Some Thesis and Dissertation Ideas on the Lees and American History

By Colin Woodward, Editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive

Are you a student looking for a thesis or dissertation topic? Look no further! The LFDA has you covered!

Thesis Ideas

The hanging of Williams Orton Williams. William Orton Williams was a strange and tragic character. He was a friend of the Lee family and even dated one of General Lee’s daughters for a short time. But it appears Williams was unstable and/or had a drinking problem. Whatever the cause of his erratic behavior, he had no future with the Lees. And in the summer of 1863, Union forces hanged him after capturing him as a spy in Tennessee.

The hanging of William Orton Williams. Source: Harper’s Weekly

Was Williams really a spy? His story was shrouded in mystery and controversy. Williams never admitted to being a Confederate spy. In any event, the hanging saddened and infuriated Robert E. Lee, who was still angry about the incident after the war.

The Strange Career of Henry Lee, IV. Light Horse Harry Lee’s son (Robert E. Lee’s half brother) Henry Lee, IV, was an interesting, intelligent, and controversial figure in Lee family history. It was Henry (sometimes referred to by scholars as Henry, Jr.) who lost Stratford Hall after he sold it to a friend to cover his debts. As was true of his father, Henry was horrible with money and ended up in exile (though Light Horse Harry returned to the U.S. shortly before his death).

Ann MccartyLee
Ann McCarty Lee, the long suffering wife of Henry Lee, IV. Source: Stratford Hall

While Henry’s wife was recovering from the death of their child, Henry had an affair with his sister in law, Betsy McCarty. The scandal rocked the Lee family and forced Lee and his wife out of Virginia. Henry later befriended Andrew Jackson and obtained, albeit briefly, a post as ambassador in Algiers. However, Henry’s position was never approved by the Senate, and Harry eventually settled in Paris, where he died in the 1830s.

Henry was an able writer, who penned a biography (never finished, though one volume was published) on Napoleon as well as a book length political screed against Thomas Jefferson. He also issued a reprint of his father’s wartime memoirs. Henry was of a gifted intellect and was known as a great conversationalist. His wife never disowned him, even though she had every right to (and given the social norms of the time, she probably had to make the best of a bad situation). Henry became known as “Black Horse Harry” or “Black Harry” because of his personal transgressions. But he remains one of the more compelling of nineteenth century Virginians. Harry: American scoundrel or fallen Romantic? A little of both? Whatever he was, he needs a biographer.

Image source: Stratford Hall

Traveller: A Social History. As was true of his master, Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller reached iconic status after the war. For years, his bones were kept on display at Washington and Lee University, and it became the custom for students to autograph the skeleton. Eventually, the practice was stopped and Traveller’s bones were put to rest.

Lee was a Virginian. Virginians love horses. And Lee loved his trusted mount. Given all the Civil War biographies out there, it seems unfair that some hard working and celebrated animals should get one, too.

Sidney Smith Lee: Robert E. Lee only had one brother who served in the Confederate military: Sidney Smith Lee, better known as Smith. Smith wasn’t much of a writer, so he doesn’t have many papers in the archives. However, Smith served in the U.S. and C.S.A. navy, survived the war, and worked a modest farm near Fredericksburg afterward. Smith’s son Fitzhugh served as a cavalryman and later as governor of Virginia.

Sidney Smith Lee. Source: Stratford Hall

A study of Smith could hopefully answer some questions: what did he think of secession? How good of a commander was he? Was a staunch Confederate or was he just “along for the ride?” Any biographer of Smith, however, will have to endure reading his horrendous handwriting.

Dissertation Topics

Robert E. Lee, Slavery, and Race. General Lee is the most famous of the Lees and the most controversial. He has been in the news much lately, and scholars and the general public continue to debate, often hotly, Lee’s racial views. How many slaves did Lee ever own? What were his feelings toward slavery and African Americans? Did his views change: if so, how? Historians have answered these kinds of questions before, but the subject of Lee and race deserves book length treatment.

The Lee Boys: A Tale of Three Brothers: All of Robert E. Lee’s sons were in the Confederate army. One of them, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (aka Fitzhugh, aka Rooney), saw major combat and was wounded in 1863 and sent to a POW camp in New York. Lee’s other sons also served, though they did not see as much action as Rooney.

As is true of their uncle Smith, an exploration of the Lee brothers could shed much light on the story of the Lees during the Civil War. What did these men think of secession and slavery? How did their views change over the course of the war?

The Civil War is often cast as a conflict that was brother vs. brother. But more common were the brothers who fought together on the same side. Think of the Earp brothers on the Union side or the James brothers on the Confederate.

Ravensworth plantation. Source: wikipedia

The Homes of the Lees: A Story of a 19th Family on the Move. Robert E. Lee moved around. A lot. Stratford and Arlington. Alexandria. Richmond. West Point. Baltimore. New York City. St. Louis. Fort Monroe. And last of all, Lexington. When reading the Lee family letters, one will come across references to the White House, Romancoke, Ravensworth, and other homes that the Lees lived in or visited. When, where, and why were the lees in certain homes at any given time? What does it tell us about their history and circumstances?

General Garibaldi and the American Civil War: Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general who made a name for himself in the period before the Civil War. To use a trite metaphor, he is the George Washington of Italy. Watch the film Life is Beautiful and there’s a passing mention of Garibaldi having slept somewhere, much like people claim Washington slept everywhere. In the early 1860s, Garibaldi’s exploits were fresh in the minds of Civil War era Americans. Indeed, his career as a commander was not over yet.

Garibaldi, who was firmly anti-slavery, considered fighting on the northern side as one of Lincoln’s commanders, but this never happened. During the War, Robert E. Lee drew comparisons to Garibaldi (who looked a bit like Lee) in the northern press. Garibaldi’s campaigns were not on the scale as Lee’s. But the two had some famous battles where they defeated much large opponents. As is true of many famous generals, Garibaldi was interesting not only for his world famous skills on the battlefield, but his fashions–more specifically, his red shirts. One 1863 letter, written by Mrs. Robert E. Lee, mentions the “Garibaldi fashion.” After the war, the Lees apparently had a bird named after him.

Giuseppe Garibaldi on Caprera
General Garibaldi

Garibaldi kept fighting throughout the 1860s, with his last days in command taking place during the Franco-Prussian War. He lived a fairly long life, dying in 1882 at the age of 74. His generalship plays into a large story of the Civil War era, namely, the wars of consolidation that were occurring in America and Europe.

This is just a sampling of some of the topics that might interest anyone thinking about writing on the Lees–one of the most important and fascinating families in American history.



Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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