Stephen Dill Lee


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.

Early Life

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 JEB Stuart and Oliver O. Howard, whose Union X1 Corps was crushed at Chancellorsville by the famed 2d 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 Dunkard 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 prison 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.

Post War

Stephen Dill Lee was married to Regina Harrison of Columbus, Mississippi, and settled in his wife’s home state when the war ended. He became a planter and beginning in 1878, served in the Mississippi State Senate.
Besides serving as a State Senator, in 1878 Lee became President of the Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College and remained as President until 1899. Today, this college is Mississippi State University. In 1899, he resigned his college Presidency. He took an increasing interest in Confederate veteran affairs and became active in developing Vicksburg National Military Park. He also took a leading role in the formation and running of the central Confederate veterans organization, the United Confederate Veterans.

Stephen Dill Lee during the post war years was active in efforts to re-establish the prosperity of the South. Following his resignation as college President, he devoted his time and interest to historical work, also serving as President of the Mississippi Historical Society . He served as President of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, zealously preserving the records of past events and of writing the true history of the South. This was important work because at that time the reputation of both Mississippi and the South was at low ebb. Lee took great pride in influencing Southern youth.

Stephen Dill Lee was an early organizer and leader in the United Confederate Veterans. He served as national Commander of the United Confederate Veterans from 1904-1908 and was Commander in Chief of the UCV at the time of his death on May 29, 1908, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He is buried in the Friendship Cemetery of Columbus, Mississippi.

Stephen Dill Lee’s influence in both the United Confederate Veterans and in the Sons of Confederate Veterans is very much in evidence today. General Lee was one of the first to realize the old veterans were rapidly passing away. He recognized that a new generation would have to pick up the torch to tell the true history of the War Between the States. In 1896, in Richmond, VA at the annual Reunion of the UCV, the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization was formed. Both the United Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans continued to meet together annually but it was in 1906 at the United Confederate Veteran Reunion in New Orleans that General Lee addressed the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the need to preserve Confederate history and the good name of the Confederate soldier. It was from that address that The Charge of the Sons of Confederate
Veterans is derived. General Lee could not have put it any clearer than he did—

“To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we submit 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, and the perpetuation of those principles he loved and 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.”

In 2005, the General Executive Council of the Sons of Confederate Veterans created the Stephen Dill Lee Institute in honor of this great Southern man and educator.

Today, at no time since General Lee defined the mission of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has there been a greater need to present a true understanding of the War Between the States. The cause for which the Confederate soldier fought must be actively defended in this time of officially imposed Political Correctness. If we allow his cause to be blackened, it will be impossible to defend the Confederate soldier even to those who may acknowledge his gallantry and skill.

Dedication ceremony of the monument to S.D. Lee at Vicksburg National Military Park

Reference Material;

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