previous next

Fitzhugh Lee. From the Times-dispatch, January 5, 1908.

An address delivered on Fitzhugh Lee day at the Jamestown Exposition.

By Major Robert W. Hunter.
On account of the insistent demand from people in the North, South, and abroad, The Times-Dispatch prints in full the speech delivered by Major R. W. Hunter at the Jamestown Exposition on General Fitzhugh Lee upon the occasion of the day set apart to honor the first president of the exposition. The address was received with the greatest enthusiasm by those who had the privilege of listening to it, competent critics have declared that nothing that has so far been written about General Lee approaches the masterly paper presented, as follows:

Gentlemen of the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:

In an address at a memorial meeting when General Fitz Lee died, I said:

He fell with his harness on, overtaxed by the strenuous work he had done to make the coming Jamestown celebration a grand success.

Ulysses has gone to the Hesperides and there is none left in Ithaca to bend his matchless bow.

There is reason to suppose if General Albert Sidney Johnston had not been mortally wounded as he was riding forward victoriously at Shiloh, that with the setting sun Grant would have been crushed before Buell's reinforcements could have saved him.

With a magnanimity unknown to smaller souls, General Robert E. Lee assumed the entire responsibility for the failure at Gettysburg, although he knew, and the records remain to prove it, that the fault was not his. Nothing that can fairly be construed as criticism of his subordinates ever escaped his noble [133] lips, except what may be implied from his remark, made after the war: ‘If General Jackson had been with me I would have won a victory.’

There was a time during the Revolutionary War when its fate seemed to depend upon a single man—George Washington. Fortunately, he survived to see the independence of his country.

The fall of the commanding general after the opening of the battle—assuming that he has all the requisites of leadership—has a paralyzing effect, from which it is hard, and generally impossible, entirely to recover. This is true, not only of contests of hostile armies, but also of the great enterprises of peace in the commercial and social world.

When, therefore, I express the opinion, very generally entertained, that if Fitz Lee had lived this exposition would have been more largely attended, and its financial results more satisfactory, it must not be understood as in any wise a reflection upon the able, devoted and public-spirited men who have administered its affairs since his untimely death. Nay, more! When all the delays, difficulties and discouragements—for which they were not responsible, but with which they had to contend—are considered, their achievement is marvelous.

An entertainment has been given to the country and the world of greater educational and historic value, and upon a more elevated plane, than has been afforded by any of the great exhibitions of the past.

The strangers who have come within your gates have been most cordially welcomed by the exposition officials, and the courtesies which were extended to them at the Virginia and other buildings will ever be a delightful recollection. What they saw and learned here enlightened their minds, broadened their views and expanded their patriotism, and impressed them ‘not only with the sense of present pleasure, but with the pleasing thought that in their visit there was life and food for future years.’

For those who did not come we have profoundest pity, because they have lost the opportunity of their lives, so graciously offered by the mother Commonwealth, of visiting, under the most favorable and attractive conditions, the sacred places within her borders, which ought to be dear to all our countrymen, [134] where the fires of liberty were first lighted and the foundations of free representative government first laid upon this continent.

But why all this prologue? Why talk of ‘what might have been’? To some, perhaps, the contemplation may not be one of unalloyed satisfaction. But this is ‘Fitz Lee Day,’ and his name and connection with this memorable exhibition can never be dissociated.

Then, again, it affords the opportunity of grouping the constituent elements of his splendid equipment—‘elements so mixed in him’ as to proclaim him the man of all others for the great work to which he was called.

His selection as president of the Exposition Company was an inspiration. It could not have been successfully launched without him. There was no man then living in all the broad land with such magnetic qualities—none who blended so harmoniously the essentials of success in a somewhat hazardous enterprise whereof patriotic sentiment was so large a factor.

