Cousins at War: Fitz and Rooney Lee, by Edward G. Longacre

Fitz and Rooney Lee

By Edward G. Longacre

Note: Edward G. Longacre is a prolific and widely acclaimed Civil War scholar and writer. A civilian historian for the U.S. Air Force, the New Jersey native is best known for writing about the cavalry in the Civil War. In addition to his books on the cavalry at Gettysburg, Appomattox, and in the Army of the Potomac, he is the author of Lee’s Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the army of Northern Virginia. (Mechanicsburg, Pa., 2002). His many biographies include works on American Civil War Generals U. S. Grant, Joe Wheeler, John Buford, William Sherman, William Pender, George Custer, Henry Hunt, John Bradford, Benjamin Butler, Joe Johnson, Wade Hampton, George Pickett, James Wilson, and, of course, Fitz Lee, the nephew of General Robert E. Lee, entitled Fitz Lee: A Military Biography of Major General Fitzhugh Lee, C.S.A. (Cambridge, Mass., 2005). The following essay was presented at Washington and Lee University’s 2007 Spring Speakers Series in the Lee Chapel on 25 March 2007.

Cousins at War:
Fitz and Rooney Lee

They were cousins. . . . They were Virginians. . . . They were Confederate cavalry leaders. . . . They were Lees. For all that, they were a study in contrasts, physically, and otherwise.

The older by eighteen months, Fitzhugh Lee was born on November 19, 1835, the son of Sidney Smith Lee, an officer in the United States Navy, on the plantation known as “Clermont,” five miles west of Alexandria. His near-namesake (with whom he is often confused, even by experienced historians), William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, was born on the last day of May, 1837, at his family’s estate, “Arlington.” He was the son of Smith Lee’s younger brother, first lieutenant Robert Edward Lee, of the United States Army.

The cousins were physical—and, to a degree, psychological—opposites. Fitz was small, lithe, and wiry—in his late teens he reached his full height of 5 feet, 6 inches, and his average weight of around 140 pounds. By the time he was in his early twenties, Fitz’s cousin was well above average stature—at least 6 foot 3, and close to 220 pounds. During his stint in the pre-war U.S. Army, his sister, Annie, described him as (quote) “a tall . . . terrific looking creature with a great deal of beard.”

In terms of character and personality, the contrast was even sharper. Fitzhugh Lee grew to maturity as one of the most boisterous and outgoing members of his family—jovial, convivial, fun-loving—a prankster, a reconteur—and, in the words of a west point classmate, a “wild fellow.”

Fitz’s cousin, while ever agreeable and personable, was more reserved, poised, gentlemanly—much in the mold of his famous father. The younger Lee’s calm manner, his equanimity—perhaps also his sense of pedigree—made him seem, as his biographer notes, “much more mature than one would expect of a man of his age.” those who knew him on a professional basis often assumed he was four or five years older than he was. On the other hand, cousin Fitz, with his slight build and smooth complexion, through his twenties could easily pass for a younger man.

William Fitzhugh (“Rooney”) Lee

Throughout his life, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee was known to many family members—and to virtually every friend and acquaintence—as “Rooney,” a nickname given him by his father when the boy was only a few months old. Theoretically, the appellation (which means “darling” in Gaelic) makes it easy to tell one cousin from the other. However, some of the most important people in his life referred to R. E. Lee’s son as “Fitzhugh.” These included his mother and his first wife, Charlotte Wickham Lee. to make matters more confusing, at about the time of his son’s first marriage, Robert E. Lee also began referring to him as “Fitzhugh.” He does so consistently in his wartime correspondence, while identifying his nephew as “Fitz Lee.” In later life, however, almost everyone close to R. E. Lee’s son called him “Rooney.” And that is how he will be addressed through the remainder of this talk.

The cousins spent their youth in the comfort and relative luxury of their family’s homes. Rooney’s father had inherited a sizeable estate upon his marriage in 1831 to Mary Anne Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington’s adopted son. Fitz Lee’s family was less well off, although it prospered thanks to the patronage of Fitz’s wealthy godmother, Anna Maria Goldsborough Fitzhugh, member of a distinguished Maryland family. Fitz, his parents’ oldest child, spent his youth at Clermont in the company of five brothers, with whom he learned to fish, hunt, and, especially, to ride.

