General Fitzhugh Lee, by Harry Warren Readnour, Chapter 3

General Fitzhugh Lee: A Biographical Study


The two decades between the War’s end and his election as governor of Virginia in 1885 were years of readjustment, recuperation, and rejuvenation for Fitzhugh Lee, just as they were for the beloved South for which he had borne arms for four long years. Fitz, like the nation itself, had survived perhaps his most harrowing but greatest experience. These two decades have been given the least attention by Lee’s biographers, and in obituaries, eulogies, and biographical sketches, his activities during these years rate little space.1 Lee was less in the public eye during this period, of course, than in any other during his adult life, but he was far from being a recluse. He was aware of many of the great developments of his day and, indeed, participated directly in them. He appeared before large audiences as a speaker at great public commemorations and actively engaged in certain contemporary public controversies. He could not, and did not, stay out of the limelight. However, his private or personal activities during these decades make these years equally momentous ones in the life of the man. These activities had as much effect on determining the course of his life as many of the public ones. During these years he experienced many of the joys and heartbreaks that fall to the lot of mankind in the day-to-day task of living one’s life, and his manner of encountering them was comparable to his behavior in dealing with successes or reverses on the battlefield.

The chief traumatic strain placed on Lee by the War’s outcome was the cessation of his career as a cavalryman. In one respect, he was unfortunate in being a relatively young man in 1865 since being a soldier was more than a mere profession to him—the military service represented a way of life to him now closed. While he did not regret his commitment to the “lost cause,” he did regret its effect on his occupation. To Fitz, as an officer in a defeated army, peace was more than the end of a great epoch in history. It meant rather that the type of existence he had envisioned was now thwarted. In some ways, he embarked on a journey in the wilderness for the remainder of his days on earth, or at least until he rejoined the Army in 1898. His broken heart would mend, but the scars would always remain. His resolution, however, was not suicidal in 1865 but rather an expression of determination to withstand and overcome his misfortune. Eventually, the process of time plus his natural optimism and zest for living were sufficient to make his adjustment satisfactory, although occasional lapses of nostalgia for his former profession would continue to burden him.2 In making the adjustment to his changed environment, he became intimately involved in events which contributed to the shaping of not only his destiny but that of his state and nation as well.

It was well for the thirty-year-old veteran that pressing problems confronted him in the months after Appomattox. The emotional pangs of remorse he suffered had to be relegated to the background while he dealt with more practical matters accruing from the Confederacy’s dénouement. Defeat not only placed an emotional burden on him; it also jeopardized his personal freedom and terminated his means of livelihood. His personal freedom was an acute issue for only a few months but it remained a chronic one until 1869. His status was dissimilar to that of the random Southern veteran for a variety of reasons. After Lincoln’s assassination, many Northerners cried for vengeance and retribution, and certain politicians eagerly responded to these voices and determined to punish leading Confederates. Fitz was not, of course, the General Lee but he was nonetheless a Confederate general who had ended his service as the cavalry commander for his uncle’s famous army. Further, he was also in a precarious position because he had graduated from West Point and served in the Army until secession. Army officers who had resigned their commissions in 1861 were held by many to be more traitorous than other “rebels.” Consequently, Fitz and other Confederate officers in this category were usually excepted by the presidential pardons and amnesty acts in the 1860s as well as by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.3

When Fitz left Appomattox for Richmond, he was protected only by the terms of Grant’s parole for members of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee hoped this act by the commanding general of the Union armies would be sufficient to leave him unmolested as long as he respected its terms and ceased fighting for the Confederacy. Lincoln’s assassination and the Northern reaction to it made him feel that some additional guarantee was needed, especially after he, his Uncle Robert, and others were indicted for treason (in violation of the terms of Grant’s parole) by a Federal grand jury in Norfolk on June 7, 1865.4 While he had little fear from the Union officers stationed in Virginia—he expected his fellow soldiers to be as honorable with him as he would have been with them in a similar situation—he was apprehensive about some of the inflammatory panegyrics of Congressional Radicals. Accordingly, he reluctantly decided to follow his uncle’s example and seek a direct pardon from President Johnson. In July, he wrote Johnson a straight-forward note, giving a dry recital of his associations with the United States Army and later the Confederate Army and asking for a pardon.5 He was particularly galled by having to take this action for a number of reasons. He was by no means thankful that the Confederacy had collapsed and could not sincerely request forgiveness for his decision to participate in the rebellion (or, as he viewed the matter, to fight for Southern independence). Nor did he relish having to deal with civilian authorities over what he considered an affair between soldiers. It irked him to realize that politicians might cancel an agreement reached by soldiers in the field.

As time passed and Lee’s earlier fears of vindictive action against Confederate soldiers by the politicians failed to materialize, he decided that the manner in which amnesty maters had been handled immediately after the War was an unnecessary humiliation heaped on he vanquished. In late 1866, he wrote to a comrade from his frontier days and urged this Confederate friend to return from voluntary exile in Mexico. Fitz stressed that, despite the fears engendered by the course of Radical Reconstruction in the months following Lincoln’s assassination, pardons had proved to be needless:

I have heard of no old army officer who resigned and came south, who has since been reported or arraigned as a deserter. There was no desertion in the matter nor could they i.e. the War Department authorities—with all their petty malignity—make out such a case. . . . Don’t ask for what is commonly called a pardon, though it is a mistake a great many have made and amounts to nothing except an increase in humiliation on your part.6

As his letter revealed, his original distaste for the unpalatable act of requesting a pardon was compounded by his later realization that his personal freedom had not been seriously threatened. Finally, his repugnance with the entire amnesty process was increased by the fact that the formal dismissal of the treason charges against his uncle, his two cousins (Custis and W H. F. Lee) and himself was delayed until February 15, 1969.7

