General Fitzhugh Lee, 1835–8211;1905: A Biographical Study, by Harry Warren Readnour


By Harry Warren Readnour

Fitzhugh Lee was born on November 19, 1835, in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was the grandson of General “Light Horse Harry” Lee and the nephew of General Robert Edward Lee. His father, Sidney Smith Lee, served as a fleet captain under Commodore Perry in the voyage to reopen Japan (1852–1854). His mother, Anna Maria Mason, was a granddaughter of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights.

In 1852, “Fitz” Lee entered West Point where he excelled in horsemanship but narrowly escaped dismissal for his pranks. In 1858, he was assigned to the Second Cavalry in Texas. As a subaltern under Major Earl Van Dorn, he distinguished himself by gallant conduct in actions against the Comanches. He returned to West Point as a cavalry instructor in 1860.

Lee opposed secession but when Virginia withdrew from the Union, he followed the examples of his father and uncle by resigning his commission. Thereupon, he entered the Confederate army and spent most of the war as a cavalryman in his uncle’s Army of Northern Virginia. As a trusted lieutenant of General “Jeb” Stuart, he participated in many of the notable cavalry operations. Perhaps his greatest service was at Chancellorsville, where he performed invaluable reconnaissance for General “Stonewall” Jackson. During the war, he proved to be skillful in tactics and reconnaissance and won a reputation as an active leader who conducted hard-hitting campaigns. He was promoted to major general on September 3, 1863, and ended his career by serving as senior cavalry commander during the retreat from Richmond to Appomattox in April 1865.

Following Appomattox, Lee engaged in farming in Stafford county, Virginia. In the 1870’s, his conspicuous efforts to bring reconciliation between the sections were counterbalanced by his ardent defense of the generalship of R. E. Lee against all critics. In 1877, his wartime comrades failed to secure the gubernatorial nomination of the Virginia Conservative party for him, but, in 1855, the revitalized Democratic party selected Lee as its gubernatorial candidate.

As governor of Virginia (1866–1890), Lee devoted himself to bringing stability to state finances. In general, he allowed the Democratic-controlled legislature to make policy decisions while he remained aloof from politics. His tenure was characterized by an economic “boom,” and Governor Lee was an active participant in the New South movement. After 1890, he headed a company which sought to establish a new industrial city in the Valley of Virginia but the enterprise collapsed following the Panic of 1893. Concurrent with this economic setback, Lee unexpectedly failed to win the United States senatorial nomination by the Democratic state legislative caucus in 1893. His victorious opponent, Thomas Staples Martin, Jr., emerged as the undisputed leader of the Democratic “organization” in Virginia for the next quarter-century.

In April 1896, President Cleveland appointed Lee consul-general in Havana, where he performed duties of a diplomatic and military character in the midst of the Cuban insurrection against Spain (1895–1898). Although he believed only American intervention would restore peace, he tried to implement the Cleveland policy of non-intervention. His zealous defense of American interests aroused the ire of Spanish officials, but Republican President McKinley retained him in the post. In April 1898, following the declaration of the war against Spain, Lee received a commission as major general of volunteers in command of the Seventh Army Corps. His command did not participate in the fighting, but he served two years with the American occupation forces in Cuba where he worked to aid national recover. He urged the granting of Cuban independence; however, he expected an eventual voluntary union of Cuba with the United States.

In 1901, he retired from the army and, in 1902, accepted the presidency of he Jamestown Exposition Company (chartered to promote the Jamestown Tercentennial Celebration of 1907). His death on April 28, 1905, cut short this last major venture.


Harry Warren Readnour
Wynnewood, Oklahoma

B.A., Oklahoma State University, 1961
M.A., George Washington University, 1965

A Dissertation Presented to the Graduate
Faculty of the University of Virginia
in Candidacy for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia

[(Signed)] Edward Younger
[(Signed)] Richard G. Lowe




During his lifetime, Fitzhugh Lee witnessed not only the ordinary events of mankind but also more than a few of the epoch-making ones. He could well have posed the query of Aeschines, an ancient Athenian orator:

What is there in the list of strange and unexpected events that has not occurred in our time? Our lives have transcended the limits of humanity; we are born to serve as a theme of incredible tales to posterity.1

Lee had the good fortune and the bad luck to participate in and, at other times, merely to observe one of the most fascinating periods of our history.

