General Fitzhugh Lee, by Harry Warren Readnour, Chapter 1

General Fitzhugh Lee: A Biographical Study


William W. Minor, Jr., a farmer in Albemarle County, Virginia, recorded the following entry in his diary on May 1, 1905:

General Fitz Lee died very suddenly Saturday of paralysis on his way home from Boston. He was the leading General left from our war & one of the best loved & most useful citizens of the whole country which he has served faithfully & efficiently & most creditably to it & to himself in war & peace & war, still serving when removed by death. He was easily the best liked Southern man in all the North & West & the idol of the South & will be deeply lamented.1

The subject of this entry, although born into a great Virginia family, experienced many vicissitudes of fortune before he reached the stature attributed to him by Minor.

Fitzhugh Lee, the first of their six sons, was born to Sidney Smith and Anna Maria (Mason) Lee on November 19, 1835, at “Clermont,” the Mason family estate in Fairfax County, Virginia.2 The blood of two famous families flowed in he new baby’s veins. Smith was the second son of General Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee by his marriage to Anne Hill Carter. Like his younger brother Robert Edward Lee, he followed his father’s example and chose a military career, entering the United States Navy as a midshipman on December 30, 1820. In 1834, he married Anna Maria Mason, a daughter of General John mason and a granddaughter of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and a contemporary of Smith’s father in the Revolutionary era.3

The marriage prospered and the family increased in size as Smith advanced in his naval career. His service on various vessels for long periods at sea was interspersed with interludes of shore duty at Annapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington.4 While his younger brother was winning fame in the land battles of the Mexican War, Smith participated in the naval operations along the Mexican coast. By 1852, Commander Lee had sufficiently distinguished himself to be chosen by Commodore Matthew Perry to command his flagship on the voyage that opened Japan to the western world.5

His father was in the midst of this promising naval career while Fitzhugh and his brothers were children. Since the family was frequently unable to accompany the father on his tours of duty, much of the Lee boys’ childhood was spent at their Mason grandfather’s home and in the general vicinity of Alexandria. While the accomplishments and activities of the two most important males in his life—his father and his Uncle Robert of nearby Arlington—made a vivid impression on the youthful Fitzhugh, there were long periods when his adult world was peopled primarily with females. His mother and Mrs. Anna Maria Fitzhugh, his widowed godmother who lived at “Ravensworth” plantation near Alexandria, were the adults with whom he was most intimate.6 The ladies could not curtail his addiction to mischief-making, but they were successful in properly developing the boy’s natural tendencies of courtesy, gallantry, friendliness, and generosity of spirit.

Fitz—as he was called by his friends—was intelligent but fonder of sports and boyish pranks than of his books. In a neighborhood private school, he became the terror of his austere tutor, the unfortunate Reverend Hugh Smith, for his proclivity to disobey school rules.7 At the age of fourteen, the high-spirited Fitz was sent to St. Timothy’s Hall, an Episcopal boarding school located at Catonsville, Maryland. The school was a pleasant institution and by May, 1850, Fitz was firmly established there. Writing to his godmother, he declared, “I like this school very much indeed,” and proudly noted that he had advanced to the “senior department first class.”8 He was especially fond of the headmaster, the Reverend L. Pan Bokkelen, whom he called “Mr. Pan.” Fitz liked his fellow students, and his gregarious nature was delighted with the number of kindred spirits at the school. His extracurricular activities were no more excessive than those of the other boys and took a constructive turn. Young Lee was also pleased with the school because he was only six miles from Baltimore, the home of various Lee relatives and family friends. His close proximity to Alexandria, which Fitz considered his hometown, precluded homesickness, and he could easily read the Alexandria Gazette “to hear how things are getting on in that part of the world.”9

While exposed to the classics at St. Timothy’s, young Fitz professed little interest in them and readily shunned Shakespeare for other drama and poetry, especially humorous verse. He was exhilarated when a poet, a comedian, or an actor—rather than a scholar—gave the school’s regular Thursday night public lecture.10 His great love during his stay at St. Timothy’s was for those activities performed in the out-of-doors rather than scholastic ones. He relished parades, games, and sports, but his overwhelming preoccupation was with horses. Fitz was fascinated with horses and loved to ride them—this interest in all things equestrian would continue throughout his life. His letters of this period reveal that he particularly noticed the equestrian possessions of any person he encountered. His love of horses and an outdoor life, coupled with the family tradition, caused Fitz to dream more and more of becoming a soldier. His elation was boundless when President Millard Fillmore appointed him a cadet to the United States Military Academy on June 30, 1852.11

When he arrived at West Point in July, Fitz had not reached his seventeenth birthday. His four years at West Point were momentous ones in his development to manhood because of his impressionable age, the high caliber of instructions he received, and the individuals with whom he came into contact. At the Academy, he not only acquired the benefits of professional training for his future career but also assimilated permanent influences on his character from the system of values prevailing there. Near the end of his third year of attendance, Fitz realized the steps he had made towards maturity as he noted: “I entered this Academy a wild, careless, and inexperienced youth. I shall leave it a wiser and I hope a better man.”12