Rooney grew up in a close-knit brood that included an older and a younger brother—respectively, George Washington Custis Lee and Robert E. Lee, Jr., as well as four sisters. energetic and athletic, Rooney enjoyed roughhousing with his siblings, and with his cousins when uncle Robert and aunt Mary came calling at Clermont or invited smith Lee’s family to visit them on Arlington Heights.

From early youth, the cousins shared dreams of martial glory and plans for a military career. Both wished to follow Robert E. Lee to West Point, where the latter had graduated near the top of the class of 1829. Although neither Fitz nor Rooney was a brilliant scholar, both were capable—once they applied themselves—of gaining good grades, as they proved when in preparatory school. Only Fitz, however, achieved his academic goals, being admitted to the military academy class of 1856. Although he made repeated applications, Rooney never secured an academy appointment. One reason was the school’s unofficial ban against accepting only one brother from the same family, Custis Lee having gained entrance to the academy in 1850 (he would graduate four years later at the head of his 46-man class). Rooney was forced to activate a fall-back plan. With some regret—and also, perhaps, some misgivings—in the fall of 1854 he matriculated at Harvard College.

Fitzhugh (“Fitz”) Lee

Fitz Lee thoroughly enjoyed his West Point career, although at times he seemed determined to end it prematurely. He did well enough in his classroom studies, and he excelled in the tactics courses offered during his final year at the Point—especially cavalry tactics, he being an accomplished equestrian and a great admirer of blooded stock. His gregarious nature gained him a host of friends, with many of whom he remained close till the end of his life.

A number of his classmates would don the Union blue during the war that lay ahead; from 1861 to 1865 Fitz would wage cruel war against many of these, but if they fell into his hands as POWs or if he met them during flag-of-truce parlays, he would greet them as warmly, and would socialize with them as freely, as if they had never gone their separate ways after West Point. For Fitz, war—no matter how high the stakes involved or how important its outcome—was a temporary condition. But true friendship never ended.

Had he trod the straight and narrow, Fitz might have breezed through West Point, but his fun-loving nature and his penchant for risk-taking impelled him to flout the academy’s disciplinary code. He racked up demerits for a wide array of infractions, which served to lower his class standing. He was especially fond of taking unauthorized leave in search of entertainment. On one occasion he donned a dress and a wig, powdered his smooth face, and flounced past an inattentive sentry on the arm of a classmate clad in civilian clothes and a fake beard. His usual destination was Benny Haven’s Tavern in nearby Buttermilk Falls, a notorious watering-hole off limits to the cadet corps.

At least twice he failed to escape detection, staggering back to the cadet barracks after an all-night carouse, only to be accosted by the officer of the guard. The infractions were severe enough to raise the prospect of his dismissal. On both occasions, however, he was granted a reprieve after each of his classmates publicly pledged to abstain from alcohol for the duration of his academy career if Fitz were allowed to remain at the Point. His only punishment was an extra duty tour or two and the loss of furlough time. Mindful of his close calls, he refused to tempt fate a third time. He reformed sufficiently to graduate with his class, in which his final ranking was 45th of 49 cadets.

While Fitz was mixing high jinks and higher education, Rooney Lee was having a rather difficult time at Harvard. Like his cousin, he made numerous friends at Cambridge, who elected him president of their class. He was also invited to join a number of student organizations including the exclusive Hasty Pudding Society.

His powerful build and athletic ability helped him become a standout member of the school’s rowing team; one classmate considered him “the best oarsman I have ever seen.” Other students were struck by his mature, confident demeanor, which compelled respect. Even the snobbish Bostonian Henry Adams was impressed by the (quote) “Virginia habit of command” that Rooney exuded.

Although he did well enough in his studies, especially during his first year, Rooney never warmed to the Harvard environment. His studies fell off during his second and third years, and when, in the spring of 1857, he was unexpectedly offered a commission in the 6th United States Infantry, his military ambition overpowered his desire to gain a diploma, and he left Harvard for good.

Although disappointed that he had failed to complete his education, Rooney’s parents agreed that the army might impose discipline on their son and help him settle down. They were also aware that Rooney had fallen in love with his cousin, Charlotte, whom he wished to marry as soon as he completed his initial stint of military service.