Fitzhugh Lee faced another equally burdensome problem contemporaneously—finding a new means of earning a living. Most of Smith Lee’s savings had evaporated during the War, and the family had depended on the military pay he and his sons received as the basic portion of income. Fitz and his brothers, all without any experience except in military service, had to begin to support themselves and their parents at once since there were no reserves to draw on. (Smith Lee, in poor health, could no longer seek active employment.) Although Fitz’s family had no funds, his family suffered less hardship and impoverishment than did many Southern families in like circumstances owing to the generosity of Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, his godmother and a close friend of the family. This wealthy Virginia lady had some money in Baltimore banks and retained extensive tracts of land despite the vicissitudes of war. She allocated Lee’s family the use of “Richland,” her estate located forty miles south of Washington near Aquia Creek in Stafford County. “Richland,” her estate located forty miles south of Washington near Aquia Creek in Stafford County. “Richaland,” despite its isolation and disrepair, presented the family with an opportunity to regain security and build a new life.8

With the family’s arrival at “Richland,” Fitz became acting head of the family because of his father’s age and infirmity. He at once assumed the responsibility for making the farming venture a success. While he had no experience in farming, he was familiar with the operation of his maternal grandfather’s estate and, with his proclivity for working outdoors, directly supervised or performed the multitude of tasks confronting him and his brothers. His time for pleasure and recreation was minute since he proudly shouldered his responsibilities by noting: “I have a father and mother and five grown brothers to support. . . .”9 Though his brothers knew no more of farming than he, they joined in supporting his efforts during the crucial (for the Lees) years immediately after Appomattox. His Uncle Robert early encouraged Fitz to do as well as possible on his farm and was glad that Fitz was settling in Stafford County. Although life at “Richland” would be far tamer and less exciting than his previous years in the military service, Fitz assured his former Commanding General that farming would have some personal compensations: “I expect soon to settle down as Squire Lee of Stafford and although not as famous as Randolph of Roanoke yet I expect to be a happier man.”10

Lee and his brothers had little with which to commence their operations except an abundance of good land. Mrs. Fitzhugh generously allowed them to cultivate the whole estate, comprising over 3,300 acres, and also sent them money for cash items. Consequently, they were as well off, if not better, than many of their other neighbors suffering from a similar “genteel poverty.” Yet their existence was precarious until a successful harvest could be made. They planted wheat and corn as their staple crops but devoted some attention to various vegetables for table food and hay for animal fodder. With their limited resources, Fitz and his brothers found themselves performing nearly all the required manual labor. Fitz—far from being the “Squire Lee” he had imagined—was extremely “busy ploughing and mowing, reaping and sowing” in an effort to become a successful farmer. Until a good harvest was made in 1866, existence at “Richland” was somewhat threadbare, but thereafter the family’s material progress was fairly rapid. After the farming operations became profitable, the youngest brother (Henry Carter) was sent to matriculate under Uncle Robert at Washington College while the remaining brothers except Fitz were launched on new careers.11

Fitz remained at Richland to provide a home for his parents and his brothers if they wished to return. He enjoyed working alongside his growing number of employees in the fields, and his affability and cheerfulness were soon equal to ante-bellum days. Thus, in the first four years after the surrender, Fitz made a remarkable readjustment to his environment. By 1867, he was exhibiting pride in his work and boasted: “I raise more corn than I ever got from the Quartermaster.” His mind was still conscious of cavalry affairs, however, and he deplored the low standard of horseflesh he possessed at Richland.12 His satisfaction with his farming achievements was enhanced by the renewal of old friendships and the beginning of new ones. With financial security assured for his family, he made brief jaunts to Virginia cities, resorts, and homes of old friends. On these occasions he was once again a dashing gallant who impressed young ladies and enjoyed himself immeasurably. His father and Uncle Robert hoped that Fitz would soon marry, and the latter jested about his nephew’s social activities: “Fitz will never settle down till he is married . . . tell him he must ask his sweethearts to let him marry one at a time. In that way he may accomodate them all. He cannot marry them all at once.”13

His father’s death in July 1869 curtailed temporarily this revival of Lee’s social life. He not only continued his own responsibilities but also tried to ease the loss for his mother and brothers. Though not unexpected, his father’s demise saddened Fitz and heightened his realization that his former mode of life was gone forever.14 The death of his beloved brother caused Robert Edward Lee to redouble his interest in his nephew’s affairs. Fitz received numerous letters concerning finances and other family affairs from his uncle who wrote: “I am pretty pleased my dear nephew that you are possessed of so good and profitable a farm. With your industry and energy I am sure that you will make a happy home for yourself, mother, and brothers.”15 The gentle chiding on the subject of young ladies was also continued. In 1869 and 1870, Fitz received advice and comments on other matters from his illustrious uncle. In addition to discussions of their war-time experiences, General Lee worked to convince his nephew that reestablishment of harmonious relations between the North and South was a necessity for the country’s salvation. Although Fitz joked about being an “old rebel” and “unreconstructed,” General Lee had personally committed himself to a conciliatory course and wanted Fitz to follow in his footsteps. In a confidential letter to “my dear Fitz” he expressed the reasons for his resolution: “I thought it wiser not to keep open the sores of Civil War, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate its marks and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”16 Much of Fitz’s subsequent efforts to achieve true national unity sprang from these letters and contemporaneous conversations with his uncle. When his beloved uncle died in October 1870, Fitz sustained a loss nearly comparable to that of the earlier death of his father.

