Coming from a long line of esteemed men, he set his sights on fulfilling the high standards that came with the distinguished Lee family name. His service during the Civil War earned him respect among his peers but was short-lived due to poor health. Consequently, his historical fate was to live in the shadow of another’s wartime stardom, forever being cast as the “other” General Lee.
Edwin Gray Lee was born to Edmund Jennings Lee II and Henrietta Bedinger on May 27, 1836, at the family home in Shepherdstown in Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Heading down the same career path as his father, Lee graduated from William and Mary College in 1852 before getting his law degree from Washington College in 1859. Three years prior he married Susan Pendleton, daughter of Confederate General William N. Pendleton. But with war looming on the horizon and a country threating to be torn apart, Lee’s desk job and home life would be put on hold to don a uniform for the Confederate army.
In April, 1861, Edwin Lee joined the Virginia infantry as a second lieutenant. Under the leadership of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, he fought at the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas). His performance there earned him a promotion to major. Lee fought hard to protect Virginia from Union forces, fighting in the Seven Days battles, Second Manassas, and at Cedar Mountain. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel not long before his capture. After receiving word that his father was ill, Lee made his way home to Shepherdstown only to be caught by Union forces. As was done in many cases of captured officers, Lee was traded for a Union officer of equal standing and set free in the fall of 1862.
Upon returning to the Virginia infantry, Lee was given command of his troops at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Shortly after the battle his health began to falter. When it seemed a lung disease had gotten the worst of him, he resigned from his duties and returned home to his wife. The short time away seemed to do him some good, and he felt he was recovered well enough to return to his men fighting on the front lines. Lee was promoted to colonel and defended Richmond under General Robert Ransom Jr. He continued to defend the Shenandoah Valley at Staunton, which earned him the title of brigadier general, a proper title for a man of the Lee bloodline.
But more than good stock seemed to run in his blood. Lee found himself at odds with his own health once again. Although there are conflicting reports, it is believed that after retiring once more for poor health in December, 1864, Lee and his wife moved to Montreal to run the blockade to Canada on a secret mission. They remained after the war helping Confederate exiles until moving back to Virginia in 1866. With the war over, it seemed the perfect time for Lee to pick back up his law career. But due to his rapidly failing lungs, it wouldn’t last long.
Lee was a mere thirty-four-years-old when his poor health finally took him on August 24, 1870. His grave lies rather appropriately at Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington. Upon his death, according to early-twentieth-century historian Frederick Warren Alexander, the General Lee that history knows best, Robert E. Lee, was saddened upon learning of his cousin’s passing. He wrote, “I am truly sorry to hear of Edwin Lee’s death. He was a true man, and had his health permitted would have been an ornament, as well as a benefit to his race. He was certainly a great credit to the name.”