He spent the next two years on the frontier confronting hostile Indians and accompanying an expedition to the Utah territory, where the army was attempting to overawe rebellious Mormons. By the spring of 1859 he had had enough of the regular army, resigned his commission, and married his sweetheart. The couple went to live at “White House” on the Pamunkey River in New Kent County. The estate, which he had inherited from his maternal grandparents, had been the home of Martha Custis prior to her marriage to George Washington.

Until the civil war broke out, Rooney spent most of his time refurbishing the plantation, which had fallen into disrepair, and tilling the land—quite successfully. He was less fortunate in his domestic life. Charlotte’s health was never robust, and the son she bore in March 1860 and the daughter she delivered two and a half years later died in infancy.

Rooney’s cousin enjoyed a longer and more fulfilling career in the regular army, although it nearly cost him his life. Upon graduating from the academy, he entered the 2nd United States Cavalry—his service arm of choice. In that newly organized regiment he served under his uncle—following a distinguished career in the engineer corps, now-Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee had transferred to the cavalry.

Fitz found his niche in the 2nd, winning commendation for tracking down marauding Comanches in Texas and the Indian Territory. During a May 1859 skirmish in present-day Oklahoma, a Comanche arrow penetrated his lung. His comrades feared the wound to be mortal, but his youth and some careful nursing pulled him through. As he wrote his parents, “I have been as near to death’s door as it falls to the lot of a mortal, and still not enter.”

When war broke out in April 1861, Rooney Lee was farming at White House and Fitz, fully recovered from his wound, was ending a several-month stint as an assistant instructor of cavalry tactics at his alma mater. Both accepted the necessity of defending Virginia, which had voted itself out of the Union in common with ten other states. But neither had any illusions about the conflict that lay ahead. Rooney Lee, in particular, foresaw a long, bloody struggle, whose outcome might bring an end to the southern way of life.

Ironically, given his lesser experience in the military, Rooney was the first to land a berth in the Confederate ranks. Soon after the firing on Fort Sumter, he organized in New Kent county a company of horsemen, of which he was elected captain. His unit accompanied him to a cavalry training camp north of Richmond, where it formed the nucleus of the 9th Virginia Regiment.

On May 21, 1861, Fitz Lee submitted his resignation from the United States Army. For a time, he was at loose ends, seeking but failing to secure high station in his state’s defense forces. At length he gained a provisional posting to the staff of brigadier general Richard S. Ewell. In this capacity he took part in the July 21st battle along Bull Run, southwest of Washington, D.C., the first large-scale land action of the war in the Virginia theater. Although a major Confederate victory, the battle largely bypassed Ewell’s brigade, depriving the general and his staff of combat honors.

For some months, Fitz rose no higher than captain in the provisional army of the Confederacy. Despite efforts in his behalf by family members and old-army colleagues, it was late September before he secured higher rank, as lieutenant colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. The posting had been recommended by General Joseph E. Johnston, the victor at Manassas, who informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that Fitz belonged to (quote) “a family in which military genius seems an heirloom.”

The 1st Virginia was a plum assignment—it had been the initial command of now-Brigadier General James Ewell Brown Stuart, the dashing cavalier who had won fame and glory at Manassas. Almost from their first meeting, the two men became close friends. Fitz came to appreciate not only Stuart’s combat leadership but also his expertise at intelligence-gathering. Stuart gave Fitz great credit for the high state of efficiency that the 1st Virginia maintained under his stewardship.

Fitz’s immediate superior was Colonel William Edmondson Jones, whose contentious nature had given him the nickname “Grumble.” the two officers were the original odd couple. Captain William Blackford of the 1st noted that “Jones was not popular with the regiment, and the contrast between our ugly, surly colonel and our handsome, dashing Lt. Col. Lee, made him appear in a still more unfavorable light.”

Jones quickly grew jealous of the regiment-wide appeal and popularity of his second-in-command. As a result, Fitz was left to do most of the “heavy lifting” in the 1st Virginia, training its recruits, inspecting its campsites and equipment, and leading it on patrols and reconnaissance missions along the so-called “Alexandria line,” which Stuart commanded. In fulfilling these duties, Fitz won commendations from Stuart and other superiors, but never a good word from grumble Jones.