Despite the subtle urging of his father and uncle during their last year, Fitzhugh Lee did not marry until 1871. Prior to that date, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with a number of female friends and enjoyed their accounts of various social events, especially in Alexandria and Richmond. However, since he felt bound to remain at “Richland” during the ploughing and harvesting seasons, his social life was spasmodic and often limited. In the months after his father’s death, Lee experienced sporadic moments of loneliness and a feeling of isolation as his brothers accepted employment away from home. His complacent life at “Richland” was sometimes palling for the worldly ex-cavalryman, and he implored from one female friend: “Give me the Richmond news, you know we thirst for news in the country.”17 His mind dwelt on marriage at times but it was not until June 1780 that he fully concentrated his attentions on an eighteen year old Alexandria belle, Miss Ellen Bernard Fowle. After a year’s courtship the thirty-six-year-old ex-cavalryman and war hero married his young bride on April 19, 1871.18

Lee brought his bride to “Richland” and his loneliness evaporated as he embarked on a happy and satisfactory marriage. For the first dozen years of their union, the Lees lived there but they made frequent journeys to Alexandria. From 1871 until he became governor, their personal life was typical of prosperous post-war Virginia farmers in the Tidewater section. The years were happy ones for the couple—though there were periods of heartbreak early in their marriage when two babies died in infancy—and they became the proud parents of three daughters and two sons. As Fitz entered into a contented middle-age, his appearance changed from a slender, dashing cavalryman to a stout, jovial husband and father—but he still sat well on a horse. Being a natural storyteller, this convivial man spent countless hours telling his wife and children the stirring and entertaining experiences of his frontier and war years with the cavalry of two nations. These stories influenced Nellie (Ellen’s nickname) to become active in the ladies’ auxiliaries of various Confederate organizations and instilled Lee’s love for the cavalry in his children. His two sons served in the seventh United States Cavalry Regiment and his three daughters married officers in that same regiment.19 Fortunately for Fitzhugh Lee, his personal life was never subjected to reverses comparable to those he received in his professional and in his later public life. Moreover, the family prospered materially, and after the death of Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh (in 1874), Lee was financially independent. His godmother made Fitz a principal beneficiary and one of her three executors. His bequest amounted to a total value in excess of $100,000, which of course enabled him to devote more attention to other interests beside farming.20

While the deaths of three persons who had influenced him since his childhood impressed the finality of the past on him personally, Lee reappeared as a public figure because he instigated a dispute that stirred memories of a bygone era. The dispute revolved around General George H. Thomas (the “Rock of Chickamauga”), a fellow Virginian who had become a Union general and a Northern hero. During the War, Southern newspapers had scathingly denounced Thomas as a traitor to his state and section while printing the accusation that Thomas did not resign because the Southern offer for his services was not as high as the Union one.21 Fitzhugh Lee, who had served with Thomas (then a major) in the Old Second Cavalry Regiment, considered him an honorable soldier and did not publicly subscribe to the extreme wartime journalistic allegations made against Thomas; yet it was Lee who launched the postwar “Thomas controversy” which alternately flamed and smoldered for over a decade among soldiers, newspapers, and other interested segments of the population.22 The controversy deserves a brief mention for two reasons: first, it involved Fitz intimately, and secondly, it reflected the spirit of his times—the passions of war were all too easily revived with Appomattox only five years behind, and Fitz was directly and indirectly affected by the reactions of others to these passions.

When Thomas died in March 1870, Fitz was asked to comment on proposals in Northern newspapers for the erection of a Thomas monument in Virginia. Lee was still avidly interested in military matters and wrote a candid letter which was published in the Richmond Dispatch on April 23. In the letter he stated that since General Thomas had fought against Virginia, the state could hardly be expected to erect a monument to his memory. After disposing of this suggestion, however, Lee gratified his desire to criticize those obituaries stressing that Thomas was “a Virginian who never faltered in his allegiance to the Union.” He wrote that Northerners should leave that part out since Thomas “told me in new York City, in 1861, as I was on my way—to resign my commission—that he, too, intended to resign, and would soon follow me.” The résumé of this conversation was followed by a statement of Lee’s belief that Thomas had offered his services to John Letcher, the wartime governor of Virginia. While this portion of his letter created an uproar, in reality the last paragraph of the letter (which was largely ignored) was more expressive of Lee’s feeling at the time:

He [Thomas] was an upright, kind-hearted man and fought well against us. Let him rest in peace; and let Virginia keep her vials of wrath to be forever poured out upon he heads of some few of her citizens who would not fight upon either side, but who stayed at home and made money by being paid by the North as spies, guides, and informers, or who, after having fought, having acted as if they were ashamed of their past record.23

As the letter demonstrates, Lee’s bias in favor of soldiers withstood the sectional political schism as long as he believed a soldier had acted honorably.

The recital of his conversation with Thomas was pounced upon by Northern journalists and ex-Union soldiers, who immediately accused Lee of reviving the wartime chares against the dead “Rock of Chickamauga.” Abuse was heaped on the “ex-rebel” specifically, it was claimed that he was a slanderer of the dead, an “unreconstructed rebel,” and a prevaricator of the worst sort.24 Even though Fitz declined to take further public part in the matter, other Southerners were less reticent in replying to the Northern outcry and soon his account was supported or condemned by other participants in the controversy.25 No positive evidence was ever unearthed to prove or disprove Lee’s statement, albeit some inconclusive evidence against Thomas was offered by Governor Letcher (which added fuel to the fire).26 Perhaps an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner came closest to giving a national explanation of the controversy and Lee’s role in it—at least, this editorial was nearer to Lee’s true feelings on the subject than any other. The editorial, written at the beginning of the furor, emphasized that at least Fitzhugh Lee thought what he had written was the unvarnished truth; further, his statement that Thomas had considered resigning was not slanderous since the first “natural impulse of every true man” would be to side with his state. The Examiner hoped Thomas had been doubtful about remaining with the Union since such doubt made him less “cold-blooded” and more of a man. The writer concluded with a plea to end sectional animosity and the use of “loyalty as a cloak for robbery and an apology for the hugest crimes” ever perpetuated by politicians.27

