The following biographical sketch is taken from Louisville Past and Present: Its Industrial History As Exhibited in the Life-labors of its Leading Men by M. Joblin & Co., Louisville, 1875, pages 296-298.
THE subject of this sketch was born in Bullitt County, Kentucky, on the 22d day of October, 1832. His father, Wilford Lee, emigrated from Virginia early in life, and was related to the old revolutionary families of that name. Phil Lee at the age of eighteen graduated at St. Joseph's College, in Bardstown, Kentucky. In 1852 he graduated in the law department of the University of Louisville, and was admitted to the bar. He practiced his profession in Bullitt and surrounding counties until the breaking out of the civil war in 1861. In 1853, before his majority, he was elected to represent Bullitt County in the legislature, and in 1855 he was re-elected. In 1856 he was a candidate for presidential elector on the Fillmore-and-Donelson ticket, in opposition to Governor Beriah Magoffin on the ticket for Buchanan and Breckinridge; and in 1860 was a candidate for elector on the Bell-and-Everett ticket, opposed by Captain E. A. Graves on the Douglas ticket and Hon. M. R. Hardin on the ticket for Breckinridge and Lane. In these canvasses Colonel Lee developed his character as a popular debater, and won a wide reputation as such. The last-named canvass, when he was opposed by Captain Graves and Judge Hardin, was a celebrated one. The issues were exciting, and Colonel Lee, by his readiness in debate, his skill at repartee, and his rich humor, became a match for either of his antagonists. The racy anecdotes of this campaign would fill a volume.
In 1861 the war broke out in Kentucky, and she was precipitated into the conflict. Colonel Lee took the position, in the spring and summer, that Kentucky should go with the South, and opposed neutrality, and when the war actually began on Kentucky soil he raised a company of over one hundred men, and repaired to the state-line of Tennessee and Kentucky, where, with Generals Tilghman and Breckinridge and others, he assisted in laying out Camp Boone. He was elected captain of Company C, Second Kentucky Regiment, First Brigade of Infantry. We take from the "History of the First Kentucky Brigade," by Ed. Porter Thompson, the following sketch of his military career:
"Henceforth until the disastrous close of the great struggle his history is interwoven with that of the immortal Second Regiment, whose exploits at Donelson, in which it alone of the First Brigade took part, as we have elsewhere noticed, sent a thrill of joy to the hearts of Kentucky soldiers every where. Though they were defeated and in captivity, there was a secret pride to those who had not yet engaged the foe in the knowledge that these their brothers bad upheld the traditional honor of Kentucky on one bloody field, and that sooner or later their example should be emulated; that the old state, through these her representatives in the army of the South, should still preserve her prestige— should still be known as the chivalrous old Kentucky, first and worthy daughter of the Mother of States—'land of fair women and brave men.' At Donelson then Captain Lee first led his company into action, and proved himself worthy of the name he bore and of the confidence of his men. Imprisoned for six weary months, his regiment at length came forth to win new laurels at Hartsville. It is unnecessary to dwell upon his particular conduct on every occasion, for that has passed into history, to be known and read of all men. Suffice it to say that—what the reader has perhaps observed in the course of the general narrative—he was present every engagement in which his regiment participated during the war, except that of the 22d of July, near Atlanta, and demeaned himself alike in all. Always active and vigilant, he inspired confidence and won honors in the path of danger and of duty. At Chickamauga, though yet in the line, and suffering too with illness, he was acting field officer, and is referred to in the report of the commanding officer as having done his duty with his accustomed gallantry. Shortly after this battle he was promoted to major, and November 5th to lieutenant-colonel. On the campaign from Dalton to Atlanta he received the only wounds that were inflicted upon him during the war. He was painfully wounded at Resaca May 14th, and received at Dallas, May 28th, a slight one. On the fall of Colonel Moss at Jonesboro, August 31st, he was promoted to colonel, and commanded the Second Regiment until the close of the war. By reference to our account of the operations in South Carolina it will be seen that by a well-planned, timely, and properly-executed ambuscade at McClernand's Ford Colonel Lee with his regiment alone succeeded in repulsing and heading off an overwhelming Yankee column, and saving the brigade-train from falling into their hands. On many points of his military career we might linger, but it would be unnecessarily prolonging this personal sketch, since whatever we may have omitted here or touched upon but lightly has been already noticed in the department of general history."
After the close of the war Colonel Lee returned to Kentucky, and resumed the practice of his profession at Bardstown, and soon acquired a lucrative practice. At this time he was in partnership with Colonel W. R. Grigsby, then and now one of the leading lawyers at the Bardstown bar, which has always been celebrated as one of the most learned and brilliant in the South and West. In 1867 he removed to this city, and commenced the practice of his profession here, where he was almost as well known as in the counties where he had formerly practiced.
On the 23d day of June, 1866, he was married to Belle B., daughter of James Bridgeford, Esq., one of the leading and well-known merchant-princes of Louisville. At a Democratic convention held in Louisville in May, 1868, Colonel Lee was nominated as the Democratic candidate for commonwealth's attorney of the Ninth Judicial District. He passed through a heated canvass with an independent ticket, and again distinguished himself as a ready debater and an eloquent orator. He was triumphantly elected, and before the disabilities imposed by acts of Congress had been removed. A short time afterward he was relieved by a special act of Congress, which included in its provisions Hon. H. W. Bruce, now chancellor of the Louisville Chancery Court, and many other distinguished persons in Kentucky. He began his term of office in September, 1868, and entered upon what has proven to this time the most brilliant and useful part of his career. He soon mastered the law and practice in criminal trials in all its generalities and details, and became in a short time celebrated as one of the best commonwealth's attorneys in the state. The effect of his speeches before juries is remarkable. He has an intuitive knowledge of men. His recollection of names and faces is also remarkable, as he seldom forgets a name or face that he has once beard and seen. It is as an advocate before juries that he most excels, and he seldom fails to use his tact, skill, and knowledge in finding the way to enlist them on the side of his cause. In denouncing murderers he is terrific, and he has done more than all others to make murder unpopular in Kentucky. When fully aroused in these cases he becomes almost irresistible with juries, and complaints have been frequently made that, by his appeals in favor of law and order and his terrible invective against crime, juries have been made to find verdicts not sustained by the law and evidence. His great success and popularity as a lawyer and commonwealth's attorney caused him to be re-elected without opposition in 1874, and he now holds the office.
While these lines are being written Colonel Lee is prostrated by illness, which but for his indomitable will would ere this have proved fatal. This his physician and friends have the highest hopes will now soon enable him to regain his strength and health, and enable him to again enter upon the active duties of his office and profession. This condition of health was brought on by his zealous and earnest devotion to his duty. The large number of murder cases on the docket of the Jefferson Circuit Court and the great prevalence of that crime required the exercise of those great qualities for which he has become celebrated, and the greatest constant strain upon his nervous powers was too much even for his strong nervous and physical powers. But he is now in a fair way to recover, and hundreds of enthusiastic friends will rejoice to see him on the streets and in his place again. The genial humor and witty sallies that, like brilliant coruscations, have sparkled from his lips, even in the midst of intense suffering, will again enliven the forensic debate and social converse.
In person Colonel Lee is of medium stature, close, compact frame, black hair, and dark- gray eyes. An excellent life-size painting of him has been obtained by the members of the bar of Louisville, and is to be placed, with appropriate ceremonies, in the circuit-court room at the next opening of the court. This painting is by G. W. Morrison, and is remarkably well executed, giving the best idea that can be put upon canvas of one of the greatest advocates that has ever figured at the bar.
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