Private Frank Lee was born in Charlottesville in March 1842. Little is known about his early life aside from his self-emancipation from slavery in 1862. By March 16, 1864, he had followed the Union army to Boston, Massachusetts, where he enlisted. His service record describes him as 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with black hair, black eyes, and a black skin complexion. He was one of eight Albemarle-born Black Union soldiers to serve in Massachusetts.
Lee joined Company K of the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry Regiment as a private.
The army transferred his regiment to Virginia, where Lee participated in the Siege of Petersburg. His regiment was assigned to guard prisoners in Point Lookout, Maryland until the push on Richmond in April 1865. The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry was the first federal cavalry regiment to enter Richmond after the city fell. The Union major who oversaw Richmond’s surrender said of the 5th Massachusetts cavalrymen, “I was told that this fine regiment of colored men made a very great impression on those citizens who saw it.” After the fall of Richmond, the army moved the company to the Brazos, Texas area, where the soldiers worked on the United States Military Railroad. Lee mustered out on October 31, 1865, near Clarksville, Texas.
Lee moved to Cleveland, Ohio after the war. As southern states began to pass oppressive and racist Jim Crow laws in the 1880s, Lee began to protest for civil rights. After white citizens of Cleveland revolted against their local government in 1898, forcing Black political leaders out of the city and destroying Black homes and businesses, Lee founded the "Brotherhood of African Descent" to "bring about united political action" for civil rights. He fought to preserve the memory of African American service in the fight against slavery. He became an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic and a respected authority on Black history.
In 1900, Lee gave a Memorial Day speech at St. John’s AME Sunday School powerful enough that church leaders continued to quote it fifteen years later. He had a clear demand: “Learn from the deeds and valor of the men of ’61 and ’65." He declared that "Righteousness is the only thing that will bring peace," and that each individual could serve as a "monument to truth."
Lee worked as a janitor after the war. He married, but his wife’s name has been lost. They had no children. He never returned to Charlottesville, and he said once that he never saw his mother again after he escaped slavery.
His first pension application in 1900 was rejected by the United States government. Pension rejections were more common for Black veterans than white veterans. In Lee's case, as with many people who escaped slavery, one issue was that he had no record of his exact date of birth and nobody who could testify to it. In 1904, his appeal was successful he began to receive a pension of eight dollars per month. In 1905, he applied for and received a pension increase and began receiving twelve dollars a month.
Private Lee was profiled by the University of Virginia's John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History in 2017, as part of their Black Virginians in Blue digital project.
- Web. Frank Lee (5th MA Colored CAV), Website, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History: Black Virginians in Blue, April 30, 2021, retrieved July 8, 2021.
- Web. “Brave Boys of the Fifth”: The Service of Two Black, Albemarle-Born Soldiers of the Famous 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment, Jane Diamond, Website, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History: Black Virginians in Blue, July 4, 2017, retrieved July 28, 2021.
- Web. Testimony of Frank Lee, Frank Lee, Website, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History: Black Virginians in Blue, November 12, 1904, retrieved July 28, 2021.