The bitterness of the Thomas controversy shocked Lee to some extent since he himself had little vindictiveness against his former foes on the battlefield. His primary interest as the time was the desire for historical accuracy; hence, he was surprised at the minor whirlwind he had sown. He was—like many other generals and soldiers, both Northern and Southern—interested in getting the facts (as he viewed them) of the late conflict recorded properly not only for his own generation but also for posterity. He was acutely conscious in 1870 that the record should be as complete as possible because he was actively engaged in a minute examination of unsubstantiated charges of incompetence against himself concerning the battle at Five Forks.28 Probably this consciousness for detail led him to challenge the statements in some Thomas obituaries. In any event, the Thomas affair heightened his interest in examining the war’s history, led him to take a more active role in Confederate memorial organizations, and impressed upon his mind how broad the chasm was between Northern and Southern veterans.29

In the 1870s, the ex-Confederate general gradually committed himself to the task of doing whatever he could to restore unity to his country—to eradicate those sources of discord between the sections which had been vividly impressed upon him after the release of his Thomas letter. The treatment of his parole by Washington authorities and the whole amnesty program amplified his feeling that Radical Reconstruction was the chief contributor to sectional rancor. Yet he agreed with General Robert Edward Lee that the War was over and former Confederates should devote their talents to restoring Southern fortunes within the framework of he Union. While retaining his belief that the Southern cause had been right and just, he accepted the dictum that victory on the battlefield meant that the Northern concept of the Union would prevail.30 His stance as a proponent of reconciliation at times seemed paradoxical and inconsistent; but one should not his subjection to such diverse influences and pressures as his name and ancestry, his war experiences, the loss of his career, his views of politicians and their handiwork during the secession crisis and Radical Reconstruction, his friends and comrades, his intelligence in perceiving that many persons had a vested interest in sectional disharmony, and the national political scene from 1865 to 1898. Nevertheless, from the 1870s until his death, he sincerely pleaded for true national reunion while he sought to improve the status of his state and section within that nation.

In no way had Lee acted as a “fire-eating” Southerner during the Thomas dispute but, nonetheless, his stature did rise among those Southerners who viewed him as an able opponent of Northern attempts to falsify history. His credentials as a pillar of the Old Order were augmented when he became president of a veterans’ organization in 1871. It is ironic that he initiated his efforts on behalf of reconciliation in the very bastion of supposedly “unreconstructed rebels.” At the Capitol in Richmond in November 1871, he presided over the formation of a Virginia division for the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia and was elected its first president. Among the members were his army intimates such as Generals T. T. Munford (his ranking subordinate during most of the War) and W. H. F. Lee (Uncle Robert’s son) as well as the budding politicians, Major John W. Daniel and Colonel F. W. M. Holliday.31 With these men and others who had actually fought, “General Fitz” spent many hours of delightful camaraderie and pleasant but argumentative discussions of former battles. Indeed, attending gatherings of this and similar groups was one of his chief forms of recreation during the postwar decade.32 From these conversations with his former comrades, Fitz reached he conclusion that veterans were possibly the least vindictive segment of the Southern populace regarding the sectional conflict. It was to these men that he voiced his appeals that although Southerners should not forget the memories or deeds of their dead, they should be “willing to let the dead past bury its dead so far as the animosities of the war are concerned.” He especially urged his fellow veterans to reciprocate the sentiments of various “soldiers of the Federal Army to bury the hatchet.”33

The dramatic event which gave Fitzhugh Lee national recognition as one of the leading Southern proponents of reconciliation was his appearance in Boston for the Bunker Hill Centennial Celebration. Many Americans hoped the Revolutionary centennial observances would not only honor the nation’s birth but also dilute the estrangements caused by the Civil War. The first Northern celebration, at Lexington in April 1875, was attended by several Southerners including a contingent of South Carolina Confederate veterans.34 The note of harmony which appeared at Lexington (and Concord) encouraged the planners of the Bunker Hill rites. Confederate regiments were invited to participate in the parades while Fitz was requested to be the principal Southern speaker. Lee and his fellow Southerners participated fully in all the ceremonies, and their presence was loudly cheered by the Northern crowds. Fitz himself received a place of honor alongside Henry Wilson (Vice-President of the United States), General William T. Sherman, and other dignitaries.35

On June 16, the eve of the celebration, Fitz made his principal address and it—along with the responses from Northerners to his words—set the tone of conciliation which prevailed throughout the proceedings. Fitz opened his remarks with a statement to the assembly that he was a Confederate but “when I reflect that I am an American citizen—that I, too, am a descendant of those men who fought on Bunker Hill—I feel that I, too, have a right to be here to celebrate their splendid deeds.” He reminded the audience that his Virginia had furnished George Washington and others “in those days of darkness” when the country was threatened. He emphasized his belief that now the nation would again stand united against its foes and bind up its wounds. “When my eyes look on yours, beaming with friendliness and heartfelt goodwill toward me and mine,” he continued, this belief was confirmed. Lee also stressed that many Southerners were anxious for reconciliation and appreciated recent Northern overtures towards restoring sectional harmony:

We are here to show by our actual presence that we are fully in sympathy with the sentiment which found expression upon the recent Decoration Days, when loving hands entwined beautiful flowers about the graves of the soldiers of both armies without distinction.36