Fitz Lee's prestige was unique. In his veins ran the blood of heroes and statesmen who were among the foremost and most famous in the Colonial Revolutionary and constructive periods of our history. He bore a name—dearest and most inspiring of all names to the heart of our Southland, which had then become recognized the world over as the synonym of the highest and noblest attributes of humanity—as exemplified in his near kinsman—the greatest general of the English speaking race.

His military career had been exceptionally resplendent. In nominating him for Governor, General William H. Payne, a kindred spirit and devoted friend, in an address as classic and elegant of its kind as I have ever heard, said of Fitz Lee:

As a soldier he can stand unbonnetted to as proud a claim as the most enthusiastic friendship dares assert for others.

From the rising of the sun at Manassas even unto the going down of the same at Appomattox, his place in every picture was near the flashing of the guns.

For four years his life was a battle and a march, and never ending, restless, he drove across the war-convulsed land. He was like the Knights of Branksome Hall— [135]

Who always wore their armor bright
During the day and through the night;
Who carved at their meals
In gloves of steel,
And drank red wine through the helmet barred.

When the shattered remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia—the goodliest fellowship of famous men whereof this world holds record since the round table was broken, and its knights were dispersed—was dragging its slow length to Appomattox, the post of honor, the post ever assigned to the bravest of the brave, was allotted by our great hero to Fitz Lee, and here upon this floor are living witnesses to the fidelity and skill with which he discharged his perilous task.

And when the curtain fell at Appomattox upon the last act of our splendid tragedy; when the flags were all furled and the was drums ceased to throb along the broken line, under the leadership of the gallant Gordon, he illuminated that dark hour by one act of splendid chivalry, which soothed its anguish and effaced its shame; the flag of truce had entered the Confederate line, and passing down the ranks was quenching the firing as it came.

The men in wrath were breaking their muskets, or in tears were parting their old battle flags among themselves. Turning their backs upon the approaching messenger, as Nelson turned his blind eye upon the retreat signal at Copenhagen, they rushed down upon a still spiteful battery of the enemy and swept it from the field. The messenger of peace found them standing over their conquered spoil. The weapons they surrendered that day were those they had just wrenched from the enemy—

It was not war, but it was splendid
As a dream of old romance.

Later on, in another connection, if I have the time, I will state briefly the battles and operations under General Fitz Lee's direction, which fix his place in our military annals—not only with the bravest and most dashing of our generals, but also among the ablest and most skillful.

As farmer, fisherman and dairyman, he had made himself dear [136] to the agricultural heart, and also to that of the working man; but these pursuits were too tame for his ardent, enterprising spirit, and he sought the excitement and prizes of the political arena.

His ambition was gratified by his elevation to the highest office of the gift of our people—the governorship of our grand old Commonwealth—which had once been filled by his grandfather, ‘Light Horse Harry,’ a special favorite of Washington, whose brilliant exploits in command of his Partizan Legion, and splendid gifts as orator, author and statesman invest his memory with enduring lustre.

Fitz Lee was one of the very best of our Governors. He proved himself wise in counsel, upright and tactful in civil administration, as he had been among the bravest of the brave in those terrible days ‘when the grapes were of iron and the vintage was of blood.’ This civic renown supplanted his firmly established military fame.

No one who saw the grand procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, or rode on the staff of General Fitz Lee, as I did, when Cleveland was first inaugurated, need be told that there was that indescribable magnetism in our Fitz, which captivated the crowding thousands who lined the sidewalks and stirred the multitudes there gathered from all parts of the country with wildest enthusiasm.

President Cleveland jocularly called him to account for taking the largest share of the cake, which had been baked for himself.

What a glorious thing it would be if the Jamestown Exposition Company could issue a clearing-house certificate, pay off the paltry million or so that remain unsatisfied, sell the plant to the government for a grand naval station, and then erect a magnificent equestrian statue upon the parade ground named in honor of its first president. It would be ‘a thing of beauty,’ of inspiration ‘and a joy forever.’ Then, indeed—when the taps are sounded and its lights put out—it could well be said, ‘Finis coronat opus.’