During his first year at the Point Fitz was indeed “wild and careless.” His love of fun and mischief, though contributing to his immense popularity with his fellow cadets, often brought him into unpleasant contact with the administrative authorities. Beginning with a mad dash across the Academy grounds on a vicious runaway horse named “Quaker,” his feats and pranks were soon legion.13 While his friendliness and escapades made him known as “that gay, gallant, great-hearted, generous Fitz Lee,” his class standing (based on a combination of behavior and scholarship) plummeted.14 Owing to his demerits, he ranked much lower than did his two closest friends, George Bayard and Lunsford L. Lomax; yet his scholarship was sufficient to keep him from joining his forty classmates who were forced to leave.15

Cadet lee’s troubles increased when Colonel Robert E. Lee became Superintendent of the Academy on September 1, 1853. Colonel Lee frequently invited his nephew to dinner but was determined to show no favoritism in enforcing the rigorous rules. Twice Fitz was caught leading a group of cadets to Benny Havens, a popular nocturnal resort, for fun and frolic after taps, and twice Superintendent Lee impartially recommended his dismissal. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis overruled the advice of Academy authorities and, despite their protests, allowed him to remain.16 His popularity with his fellow cadets contributed to his reprieves since they pledged their good behavior as collateral for his retention. While he was more fortunate than his dismissed comrades, Cadet Lee’s social visits to his uncle’s quarters became less frequent as a result of his punishments and restrictions. His cousin, Agnes Lee, wrote “I have not seen Fitz to speak to him for almost six months until a few evenings ago. He is so full of mischief he is always getting into trouble.”17

Fitz’s conduct began to improve after Robert E. Lee left West Point in March, 1855. This improvement and a resulting increase in his application to his studies were due to a number of factors. With the departure of his uncle whom he greatly missed, Lee experienced a twinge of guilt for his past conduct and vowed to apply himself more seriously: “Since I have been here I have not studied near as much as I ought to and have got a great many unnecessary demerits, but I begin to see ‘the folly of my ways’ and shall try to amend.”18 His interest in his class work was enhanced because of he added emphasis put on cavalry tactics by Academy instructors during his last two years. Since he was eager for a choice cavalry assignment with Bayard and Lomax after graduation, he became increasingly aware of the policy that future assignments of cadets would be made from the basis of the number of demerits they received while at the Academy. He also applied himself especially to his favorite subject of cavalry tactics, managing to graduate with an over-all rank of 45 out of 49 cadets but first in horsemanship.19

Immediately prior to their formal graduation on July 2, 1856, Fitz and his two boon companions, Bayard and Lomax, journeyed to Washington and personally petitioned Secretary of War Davis for cavalry appointments.20 When they were granted brevet second lieutenant commissions in the cavalry, the three young officers enthusiastically celebrated their new status at a series of parties in Washington and Alexandria. Owing to his higher class standing, Bayard was promptly assigned to duty with the First Cavalry Regiment, an active unit in Kansas. Much to their chagrin but to the relief of their mothers, Lee and Lomax learned that they would not be going to the faraway frontier but to tame Pennsylvania. The first tour of duty for these disappointed cavalrymen was to be at Carlisle Barracks, the home of the Cavalry School for Practice.21

Being stationed at Carlisle and supervising the training of recruits was not an assignment relished by Lee, Lomax, and several of their fellow graduates. Yet the habit of command, precision in cavalry maneuvers, discipline, and familiarity with garrison life which Lee acquired there would stand him in good stead in subsequent phases of his military career. There were also immediate advantages to being stationed at Carlisle. He like his principal duty of instructing recruits in horsemanship. Further, as a handsome young officer fresh from West Point, he participated actively in the social life of hte post and the town and was soon the favorite bachelor.22 His good nature and his polite manners contributed to his popularity with the townspeople, who were exceedingly kind to him.23 The amiable life during his first months at Carlisle was interspersed with agreeable visits to Alexandria and other cities. In February, 1857, he and Lomax visited in the latter’s home in Washington where they joined enthusiastically in the social life of the Capital and squired girls from one party to another. Fitz’s personality made him popular with the young and old alike, and his host’s mother recorded in her diary: “It is always a pleasure to have dear Fitz with us, he is so light hearted and gay—he will never grow up.”24 But this congenial life became less meaningful to Fitz in subsequent months. His complacency was jarred when Lomax was transferred in April, 1857, to the Kansas frontier where he joined Bayard in fighting Kiowa and Comanche Indians. Their experiences and adventures captured Fitz’s imagination, but their hopes of getting him assigned to their unit were frustrated. Promotions continued to go to others and Lee was destined to be the last of the cavalry brevet officers in his class.25 During his last six months at Carlisle, the young officer, eagerly awaiting his transfer, could only dream of the wild and exciting West.