Throughout the three days of the celebration similar sentiments were exchanged, especially among the veterans of both armies.37

Upon his return to Norfolk with the Light Artillery Blues who had accompanied him, Fitz addressed a reception of Virginians and stated that he believed their trip had accomplished some good for “our state, our people, and all sections of a common country.” His Norfolk speech was far too optimistic and melodramatic, but he did voice the hopes of countless Americans when he described his reception in the North and speculated on its importance:

Do you know what all that means? It means at that end of he line (Boston) precisely what the outpouring of your people at this end of the line to meet us upon our return means, viz.: that the people of this country have taken this matter of reconstruction out of the hands of the politicians. That the crust which separated them has been broken at last and men of the North and South are at last allowed to see each other face to face.38

Of course, Lee’s fond expectations and desires for immediate reconciliation between the sections was not realized, but his feeling and his subsequent speeches in later years, along with the activities of other men of similar outlook and stature, were instrumental in restoring he unity of the nation during the generation after Appomattox. Not all Southerners were pleased with Fitz’s efforts—including some of his personal friends in Virginia such as General Jubal Early—but he remained a sincere champion of sectional harmony. For the thirty years he lived after his Bunker Hill address, he expressed these sentiments publicly before audiences in the South, North, and West, as well as in private.39

While he worked for national accord, Lee also sought other ways to benefit his state and section. As he viewed the matter, the South’s salvation lay jointly in attaining full political participation in national affairs again in acquiring Northern investment capital.40 Although he hoped to propel the South into the mainstream of economic progress enjoyed by the nation, his efforts were first concentrated on improving the economic conditions of his neighborhood. As President of the Rappahannock and Potomac Immigration Society, he launched a campaign in 1875 to bring to the Fredericksburg (Virginia) area Northern farmers who possessed sufficient capital to restore the worn-out soil and to experiment with agricultural techniques. With the good wishes of Commonwealth authorities, Fitz spoke to a national meeting of immigration societies in New York and stressed the Virginia need not for more “carpet-baggers” but for immigrants who were interested in making long-term investments and becoming permanent residents.41 His interest in reviving Virginia and Southern agriculture eventually expanded to include all kinds of commercial ventures. By December 1878, as President of the Convention for the Promotion of American Commerce (held in New Orleans), he was an ardent booster of all phases of economic endeavor.42 For the remainder of his life, in both a public and private capacity, he retained his interest in advancing the material progress of Virginia and the South.43

Despite his pleas for sectional accommodation and his efforts to change the traditional economic patters of the South, Fitzhugh Lee remained a symbol of the Old South to most Southerners during the last forty years of his life (1865–1905). One of the reasons for the persistence of this image was his well-known attitude towards the sectional conflict—he believed that sectional animosities should be buried but he strongly disassociated himself from those Southerners who completely recanted their beliefs of 1861–1865. He never wavered in his dogma that the “lost cause” had been just and correct in theory, nor did he retreat from his insistence that the South should honor and treasure the valor of the leaders and followers of the Confederacy. His dislike for “those who can see nothing good except in their respective sections” was strong, but it was exceeded by his contempt for those Southerners who renounced their heritage for temporary gains from the victor.44 Thus the “Gettysburg controversy” (a historical controversy which raged intermittently during the last quarter of the nineteenth century) involved not only his name but his creed.45 To him, it was a purely Southern squabble and consequently outside the realm of his reconciliatory activities; yet the affair ultimately enhanced his position as a promoter of harmony.

The heart of the issue in the verbal war over Gettysburg was the caliber of generalship of Robert Edward Lee versus that of his ranking subordinate, James Longstreet. Longstreet felt that Gettysburg could not have been a Confederate victory under the circumstances and therefore it was folly on the part of his commander to have fought there, while the Lee partisans maintained that Longstreet was more responsible for the defeat than anyone else. Ironically for Fitzhugh Lee, his section’s rancor resulting from postwar political developments inflamed passions in this quarrel among former Confederates. Longstreet, who joined the Republicans in 1867, had become estranged from most of his wartime comrades.46 His political conduct only two years after Appomattox made him an apostate, but criticism of his war service was not voiced until the 1870s. General Jubal A. Early of Virginia, in a public address in January 1872, laid the foundation for the controversy when he alleged that Longstreet had attempted to shirk any responsibility for the Gettysburg catastrophes ever since the battle. A year later, an intemperate speech by General William N. Pendleton further angered Longstreet and prompted him to commence preparation of a defense for his actions.47 While he had talked with Northern writers after the War about his views on Gettysburg, Longstreet believed, with some justification, that his political activity was the reason for the attacks.48 Unfortunately, his rebuttal of a supposed mare’s nest stirred up a hornet’s nest.

After collecting as much evidence as possible, Longstreet fired the opening salvo in his counterattack in January 1876. His refutation of Pendleton’s charge of disobedience was partially successful but he did not leave well enough alone. Stung to the quick, he attempted to besmirch the genius of his famous commander. In an article partly written by him and published in the New Orleans Republican on January 25, 1876, Longstreet gave his account of Lee’s actions at Gettysburg and noted: “Lee saw and acknowledged his error . . . in attempting to carry out his rash policy.” He also quoted one sentence from a letter supposedly written by Lee to him in January 1864 as follows: “Had I taken your advice at Gettysburg instead of pursuing the course I did how different all might have been.”49 The article roused the fury of several Confederate officers including Fitz, who thought Longstreet was simply taking advantage of his late uncle’s well-known policy of shouldering complete responsibility for reverses. In reply to a polite request of Fitz for publication of the complete letter, Longstreet sent the Republican a provocative communication which was printed on February 27. In it, he denied the request with caustic references to his critics, impugning their motives.50 this intemperance—along with a vociferous attack by Early—precluded confinement of the argument to an analysis of the military facts. Indeed, since even his recent biographer concludes that the 1864 letter was a figment of his imagination, Longstreet was probably compelled to relieve his discomfiture by the use of vilification.51

