. His 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.
Henry Light Horse Harry Lee, Portrait, West
Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Fitzhugh Lee in the Civil War

  • He resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on May 21, 1861, to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the Confederate cavalry.
  • Lee served as a staff officer under General Richard S. Ewell during the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
  • He joined the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment in August or September 1861.
  • On September 30, 1861, the men of the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment elected him as their regimental lieutenant colonel.
  • On April 23, 1862, the men of the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment elected him as their regimental colonel.
  • During the Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862), Fitzhugh Lee commanded the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and he took part in Stuart’s “Ride around McClellan” (June 12–15, 1862).
  • On July 24, 1862, Confederate officials promoted him to Brigadier General and placed him in command of a brigade in Stuart’s Cavalry Division of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee in the Early Campaigns of the Civil War

Lee served in nearly all the major campaigns of the Civil War in the Eastern Theater as commander of Lee’s Brigade of Stuart’s Cavalry Division of the Army of Northern Virginia:

Lee in JEB Stuart’s Cavalry Corps

On August 3, 1863, Confederate officials promoted Lee to Major General. That same month, his uncle, General Robert E. Lee, reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, elevating Fitzhugh’s cavalry to corps status, and named him as a divisional commander of J. E. B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps. Lee served as one of Stuart’s divisional cavalry commanders during the:

Lee in the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia

Following Stuart’s death on May 12, 1864, General Lee divided Stuart’s Cavalry Corps into independent divisions commanded by Major General Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. However, later that year, on August 11, 1864, General Lee merged the independent cavalry divisions, placed Hampton in charge of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Fitzhugh remained a divisional commander.

The Battle of Opequon

On September 19, 1864, during the Battle of Opequon, Fitzhugh Lee had three horses shot from under him before receiving a severe bullet wound to the thigh that took him out of action for three months.

Surrender at Appomattox Court House

On February 11, 1865, General Lee appointed him as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered most of his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Lee’s cavalry corps was still attempting to cut its way through the Union forces when he learned that his troopers were included in his uncle’s capitulation. Consequently, he returned to Appomattox Court House in time to stack arms for the formal ceremony on April 12.

Surrender at Appomattox Court House, Thomas Nast
Lee and Grant at Appomattox Court House. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Lee After the Civil War

Following the Civil War, 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 36 years old, married 18-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.

Virginia Governor

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.

Fitzhugh Lee, 1895, Portrait
Fitzhugh Lee in April 1895. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Crisis in Cuba

After Lee briefly served as a federal tax collector, U.S. President (and fellow Democratic Party member) Grover Cleveland offered him an appointment as Consul-General to Havana, Cuba on April 10, 1896. Lee accepted the position, and apparently performed well because Republican President William McKinley retained him after succeeding Cleveland in 1897. During Lee’s tenure, he protected American interests on the island as Cuban separatists pressed for independence from Spain.

Spanish-American War

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, 1898. 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.

General Fitzhugh Lee and Staff, Spanish American War
Major General Fitzhugh Lee and his staff at San Fernandina, Florida in 1900. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Death of Fitzhugh Lee

Four years after his retirement, Lee suffered a stroke in Washington, D.C., and died on April 28, 1905. His remains are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.