About Stephen D. Lee
The SCV’s Best Hope For Success is Knowledge of the Truth
Why would the Sons of Confederate Veterans venerate the memory of General Stephen Dill Lee by honoring him at every SCV meeting and naming the primary educational outreach program of our organization after him? An examination of his life and what motivated him is necessary to understand his importance to his fellow countrymen and American and Southern historiography. In a nutshell, Stephen Dill Lee was an exceptional soldier and important leader in the Confederate Army and, after the war, a leading American educator, historian, and commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans from 1904-1908.
Let’s explore the life of General Lee and the qualities of leadership which makes him such a compelling figure in Confederate history and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on September 22, 1833. The Charleston Lees were distantly related to another famous Lee line whose family tree included Light Horse Harry, Richard Henry and Robert Edward Lee of Virginia. His parents were Dr. Thomas Lee and Caroline Allison Lee. The family was considered a fairly prominent Charleston family.
Stephen Dill Lee entered West Point at the age of 17 and graduated in 1854 in a class which included such famed soldiers as J.E.B. Stuart and Oliver O. Howard, whose Union X1 Corps was crushed at Chancellorsville by the famed 2nd Corps led by Stonewall Jackson.
Following graduation, Lee entered the US Army as a lieutenant in the 4th US Artillery. He served for seven years at distant outposts in Texas, the Dakotas, Florida and Kansas. Like many fellow Southern officers, Stephen Dill Lee resigned from the Army in February of 1861 after his home state of South Carolina seceded. He then joined the Confederate Army and his first major assignment was serving as an aide-de-camp of General Beauregard at Ft. Sumter.
On April 11, 1861, Lee and fellow aide Colonel James Chestnut, husband of famed diarist Mary Chestnut, rowed out to Ft. Sumter and delivered a surrender ultimatum to Union Major Robert Anderson demanding the evacuation of the fort. Anderson’s refusal led to the shelling of the fort and the commencement of hostilities between the North and South. There is more than one account that Stephen Dill Lee may have fired the first shot at Ft. Sumter.
As the war really got under way, Lee’s assignments and promotions came quickly. Lee commanded a Light Artillery Battery in Hampton’s Legion under General Joseph Johnston, later becoming the Artillery chief for General Lafayette McLaws in the Army of Northern Virginia. He saw action in the Peninsula Campaign and at Second Manassas. At Second Manassas his gallant service led Jefferson Davis to remark — “I have reason to believe at that great conflict on the field of Manassas that Colonel Lee served to turn the tide of battle and consummate the victory”.
On July 9, 1862, Lee was promoted to colonel and assumed command of the Artillery Battalion of Longstreet’s Corps.
Colonel Stephen Dill Lee performed meritorious service at the Battle of Sharpsburg on the bloodiest day in American history, playing a prominent role in the defense of the Dunker Church, Cornfield, and the West Woods. After the morning fight, his unit was moved across the battlefield and unlimbered near the town of Sharpsburg, helping to repel the Union attack across Burnside Bridge.
Following the Battle of Sharpsburg, President Davis inquired of Robert E. Lee to select his most accomplished and efficient artillery officer for duty in Mississippi. Lee chose Stephen Dill Lee.
Assigned to General Pemberton’s western army defending Vicksburg, Colonel Lee received a promotion to brigadier general on November 6, 1862. He was ordered to take command of General Pemberton’s artillery at Vicksburg. At the Battle of Champions Hill, Lee was wounded in the shoulder and subsequently taken prisoner when Vicksburg fell on July 3, 1863. General Lee was exchanged and paroled on October 3, 1863.
He was appointed a major general and ordered to be commander of Cavalry in Alabama, Mississippi, Western Tennessee and Eastern Louisiana. On June 23, 1864, when John Bell Hood became commander of the Army of Tennessee, General Lee was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, thus becoming the youngest lieutenant general in the Confederacy.
General Lee took part in the Atlanta Campaign with a central role of threatening Sherman’s supply lines as he invaded Georgia. In the fighting around Atlanta, Stephen Dill Lee was assigned command of General Hood’s old Corps in the Army of Tennessee.
General Lee saw some of the hardest fighting of any Confederate. When Atlanta fell, he took part in the Battles of Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville. Wounded once again at Spring Hill, he remained on duty and was in charge of the army rear guard protecting the shattered Army of Tennessee in retreat. He recovered from the wound quickly enough and joined the army then under General Joseph Johnston for the Carolina campaign which ended the war. In North Carolina he was surrendered in April 1865.