Passing over minor matters we come now to the time, in the career of Fitz Lee, when the eyes of the world were focused upon him.

He was appointed consul-general at Havana by President [137] Cleveland. Yellow fever was prevailing there, and the prospect uninviting. Some of his friends and family were apprehensive, and to satisfy them he called a council of those closest to him. When it met it was known at once that his mind was already made up. With that quick apprehension—the genius of far discernment, characteristic alike of prophet, poet and great soldier—he had mentally reconnoitered the situation, and saw the exposed flank of a rare opportunity. We wished him Godspeed, and drank with him “a stirrup-cup.”

So clear had he been in his great office. With such consumate tact, wisdom and firmness had he discharged the delicate, diplomatic functions devolved upon him, in the then highly inflamed state of the Spanish mind, that President McKinley, recognizing the eternal fitness of things, and the unanimous sentiment of the country, kept him at the post of duty, which also at that time, when treachery and conspiracy not only did their dark deeds in the nighttime, but brazenly stalked abroad at noonday, was emphatically the post of danger.

As he stood there, calm and resolute, mens equa in arduis, ‘as far from rashness as from fear,’ with the fate of nations in his hand for the time, and the world's gaze upon him, he was indeed ‘a sight for gods and men.’ Gloriously did he rise to the height of the great argument, and meet the full demands of the crisis.

I never felt so glad and so proud in all my life that ‘the right man was in the right place,’ to uphold the country's highest ideals and most sacred traditions, and that that man was a Virginian and Confederate soldier.

At length a point was reached when forbearance ceased to be a virtue. Treaty obligations were scornfully violated, and our country's honor was at stake. The circumstances were these: Consul-General Lee called on Governor-General Weyler to ask the release of an American citizen, who had been thrown into jail on some trivial charge. Lee was courteous, and then, as always, the gentleman. Weyler was the braggart, arrogant, contemptuous in tone and manner, and said to Lee: ‘You must understand, sir, that Cuba is now under martial law, and my word is the supreme law of the land.’ The lion-heart of Lee was aroused by his insolence, and looking him straight in the [138] eyes, said: ‘I want you to understand, sir, that, martial law or no martial law, the rights of American citizens must be and shall be respected, and I demand the immediate release of this American citizen, whom you have no right to hold.’

Lee immediately returned to his office, put his demand in writing, cabled the situation to Washington, and asked for a war vessel to enforce it, if necessary. Our State Department cabled him to know ‘why he had changed his policy.’ Lee replied:

I have made no change of policy.

I am simply demanding that the rights of American citizens shall be respected. If you approve of my course, send me a war vessel. If you do not, accept my resignation, which goes by to-day's mail.

Weyler reconsidered, released the prisoner, and Lee cabled that the vessel was not needed.

Some time afterward the department informed him that the Maine would be ordered to make a friendly visit to Havana. Lee remonstrated; his common sense convincing him that the visit of a war vessel to Havana, in its then excited state, would probably be disastrous. Unfortunately, the war vessel had sailed, and was beyond the reach of recall. You know the result. What was left of the Maine, after it was blown up, lies undisturbed in the harbor of Havana, but still remains a vivid memory. I recall this matter because of the erroneous, popular belief at the time, and to some extent since, that the Maine was sent at the request of General Lee.

The war soon came on, and General Fitz Lee returned to headquarters at Washington, where, upon arrival, he received the most genuinely spontaneous and heartfelt ovation ever accorded, I believe, to an American citizen by the rather blaze residents of our capital city.

He had fairly won the hearts of the country, and from that time became its most popular citizen, and so remained until death cut short his brilliant career, to which, I firmly believe, fresh laurels would have been added if he had been spared to gather them.