Regimental morale suffered as a result of their rocky relationship, which was not resolved until April 1862, when the Army of Northern Virginia was reorganized and regiments re-elected their officers. As a result, Fitz succeeded to the colonelcy of the 1st, and a disgusted Jones quit the regiment.

Rooney Lee also benefited from the army’s reorganization. Since going into training camp with his company, Rooney had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel; he became the colonel of the 9th Virginia during the spring 1862 elections. Native ability, more than personal popularity, was responsible for his meteoric rise, which quickly came to the attention of Jeb Stuart.

Rooney’s prominence in the Confederate cavalry was secured when on June 1, 1862, at the outset of the Peninsula Campaign, Rooney’s father—who had been serving as military advisor to president davis—was assigned to command the Army of Northern Virginia, replacing the recently wounded Joe Johnston.

Robert E. Lee’s first task was to ascertain the position of his enemy, Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, which was poised to besiege the southern capital. Lee especially desired information about the location and strength of McClellan’s right flank north of the Chickahominy River. At length, he directed Stuart to lead an expedition into the enemy’s rear and to return as quickly as possible with the needed intelligence.

Stuart conducted the operation at the head of a picked force almost 1,000 strong. Determined that his best officers would accompany him, he included Fitz’s and Rooney’s regiments in this force.

Leaving Hanover Court House on June 12, Stuart crossed the Chickahominy and slipped around McClellan’s right. in a typically audacious move that exceeded his orders, he made a complete circuit of the Union army, returning to headquarters three days and 150 miles later with word that the Union right was unanchored and vulnerable to attack. Grateful for the news, days later Robert E. Lee launched a series of attacks so threatening to McClellan’s position that he abandoned his siege and retreated in haste to the James River.

Fitz and Rooney had figured prominently in the expedition, which won Stuart and his command great fame. The 1st Virginia captured several outposts, some manned by members of Fitz’s prewar regiment, with whom he fraternized gaily. Rooney Lee helped Stuart find a way to re-cross the rain-swollen Chickahominy near journey’s end, averting a threat to the safety of the entire raiding column. In Stuart’s after-action report, the cousins received high praise for their daring and resourcefulness.

The cousins’ fortunes diverged during the latter stages of the Peninsula Campaign. Fitz won new laurels while pursuing McClellan’s beaten army, supervising fighting that included an unlikely encounter between dismounted troopers and the crew of a union gunboat guarding a supply depot on the Pamunkey River.

Unfortunately for Rooney Lee, that depot had been established at white house, which Charlotte and the children had fled shortly before the enemy seized and occupied their home. When Stuart’s advance guard reached White House landing on the morning of June 29, Rooney discovered that his home had been burned to the ground by vengeful Yankees.

Mccellan’s overthrow enabled Robert E. Lee to devote his attention to a second Union army now operating in Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope. The result was the Campaign of Second Manassas, fought largely between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers as well as on the periphery of the old Bull Run battlefield.

The cousins Lee served conspicuously in the proceedings, Fitz as a newly minted brigadier general. The promotion had resulted from the late-July expansion of Stuart’s command from a brigade to a division, two brigades strong. Stuart had assigned half of this force—including virtually every Virginia regiment including Rooney Lee’s—to Fitz, his most trusted lieutenant. The other brigade, which comprised units from Georgia and the Carolinas, was tendered (not by Stuart, but by Jefferson Davis) to Brigadier General Wade Hampton of South Carolina. A nonprofessional soldier, Hampton was chiefly known for being one of the wealthiest planters, and one of the largest slave-holders, in the south.

A former infantryman, Hampton had served bravely and capably in several engagements. But he was 44—20 years older than the typical cavalryman, and he had little in common with the youthful cavaliers who followed Stuart’s feather. Even so, because his appointment as a general officer predated Fitz’s, as soon as Hampton joined the cavalry he became Stuart’s senior subordinate. Conceivably, Fitz was jealous of Hampton’s place at his commander’s right hand. Whatever the reason, they became—and remained—rivals.

The cousins’ fortunes diverged during the Second Manassas Campaign, which ended as the first had—with the defeat of the Union army and its headlong retreat to the defenses of Washington. Rooney played a leading role in Stuart’s well-crafted attack on General Pope’s rear supply base at Catlett’s Station on august 22, capturing—among other things—a paymaster’s safe full of Yankee greenbacks.