Near the end of 1857, the fortunes of Fitzhugh Lee improved. He seized an opportunity to go to the frontier and to join what many cavalrymen considered to be an even better unit than the First Cavalry. On January 1, 1858, Lee was given a permanent promotion to second lieutenant and ordered to the Department of Texas to join the Second United States Cavalry Regiment.26 His chance for glory had come at last! Traveling half-way across the continent, the twenty-two-year-old Virginian reached western Texas and found a world completely different from the one he had known all his life. The Texas frontier had been in a state of flux for a decade. The primitive land was filled with violence as Indian warfare neared its peak. “The Bloody Years” would be the phrase later used to characterize the years 1858 and 1859.27

When Lieutenant Lee arrived at Fort Inge for his initial orientation in February of 1858, he was promptly made aware of his elite unit’s brief but proud history and its mission in Texas. Conditions on the frontier had been a direct cause of the formation of the Second Cavalry on March 3, 1855. Since the close of the Mexican War, the Army had been attempting to bring order to the western part of the state by maintaining a series of defense posts against Indian raiders. The original posts had been constructed in response to a resolution by the Texas legislature in 1848 asking Congress for the establishment of “a chain of military posts, in advance of the settlements, between Red River and the Rio Grande, and that said posts shall be removed from time to time as the settlements advance.”28 The resources of the Army were inadequate to garrison these temporary posts in Texas as well as those along the Northern frontier. At the insistence of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and after much debate, Congress had authorized the addition of two regiments of infantry and, for service especially along the western frontier, two regiments of cavalry.29 One of the cavalry regiments, the Second, was organized near St. Louis under the command of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston in the summer of 1855. On October 27, the regiment had begun its long trek to Texas, and Colonel Johnston finally arrived at his headquarters in San Antonio on January 14, 1856.30 When Fitz was assigned to it, the regiment has already established new posts as the frontier rapidly expanded westward, abandoned the older ones, and distinguished itself in numerous campaigns against the Indians. However, much hard fighting remained to be completed before the Texas settlements would be safe from Indian depredations.

After his orientation at Fort Inge, Lee was transferred to Fort Mason. The latter post was commanded by Captain Edmund Kirby Smith, who impressed the young lieutenant as being an excellent officer.31 This seasoned veteran also proved to be an able guide in helping the newcomer become quickly accustomed to his new environment. During his first few weeks at Fort Mason, Fitz learned the routine of Army life that prevailed at most of the small, semi-isolated posts in Texas. In May, his commander decided he was ready for more important duties. From May until September, 1858, Lee participated in the continuous patrolling operations of the Second Cavalry. On one patrol he traveled from the Rio Grande to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and back to Mason—a distance of over 1,200 miles.32 Privations and hardships were numerous on the frontier, but the exuberant young officer bore them well. He noted at the close of his first six months of patrol duty that thanks to a “splendid horse and a strong constitution,” he was “none the worse” for his experience “except my face [is] a little more tanned perhaps, and my beard more of a mahogany color.”33

His major problems were those age-old ones of soldiers who must serve far way from their homes—homesickness and loneliness. In an account of his travels in Texas to his godmother, he revealed his nostalgia for Virginia: “Newspapers are constantly praising the beautiful scenery, but I have been now nearly over the whole of this large state, on horseback too, . . . and I have never yet seen such scenery as I have in old Virginia—I am very lonely now indeed.”34 Fortunately, Fitz found many ways to mitigate his loneliness. His love of the outdoors and the endless opportunities to ride, hunt, and fish were crucial factors in keeping him from becoming depressed. His conviviality and wit also enabled Fitz to make new friends and gleefully join them in horseracing and other amusements. Further, his time-consuming and rigorous duties kept his mind from becoming overly preoccupied with visions of far-off Virginia. He was glad to be constantly on the go since movement allowed him to escape the pall of routine garrison duty. The young lieutenant was gratified at being expected to pursue Indian raiders on a moment’s notice. The words he attributed to Mrs. Teresa Viele, a contemporary traveler who praised the cavalrymen in a book, caught his fancy and became his motto:

Ours not to make reply
Ours not to reason why
Ours but to do and dies.35

In the fall of 1858, Fitz engaged in more dangerous tasks. He took part in a duty called by cavalrymen “the rough service of the horse.” He led a small party of troops, who were equipped with only the absolute necessities, on a long-range scouting and tracking patrol. Having no fixed direction, the group wandered over the prairies for nearly two months and sought Indian raiders to kill or capture.36 However, his group was unsuccessful in confronting an Indian war party. Thus, near the end of his first year in Texas, Lee found himself reasonably acclimated to service on the frontier but still denied his coveted chance at combat. Since 1858 was a most opportune time for a soldier desiring a battle, lack of combat was particularly galling to him. More raids occurred in 1858 than ever before, but other soldiers were winning the laurels of confronting the raiders.

Fitz was given an assignment he earnestly desired when he was transferred in December to Camp Radziminski, Indian Territory, under the command of Brevet Major Earl Van Dorn.37 The transfer was the initial step in the first great military adventure of Second Lieutenant Fitzhugh Lee. He was naturally delighted to serve under Van Dorn, who was considered to be one of the most successful Indian fighters in the Army.38 Recent exploits of his new commander were well known to Fitz, and he had previously regretted being unable to share in them. In August 1858, against the band of Comanches led by Buffalo Hump, Van Dorn had begun a punitive campaign which culminated in a cavalry victory at the Battle of Wichita Village on the first of October.39 Despite their losses, the Comanches were not sufficiently humbled to discontinue their depredations. Accordingly, when Army authorities made the decision to continue an aggressive policy against the Comanches, Van Dorn was granted permission to launch a new campaign to end the menace once and for all.40 During the winter of 1858–59, the additional troops allocated to him—including Lee and Captain Kirby Smith—began to assemble at Radziminski.

