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The Lee Family of Virginia in the Civil War

The Lee Family of Virginia in the Civil War 

US Civil War

Robert E. Lee, around age 38, and his son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, around age 8, c.1845

The contributions of the Lee family to the Confederacy were substantial.  General Robert E Lee, of course, was commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Several of his relatives also participated in high positions in the Civil War, holding prominent positions in the military. Because of name similarity, it is easy to confuse these people and their relationship to the General.

“Rooney” Lee

William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, called Rooney or WHF, was the second son of Robert E Lee. He was born at Arlington House, his grandfather’s home, today known as the Custis-Lee Mansion at Arlington National Cemetery He attended Harvard University, was a friend of Henry Adams, served with Albert Sidney Johnston as 2nd Lieutenant in the old Army, fought the Mormons (!), and became a southern planter.

Arlington House, Arlington Mary Custis’s inheritance in 1857

Joined the 9th Virginia Cavalry and led a raid under Stuart in 1862 and took part in the first circumnavigation ride. He was knocked from a horse and the resulting concussion kept him from Antietam.  He was shot in the thigh at Brandy Station, and was captured while recuperating at the home of his in-laws. He then missed Gettysburg but did fight in all the battles of the Overland Campaign. He ultimately rose to Major General and second in command of the Eastern Confederate cavalry, surrendering at Appomattox. He surrendered just 300 men and troops, 10% of the men he commanded at Petersburg.

Several great tragedies struck his family during the war. His first wife, Charlotte Wickham, died while he was a POW. His plantation was burned down during the Peninsula Campaign. His son died of typhoid fever and his infant daughter also died. 

After the war he returned to his plantation (White House), also inherited his mother’s plantation (Ravensworth), called remarried, had two sons, and served in the Virginia Senate and the US Congress until his death in 1891.

Robert Edward Lee Jr.

Robert Edward Lee Jr, known as Rob, was Lee’s 6th of 7 children, 3 of who were sons and 4 were daughters. He was never interested in a military career. He attended the University of Virginia; he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. He joined the Rockford Artillery. At Antietam, Rob saw his father ride up to his artillery battery, which had already been heavily engaged. He stood by expecting to hear a few words of affection from his father, but Lee did not recognize his own son, hidden by the grime of black powder on his face. When Rob finally asked if they would be thrown back into the fight, the general recognized him by his voice. “Yes, my son. You must do what you can to drive those people back”.

After Antietam, he was promoted to lieutenant and served as a staff officer for the rest of the war. He eventually rose to be Captain.

He became a businessman, planter, and author after the war, dying in 1914. He wrote Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (1904). This book is an established and accurate primary source of information on day-to-day life at Arlington House and includes many recollections of interest regarding his father, with whom he was very close. He married twice, having two daughters with his second wife, Juliet.

Fitzhugh Lee

Fitzhugh Lee was a nephew of Robert E. and a cousin of his sons. Interestingly he was also a cousin of General Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant General and most senior Confederate general. His contributions to the Confederate cause was probably the most prominent of General Lee’s family.

After graduating from West Point, he served in the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment under Albert Sidney Johnston. Fitzhugh Lee was wounded in a fight with the Comanche Indians in Texas in 1859. He then became an instructor of Cavalry tactics at West Point in 1860 but then resigned with Virginia’s secession. 

In the War he initially served as lieutenant of cavalry, soon rising to lieutenant colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry under JEB Stuart. He took part in most of Stuart’s campaigns in 1862 include the second circumnavigation ride. Famously, he was responsible for allowing the raid on Stuart’s headquarters that led to the capture of his hat and cape, only to lead the subsequent raid that captured General Pope’s tent and dress uniform. 

He saw action at South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg. At Chancellorsville, he was the cavalry officer who recognized that the Union right flank, commanded by OO Howard, was in the air and told Stonewall Jackson so. He participated in Stuart’s infamous 3rd circumnavigation and fought at Cavalry Field on July 3rd. He continued to serve under Stuart as divisional commander, despite a promotion to Major General. He was a crucial participant at Spotsylvania and was at Yellow Tavern when Stuart was mortally wounded. He failed in his attack on the US Colored Troops at Fort Pocahontas He then served under Wade Hampton, who was promoted to command after Stuart’s death, despite having been a peer. He fought at Trevilian Station, then joined Early’s raid into Maryland. He fought against Sheridan at the Third Battle of Winchester, where 3 horses were shot from under him and he was wounded. He later became commander of Lee’s Cavalry late in the war when Hampton was sent south to assist Johnston. 

His post bellum activities were also remarkable. He worked hard to reconcile the South to the results of the war, despite being indicted for treason along with his cousins and  33 other former Confederate officers. He became a businessman and politically active after receiving a pardon. He was elected governor of Virginia in 1886 and consul to Cuba. He joined the US Army during the Spanish-American War, being one of four Confederate generals to do so (Joseph  Wheeler, Matthew Butler and Thomas Rosser were the other three). He was married and had 5 children who survived to adulthood; both of his sons were in the US 7th Cavalry and his daughters married officers in their brothers’ regiment.

Sydney Smith Lee

Sydney Smith Lee was Robert E Lee’s older brother and Fitzhugh Lee’s father. The third child of Henry “Light Horse” Harry Lee, this Lee was an accomplished naval officer well before the Civil War who saw action in the Mexican War. He had an outstanding naval career before resigning. He was Captain Lee in the Confederate navy, which was a very high title.