With the refusal of Longstreet to publish his letter from General Lee, the acrimonious disagreement expanded to a minute examination of the tactical aspects of the original battle.52 Fitzhugh Lee and the other critics centered their attack on the events of July 2, 1863, the second day of the engagement. They maintained that Longstreet’s protests and slowness in moving his troops had caused the Confederate attack to be delayed until four o’clock in the afternoon, much later than General Lee had expected, and when the chances for success had been immeasurably reduced. Consequently, Longstreet was the chief architect of the Southern disaster.53 In his first public statement on the tactical aspects, Fitz noted Longstreet’s slowness and maintained “that an attack made . . . anytime before twelve o’clock . . . would have embraced many elements of success; and from all I have heard and believe, such an attack was ordered [by General Lee to Longstreet].” Considering his strong feeling on the mater, Fitz—unlike some of the other Longstreet antagonists—exercised admirable restraint in this and later articles and frankly admitted that his own opinions were “based upon conversations with other officers, including the Commanding-General himself, and the perusal of official reports and histories of both sides.” Moreover, he promised to seek the testimony of a host of participants, including Longstreet, and outlined his plans: “Were I writing history, I should like to have the opinions of these officers upon this subject, from which, with the official reports in my possession, I would of course draw and write my own conclusions.”54

The controversy lingered for over twenty more years without definite conclusions being reached before it finally lapsed into oblivion. The anti-Longstreet articles discredited the attempt to degrade the great Confederate commander, but the countercharge that Longstreet caused General Lee to lose the battle was never proved satisfactorily. In general, the Gettysburg controversy was beneficial to the public image of Fitzhugh Lee. Longstreet, in at least three different accounts of his actions at Gettysburg, fired several stinging verbal barbs at Fitz and others but Lee did not reply in kind. Instead, his quest for the truth led Lee to renew his acquaintance with a large number of Southern, and even Northern, officers.55 The material he collected from them and other sources, when added to his personal experiences, enabled him to speak and write in an authoritative and scholarly manner on the Civil War. His speech, “The Battle of Chancellorsville,” first delivered to a reunion of the Army of Northern Virginia on October 29, 1879, became a classic. Using this speech and others, he appeared before countless audiences both in the North and the South.56 His tours on behalf of the Southern Historical Society in 1882 and 1883 were sufficiently remunerate to provide hat organization with a firm financial foundation.57 His correspondence regarding the Longstreet attack also contributed to his well-received biography of General Lee which was published in 1894.58 These developments contributed to his stature in the eyes of many Southerners.

His stance as a defender of his uncle (who was equated with the very essence of Southern glory and honor by many) against Longstreet also gave a boost to his reconciliatory efforts. The mantle of Robert Edward Lee enveloped Fitz during the late 1870s. The renowned nephew, as a true champion of the Confederacy and its leading hero, could speak frankly without suffering odious recriminations from “unreconstructed” Southerners. His standing in the South also elicited greater attention from Northerners when he spoke about Southern desired to end sectional ill will. His increased appearances in the North after 1875 were well received and sometimes presented dramatic gestures of national reunion. For example, Lee (among others) represented the South at the funeral of General U. S. Grant in 1885.59 In that same year, he was appointed to the West Point Board of Visitors with the personal endorsement of Philip H. Sheridan, then commanding general of the United States Army.60 His continuing efforts to alleviate sectional bitterness in subsequent years led to the following comment in the New York Times upon his death in 1905: “There is no man in the South, and no man in the United States, who contributed more than Fitzhugh Lee to form, after the division of the Civil War, ‘a more perfect union’.”61


1 Walter L. Fleming (ed.). Biography, Vol. XII of The South in the Building of the Nation (12 vols.; Richmond, 1909), 70–71; J. W. Jones, “Fitzhugh Lee,” Annual Reunion of the Association of Graduates, USMA (West Point, New York, 1905), 101–113; New York Times, April 29, 30, 1905; Atlanta Constitution, April 29, 20, May 1, 1905; Mary Vowell Smith, Virginia, 1492–1892: A Brief Review of the Discovery of the Continent of North America, with A History of the Executives of the Colony and of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Washington, 1893), 399–402.

2 Interview with Mr. Fitzhugh Lee Opie, Alexandria, Virginia, September 21, 1967; Stephen Hess, America’s Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy (Garden City, N.Y., 1966), 76–77, 80, 540; Lee to General Joseph E. Johnston, September 30, 1866, Franklin Stringfellow Papers, Virginia Historical Society (by this date Lee referred to the late military conflict as the struggle for a “lost cause”!).

3 Jonathan T. Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson: The Restoration of the Confederates to Their Rights and Privileges, 1861–1898 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1953), 35, 111–113; Randall and Donald, Civil War and Reconstruction, 580–586.

4 Nash K. Burger and John K. Bettersworth, South of Appomattox (New York, 1959), 23–53.

5 Lee to Johnson, July 7, 1865, Opie Papers. Lee’s movements were somewhat restricted by the Department of Virginia, U.S. Army; see Edward Smith to Albert Ordnay, October 5, 1865, ibid.

6 Lee to M. M. Kimmel, August 12, 1866, ibid.

7 Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography (New York, 1935), IV, 381; see also Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty, 119–134, and Paul H. Buck, Road to Reunion (Boston, 1937), 125–126. Lee showed little interest in the events that specifically pertained to Virginia during Reconstruction. Perhaps his lack of interest in Reconstruction in the state resulted from his indictment by officials at the national level. Although he made no public statements, he was critical to his intimates of the general Reconstruction policies which affected all Southern states.

