Sydney Smith Lee (September 2, 1802 – July 22, 1869) was a prominent member of the Lee Family, and his final resting place is in Christ Church Cemetery, where twenty-six individuals with the last name of Lee are buried. He held a significant position in history as the elder brother of Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870). Sydney was renowned for his distinguished service as a United States naval officer. One of his notable achievements was commanding the USS Mississippi (1841), a paddle frigate that served as the flagship of Commodore Matthew C. Perry (April 10, 1794 – March 4, 1858) during his momentous mission to open Japan in 1853.
In 1860, the first official Japanese Embassy arrived in the United States, traveling from San Francisco to Washington D.C. This mission was initiated by Japan’s Tokugawa government to present treaty ratifications based on 1858 agreements. These agreements were made between Townsend Harris, the first American ambassador to Japan, and the Japanese government. The delegation’s journey involved traveling aboard the Powhatan to Panama, crossing the Isthmus by train, and then heading to Washington, D.C.
Sydney Smith Lee played a significant role during this period. As documented by Dallas Finn in “Guest of the Nation: The Japanese Delegation to the Buchanan White House,” Lee was among a group of Naval officers chosen to escort the Japanese delegation. This account was published in White House History, Number Twelve, Winter 2003, by the White House Historical Association, Washington, D.C., on page 20.
Lee was joined by two officers: Captain Samuel Francis Du Pont, a hero of the Mexican War, and David Dixon Porter, an officer praised by Commodore Perry who was later buried at Arlington National Cemetery. This trio guided the Japanese delegation through the official ceremonies in Washington. Their journey included several events, including a reception in the East Room of the White House on May 17, 1860.
At this event, President Buchanan, his cabinet, and other attendees greeted the Japanese delegates. Due to the linguistic barrier – the Japanese delegates knew only Dutch among Western languages – interactions were facilitated by translating from Japanese Dutch to American English and back.
The visit, from their arrival in San Francisco to their engagements in Washington D.C., highlighted the importance of international diplomacy and the efforts of both nations to build a relationship. At the end of June, the Japanese delegation returned to Japan.
In April 1861, following Virginia’s secession declaration, he decided to resign from his post, and on April 22nd, he was officially dismissed. Coincidentally, on the same day, his brother, Robert E. Lee, assumed command of all the Commonwealth of Virginia’s forces. Subsequently, he received a commission as a Commander in the Confederate Navy and was entrusted with the leadership of the Gosport Navy Yard. Under his guidance, the charred remains of the USS Merrimack were skillfully transformed into the formidable ironclad warship known as the CSS Virginia.
In May 1862, Lee assumed control of Drewry’s Bluff, a strategic 90-foot high bluff on the James River, approximately seven miles south of Richmond. This location possessed a sharp bend in the river’s course, making it an excellent defensive operation choice. On May 15, 1862, the fort faced a fierce bombardment from five Union gunboats, including the renowned USS Monitor, enduring a grueling five-hour battle before successfully holding its ground.
Over the subsequent two years, Lee dedicated his efforts to fortifying and enhancing the defenses of Drewry’s Bluff, transforming it into a robust stronghold. Additionally, he employed the site as a training ground for the Confederate Navy Academy, preparing naval forces for their crucial roles in the ongoing conflict.
In 1863, Lee expressed strong disapproval of South Carolina’s actions that led the South into the complexities of secession. He voiced his frustration, even suggesting they should be “hanged” for their role. He also lamented his desire to remain in the old navy, implying that he regrets leaving his previous naval career.
to the memory of
SYDNEY SMITH LEE
Born Sept. 2, 1801
Died July 22, 1869
Blessed are the pure in heart
for they shall see God
to the memory of
ANNA MARIA MASON
Commodore S.S. LEE
Born Feb. 26, 1811
Died November. 3, 1898
He giveth His beloved sleep
After the war, Smith attempted farming in Stratford County, Virginia, but encountered difficulties. His encounters with his younger brother, Robert, were infrequent, with their last meeting in May of 1869. Tragically, Smith passed away merely two months later, on July 22, 1869.
In 1834, Smith tied the knot with Anna Maria Mason Lee, affectionately known as “Nannie” (February 26, 1811 – November 3, 1898), who happened to be the sister of James Murray Mason, who is also buried in Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery. The couple was blessed with seven children, among them Fitzhugh Lee, who later became a prominent figure as a former Confederate general and the 40th Governor of Virginia from 1886 to 1890. Another notable child was Captain Sydney Smith Lee, Jr. (February 10, 1837 – April 15, 1888).
Following his father’s footsteps, Lee Jr. served in the Confederate Navy, actively participating in various naval battles. He was part of the crew of CSS Louisiana in 1862 and later contributed to the missions of CSS Atlanta and Georgia from 1862 to 1864. He also saw action on CSS Rappahannock near France in 1864 and later served on CSS Shenandoah from October 1864 to November 1865.
After the war, Lee Jr. ventured into farming in Argentina, leading a solitary life as he never married. In 1888, he passed away and was laid to rest near his parents’ resting place.
Nannie, or Anna Maria, lived a full life until 1898 and now rests in eternal peace beside her beloved husband in Lot 20:5. A dignified obelisk adorned with place stones bearing the initials “S.S.L.” and “A.M.L.” serves as a poignant marker, commemorating their final resting place.
Sources of Information
Lee, C. G., Jr. (1957). Lee Chronicle: Studies of the Early Generations of the Lees of Virginia. Thomson-Shore. Published for The Society of the Lees of Virginia.
Finn, D. (2003). Guest of the Nation: The Japanese Delegation to the Buchanan White House. White House History, (12). White House Historical Association.
Hakenson, D. C. (2011). This Forgotten Land Volume II: Biographical Sketches of Confederate Veterans Buried in Alexandria, Virginia. Donald Hakenson.
Cole, R. (2019). Light-Horse Harry Lee: The Rise and Fall of a Revolutionary Hero. Regnery History.
Connolly, A. (Curator) & Deetz, K. (Director). Stratford at the Crossroads: Atlantic Cultures & The Creation of America. Stratford Hall. Home of the Lees of Virginia. Stratford, VA.
United States National Park Service. (n.d.). Richmond Battlegrounds, Drewry’s Bluff. The official website of the United States National Park Service. Retrieved in 2023 from: [https://www.nps.gov/rich/learn/historyculture/drewrys-bluff.htm]