Fitz, however, made a critical mistake at the outset of the campaign that strained his relationship with his superior. On August 16, Stuart left cavalry headquarters near Fredericksburg and rode on ahead to join Robert E. Lee on the Rapidan; Fitz and his brigade were to meet him the following day in the village of New Verdiersville.

Instead of marching promptly, Fitz delayed to re-supply his command, with the result that he was hours late for the rendezvous. While waiting for Fitz to show, Stuart, accompanied only by his staff, was nearly captured by a roving detail of union cavalry. Literally forced to run for his life, he left behind his famous plumed hat, whose loss brought Stuart widespread ridicule.

More seriously, one of his aides was captured along with dispatches that spelled out Robert E. Lee’s intentions for the campaign. The coup enabled general pope to retreat to the Rappahannock before he could be cut off from supporting forces, as Lee planned. Stuart was furious over Fitz’s dereliction and dressed him down verbally—the only recorded instance of its kind during the war.

With Pope’s army bottled up in Washington, R. E. Lee put into action a long-planned invasion of Maryland. His army—its front, flanks, and rear covered by the troopers of Hampton and the Lees—began to cross the Potomac on September 4, then headed through the mountains west of Frederick. En route, the cavalry in the rear tangled with pursuing horsemen. In one of these actions—outside Boonsboro, Maryland, on September 15—Rooney Lee’s horse was killed and fell upon him, knocking him unconscious. For a time partially paralyzed, Rooney finally managed to crawl to safety, but his participation in the campaign was over. While he convalesced in the army’s rear, invader and pursuer met in battle near Sharpsburg on the 17th, the bloodiest day of the war. Fitz Lee’s brigade saw intermittent action on the far right but for the most part escaped the bloodletting.

When the army returned to Virginia in the aftermath of the stalemate at Sharpsburg, Fitz did a brilliant job of covering the retreat. He tarried so long on the Maryland side of the Potomac, ensuring that the rest of the army safely crossed, that he was nearly cut off and captured. His derring-do won official praise from Stuart—indicating that their relationship had survived their recent blowup—and also from uncle Robert.

In the aftermath of the Maryland Campaign, Stuart made his headquarters at a sumptuous plantation near Charles Town, Virginia, where he regularly hosted dances and amateur theatricals. The fun-loving Fitz was a regular attendee, but as of late September he was incapable of taking the dance floor, having been incapacitated by a kick from a fractious mule.

While Fitz was sidelined, Rooney Lee—now fully recovered from his own injuries—took command of his cousin’s brigade. In October he led it on another daring raid inside Union lines. Stuart’s troopers tore up railroads, overran supply bases, and denuded every farm and stable along their route, which carried them as far north as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

On the return march, however, they barely avoided being cut off by pursuit forces near the mouth of the Monocacy River. At a critical point, Rooney Lee, commanding a detachment well in advance of Stuart’s main body, bluffed his way past a large infantry force guarding the fords at which Stuart planned to cross. The ruse enabled the raiders to reach the south bank before other, larger pursuit forces could overtake them. Stuart praised his subordinate’s timely combination of coolness and cunning. A more tangible expression of his regard came a few weeks later, when Rooney was promoted to brigadier general in command of a brigade that included his 9th Virginia.

Neither cousin saw much action in the campaign that culminated in the December 13 overthrow of the army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg. The following spring, however, both served conspicuously in the fighting that culminated in the defeat of that same army at Chancellorsville.

That campaign began with the new Union commander, Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker, attempting to steal a march into the rear of the Army of Northern Virginia, west of Fredericksburg. To exploit his turning-movement, Hooker dispatched most of his cavalry, under Major General George Stoneman (a prewar colleague of Fitz Lee) on a raid toward Richmond.

Because the majority of Stuart’s command remained in close support of the main army, only Rooney Lee, with two regiments, was available to tail Stoneman. He did an amazing job, bringing one of Stoneman’s wings to a halt and forcing its retreat. Then he turned against the other column, harassing it every step of the way and preventing it from inflicting critical damage to rebel resources.