So manfully and triumphantly had he maintained the rights and interests of American citizens on foreign soil, as the representative of the United States, that all prejudice against him as [139] a Confederate had vanished. And if a primary election could have been held, or there had been an initiative and referendum, Fitz Lee would have been chosen the commanding general for the Spanish War. As it was, he was made major-general of volunteers, and commanded the 7th Corps, which was made up of regiments from North and South, and East and West, and Blue and Gray (our friend, William Jennings Bryan at the head of one of them)—all of whom, ‘in mutual, well-beseeming ranks, marched proudly all one way to the music of the Union, under the old flag, and Fitz Lee, whose fame as a fighter surpassed that of any other general in the army.’

Applications poured in upon him from all parts of the country for places upon his staff. One of them, I have heard, came from the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, who thought General Fitz would certainly be where the fighting would be fiercest and most glory would be won.

President McKinley had promised General Fitz if Havana was attacked he should lead the forces, but the politicians feared if such a chance was given him that the presidency would follow in the wake of the glory he would gain as the hero of the war, and he was side-tracked in Florida.

Shafter was chosen for the chief command because it was thought perhaps he would probably be even less formidable in peace than in war.

The scene shifted to Santiago, which became the chief seat of war. Mr. Roosevelt, we remark in passing, with that quick penetration for which he is so noted, foresaw the plans of the politicians, and sought glory with the Rough Riders from the ranches of the West. If these same politicians had known all (esse et posse) that there was in that young man, they would have switched him off long before he ever reached the famous hill of San Juan.

As it was, he only got there, as a smart paragrapher told us at the time, by swimming his horse from Key West to Cuba, with his sword in his mouth.

What followed you all know. What remains to be administered (de bonis non) of the spoils of that Spanish War is known only to Him, who understandest man's thoughts afar off.

I fear I am too fond of episode for an occasion like this, where [140] compression is so essential for even a passing glance at the rich and varied materials which our dear friend's life so amply furnish.

My idea is that General Fitz Lee, by reason of his brilliant reputation as a soldier, both at home and abroad; his eclat as the representative of the United States in Cuba, when the hearts of the people went out to him with enthusiastic admiration and warmest approval; his widespread popularity, coextensive with the bounds of the country; his extraordinary personal magnetism, which drew all hearts to him; and the fact, perhaps the most important of all, that through his agency and the epoch-making events in our recent history with which he was so closely connected, and was so large a part, the relations between the sections became more cordial, and the people more united by the bonds of mutual respect and friendship than they had been for more than half a century.

These were the considerations and factors which made him ‘the man of the hour’ for Jamestown. His bugle-call would have been heard along the mountain sides, through the valleys, across the vast plains, along the rivers and by the sounding sea. It would have been ‘as the shout of Achilles from the ramparts.’

Fitz Lee was rather a lively youth—he never was ‘good enough to go in the missionary box.’ While a cadet at West Point, unlike his distinguished uncle who never received a demerit, Fitz managed to get the maximum allowance just short of dismissal. His name was not very near the head of the list of graduates, but he was the most popular cadet at the Academy, and took first honors in horsemanship, which secured him a commission in the famous 2nd Cavalry, of which Albert Sidney Johnston was colonel, Robert E. Lee, lieutenant-colonel, and Hardee and George H. Thomas, majors—nearly every one of the officers of that regiment became distinguished soldiers in the Confederate or Union Army.

He was quick and bright as a dollar, and while never what may be strictly termed a student, he absorbed information intuitively, and could read men and things ‘like a book.’ He became a captivating public speaker and lecturer, and his ‘Life and Campaigns of General Lee’ is exceedingly interesting and valuable, not only to the student of military affairs, but to the general reader. [141]

His address on ‘Chancellorsville,’ a battle the most illustrative of what the highest military genius and audacity can accomplish with greatly inferior numbers and resources, is an admirable contribution to history.