Although Lee was familiar with the cavalry mode of campaigning, he was surprised at Van Dorn’s extensive and minute preparations for the operation. At Radziminski, the junior officers were assigned the task of drilling the troops in commands and movements until a high state of precision was reached. In conjunction with his friend from West Point days, Second Lieutenant Manning M. Kimmel, and other junior officers, Fitz devoted numerous hours each day to getting the men in proper condition. Unlike his instruction at Carlisle Barracks, the results of his efforts here were expected to be soon visible on the battlefield. Since Lee was appointed adjutant for the proposed expedition, he was also responsible for many administrative chores.41 As the general administrative assistant to Van Dorn, he was involved in preparing, distributing, and supervising the execution of orders designed to guarantee the expedition’s success. Major Van Dorn seemed to adhere to the precept that any glory won under him would be accomplished with a corresponding degree of hard work.

At the close of the especially severe winter, the reservation Indians requested by Van Dorn to accompany him arrived. He shared the belief of other cavalry veterans that “operations against the Comanches cannot be carried on with any effect, without the help of the friendly Indians as guides and spies.”42 With the Indian allies in his camp and the preparations of him men completed, Van Dorn waited for the fulfillment of the third prerequisite of a successful mission—favorable weather conditions. He finally selected April 30, 1859, as the day of departure. By that date the penetrating cold winds had subsided and the grass had reached sufficient maturity to sustain the horses and mules. Early in the morning, the six troops of cavalry moved out of their winter quarters and rode northward for their long-anticipated campaign.43 The period of waiting for Van Dorn and his subordinates was over.

While serving under Van Dorn on the Washita Expedition, Lee was able to observe the tactics of a resourceful and skillful commander in confronting an enemy. Van Dorn practiced caution and guile during the first days of the expedition’s progress. The friendly Indians and a few soldiers, used as scouts and guards, were placed as far as ten miles away from the main body of troops. Deception was also adopted to prevent any prowling spies of the hostile Comanches from observing the cavalry too closely. At sunset the main body would set up camp, apparently for the night, but with darkness the command to saddle up and remount would be given. After moving forward several miles, the force would finally make camp for the night.44 Before these tedious, cautious movements became too monotonous for Fitz and the other young, inexperienced officers, the tempo of the campaign quickened.

On the fourth day out from Radziminski, a detachment on the flank captured a Comanche boy, who admitted that he was a member of a horse-stealing party from Kansas on its way to Texas. By threatening the youth’s life, Van Dorn persuaded him to lead the troops to his village.45 Although the Comanche strongholds were outside the jurisdiction of the Department of Texas, Van Dorn had permission to proceed as far as necessary to destroy them. The expedition reached the flooded Canadian River where the provision wagons were left behind in order to quicken the pace of the campaign. The troops crossed the treacherous river and resumed the march northward. The Cimarron was forded next as the expedition left Indian Territory and moved into Kansas. The Indian guides soon discovered a hunting party of five Comanches, gave battle, and killed one. On May 12, the cavalry column encountered the remains of several recently abandoned Comanche camps in the valley of the Nescutunga Creek. Scouts discovered a large, fresh trail which the cavalry began to follow the next morning.46 The trail was followed cautiously with the hope that the Comanches could be surprised in their camp as Van Dorn had done in his previous encounter with Buffalo Hump’s band in 1858.

The crucial phase of the campaign began in mid-day. The men were resting under a few trees and the horses were peacefully grazing when the guards discovered three Comanches creeping up to stampede the horses. The guards gave chase and, in the pursuit, spied a large herd of Indian ponies. These horses were stampeded and word was sent to Van Dorn that a group of Comanches, now without horses, had taken refuge in the rugged terrain along a small creek. Van Dorn gave the command “to horse” and the main column moved forward at a gallop. Nearing the creek, Van Dorn divided his force into three squadrons of equal strength. A squadron was placed at each end of the small valley to block possible escape routes. The third squadron, to which Fitz was assigned, was to attack the Indians. At this point, Lieutenant Lee asked and received permission to lead a squad of men against the exposed flank of the Indian position. His force “gallantly charged” through the Indian lines and captured a few warriors and most of the women and children. His charge did not halt until a breastwork of logs was reached.47

Lee’s charge determined that the position taken by the major group of warriors was “a remarkably strong one for defense, being in a deep ravine, densely covered with a stunted growth of timber and brambles, through which a small stream with abrupt banks, meandered from bluff to bluff on either side.”48 With this knowledge, Van Dorn quickly revised his strategy. Since it was impossible to catch a glimpse of a Comanche until one was within a few yards, the order was given to dismount and charge on foot. Fitz also took part in this second charge. The troops ran forward, sweeping down into the thickets with wild yelling and rapid firing. Officers were at the forefront, and Captain Kirby Smith fell wounded. Lieutenant Lee, “gallantly leading in the thickest of the fight,“ encountered an Indian crouched behind a log and shot him.49 The Comanches slowly gave say before the onslaught and retreated into the depths of their stronghold for a last stand.