8 Lee to Henry C. Lee, July 31, 1869, Robert Carter Lee Papers, Virginia Historical Society; Lee to R. E. Lee, September 7, 1865; R.E. to S. S. Lee, April 16, 1867, and July 1, 1867; all in Opie Papers; “Mother of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee,” The Confederate Veteran, VI (1898), 501–502.

9 Lee to Nannie Enders, September 23, and April 8, 1866, Opie Papers.

10 Lee to R. E. Lee, September 7, 1865, and R. E. Lee to Lee, September 1, 1865, ibid.,

11 Lee to M. M. Kimmel, August 12, 1866, and October 1, 1867; Lee to Nannie Enders, April 8, 1866 and October 21, 1869; R. E. Lee to S. S. Lee, April 16 and June 26, 1867; ibid. See also J. H. Chataigne, Virginia Gazetteer and Classified Business Directory, 1880–81 (Richmond, 1880).

12 Lee to Kimmel, October 1, 1867, Opie Papers. The employees with whom he worked in the fields consisted of five freedmen, an immigrant, a woman, and two boys.

13 R. E. Lee to S. S. Lee, February 20, 1869; see also, Lee to Nannie Enders, October 25, 1867, January 3, February 18, March 7, and July 5, 1869; ibid.

14 Unmailed letter from Lee to unknown recipient, July 31, 1869, R. A. Brock Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, Calif.; Lee to Henry C. Lee, July 31, 1869, Robert Carter Lee Papers, Virginia Historical Society.

15 R. E. Lee to Lee, September 7, 1869; see also R. E. Lee to Lee, October 1, 1869, January 29 and July 22, 1870; ibid.

16 R. E. Lee to lee, August 5, 1869; see also R. E. Lee to Lee, July 29, 1869, and March 9, 1870; ibid.

17 Lee to Nannie Enders, November 16, 1869, ibid.

18 Alexander, Stratford Hall, 389; see also Lee to Ellen Fowle, June 5, 1870, and two undated notes (ca. 1870), Opie Papers.

19 Lee to R. A. Brock, June 22, 1888, Brock Papers, Huntington Library; “Mrs. Fitzhugh Lee,” The Confederate Veteran, V (1897), 125; Hess, America’s Political Dynasties, 77; J. W. Jones to Jr. R. Kean, December 27, 1905, J. R. Kean Papers, University of Virginia Library.

20 The amount Fitz inherited after Mrs. Fitzhugh’s death on April 4, 1874, is based on her will and the following documents pertaining to her estate found in the Opie Papers: tax statement to M. B. Harlow, treasurer of Alexandria, October 16, 1877; M. B. Harlow to Lee, January 13, 1880; Lee to John E. Massey, Auditor of Public Accounts, July 4, 1881; Massey to Lee, July 21, and August 24, 1881; Charles Kerr, G. W. C. Lee, and Fitz Lee to S. Brown Allen, Auditor of Public Accounts, undated.

21 Thomas B. Van Horne, The Life of Major-General George H. Thomas (New York, 1882), 25; Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga (New York, 1948), 115–119.

22 Ibid.: see also F. N. Boney, John Letcher of Virginia: The Story of Virginia’s Civil War Governor (University, Alabama, 1966), 106, 166–167.

23 Richmond Dispatch, April 23, 1870; see also William Mahone to John Letcher, February 6, 1861, and Letcher to Fitzhugh Lee, June 20, 1870, John Letcher Papers, Virginia Military Institute.

24 W. W. Foote to Lee, May 9, 1870, with enclosed undated newspaper clipping and W. F. Dimkaid to Lee, May 24, 1870, with enclosed newspaper clipping dated May 13, 1870, Opie Papers; see also Wilbur Thomas, General George H. Thomas: The Indomitable Warrior (New York, 1964), 133–135, 606.

25 “Notes and Queries,” Southern Historical Society Papers, X, (1882), 524–525 and XII (1884), 568–5770; Francis H. Smith to Mrs. George H. Thomas, February 8, 1876, Opie Papers.

26 Boney, John Letcher, 106, 266–267.

27 San Francisco Examiner, May 10, 1870.

28 General George Pickett to Lee, May 24, 1870, and Thomas Munford to H. C. Lee, August 2, 1870, Opie Papers.

29 By the late 1870s, Fitz was a popular speaker to audiences interested in the War, although his speeches contained a voluminous amount of historical detail; see especially his address “Chancellorsville,” first delivered to a group of Confederate veterans on October 29, 1879, printed in John Wm. Jones, Army of Northern Virginia Memorial Volume (Richmond, 1880), 293–333; New York Times, December 26, 1882.

30 For example, see his introduction to a biography of his ancestor: Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason (New York, 1892), I, vii–xi; and Charles G. Sellers, Jr., “The American Revolution: Southern Founders of a National Tradition,” in Arthur S. Link and Rembert W. Patrick, (eds.), Writing Southern History: Essays in Historiography in Honor of Fletcher M. Green (Baton Rouge, La., 1965), 60–61.

31 “Ledger and Minutes of the Virginia Division of the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, 1871–1894,” in the collection entitled “Items from Cooper’s Old Book Store, Richmond,̶ University of Virginia Library.

32 New York Times, December 20, 1874; John A. Cutchins, A Famous Command: The Richmond Light Infantry Blues (Richmond, 1934), 181; Lee to President of Richmond City Council, April 9, 1873, Brock Papers, Huntington Library; Proceedings of the Second Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Society (Richmond, 1874), 3.

