When Nathaniel Lyon Court Martialed the Second Cousin of Robert E. Lee

In the years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, well over two-hundred future field commanders in the war were stationed in Missouri. These soldiers included Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, James Longstreet, William T. Sherman, Braxton Bragg, and many others. They were trained and drilled on the parade ground of Jefferson Barracks Military Post located only a few miles south of St. Louis along the Mississippi River.

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Willie Lee is shown on the far left with a war-time image of Jefferson Barracks and Nathaniel Lyon on the right. Courtesy of the Reeves Family, Civil War Scholars, Missouri Civil War Museum, and The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Though many – like Ulysses Grant and J.E.B. Stuart – largely had positive experiences serving near one of the largest cities in the United States, some soldiers’ services at Jefferson Barracks were blotted with challenges. One of these soldiers was Lieutenant William “Willie” Fitzhugh Lee.

A member of the prestigious Lee family, Willie was born in 1832 in Richmond, Virginia to Reverend William Fitzhugh Lee, a cousin of the future revered Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After his father’s death in 1837, Willie and his mother moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he attended the Episcopal High School there under Reverend William Nelson Pendleton, who would later serve as the Chief of Artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia. For those familiar with the Army of Northern Virginia’s staff, Pendleton’s son – Alexander “Sandie” – would serve as Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s adjutant.

In 1850, Lee entered Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, a college town located within the Shenandoah Valley. After graduating in 1853, he switched between teaching and working as a civil engineer until commissioned in the United States Army in 1855. Assigned to the Second United States Infantry Regiment, Lee first served at Fort Ridgely in Minnesota, and would later be transferred to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Fort Randall (South Dakota), and Fort Riley (Kansas). During this time, Willie Lee developed a friendship with James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart, the future Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps commander, who was a young junior officer in the First Cavalry Regiment. By 1859, Lee was assigned to Jefferson Barracks.

During his tenure at Jefferson Barracks, Lee was granted leave time to wed his longtime girlfriend Lillie Parran in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now, West Virginia) in September 1859. Just two years later, on January 1, 1861, Lillie gave birth to Laura Lee in Shepherdstown, even though Willie Lee was still stationed in Missouri. Though joy was felt in both the Lee parents at the sight of their new daughter, anxiety and uncertainty was no doubt in the back of their minds as several Southern states had seceded in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.

Coming from a slave holding family from one of the most-prosperous slave states, Willie Lee was not afraid to speak his mind about the issues while in the Army. His pro-slavery, pro-secessionist sentiments were quite divisive among his comrades in the Second United States Infantry. The commanding officer of Company B, Second U.S. Infantry was Captain Nathaniel Lyon, who assumed that command in March. A native of Connecticut, Lyon had a fiery passion for the Union and a hatred for Southerners and slaveholders — especially those who were vocally opposed to the United States. Suspicious of Lee’s true loyalty and a witness to his opinions, Lyon had this lower-ranking officer court-martialed.

St. Louis riverfront in 1862. Courtesy of Cowan’s Auction.

Convicted, Lee was under house arrest in St. Louis. Soon after hearing the news of Virginia’s secession and with his cousin Robert resigning, Lee himself resigned from the Army and returned to his home state of Virginia. Welcomed with open arms, Willie Lee was commissioned a captain and sent to Harpers Ferry, where his former artillery instructor at V.M.I. was forming and training the new First Virginia Brigade. He ultimately became second-in-command of the Thirty-Third Virginia Infantry Regimen, assigned to the Confederate Army of the Potomac under the command of Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston.

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A wartime image of Harpers Ferry, a sight Willie Lee would have seen while training the First Virginia Brigade. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On July 21, 1861, at the First Battle of Manassas, Lee was mortally-wounded in the chest. His cousin Edwin Gray Lee, who served also in the Thirty-Third Virginia, recalled Willie’s wounding, “When Willie was shot, he walked back up the hill, but did not fall. He remarked to an officer, “I am shot”: and the blood began to trickle from his breast. He was assisted to a distance of more than half a mile in rear of the Battle ground, and he then had to lie down.”

He was taken to a field hospital – the Pringle House – in Manassas, Virginia and lingered on for just over a week until gangrene took its toll. His Episcopal minister from Shepherdstown made the journey to visit Lee, “I went to see Willie Lee who was shot in the breast mortally as is supposed. Lilly had got there. He was well attended to by Edwin Lee and others. He could not speak above a whisper & breathed with difficulty, but understood all I said. He was alive however yesterday morning when I left & there’s no thought or possibility of his recovery. Mr. E.J. Lee has gone back again this morning to bring up his body if he dies.” Willie Lee succumbed to his wounds on July 29, 1861 and is buried in Winchester, Virginia. Just two weeks after Lee died of wounds after First Manassas, Lyon was killed-in-action at the head of his troops on Bloody Hill at Wilson’s Creek.

Though vastly different in their views on union, country, and freedom, Lee and Lyon both died in the first two major battles of the Civil War. The irony in their story shows the brutal reality of the war, which claimed the lives of roughly 750,000. It also shows the inherent divisions over the issues of union and slavery. Even those who served together could be ripped apart.

Further Reading:

Ann Reeves, “William Fitzhugh Lee: The Overlooked Lee, ” October 16, 2011, Civil War Scholars, http://civilwarscholars.com/2011/10/william-fitzhugh-lee-humble-heroic-ann-c-reeves/.

John O. Casler, “Four years in the Stonewall Brigade, containing the daily experiences of four year’s service in the ranks from a diary kept at the time.” (Marietta, GA: Continental Book Company, 1906).

One thought on “When Nathaniel Lyon Court Martialed the Second Cousin of Robert E. Lee

  1. This is fantastic! Thank you for researching this, writing it, and sharing it. William Fitzhugh Lee was well known at the home of Charles and Selina Powell in Winchester (where they were running a school for girls). He was a cousin, and knew the Powells well. I’m researching the Powell Family Papers and writing an account of the history they recorded. Rebecca Powell wrote of William stopping by with updates in her diary. She was always interested in the events in Missouri and is frustrated with the slow updates from that region. She can’t understand why civilians aren’t better informed in the age of telegraphs and railroads. Her brother, Lloyd, was killed on the same day that William received his wound. Her sister, Hattie Powell, joined William’s sister, Mary Lee Castleman, in Brunswick County when she fled Winchester. The two families reunited after the war in Alexandria.


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