While Rooney kept tabs on Stoneman, Stuart and Fitz Lee reconnoitered the position of Hooker’s main body in the tangled woods near Wilderness Tavern. On May 1, Fitz’s scouts discovered Hooker’s right flank to be as vulnerable to attack as McClellan’s had been during the Peninsula Campaign. The next day— guided into position by Fitz himself—Stonewall Jackson’s infantry corps smashed the unanchored position, beginning a chain of events that led to Hooker’s defeat and retreat—but also to Jackson’s mortal wounding.

For a month after Hooker’s demise, the opposing forces rested and refit, while Robert E. Lee planned his second invasion of the north. This began on June 3, although most of Stuart’s men were not scheduled to take part until the 9th.

Stuart’s enemy, however, vowed to disrupt his timetable. The cavalry of the Army of the Potomac—once the playthings of Stuart’s command—had greatly improved over the past several months. They had proved as much on March 17, when a large detachment under Brigadier General William Averell attacked and nearly routed Fitz Lee’s brigade in a pitched battle near Culpeper Court House. Now, on the morning of June 9, thousands of Union horsemen swept down upon Stuart’s camps near Brandy Station, east of Culpeper.

Fitz saw no involvement in the fourteen-hour fight that ensued, having been felled by an attack of rheumatism. Rooney Lee served conspicuously throughout the fight, striving to stabilize Stuart’s upper flank, scene of the initial attack. Thanks to his inspired leadership, the position was secured, but at the height of the action Rooney took a rifle ball in the thigh and was forced to the rear for medical attention.

Sent home on leave, he convalesced on the Hanover County estate of his in-laws, where Charlotte, her family, and Rooney’s sisters ministered to him. Slowly he began to regain mobility, but he was still abed when, on June 26, he was taken prisoner by a force of Union cavalry based on the Virginia Peninsula. He was carried on a litter to Union-held Fort Monroe, where, after further recuperation in one of the army hospitals in Hampton Roads, he was imprisoned.

Back at Brandy Station, Stuart’s command spent a week recuperating from the drubbing it had absorbed on the 9th, then moved north in rear of Lee’s army of invasion. Fitz, still suffering from rheumatism, made the first leg of the march aboard an ambulance. He was unable to take part in the several all-cavalry fights that took place in Virginia’s Loudoun Valley from June 17 through the 21st. But he was sufficiently recovered to accompany Stuart, Hampton, and Colonel John Chambliss (commanding Rooney Lee’s brigade in the latter’s absence) on the long, arduous, and controversial expedition through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, from June 25 to July 2.

On the 3rd, the final day of the battle of Gettysburg, Stuart’s cavalry, as per Robert E. Lees’ orders, tried to strike the Union rear in cooperation with an infantry assault—later known as “Pickett’s Charge”—against the other side of the enemy line. Before he could reach his target, Stuart was met by Union horsemen under Brigadier Generals David Gregg and George Armstrong Custer. After a long, back-and-forth struggle that took a heavy toll of both forces, the Confederates were forced to withdraw.

Stuart had come tantalizingly close to realizing his goal, but he had been handicapped by a lack of cooperation among his subordinates. Twice during the day Fitz Lee had failed to coordinate operations with the adjacent brigade of Wade Hampton. Later Hampton accused Fitz of issuing orders to his brigade when Hampton himself was apart from it, conferring with Stuart.

After Gettysburg, as he had after Sharpsburg, Fitz effectively covered the army’s withdrawal to and across the Potomac. In subsequent weeks, his brigade engaged in violent clashes with the much-improved Union horsemen astride the Rapidan-Rappahannock River basin.

In October Stuart secured permission to expand his division into a corps, two divisions strong. Hampton, who had just returned to the army after being wounded late on July 3, was assigned command of the 1st Division, Fitz of the 2nd. In line with their increased responsibilities, both officers were promoted to the rank of major general—a true milestone in Fitz Lee’s military career.

While fighting raged that fall, Fitz’s cousin, still suffering from his Brandy Station wound, languished in a Union prison—but his ordeal had only begun. For the first four months of his captivity, he was held in solitary confinement at Fort Monroe. Family members were denied visitation. When Rooney’s wife fell gravely ill in December 1863, his brother Custis offered to take his place so that Rooney could be with her. The offer was denied; Charlotte Lee died of tuberculosis the day after Christmas.