33 “Ledger of Virginia Division, Army of Northern Virginia,” in “Items from Cooper’s Book Store.” Fitz also renewed some pre-1861 friendships with U.S. cavalrymen, including Bugler Hayes; see George Armes, Ups and Downs of an Army Officer (Washington, 1900), 393.

34 Proceedings at the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1875 (Boston, 1875), 47, 49–50, 100, 108, 135–136.

35 New York Times, June 20, 1875; Celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill (Boston, 1875), 36, 47.

36 Celebration of Bunker Hill, 42–43.

37 Ibid., 43–47, 117–124, 138; for a general account of the celebration’s significance, see Paul H. Buck, The Road to Reunion (Boston, 1937), 134–137. Harpers’ Weekly and The Nation devoted extensive coverage to the 1875 celebration.

38 New York Times, June 25, 1875; miscellaneous newspaper clippings, June 1875, Opie Papers.

39 James L. Kemper to Lee, November 4, 1875, Opie Papers; E. G. W. Butler to Jefferson Davis, April 11, 1883, printed in Dunbar Rowland, Jefferson Davis: Constitutionalist, His Letters, Papers, and Speeches (Jackson, Miss., 1923), IX, 207–208.

40 His views on the South’s need for integration into national economic and political life made him receptive to the concept which was later popularly labeled—primarily as a result of publicity initiated during the 1880s by Henry Grady, an Atlanta journalist—the “New South” creed. Lee’s role in the New South movement in Virginia during his gubernatorial and post-gubernatorial years is discussed in Chapter VI.

41 “Speech made in New York by Gen. Fitzhugh Lee on Immigration,” The Southern Planter and Farmer, XXVII (January, 1876), 13–15; “Synopsis of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Address Exhibiting His Plan to Secure Immigration to Virginia,” The Southern Planter and Farmer, XXXVII (February, 1876), 118–122; Addison Borst to J. L. Kemper, August 16 and 18, 1875, and Borst to State Board of Immigration, August 23 and 19, 1875, Brock Papers, Huntington Library.

42 Cullum, Biographical Register of West Point, II, 672.

43 At the time of his death in 1905, he was serving as president of the Jamestown Exposition, an undertaking designed to accelerate regional economic expansion as well as to instill pride in the Virginia heritage. His participation in the Jamestown enterprise will be discussed in Chapter VIII.

44 Lee to Theodore Gerrish and John S. Hutchinson, September 24, 1883, printed in the introduction of Gerrish and Hutchinson, The Blue and Gray: A Graphic History (Bangor, Me., 1884), 25–26; for Lee’s critical attitude towards the national government in the 1870s, see Lee to an unknown general, December 3, 1873, Fitzhugh Lee Miscellaneous Papers, University of Virginia Library.

45 For a brief general account of the controversy, see Claude M. Morgan, “The Gettysburg Controversy,” The United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine, XXX (December 1967), 11 30–35.

46 R. E. Lee to Longstreet, October 29, 1867, letterbook copy in Lee Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society; James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memories of the Civil War in America (Philadelphia, 1896), 401.

47 Helen D. Longstreet, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide; Gettysburg in Light of the Official Records (Gainesville, Ga., 1905), 56–58; “The Gettysburg Campaign: Report of Major General J. A. Early,” Southern Magazine, XI (October 1872).

48 T. H. Goree to Longstreet, May 17, 1875, partially quoted in Donald B. Sanger and Thomas R. Hay, James Longstreet: Soldier, Politician, Officeholder, and Writer (Baton Rouge, La., 1952), 414–415.

49 New Orleans Republican, January 25, 1876; New York Times, January 29, 1876.

50 New York Times, February 13, 1876; New Orleans Republican February 27, 1876.

51 Sanger and Hay, James Longstreet, 418, 426.

52 Ibid., 420–426. Longstreet’s initial account appeared in the Philadelphia Times, November 3, 1877; several Southern accounts of the battle appeared in 1877 and 1878 in the Southern Historical Society Papers, see especially John W. Jones, “Our Gettysburg Series,” see especially John W. Jones, “Our Gettysburg Series,” Southern Historical Society Papers, V (1878), 87–89.

53 For example, see Jubal A. Early, “Leading Confederates on the Battle of Gettysburg: A Review by General Early,” IV (1877), 241–281, and “General Early’s Second Reply to Longstreet,” V (1878), 270–288, in Southern Historical Society Papers.

54 Lee to J. W. Jones, March 5, 1877, published in ibid., IV 69–77. Lee’s principal article was, “A Review of the First Two Days’ Operations at Gettysburg and a Reply to General Longstreet,” ibid., V, 162–194.

55 Lee to Jones, March 21, 1876, Brock Papers, Huntington Library; Lee to H. B. McClellan, July 31, 1878, H. B. McClellan Papers, Virginia Historical Society.

56 Jones, Army of Northern Virginia Memorial Volume, 293–333; New York Times, December 26, 1882, and February 8, 1883.

57 “General Fitzhugh Lee’s Tour,” X (1882), 569–574, and “General Fitzhugh Lee’s Second Tour in Behalf of the Southern Historical Society,” XI (1883), 228–238, in Southern Historical Society Papers.

58 Lee to Charles Venable, June 23, 1891, Charles Scott Venable Papers, Virginia Historical Society.

59 Harper’s Weekly, August 15, 1885; Nation, August 13, 1885.

60 P. H. Sheridan’s Endorsement of F. Lee to Board of Visitors of the U.S. Military Academy, April 8, 1885, copy in Opie Papers. For his formal appointment, see William C. Endicott to Lee, May 9, 1885, ibid.

61 New York Times, April 29, 1905.

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