Stephen Dill Lee was a heroic soldier, educator, writer and political leader. General Lee’s vision continues to be seen particularly at Mississippi State University, Vicksburg National Military Park and The Sons of Confederates Veterans organization. He played critical roles in the founding of all three.
Stephen Dill Lee was born September 22, 1833 in Charleston, South Carolina, a fifth generation Southerner of proud ancestry. His branch of the Lee family began when Thomas Lee immigrated from Saint Michaels, Barbados some time prior to 1738. He was a distant relative of both “Light Horse Harry” and Robert E. Lee. Lee’s mother died when he was young and his father, a physician, raised Stephen and his sister in Charleston. His father suffered from severe health problems due to a fever epidemic that left permanent damage. Dr. Lee remarried (Elizabeth Cummings Humphreys) in September, 1839 and had 5 more children. His large family and his father’s health problems led to financial difficulties that didn’t allow young Stephen to receive much early education. In 1846, at age eleven, he initiated his formal education in Ashville, North Carolina at a boarding school run by the uncle he was named for.
Later on, Lee applied for entrance to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and with the help of congressional candidate James L. Orr, was admitted on July 1, 1850 at the age of 17. He graduated in the Class of 1854 along with JEB Stuart. Commissioned into the U.S. Army as a 2nd lieutenant, Lee served in Florida, Kansas, Texas and the Dakotas during the years that followed. When South Carolina seceded from the Union, after brief deliberation, Lee threw his support behind his home state – the only choice for an honorable man. Lee resigned (effective February 20, 1861) from the U. S. Army roughly two months after his home state left the Union, harboring some doubts about the chances of his new country. He left Fort Randall (Dakota Territory) on 17 February 1861, and rode in an army wagon with a small escort, to Sioux City. From there he caught a stage to Saint Joseph, Missouri; and then by rail and horseback, he hurried on his journey to Charleston.
Stephen D. Lee’s first assignment as a Confederate officer was as an aide-de-camp to General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston Harbor. He joined Colonel James Chestnut in delivering the demand for the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 11, 1861. The refusal of Major Robert Anderson to surrender that fort led to the opening battle of the War Between the States (or Civil War). For most of the early years of the war, Lee served as an officer in the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was praised for gallantry at Second Manassas by President Jefferson Davis, who credited him with turning the tide of that battle and assuring Confederate victory. Promoted to Colonel, Lee fought at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) in the furious action around the Cornfield and West Woods. He then moved his guns into a new position and helped turn back Burnside’s attack across the infamous Stone Bridge over Antietam Creek.
Regarded as a brave and highly efficient officer, Lee was appointed Brigadier General On November 6, 1862. He was assigned to the command of General Pemberton’s artillery at Vicksburg where he assisted in the defense of the vital Mississippi River stronghold. He suffered a shoulder wound in the preliminary fighting at Champion’s Hill and in July 1863 he was taken prisoner when Vicksburg fell. Exchanged from imprisonment on October 3, 1863, Lee was promoted to major general and given command of the cavalry in the Department of Mississippi, Alabama, West Tennessee, and East Louisiana. Among his subordinate commanders was the famed “Wizard of the Saddle,” General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lee and Forrest together halted a major Union raid into Mississippi at the Battle of Tupelo on July 14-15, 1864. Less than one month earlier he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. Thirty years old at the time, he was the youngest officer in the service of the Confederacy to attain such rank.
During General John Bell Hood’s Tennessee Campaign, Lee assumed command of Hood’s old corps of the Army of Tennessee. Lee performed critical service during the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. He was severely wounded again during Hood’s retreat while leading a rear guard action that saved the shattered remnants of the Army of Tennessee. After recovering from this second wound received in active combat, General Lee finished out the war resisting Sherman during the Carolinas Campaign. He was included in General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place High Point, N.C., on April 26, 1865. Despite his youth and comparative lack of experience, Lee’s prior close acquaintanceship with all three branches of the service – artillery, cavalry, and infantry – rendered him one of the most capable corps commanders in the army.
After the war Lee married Regina Harrison, daughter of James Thomas Harrison and Regina Blewett, of Columbus, Miss. They settled in Mississippi where he worked in the insurance business, served in the Mississippi senate, and became the first president of Mississippi A & M College (Mississippi State University). He resigned as college president to serve as a member of the commission to organize Vicksburg National Military Park. He then served as the President of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, one of the finest such agencies in the country. Lee worked hard to help restore order to the South during the post-war occupation (Reconstruction). S. D. Lee stressed the importance of education, especially agricultural education emphasizing technological developments, and he became known as “The Father of Agricultural Education” in the South. Stephen D. Lee voiced the same fears that Davis, Robert E. Lee and many others did – That the cause of the Confederacy would not be accurately represented by the future historians of the victors. He helped different groups erect monuments and promote social events.
General Lee’s most significant step in his endeavor to preserve Southern History came in New Orleans in 1889 with the creation of the United Confederate Veterans – a national organization to preserve the honor and good name and just cause of the confederate soldier in his defense against tyranny. He held the post of Commander-in-Chief until his death in Vicksburg on May 28, 1908. During his tenure he was instrumental in the foundation of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and on July 1, 1896 they were formed to pass the truth on for future generations. On April 25, 1906, in a speech given at New Orleans, Louisiana, Lee gave the following charge to the Sons of Confederate Veterans: To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought. To your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier’s good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles which he loved and which you love also, and those ideals which made him glorious and which you also cherish. Remember: It is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations. To this day Stephen D. Lee is highly regarded for his efforts to perpetuate the truth.
General Stephen Dill Lee died at Vicksburg on May 29, 1908, He fell sick after giving a speech to former Union soldiers from Wisconsin and Iowa, four of the regiments whom he had faced in battle 45 years earlier at Vicksburg. The cause of his death was attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage. At the time Lee was planning the next reunion of the United Confederate Veterans, held on June 9, 1908. His remains lie in peace at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi. The Stephen D Lee home in Columbus, MS is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours. The second floor museum displays many period artifacts.