Before the war, Sydney travelled with Commodore Perry to Japan in 1853 as commander of his flagship.  At the time of Virginia secession he was Commandant of the US Naval Academy and the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His brother, Robert E Lee, convinced him to join the Confederacy. Intriguingly, he was quite verbal that he was not fully on board about secession and blamed his brother. Despite his reluctance, 5 of his sons served in the Confederate military.

The reason likely was that there was no real Confederate Navy. Instead he was given command at two critical naval bases. During the war, he commanded Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk until the Union captured it, then was put in charge of batteries at Drewery’s Bluffs. Later he became chief of the Confederate Navy’s Bureau of Orders and Details.

Custis Lee 

George Washington Custis Lee, known as Custis, was the eldest son of Robert E. Lee. 

Initially rejected at West Point despite a classical education in theology and mathematics, he was admitted after his father petitioned Winfield Scott. He excelled in his studies and graduated first in his class, surpassing the accomplishments of his other family members, including his father, who was Superintendent when he graduated. He was placed in the Engineering Corps but resigned to become a captain in the Confederate Army Corps of Engineers, where he built the fortifications for the city of Richmond. He then was promoted to Colonel and became aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis. 

He was then put in a leadership position at Drewery’s Bluff during the Peninsula campaign. He was then promoted to Brigadier General. He was given command of the troops in Richmond during the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1864, Custis Lee commanded the Richmond defenses. He was then given command of Richmond’s eastern defenses at Chaffin’s Bluff and promoted to major general. Anxious for a battlefield command, he was captured at Sayler’s Creek by a private 3 days before his father surrendered at Appomattox. 

After the war he taught at VMI, then succeeded his father as president at Washington and Lee College.  In 1877, he joined with Robert Lincoln to regain title to Arlington House and the surrounding property, which is the Arlington National Cemetery. The case went to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor. He sold the property to the US government for $150,000 and moved to his late brother’s “Rooney” Lee’s mansion, Ravensworth. He never married.

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee

The General’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, was a descendant through her paternal grandmother, Eleanor Calvert from Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore, making her a descendant of Charles II of England and Scotland. Through her mother, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, she was a descendant of William Fitzhugh. She was the great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington, step-great-granddaughter of George Washington, and daughter of George Washington Custis. She was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Therefore, her children with General Lee were the grandchildren of Martha Dandridge and step-grandchildren of President George Washington. Mary’s father George Washington Parke Custis was the adopted son and the step-grandson of George Washington. Mary was his only surviving child, and thus his heir. 

Her family legacy home, Arlington House, descended through the family through her mother’s side. The house and grounds became the site of Arlington National Cemetery and the house today known as the Custis-Lee Mansion. She had known her third cousin, Robert E. Lee, from childhood; her mother and Robert’s mother were second cousins. 

The Lee’s had seven children, with Mary often suffering from illness and various disabilities including rheumatoid arthritis. During the war she was often confined to a wheelchair. She was known as a hostess and for her painting and gardening. When her husband went to Washington, she preferred to remain at home. She avoided Washington’s social circles but was avidly interested in politics and discussed matters with her father and later her husband. Although the Lee family enslaved many people, Mary assumed that eventually they’d be freed, and taught the women to read, write, and sew so that they could support themselves after emancipation; she was said to be an advocate of eventual emancipation

Keeping the Family Connections Straight

Why did all of these Lee family members have the same name? The Lee family was descended from several prominent and wealthy planter families in Virginia, The old Virginia aristocracy included the Parke Custises, Fitzhughs, Dandridges, and Randolphs.  So naturally, every descendant was given some patchwork quilt of these names, denoting family connections and really old money.  

Fitzhugh. William Henry Fitzhugh was the wealthy scion of the Virginia family who served in the House of Burgess and the Second Continental Congress. He gave Anne Lee a home when Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (see below) left the country, becoming Robert E Lee’s benefactor. His sister was Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, the mother of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, Robert E Lee’s wife. 

Custis. George Washington’s wife was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington; her first husband was Daniel Parke Custis. Robert E Lee’s wife was Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, who was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke CustisGeorge Washington‘s step-grandson and adopted son and founder of Arlington House, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter of William Fitzhugh. 

Lee. Robert E Lee’s father was Henry Lee III, called “Light Horse Harry. He was the first cousin of Richard Henry Lee, a President of the Continental Congress. His mother was an aunt of the wife of Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr. His great-grandmother Mary Bland was also a grand-aunt of Thomas Jefferson. Lee was the grandson of Henry Lee I, a great-grandson of Richard Bland, and a great-great-grandson of William Randolph. The General’s father was a hero of the Revolutionary War , so renowned for his horsemanship that he received his nickname.  He was also the recipient of a Continental Congress gold medal for his heroism at Paulus Hook,  the only non-general to ever be so rewarded. He was later a delegate to the Confederation Congress and US Congress, and Governor of Virginia. He delivered the eulogy to a crowd of 4,000 at George Washington’s 1799 funeral.

Unfortunately, he managed his plantation poorly, went bankrupt, went to debtors prison, suffered permanent physical and emotional damage during an attack on a Baltimore newspaper, and left for the West Indies to recuperate.

General Lee famously did not get along well with his mother, Anne Hill Carter Lee, who was the original owner of Ravensworth. She was also the mother of Sydney Smith Lee.

The Lee Family of Virginia in the Civil War 

Written by Dr. Lloyd Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

US Civil War