The next few moments of the battle were nearly fatal ones for Fitz. He later described these minutes to his worried parents as follows:

I was leading the charge through a dense thicket, had just shot and killed an Indian, and was within a dozen yards of them, dispatching another, he shooting and I shooting, a sort of duel. I had shot at him twice, one ball taking effect in his breast, had him down and was about to fire a third time, having my pistol raised, when an Indian about 10 yards on my right, shot me as I described, I fell, and was taken out of the thicket. . . .50

After his removal from the thicket, the surgeons immediately began their seemingly hopeless efforts to save him. As the battle ended in complete victory, a group of soldiers gathered around expecting him—as Lee himself expected—to die shortly. Edward M. “Jack” Hayes, the sixteen-year-old bugler who had admired Fitz since their days together at Carlisle, tried to comfort him in his supposedly last moments. His chest wound caused the blood to come up through his throat and mouth, making breathing extremely difficult. However, salt water forced into his mouth checked the flow of blood.51 When Lieutenant Kimmel arrived on the scene, Fitz began to rally and his zest for living reasserted itself. Kimmel mentioned that he had had a close call too and showed a bullet hole in his hat. Fitz’s innate humor burst forth as he gasped: “Kimmel, do you wish me to believe that an Indian shot that hole in your hat! Acknowledge the corn, old man; didn’t you go behind a tree and shoot the hole in your hat yourself?” After that remark, the onlookers were more hopeful that Fitz would recover.52

Van Dorn assessed the battlefield results. In addition to Fitz and Kirby Smith, ten men were wounded and two were dead. The Comanches lost forty-nine warriors killed and five wounded with another thirty-six taken as prisoners. Learning that the Indians were definitely from Buffalo Hemp’s band, Van Dorn promptly left with four companies to continue the search for hostiles.53 Although no more were encountered, the Washita Expedition had accomplished its mission. Major Comanche raids in Texas ceased until the Civil War commenced.54

The remaining two companies, under command of the slightly wounded Kirby Smith, stayed at the battle site with the wounded and prisoners. After waiting several days for the condition of the wounded to improve, they began the long journey back to Camp Radziminiski—two hundred miles to the south. Fitz, due to the serious nature of his wound, was unable to ride on horseback and had to be placed on a mule litter. On the return march his spirits rose despite his severe pains, and he became a jolly but bored invalid. Addressing his friend, First Lieutenant George Cosby, he smiled and pleaded:

Cosby, I wish you would have these mules changed and put the old gray in front. Every step he takes his muzzle comes within a few inches of my face and he flaps his long ears in a way that I don’t like. Familiarity breeds contempt, you know, and probably the mule feels that way about it, too, but of course he can’t say so.55

Cosby gleefully hitched the old gray mule in front of the litter thereafter. The caravan retraced its trail, picked up the wagons after crossing the Canadian, and reached its base two weeks later. Though Fitz had survived the return journey, he was still in a perilous condition.

By June 3, Fitz was able to be propped up on pillows and wrote a letter to his parents. he informed them that his recovery was now assured, “contrary to the expectations of the doctors, and a good many other persons including myself even, for . . . I have been as near to death’s door, as it falls to the lot of a mortal to be, and still not enter.”56 Although writing was very painful for him, he hastened to alleviate their worries generated by the newspaper, letter, and word-of-mouth messages about the battle. He was even reported dead in some versions but all accounts were consistent on one item: Second Lieutenant Fitzhugh Lee fought bravely in the thickest of the fighting.57 Thus his first great military adventure, which nearly ended in death for him, had established his fame as an Indian fighter. His baptism by enemy fire was over. He was now a hero!

Fitz moved to Camp Cooper in September to complete his recovery. Here he assumed a few garrison responsibilities and impatiently waited for his strength to return. However, his narrow escape exerted a sobering influence on Fitz. He realized that he had been extremely lucky in the battle; if the day had not been a damp, rainy one, the arrow would probably have pierced him with sufficient force to kill.58 He wrote to his godmother in a temporarily retrospective and philosophical mood:

I can now scarcely realize that I have passed through such a severe ordeal. Indian warfare is not the most glorious in the world. Hard fighting after riding miles and miles through the hot sun, often suffering for the want of water and sometimes food, exposed alternately to the heat of the sun and the rains, and getting but little, if any, glory.

