By Caitlin Connelly
Perhaps the most famous member of the Lee family of Virginia is Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He struggled with his loyalties when Virginia seceded in 1861, but ultimately chose his duties to his family and his home as he believed them to be. Another Lee is sometimes looked at as a contrasting figure, and used as an example – one of many – of how families were split during the Civil War.
Rear-Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee was a cousin to Robert E, though they were distantly related and only shared a great-great-grandfather. Lee was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, and spent most of his life in the Navy, beginning in 1825 when, as a 13-year-old, he entered the Naval Academy. In 1837 he was promoted to Lieutenant, and the next year he was present at the capture of Tobasco by Commodore Matthew C. Perry during the Mexican-American War.
Lee was at the Cape of Good Hope when he learned that South Carolina and other states had seceded. Despite the risk involved with acting against orders, he decided to sail home. Upon his return he was immediately assigned to the blockade around Charleston. In 1862 he commanded the USS Oneida in the expedition against New Orleans, during which the Oneida saved a sister ship, the USS Varuna, and captured the Confederate vessel Governor Moore. In 1862 he was promoted to Captain and soon afterwards to acting Rear-Admiral. That same year he took command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and for two years he built and maintained an efficient blockade. In 1864 he was placed in command of the Mississippi Squadron, which provided valuable support to campaigns on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and was instrumental in isolating Confederate forces west of the Mississippi.
After the war he served as Chief of the Signal Corps, and in 1866 was promoted to Commodore. In 1870 he was promoted to Rear-Admiral. After commanding the North Atlantic Squadron for 2 years, he retired in 1872. Lee died at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1897.
During the Civil War, other soldiers were perhaps understandably skeptical of Lee’s loyalties. There were several Lees fighting for the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee being the most well-known. Samuel Phillips Lee’s response was sharp and memorable: “When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy.” He was, in other words, loyal to the Union above all else.
On a personal note, Lee was connected to Washington society through his wife, Elizabeth Blair, daughter of Francis Preston Blair and Eliza Violet Gist. The Blairs were a prominent political family in Washington D.C., and Elizabeth was well acquainted
with many influential men and families. Blair’s father built the couple a house in Washington a block away from the White House and next-door to his own, which I’m sure they were overjoyed about. Today, the two houses are part of four that make up the President’s Guest House, which houses visiting heads of state (such as Queen Elizabeth II), President-Elects, and other guests of the President. The Blair House, the first of the four, was originally purchased in 1943 on a request from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was disturbed by some of Winston Churchill’s overly-familiar behavior (such as attempting to rouse President Roosevelt at 3am for a conversation) and wanted to house him somewhere other than the White House during his visits.
Samuel Phillips and Elizabeth were married for 54 years, and during that time she wrote him over 900 letters which still exist.
Lee Letter of the Week: This one, a letter from Cassius F. Lee to his son, Edmund Jennings Lee, about starting his own family and the importance of family prayer. It’s a kind of sweet little letter from father to son, and I can’t help but like it.