By that time Rooney had been transferred from Hampton Roads to New York Harbor, where he occupied a cell at Fort Lafayette. He had been sent there as a hostage for two Union officers confined in Richmond’s Libby Prison. Confederate authorities had announced plans to hang the two in retaliation for two Confederate officers who had been executed as spies in Kentucky. The administration of Abraham Lincoln let it be known that if the prisoners in Libby were hanged, Rooney Lee would share their fate.

The next five months constituted a nerve-wracking period for Rooney Lee and his family. His father, although arguing privately against hanging anyone involved in the cause célèbre, made no personal appeal for his son’s release.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, an exchange of prisoners was worked out, and in early March 1864 Rooney was returned to Fort Monroe for release. Soon thereafter he was back in the bosom of his family, and by late April he had returned to duty with his father’s army.

Rooney was welcomed back heartily by cousin Fitz and all who knew, loved, and respected him. He was also greeted with a promotion to major general, making him the youngest Confederate to hold that rank. At Stuart’s recommendation, R. E. Lee had sanctioned the formation of a third cavalry division—made up of elements formerly assigned to the other two— and it had been given to Rooney.

The division’s organization was not completed until late May 1864, by which time the spring campaign in Virginia was underway. Now it was Robert E. Lee against Ulysses S. Grant, the newly appointed commanding general of all United States forces. Grant had chosen to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, which—as it had been since Gettysburg—was under the direct command of Major General George Gordon Meade.

Fitz, Rooney, and their men did their utmost to slow Grant’s movement toward Richmond, which began on May 4. In the fighting that followed—in the Wilderness, at Todd’s Tavern, and at Spotsylvania Court House— they gave a strong account of themselves against Meade’s horsemen, led by Major General Philip H. Sheridan.

On May 9, Sheridan suddenly cut loose from Meade’s army on a raid toward the Confederate capital. Stuart started after him with Fitz’s division. The cavalry leader miscalculated by leaving Rooney and Wade Hampton behind with the rest of the A.N.V. One result was Sheridan’s ability to defeat his opponent at Yellow Tavern, twelve miles north of Richmond, on the 11th. During the hours-long clash Stuart was mortally wounded, dying the next morning. A shocked and saddened Fitz Lee took temporary command of the cavalry, which joined up with the rest of its army several days later.

When the army reunited, Wade Hampton appeared the logical successor to the fallen Stuart. This prospect distressed Fitz; thus he was pleased when his uncle refused to confer the command on Hampton, instead decreeing that the cavalry divisions would report separately to army headquarters. Only when they served together would Hampton exercise overall command, and strictly on the basis of seniority.

At first, this anomalous command relationship appeared to bear fruit. Fitz and Rooney served smoothly under Hampton when all three divisions fought Sheridan’s more numerous troopers to a standstill at Haw’s Shop, on May 28. But after Sheridan set out on another raid, this time heading westward along the line of the Virginia Central Railroad, friction again marked the Hampton-Fitz Lee relationship.

Leaving Rooney’s division to support the main army, which was following Grant and Meade toward their new objective, Petersburg, Hampton caught up with Sheridan near Trevilian Station, sixty miles west of Richmond. On June 11, Hampton planned a two-pronged attack, but the operation went awry when Fitz Lee’s division failed to appear in its assigned place at the appointed time, allowing Sheridan to pummel Hampton’s command. Although the Confederates prevailed the following day, forcing Sheridan to withdraw toward Petersburg, Hampton forever believed Fitz, motivated by jealousy and pique, had sabotaged his plans.

Fitz and his superior continued to clash during the opening phase of the Siege of Petersburg. Despairing of a solution, in mid-August Robert E. Lee detached his nephew and sent him to the Shenandoah Valley to command the cavalry in the army of Lieutenant General Jubal Early. Upon Fitz’s departure, Lee finally announced Hampton’s assignment to command all the horsemen in the A.N.V.