But Fitz brightened as he enumerated the advantages of a frontier soldier:

I must say I like the life however. Apart from the excitement of catching Comanches, there is always fine hunting and fishing, the former of which I am very fond of, and always on scouts [patrols] from here, kill buffalo, deer, turkeys and grouse. . . . Then again there are always plenty of horses, which is a great thing for me you know, and a good deal of my time is taken up in riding. . . .59

His morale improved when he was assigned to an adjacent post, Camp Colorado, commanded by his old friend Kirby Smith. Here Lee resumed his full duties as a cavalry officer.60

Despite their defeats by the Second Cavalry, a few hostile Indians in small raiding parties continued to appear in Texas. From Camp Colorado, Lee regularly led patrols to capture any marauders in the surrounding countryside. Often the results were negligible, but Fitz won further praise and commendation for his success on a mission in January, 1860. In the midst of a Texas “norther” and snow-storm on January 14, word was received that an Indian raiding party had plundered a settler’s ranch and driven of several horses. In the middle of the night Lieutenant Lee and his detachment, consisting of Bugler “Jack” Hayes, a non-commissioned officer, and twenty privates, left the post in pursuit of the Indians.61

The darkness and the drifting snow impeded their progress, but at last Lee’s men found the raiders’ trail. After daylight, they rapidly followed it. The Indians, wise in the ways of stealth and plundering, had started south and then circled northward, passing within five miles of Camp Colorado itself. About two hours before sunset, the detachment discovered a dead colt killed by the Indians for meat. Thereafter, the trail became easier to detect since the Indians, feeling safe, took fewer precautions to hide it. The exhausted detachment finally rested for the night after “having been seventeen hours in the saddle with the exception of one halt of an hour and a half.”62 Lee, fearful of betraying their position to the Indians, decreed that no campfires could be built. After a breakfast of hardtack and frozen pork, the cold men renewed the pursuit.

At noon on January 16, young Hayes sighted two Comanches hastily driving a herd of horses forward. Having the advantage of surprise, Lee ordered the troops to shed their overcoats and extra equipment and yelled the command “charge.” One Indian was killed instantly but the other, closely followed by Lee and four of his men, escaped to an adjoining woods. After trailing him for six or seen miles through hills and steep ravines covered with a thick undergrowth of cedar, the pursuing cavalrymen discovered his abandoned horse. The party divided and began the “dangerous and by no means easy task” of trailing the Indian on foot.63 Nearly three hours later, the Indian suddenly ambushed Lee, who jumped aside and barely missed being pierced by an arrow. The arrow broke his carbine as it whizzed on through his coat sleeve. Fitz then pulled his pistol but the Indian grabbed the muzzle and prevented him from firing. In the struggle that ensued, the pistol was dropped and the combatants engaged in dangerous hand-to-hand combat. Fitz desperately tried to prevent the larger and stronger ambusher from using a knife. Young Hayes arrived on the scene but could not fire for fear of hitting his officer. An instant later, the savage was hurled to the ground with the young lieutenant landing on top of him. Lee managed to grasp his pistol, cock it, fire a bullet into the Indian, and then kill him with a second shot. Fitz casually remarked to the excited Hayes that the Indian’s brute strength had almost been too much for him. Fortunately, he had remembered a wrestling trick known as the “Virginia back heel” in time to trip his opponent.64 The detachment then rounded up the stolen horses and triumphantly returned to Camp Colorado.

His second encounter in combat again won Lee praise from his superiors and the public. Kirby Smith, his immediate superior, commended his display of energy and perseverance in tracking down the Indians and recovering the stolen horses.65 Robert E. Lee, having become the commander of the Department of Texas, reported his nephew’s performance as being an illustrative example in reducing frontier raids.66 The press again devoted considerable attention to the budding hero. Though accounts varied, the newspapers agreed on a key feature of the incident: a young Virginian had confronted a stronger Comanche warrior in the wilderness and vanquished him.67

With this second display of leadership ability and bravery, Fitz eradicated any remaining stains from his low class standing and large number of demerits at West Point. As Commanding General Winfield Scot intimated in his public commendation of Lee, promotion would now come quicker and easier. Scott noted the “romantic interest” stirred up by the action but maintained that other results were also important. He emphasized, almost prophetically, that “altho” Lieutenant Lee’s command was a small one, it served to exhibit qualities, on his part, which cannot fail to lead to like distinction in operations against an enemy at the head of a much larger force.”68 Lee’s success in the Army was assured.

Lee continued to engaged in patrolling and scouting duties during the spring and summer of 1860. Though there was little raiding, he was sufficiently occupied to forego a reunion with his lonesome Uncle Robert in San Antonio. His uncle new that “the fine young soldier” would soon be granted a leave of absence to visit Virginia and then would probably be reassigned to West Point.69 Fitz finally left Texas in November, 1860, after receiving orders appointing him an instructor in cavalry tactics at the Military Academy. This position was eagerly sought by many cavalry officers, and its bestowal upon him was regarded as a commendation for his recent achievements.70

Nearly three years of frontier service with the Second Cavalry left an indelible impression on the character of Fitzhugh Lee. He benefited from serving in a regiment whose roster included these able soldiers: Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert Edward Lee, William J. Hardee, George H. Thomas, Earl Van Dorn, Edmund Kirby Smith, and John B. Hood.71 Lee reached his maturity during these three years. He had abandoned his wildness and recklessness without losing his joviality. His keen sense of humor and love of life had not been sacrificed to his acquisition of self-discipline. Without diminishing his popularity, his geniality combined with firmness had won him increasing respect from both his fellow officers and his subordinates. He also had gained further astuteness in being a successful officer and a soldier. During his participation in cavalry operations, he had learned new lessons on the importance of training, planning, and leadership in military ventures. His innate courage had been proved in combat, but his tendency toward foolhardiness had been checked by his battlefield ordeal. He had come to Texas as an adventurous second lieutenant and he left as a competent veteran. His sojourn in the West had been rewarding indeed!


