COLUMNS

As It Were: Alfred Emory Lee wrote the book on Columbus

ED LENTZ
Alfred Emory Lee's 1892 history of Columbus was considered the definitive history of the city.
Ed Lentz

Alfred Emory Lee was a man in a hurry.

He emerged as an energetic young man in the late 1850s, having spent the first 20 years of his life on the family farm near St. Clairsville.

Tiring of what he later called "agricultural pursuits," Lee left the farm and seldom returned. He seems to have been one of those people who wanted to try as many careers as possible in as many places as possible.

To a remarkable extent, he succeeded.

Lee was born in 1838. By 1858, he had been educated in a log-cabin grade school and later in a private academy operated by an uncle.

He then enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, earning a bachelor's degree in 1859. Following a brief stint at the family farm, he left for Cleveland and completed a course of study at the Ohio State and Union Law College. He graduated in spring 1861 -- just in time to see the outbreak of the Civil War.

His reaction to the war was described in a local history:

"Returning to the farm to help gather the harvest, he was at work in the field when he received a newspaper from Wheeling (West Virginia) announcing the appalling defeat of the National Army at Bull Run."

Lee went to work recruiting friends and acquaintances to join the military and serve to put down the Confederacy; then, in November 1861, he enlisted as a private soldier in Delaware's 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

The "Old 82nd" was one of the more storied regiments in the Union Army, and Lee played his part in it. The 82nd saw more officers killed and wounded than any of the other hundreds of regiments that came from Ohio. Lee, who had risen to the rank of lieutenant, was among the wounded.

In July 1863, the 82nd went into savage direct combat with a strong Confederate force advancing on the village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

On the first day of a three-day battle, the 82nd saw 20 of its 22 officers killed or wounded and left the battle scene with only 90 men left standing.

Recovering from his wounds, Lee returned to a refitted 82nd and fought with the regiment for the rest of the war. By the end, he was a captain.

With the conclusion of the war, Lee moved on to a varied set of occupations in law, politics and government. He practiced law in Delaware and wrote for local newspapers until 1868, when he was elected to the Ohio General Assembly. Working with Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, Lee promoted legislation creating the Ohio Geological Survey.

Lee became private secretary to Hayes in 1876. After Hayes was elected president, Lee was appointed consul general to Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany.

Returning to the U.S., Lee served in a variety of appointed positions, including as secretary to the Council of the Grand Army of the Republic -- the Union Army veterans organization. In that role, he helped bring the 22nd annual Encampment of the Grand Army, with more than 250,000 people, to Columbus in 1888.

In 1890, he was appointed trustee for the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home in Xenia. He held that post for one year, leaving because he was busily gathering materials for a new project: He had been hired by a national publisher to write a definitive history of Columbus.

He later described the task he had undertaken:

"The labor which has produced this work, so far as its author is concerned, has been performed during such intervals and opportunities as have been vouchsafed by an exacting business. Two years were spent in preparatory investigation and collection of materials before a line of text was written."

He then described his approach:

"If any readers expect to find in these pages any labored and irrelevant personal mention; any connivance at pretentious self-assertion at the expense of merit; any indulgence of mere family pride to the detriment of historical fairness; any unnecessary parade of personal folly and weakness; any pandering to appetite for the salacious and criminal; any appeals to partiality of wealth, power or personal vanity; any disguised advertisements masquerading as history; any fulsome laudation of the city or its citizens, individually or collectively, they will, the author hopes, be profoundly and completely disappointed. ... "

What Lee produced in 1892 was the most thorough history of the capital of Ohio to that time. In two volumes and more than 1,500 pages, it remains the longest history of the city.

Shortly after completing his history of Columbus, Lee moved to California, where he died in 1905.

He dedicated his history to the work of the residents of Columbus past and present and to "all who shall hereafter strive with honest purpose to carry forward that work to results yet more beneficial and beautiful."

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.