The Less Famous Lee

A devastated Robert E. Lee arrived too late for his older brother’s funeral in 1869. “A sad gap in our family… a grievous affliction to me which I must bear as well as I can,” he tearfully remarked to Mary, his wife.

Referred to simply as “Smith,” Sydney Smith Lee was known as the more handsome of the two Lee brothers. His nephew once said, “No one could be near my Uncle Smith without

Sydney Smith Lee
Sydney Smith Lee

feeling his joyful influences.” This demeanor contrasted sharply with Robert’s proper, stoic attitude.

Both Lee brothers had a passion for their country. Robert found his place in the Army and Smith joined the Navy. Although Robert and Smith shared a remarkable military career, one went down in the history books and the other was all but forgotten.

An 18-year-old Smith left home in 1820 and entered the Navy as a midshipman thanks to an appointment by President Monroe. The next 40 years would look favorably on Smith. In 1828 he was promoted to Lieutenant. The only time Robert and Smith saw action together was during the Mexican-American War. “I stood by his gun when I was not wanted elsewhere here, I am at a loss what I would have done had he [Smith] been cut down before me. I thank God he was saved,” wrote General Lee about his experience during the Battle of Veracruz.

Smith’s role as commander of the Philadelphia Naval Yard along with his position at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD boosted his reputation. His most famous accomplishment was his involvement in Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in the

A Japanese Depiction of Commodore Perry's 1854 Expedition
A Japanese Depiction of Commodore Perry’s 1854 Expedition

1850’s. Smith was one of the first to anchor in Tokyo Bay (June 8, 1853). Perry’s expedition was considered a great success as it persuaded Japan to open its ports to world trade.

Smith was at the peak of his career when the Civil War began. Like most of his family, he did not want to see the nation divide. However, he had made a promise to stay true to his home state of Virginia. Smith turned in his resignation as soon as he heard that Virginia had decided to leave the Union. The Union dismissed him of duty five days later (April 22, 1861).

Smith later accepted a position as a commander in the Confederate States Navy (CSN). Despite a gallant effort, the CSN consisted of only 29 vessels and 9 captains by the fall of 1861. The Union Navy had more than eight times this amount.  Undeterred, Smith took command of the once-thriving Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk, VA. Gosport was a strategic location on the banks of the Elizabeth River. One of the largest and most productive shipyards in the country, it was also one of the first two dry docks in America.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, the US troops stationed at Gosport feared they would be captured and withdrew to Union-held Fort Monroe. Before they left, they

Burning of Gosport Naval Yard, 1861
Burning of Gosport Naval Yard, 1861

were ordered to burn the shipyard. As luck would have it, the Confederates were able to salvage quite a bit from the smoldering shipyard, including nearly 2,000 heavy guns that would prove useful throughout the war. Most importantly, they used the left-behind hull of the USS Merrimack to rebuild the Confederate Ironclad, CSS Virginia in 1862.

The shipyard was burned once again, this time by the Confederates, when the Union Navy forced them out. Smith was then promoted to captain and put in charge of the batteries at Drewry’s Bluffs, Virginia, where he would be second-in-command during a battle in May 1862. As a part of the Peninsula campaign, the Union Navy attempted to reach the Confederate capitol of Richmond, VA. Due to submerged obstacles in the James River and the Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff, the Union was unable to reach Richmond and was forced to abandon the mission.

Captain Sydney Smith Lee took command of the site and supervised activities after the battle. Under his supervision, Drewry’s Bluffs expanded and became a permanent fort and an important training ground for the Confederate Naval Academy and the Confederate Marine Corps.

A year after the victory at Drewry’s Bluffs, Smith became the chief of the Confederate Navy Bureau of Orders and Detail. Replacing Captain John K. Mitchell, Smith remained at this post until the end of the war.

Smith lived for four pleasant years after the war, spending his time farming and visiting family. He died at his home in Richland, VA on June 22, 1869 at the age of 66.

3 Responses to The Less Famous Lee

  1. Caroline, thanks for referring me to your blog at our meeting this past weekend. After reading what Smith Lee accomplished, I hope he gets more recognition for his contributions to the Confederate war effort. I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

  2. According to Mary Chestnut, Lee reluctantly secceeded , urged on by his brother Robert.Cousin Phillips Lee remained loyal.

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