1 Farm Diary, William W. Minor, Jr., Papers, University of Virginia Library.

2 Lyon G. Tyler, (ed.) Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography (New York, 1915), III, 7; Frederick W. Alexander, Stratford Hall and the Lees Connected with Its History: Biographical, Genealogical, and Historical (Oak Grove, Virginia, 1912).

3 Fitzhugh Lee to William F. Carne, June 19, 1878, Joseph M. Toner Collection, Library of Congress; unsigned typescript biographical sketches of S. S. Lee, Fitzhugh Lee Opie Papers, University of Virginia Library. (Mr. Opie possesses the largest collection of Fitzhugh Lee papers and has graciously permitted the author to use copies of the originals.)

Biographical sketch of S. S. Lee, S. Bassett French Collection of Biographical Sketches, Virginia State Library; U.S. Department of Navy, Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the United States for 1855 (Washington, 1855), 24–25.

5 Samuel Eliot Morison, “Old Bruin”: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 1794–1858 (Boston, 1967), 219, 275, 290–299.

6 As revealed in her letters from 1835 to 1870 in the Opie Papers, the remarkable Mrs. Fitzhugh was a source of strength for all members of the Lee family; see also Clifford Dowdey, Lee (Boston, 1965), 99, 102, 149, 612, 716.

7 Typescript biographical sketch of Fitzhugh Lee by John William Jones, April 22, 1898, Opie Papers.

8 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, May 8, 1850, ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, May 10, 1850, ibid.

11 Certificate of Fitzhugh Lee’s appointment as Cadet, ibid.

12 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, April 1, 1855, ibid.

13 Joseph P. Farley, West Point in the Early Sixties (Troy, New York, 1902), 34–35.

14 Jones’s sketch of Lee, Opie Papers.

15 George D. Bayard to his mother, July 1, 1855, printed in Samuel J. Bayard, The Life of George Dashiell Bayard (New York, 1874), 77; U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1855, House of Representatives, Executive Document No. 1, 34th Cong., 1st Sess., I, Part II, 220.

16 Stephen Hess, America’s Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy (Garden City, New York, 1966), 70–71; U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1853.

17 Agnes Lee’s manuscript journal, quoted in Margaret Sanbor, Robert E. Lee: A Portrait, 1807–1861 (Philadelphia and New York, 1966), 221.

18 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, April 1, 1855, Opie Papers.

19 George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York (3rd ed.; Boston, 1891), II, 671–672; U.S. War Department, Report of Secretary of War, 1855, 248–251; Jones’s sketch of Lee, Opie Papers.

20 George D. Bayard to his father, June 8, 1856, printed in Bayard, Life of Bayard, 90–91, 94.

21 Ibid., 94–96; Lindsay Lomax Wood, (ed.) Leaves from an Old Washington Diary, 1854–1863, Written by Elizabeth Lindsay Lomax (Mount Vernon, New York, 1943), 54–57; Adjutant General’s Office to Lee, August 22, 1856, Opie Papers

22 Thomas G. Tousey, Military History of Carlisle and Carlisle Barracks (Richmond, Virginia, 1939), 320–321.

23 Lee to Captain R. Miller, February 3, 1903, printed in ibid. 237.

24 Wood, Lomax Diary, 64.

25 Ibid., 70; Cullum, Biographical Register of West Point, II, 654; G. F. Bayard to his mother, December 6, 1856 and Bayard to his sister, December 18, 1856, printed in Bayard, Life of Bayard, 107–110. Fortunately for Lee, this was the last instance in which his many West Point demerits affected his military career.

26 George B. Price, Across the Continent with the Fifth Cavalry (New York, 1883), 483, 600; Cullum, Biographical Register of West Point, II, 672.

27 Avaram B. Bender, The March of Empire: Frontier Defense in the Southwest, 1848–1860 (Lawrence, Kansas, 1952), 131ff.; Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense (Boston, 1935), 141–172).

28 Hans P. N. Gammel (ed.), The Laws of Texas (Austin, Texas, 1898–1902), III, 206; Theophilus F. Rodenbaugh, From Everglades to Canon with the Second Dragoons (New York, 1875), 168–170.

29 John F. Callan, The Military Laws of the United States, 1776–1858 (Baltimore, 1858), 428–429; Albert G. Brackett, History of the United States Cavalry, from the Formation of the Federal Government to the 1st of June, 1863 (New York, 1865), 140–168.

30 Charles P. Roland and Richard C. Robbins (ed.), “The Diary of Eliza (Mrs. Albert Sidney) Johnston,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LX (April, 1957), 466.

31 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, September 15, 1858, Opie Papers. For the description and location of various forts, see Robert W. Frazer, Forts of the West (Norman, Oklahoma, 1965), 116–127, and Francis P. Prucha, A Guide to the Military Posts of the United States (Madison, Wisc., 1964), 46–47. (See Appendix for locations of the various posts where Lee served.)