Born in 1835, he was a citizen of a young nation sparsely settled except along the Atlantic seaboard. The country’s economy rested on agriculture, mostly subsistence, but with some immense tobacco, rice, and cotton plantations in the South. Although there were settlements west of the Mississippi River, the core of the nation consisted of the area between this river and the Atlantic Ocean. At his birth, America was engaged in one of the most turbulent political struggles since the formation of the Republic—the so-called “Bank War.” Fitzhugh Lee, during his Biblical three score and ten years, was destined to see many great changes and struggles of which the Bank War was but a tame premonition. In the course of these struggles, and by the time of his death in 1905, Lee’s America had become a territorial giant straddling the continent, a major industrial nation, and a world power.

As a boy, he watched his uncle (Robert Edward Lee) and father (Sidney Smith Lee) leave for Mexico to take part in the winning of an empire in the Southwest. Later, his father, by sailing into Yokohama Bay with Commodore Perry, contributed not only to the American transformation but also that of the world. As a young man, Lieutenant Fitz Lee journeyed to the West and viewed the beginning of a new civilization there. Fighting in the Indian wars, he was closely exposed to the opposition to change exhibited by the defenders of an Old Order. Soon after, in 1861, came the watershed of his life. He was intimately involved in the Civil War—the conflict which altered the way of life of a region, the nation as a whole, and, incidentally, of Lee himself. He fought for his beloved Virginia and the South until the death knell of the Confederacy sounded at Appomattox.

With his military career terminated by defeat, the resourceful ex-cavalryman engaged in a myriad of vocations. He was, at one time or another, a farmer, lecturer, politician, administrator, businessman, promoter, and diplomat. After the war, he first turned to farming. His family had roots in the great antebellum planter aristocracy of Virginia, but he had neither the experience nor the resources of his ancestors. Nonetheless, for the next two decades he wrested his living primarily from the soil. As a Lee of Virginia, and therefore a Southerner with impeccable credentials, he gained recognition as an outspoken proponent of burying the sectional animosities which resulted from the Civil War. Moreover, he who hated politicians became active in the political arena. Elected governor of Virginia on the Democratic ticket in 1885, he attempted to elevate the status of his state and region both politically and economically. The Panic of 1893 ended his major involvement with the New South movement while, in the same year his unexpected failure to win the Democratic United States senatorial nomination concluded his political career.

Despite these setbacks, Fitzhugh Lee reappeared on the national scene when he received the appointment of Consul-General in Havana from President Cleveland. He continued in that position under President McKinley and witnessed the origins and outbreak of the Spanish-American War. In 1898, he resumed his most beloved vocation—being a soldier. As the most prominent ex-Confederate general in the United States Army during this period, Fitzhugh Lee was a living personification of the reunion of the North and South. During his subsequent military service, he returned to Cuba as a member of the American occupation forces and then closed his career with a second tour of duty in the West. In 1902, he began his last public venture. As President of the Jamestown Exposition he was devoted to illuminating three hundred years of American development. His death in 1905 cut short this final undertaking.

He was born a gentleman and died a gentleman, but his delightful digressions from dignity saved him from ever becoming pompous and stodgy. Even in old age he loved a joke—whether on himself or on a friend. In good times and bad, Lee exhibited an animated faith in himself and in his country. Above all, he remained a man—wheher facing success or disaster. While one may question if Fitzhugh Lee was blessed with the spark of true greatness, one may certainly note that here was a man who acted his part to the best of his ability in many of the major events of his time.

I have incurred numerous obligations in the course of writing this dissertation. Without the generous cooperation of Mr. Fitzhugh Lee Opie, my biographical study of his great-grandfather would have been seriously jeopardized. Professor Edward Younger suggested the topic and patiently guided this work through its completion. In addition, I owe him a special debt for his many kindnesses to me and my family. I am further indebted to Mrs. Edna S. Hollis, who devoted countless hours to editing and typing. Finally, I appreciate the many years of encouragement and assistance lovignly bestowed by Vada, my long-suffering wife.


1 Aeschines, “Oration Against Otesiphon,” 330 B.C., quoted by Geral W. Johnson, Incredible Tale: The Odyssey of he Average American in the Last Half Century (New York, 1950), 2.