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Lieutenant-General Stephen Dill Lee Biography
 
Lieutenant-General Stephen Dill Lee
 
 
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Born:  Sunday, September 22, 1833 Charleston South Carolina
Died:  Thursday, May 28, 1908 Vicksburg Mississippi
Age:  74
Buried:  Friendship Cemetery Columbus Mississippi
 
Pre War:  Graduated West Point 1854 (17th), artillery and staff duty, resigned February 1861.
 
War Service:  1861 Capt. on Beauregard’s staff, Fort Sumter, served in ANV artillery, Seven Days, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, November 1862 Brig. Gen., chief of Pemberton’s artillery, Vicksburg campaign, Vicksburg (s), exchanged one month later, August 1863 Maj. Gen., cavalry command in the Dept. of Alabama Mississippi and East Louisiana, June 1864 Lt. Gen., took over command of Hood’s Corps in Army of Tennessee, Ezra Church, Franklin and Nashville campaign (w), Carolinas campaign.
 
Post War:  Farmer, politician, college president.
 
West Point Graduation Year:  1854   Class Ranking:  17    Class Size: 11
 
Promoted to lieutenant general at age thirty, Stephen Dill Lee was the youngest of the Confederacy’s seventeen lieutenant generals. He also was one of the least successful.

His poor record as a lieutenant general cannot be attributed to lack of sufficient training, experience, intelligence, or zeal. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, where his father was a physician, he obtained his basic education at a North Carolina boarding school. In 1850 he entered West Point, from which he graduated four years later ranked seventeenth in a class that included J. E. B. Stuart, under whom he would serve, and Oliver Otis Howard, against whom he would fight. Assigned as a second lieutenant to an artillery regiment, during the next six years he served in Texas, Florida, Kansas, and the Dakotas, becoming a first lieutenant in 1856.

After the secession of South Carolina he resigned, in February 1861, from the U.S. Army and obtained a captain’s commission in the Confederate army. As a member of Brigadier General P. G. T Beauregard’s staff, he participated in the negotiations that eventuated in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861—an act he enthusiastically approved. Next, in June 1861, he became commander of the artillery battery in Hampton’s Legion, South Carolina’s most aristocratic military unit. His battery arrived in Virginia too late to take part with the rest of the legion in the battle of First Bull Run (21 July 1861), but it saw significant action in the Peninsula campaign (April-July 1862), during which he so favorably impressed his superiors that he was jumped to the rank of colonel and placed in charge of the artillery for a division. Then, immediately after that campaign, he headed one of Stuart’s cavalry regiments, but at the outset of General Robert E. Lee’s northward offensive in August 1862 he returned to his specialty as commander of an artillery battalion in Major General James Longstreet’s corps. At Second Bull Run (29-30 August 1862) and then at Antietam (17 September 1862) he again performed well, especially during the second day of the first battle, when his massed cannons smashed a Union attack and thereby set the stage for a Confederate counterattack that routed the enemy.

In November 1862, having been promoted to brigadier general, he assumed command of an infantry brigade at Vicksburg, the key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. In that capacity he repulsed an attempt by William T. Sherman to break through Vicksburg’s defenses at Chickasaw Bayou on 29 December 1862. He did as well as could be reasonably expected in the Confederate defeat at Champion’s Hill on 16 May 1863, and he performed creditably during the siege of Vicksburg from 18 May to 4 July 1863. Paroled with the rest of Vicksburg’s garrison after its surrender, he was soon exchanged and received a merited promotion to major general on 3 August 1863. Placed in charge of all Confederate cavalry in Mississippi and Alabama, he did what little was possible to slow Sherman’s march in the fall of 1863 from Memphis to Chattanooga to reinforce the beleaguered Federal forces there, and then to oppose Sherman’s Meridian Expedition in Mississippi (3-28 February 1864).

On 9 May 1864, most of Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi having been transferred to Georgia, Lee was placed in command of the Department of Mississippi and Alabama and on 23 June 1864 was promoted to lieutenant general. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s brilliant victory on 10 June 1864 at Brice’s Crossroads turned back one Federal foray into Mississippi but on 14 July 1864, with Lee personally commanding, an ill-conceived and ill-executed assault on a superior and well-entrenched Union force near Tupelo, Mississippi, suffered a bloody repulse. The Federals, to be sure, retreated back to Memphis after this engagement, but they were in the process of doing so in any case.

Having been erroneously credited with a victory at Tupelo, Lee soon afterward was ordered to Atlanta, Georgia, to take command of a corps in General John B. Hood’s army, which was defending that city against Sherman’s army. On 28 July 1864, Lee marched out to the west side of Atlanta with two of his divisions with orders from Hood to establish a defense line. Instead, believing he had a golden opportunity to strike the advancing Federals while in the open, he attacked. The result, in what became known as the battle of Ezra Church, was a severe defeat in which his troops and those of a division from another corps that joined in the assault at his behest suffered 3,000 casualties, compared with the enemy losses of 632. This one-sided slaughter further impaired the morale of his corps, which already was poor as a consequence of its having been badly mauled in the battle of Atlanta (22 July 1864). On 31 August 1864, at the first battle of Jonesboro, Lee again made what he angrily but accurately described as a "feeble" attack on the Federals, with most of his men either refusing to advance or if they did, taking shelter as soon as they came under fire.

The debacle at Jonesboro obliged Hood to evacuate Atlanta on the night of 1 September 1864. Then, toward the end of that month, he embarked on a coun-teroffensive that took him into Tennessee, where his army suffered a ruinous repulse at Franklin on 30 November 1864 and total defeat at Nashville on 15—16 December 1864. Significantly, Lee’s corps took no part in the first battle and remained strictly on the defensive in the second. After the Tennessee campaign, Lee, who had been wounded at Nashville, went on sick leave. On 31 March 1865 he rejoined his corps in North Carolina, where it formed part of the small army under General Joseph Johnston that surrendered to Sherman on 20 April 1865.

After the war, Lee operated a plantation in Mississippi, was active in that state’s politics, served as the first president of what is today Mississippi State University, and was a member of a federal commission to establish a national military park at Vicksburg. In 1904, by then the highest-ranking Confederate general still alive, he became commander of the United Confederate Veterans, a post he retained until his death.

Lee performed well as an artillery officer and infantry brigadier, and adequately as a cavalry leader, but as a lieutenant general in command of a department and then of a corps he was a failure. In fairness, he achieved that rank at a time when the Confederate cause was desperate, and it is unlikely that greater competence on his part would have made any major difference. Even so, his penchant for foredoomed frontal attacks made what was bad much worse. Obviously he failed to realize the fundamental tactical fact of the Civil War—that the defense dominated the offense—and his blaming his defeats on his troops did him no credit.
 
My Source:  Encyclopedia of the American Civil War—Albert Castel