32 Lee to Maria Wheaton, September, 1858, Opie Papers.

33 Ibid.

34 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, September 15, 1858, ibid.

35 Lee to Maria Wheaton, September 15, 1858, ibid. Mrs. Teresa Griffin Viele traveled along the frontier and described the soldiers’ sufferings; see her Following the Drum: A Glimpse of Frontier Life (New York, 1858), 117, 222; Bender, March of Empire, 108–129.

36 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, September 15, 1858, Opie Papers; for a contemporary account of this type of scouting duty, see Richard W. Johnson, A Soldier’s Reminiscences in Peace and War (Philadelphia, 1886), 124–125.

37 Price, Across the Continent, 275, 483. Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) was a military sector of he Department of Texas. Camp Radziminski was established by Van Dorn in September, 1858; see Stanley F. Radzyminski, “Charles Radziminski: Patriot, Exile, Pioneer,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, XXXVIII (Winter, 1960), 354.

38 Rizpah, “Cavalry Fights with the Comanches,” The Magazine of American History, XI (February, 1884), 170–173.

39 Van Dorn to Headquaters, Department of Texas, October 5, 1858, in U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1858, Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 35th Cong., 2nd Sess., II 272–274.

40 Robert G. Hartje, Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General (Nashville, 1967), 68–74. Van Dorn favored a policy of extermination; for the ambiguity of Federal policy, see Clara L. Koch, “The Federal Indian Policy in Texas, 1845–1860,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XXIX (July, 1925), 98–128.

41 Van Dorn to General Twiggs, May 13, 1859, in U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1859, Senate, Executive Document No. 2, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., II, 365–366.

42 William E. Burnett to his father, May 26, 1859, printed in Raymond Estep, “Lieutenant William E. Burnett: Notes on Removal of Indians from Texas to Indian Territory,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, XXXVIII (Autumn, 1960), 303–306.

43 Edmund Kirby Smith to his mother, June 2, 1859, Kirby Smith Papers, Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Library.

44 Joseph B. Thoburn, “Indian Fight in Ford County in 1859,” Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, III (1912), 318–319.

45 Kirby Smith to his mother, June 2, 1859, Kirby Smith Papers.

46 For the route of the expedition, see the map in J. W. Williams, “The Van Dorn Trails,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XLIV (January, 1941), 334, 338–339. (See also the map in the Appendix).

47 Hartje, Van Dorn, 72–73; Martin L. Crimmins, “‘Jack’ Hayes Story of Fitzhugh Lee’s Indian Fight,” West Texas Historical Association Yearbook, XIII (October, 1937), 40–49.

48 Van Dorn’s Report, May 31, 1859, in U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1859, 369–370.

49 Kirby Smith to Captain S. S. Lee, May 14, 1859, Opie Papers.

50 Lee to his parents, June 3, 1859, ibid.

51 Thoburn, “Indian Fight,” 323.

52 Crimmins, “Lee’s Indian Fight,” 43–44.

53 Van Dorn’s Report in U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1859, 366.

54 Important cavalry engagements of the period and their significance are treated in Robert M. Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865 (New York, 1967), 108–141. The battle of May 13, 1859, was probably fought at Crooked Creek, which Van Dorn erroneously called Nescutunga Creek.

55 Thoburn, “Indian Fight,” 325.

56 Lee to his parents, June 3, 1859, Opie Papers.

57 Undated newspaper clippings, 1859–1860, ibid.; William E. Burnett to his father, May 26, 1859, printed in Estep, “Lieutenant Burnett,” 303–306.

58 Lee to his parents, June 3, 1859, Opie Papers.

59 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, September 1, 1859, ibid.

60 Price, Across the Continent, 278; Kirby Smith to his mother, September 5, 1859, and December 24, 1859, Kirby Smith Papers.

61 Report of Fitzhugh Lee, January 20, 1860, printed in Martin L. Crimmins, “‘Fitz’ Lee Kills an Indian,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, XLI (May, 1937), 386–387; Kirby Smith to his mother, January 15, 1860, Kirby Papers.

62 Lee’s Report, January 20, 1860, in Crimmins, “Lee Kills an Indian,” 386–387.

63 Ibid.

64 Alexander, Stratford Hall and the Lees, 307–308.

65 Kirby Smith to Assistant Adjutant General, Department of Texas, January 20, 1860, printed in Crimmins, “Lee Kills an Indian,” 388.

66 U.S. War Department, Report of the Secretary of War, 1860, Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 36th Cong., 2nd Sess., II, 195.

67 Undated newspaper clippings, Opie Papers.

68 Winfield Scott to Secretary of War, February 14, 1860, printed in Crimmins, “Lee Kills and Indian,” 388.

69 Robert E. Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, June 6, 1860, Opie Papers.

70 John W. Jones to J. R. Kean, December 27, 1905, enclosing a typescript biographical sketch of Fitzhugh Lee, Jefferson Randolph Kean Papers, University of Virginia Library.

71 Brackett, History of the U.S. Cavalry, 145–152; Fitzhugh Lee, General Lee (New York, 1894), 53–54.

Return to General Fitzhugh Lee