He was a born soldier. Early became famous in conflicts with the Indians. General Scott, in published orders, says: ‘Major Van Dorn notices the conspicuous gallantry and energy of Second Lieutenant-Fitzhugh Lee, adjutant of the expedition, who was dangerously wounded.’ Contrary to the expectations of his physicians, he recovered, and we find him mentioned again the next year by General Scott as having, in command of a part of his company, had a fight with the Indians, in which rapid pursuit, recovery of stolen property, and a personal combat with one of the chiefs, are all highly commended.

In 1860 Fitz Lee was at West Point as an instructor of cavalry. Promptly resigning his commission when Virginia seceded, he served first as staff officer of General Ewell, and shortly after was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and at the reorganization in April, 1862, was elected its colonel. His regiment was with Stuart in the famous raid around Mc-Clellan, which blazed the way for Jackson's subsequent flank movement. After the battles around Richmond Stuart was made major-general, and Fitz Lee succeeded to the command of his brigade, consisting of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 9th Regiments of Cavalry and Breathed's Battery of horse artillery.

His services in the campaign against Pope were recognized in highly complimentary terms by the commanding general. Just before the second battle of Manassas a chivalrous incident occurred. General Fitz Lee had surprised and captured a squadron of the 2nd United States Cavalry (regulars), and discovering some old comrades among the officers, he merely took their word that they would not escape, and kept them at his headquarters as guests. They rode with his staff and himself during a few days' subsequent operations, and were occasionally under the fire of their own men. Through the intercession of General Lee these captives were made an exception to the retaliatory rule against the officers of Pope's Army, and were paroled and furnished with horses to ride to their own lines.

His relief of D. H. Hill's pickets at South Mountain Pass, [142] then in close proximity to the enemy, so that Hill, who was being hard pressed, might withdraw undiscovered, was a very difficult and dangerous operation, and the bold strokes by which he retarded the advance of the enemy until Hill's Infantry could get south of the Antietam elicited the highest commendation,

But, perhaps, the most difficult and hazardous service in that line he ever rendered, was in relieving, after the battle of Sharpsburg, the pickets of our army, which was withdrawn across the Potomac under cover of night. When day dawned on the 19th of September, 1862, Fitz Lee's Brigade of Cavalry was the only force confronting the whole army of McClellan. It was soon in the saddle, and before McClellan recovered from his surprise, it had safely crossed the river, after a parting salute to the enemy's advance. One must visit that battleground to appreciate how important, from a military standpoint, this service was. The commanding general, in his official report, says: ‘The vigilance, activity and courage of the cavalry were conspicuous, and to its assistance is due in a great measure some of the most important and delicate operations of the campaign.’

One of the hardest fought cavalry battles of the war, in proportion to the numbers engaged, was that between General Averill's Division of nearly 3,000 men, and Fitz Lee's Brigade of not more than 800 (many having been sent home to recruit their horses) at Kelly Ford on the 17th of March, 1863. The Confederates were victorious, and Averill recrossed the Rappahannock. Breathed's horse artillery covered itself with glory. It was here that the ‘gallant Pelham,’ as General Lee spoke of him, in his report of Fredericksburg, was killed, a loss deeply deplored by the whole army. I refer again to Chancellorsville only to say that I do not think the value of Fitz Lee's service in screening and protecting Jackson's great flank movement, and by his quick and close reconnoisance, ascertaining and pointing out to Jackson where his lines could be formed to strike the enemy's rear and flank at the greatest advantage, is generally appreciated.

With Stuart in the Pennsylvania campaign he saved the day in the fierce fight at Hanover, Pa., by coming in on the enemy's rear and routing Kilpatrick's Division, and did good work at Gettysburg, and on our withdrawal into Virginia. [143]

In 1863, he was promoted to major-general, Stuart having been advanced to the command of the corps. By this time his skill, activity and brilliant courage had won for him one of the first reputations in the army. General R. E. Lee, writing to him, said: ‘Your admirable conduct, devotion to the cause of your country and devotion to duty; fill me with pleasure.’