Despite Fitz’s best efforts, the Valley Campaign was a disaster for the Confederate forces. Early’s small, poorly equipped army was opposed by a much larger force of all arms that Grant had entrusted to Phil Sheridan. Sheridan used his muscle to overwhelm Early at Third Winchester (on September 19), Fisher’s Hill (September 22), Cedar Creek (October 10), and Waynesboro (March 2, 1865). Fitz, however, was on hand for only the first of these lopsided defeats, being disabled at Winchester (just as Rooney had been at Brandy Station) by a rifle ball in the thigh.

Evacuated to a hospital at Charlottesville, Fitz recuperated through the end of the year. By February 1865, although still hobbled, he reported for duty at Richmond to find Wade Hampton gone. The South Carolinian had been allowed to return home to defend his state against William T. Sherman.

At first Fitz was given command of all the cavalry north of the James River, but on March 29, on the eve of the Appomattox Campaign, he was promoted to command the cavalry corps in its entirety.

In Fitz’s absence from the main theater, his cousin had won high honors of his own. Early in the Petersburg Campaign, Rooney had chased down cavalry raiders under Brigadier General James H. Wilson and, during Wilson’s return march, had helped trap him and capture hundreds of his men. He had fought well under Hampton’s direction in the July and August battles at Deep Bottom, north of the James, and in mid-September he had effectively supported Hampton’s attack on the Union army’s cattle herd outside Petersburg, which resulted in the capture of almost 2,500 beeves.

Rooney also performed well at the outset of the Appomattox Campaign—not so his cousin. At Five Forks, April 1, 1865, Fitz Lee joined his expeditionary commander, George Pickett, at a shad bake behind the Confederate lines just as Union infantry and cavalry under Phil Sheridan prepared to attack that critical position southeast of Petersburg.

Unaware of Pickett’s and Fitz’s absence, Rooney Lee was effectively in command of the entire field when the enemy struck. Although the Confederate left and center quickly went under, Rooney’s division, on the far right, held its position until dark, when finally able to withdraw.

Five Forks effectively marked the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia. Fitz and Rooney cobbled together what remained of their scattered commands and fought stubbornly and well during the subsequent retreat toward Appomattox Court House. Late on April 8, Sheridan’s pursuing horsemen managed to get ahead of the Confederates and cut off their retreat. In the climactic fighting next day, Rooney was forced to surrender what remained of his division—only 300 officers and men, one-tenth the size of the command during the Petersburg Campaign.

Fitz, however, avoided capitulation by detouring around Sheridan’s troopers on the road to Lynchburg. A few days later, perceiving no alternative, he returned to Appomattox to surrender himself and the last remnants of his disbanded command.

The cousins’ postwar lives—like that of the south as a whole—were difficult and trying but, in the end, satisfying and even redemptive. Both prospered, personally and professionally, but only after surviving hard times, economic disruption—and a federal indictment for treason.

Rooney Lee

In 1867 Rooney Lee remarried; he and Mary Bolling Tabb Lee reared two sons. After a halting start, Rooney became a successful farmer, then entered politics. Upon his death in October 1891 of heart disease, he was entering upon a third term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1922 his remains were transferred from his family’s cemetery to the Lee Mausoleum, beneath this Chapel. For years he had served devotedly as a trustee of Washington and Lee.

Fitz Lee also became a gentleman farmer as well as a businessman, while finding the time to indulge his passion for horse-breeding. The carefree bachelor remained unattached until April 1871, when he wed Ellen Fowle of Alexandria; the couple raised five children. Both of their sons grew up to become officers in the 7th United States Cavalry (fortunately, two decades after the regiment had achieved tragic glory at the Little Bighorn), and each of their three daughters married officers in their brothers’ regiment.

Governor FitzLee

Entering politics, Fitz was elected governor of his state in 1885 and served a single four-year term. Perhaps his greatest achievement in office was his development of an effective plan to pay off Virginia’s staggering wartime debt. In 1896 he was appointed U.S. Consul-General in Havana. His high-visibility defense of American interests in Cuba and his promotion of American ideals made him a hero throughout his reunited nation.

During the Spanish-American war, Fitz donned a blue uniform to serve as a major general of the United States Infantry. After Cuba won her independence, he managed an occupation district on the island, then retired from the service and returned to his business ventures.

At the time of his death, from a stroke, in April 1905, he was serving as president of the committee to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. His life and career continue to resonate today, on the eve of Jamestown’s 400th birthday.