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.
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