The importance of Spotsylvania Courthouse in the campaign of 1864 was vital, and it was Fitz Lee's Cavalry that held the ground against the advances of Grant's Army, until the Confederate Infantry arrived.

Yellow Tavern,” which saved Richmond, where our superb Stuart fought his last battle, was won by his old and favorite division, now commanded by Fitz Lee. The dying chieftain said, while his life was ebbing away: ‘Go ahead, Fitz, old fellow, I know you will do what is right,’ which Fitz ever regarded a ‘most precious legacy.’ General Bragg, in a letter to, him, after the battle, said: ‘The resistance there had enabled him to withdraw troops from Drewry's Bluff to man the works on that side of the city.’

Stuart and Fitz Lee were very like in temperament, and devoted as brothers. Both were full of fun, and their gaiety never forsook them even amid the darkest and most trying ordeals. On the march they generally rode together, and their songs and peals of laughter could often be heard far down the column, above the trampling of the horses and the clanking of the sabres, and were a solace to many weary and homesick hearts.

Ream's Station was one of General Fitz's best fights, when his division, with two of Mahone's Brigades, struck Wilson's two Divisions of Federal Cavalry, stripped them of their spoils and put them to ignominious route, capturing all their wagons, eighteen pieces of artillery, their ambulances and 800 negroes, who had been abducted from their homes.

In the battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864, Sheridan's first success over Early in the Valley, Fitz Lee did all that was possible to stem the adverse tide. Three horses were shot under him—one his favorite, Nellie Gray—and then he himself was brought to the ground by a minie ball in the thigh.

In the spring of 1865 he was placed in command of the cavalry corps of the army, and followed its fortunes till the end came [144] at Appomattox, fighting daily and desperately. The selfsacri-ficing, heroic and faithful body of men—infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers—who composed the remnant of that glorious army, and fought constantly and courageously to the last, furnish to the world an example of devotion to right, duty and country, which has few, if any, parallels in history.

General Fitz was always free-handed and ready to divide his last dollar. On the morning of the 9th of April, 1865, when what was left of Gordon's 2nd Corps of Infantry and Fitz Lee's Corps of Cavalry had driven back Sheridan, and Ord's Infantry came up to his support, and it was seen that surrender was inevitable, General Fitz escaped with his cavalry towards Lynchburg, but becoming convinced that the war was virtually over, he rode to Farmville, and reported to General Meade, who advised him to return to Appomattox and be paroled. This he did and became the guest of General John Gibbon of the United States Army, under whom he had been at West Point, and whose family he knew well. In his ‘Personal Reminiscences of Appomattox,’ General Gibbon says:

That night Fitz, lying on the floor, slept as soundly as a child after, he said, having had no sleep for a week. Nothing could dampen his high spirits. With grim humor, he took from his pocket a $5 Confederate note and writing across its face, “For Mrs. Gibbon, with the compliments of Fitz Lee,” he said: ‘Send that to your wife and tell her it's the last cent I have in the world.’

“His was no hard, ascetic temper, which substituted harshness for courage, and reserve for wisdom, but a light and buoyant spirit,” a warm and merry heart that spread sunshine all around.

Mr. President, you will believe, I know, when I express my sincerest regret that I have not been able to pay the tribute to our dear friend that my heart prompts and the occasion demands.

His life was so full of great and brilliant exploits in the outer world, so brimful of all that was charming in the inner social world, where heart goes out to heart and smile answers smile, and the sweet offices of genial humor and heartfelt sympathy prevail, that the task was impossible within appropriate limits and upon so short a notice. A volume of no small dimensions would be needed for a career so eventful and so picturesque. [145]

Let me say, in conclusion, that it was not because of Fitz Lee's fame as soldier, diplomat or eminent civillian, not because of his high birth and rare distinction that we love him most, but because his noble life and nature gave new meaning to noblesse oblige and the finest illustration that—

Kind hearts are more than coronets
And simple faith than norman blood.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: