In 1844, Stephen Lee, a former professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston, opened a classical preparatory school for boys along the Swannanoa River near Asheville. The academy remained opened until 1879 and was highly regarded in the region for its academic rigor. Many of the pupils were the scions of distinguished South Carolina families. Lee, himself, taught mathematics and literature. Aside from studying the traditional subjects, students were expected to work on the school farm each day and they were likewise taught about farming and caring for livestock. The school also conducted military exercises.
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Lee was born on June 7, 1801, to Judge Thomas and Kezia Lee of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1819 he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. He resigned two years later despite being ranked fifth in his class at the time. In 1826, Lee entered the College of Charleston and he graduated in 1828. After studying law with his father, Lee opened a legal practice in Charleston.
Lee turned from law to education, and in 1835 became a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston. Nine years later he opened his school in Buncombe County. The school consistently drew young men from western North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. In 1850 he purchased 200 acres in the Chunn’s Cove area and he relocated the school and his family there. Lee’s land holdings eventually reached from the top of Beaucatcher Mountain to the Swannanoa River. An often-repeated story, substantiated by various newspaper accounts, was that the name Beaucatcher Mountain originated with the Lee’s School boys and Asheville girls strolling along the paths of the mountain that connected Chunn’s Cove and the school grounds with downtown Asheville.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, many former Lee’s School students went into service for the Confederacy, quite a few rising to command positions. Lee was elected colonel of both the 15th and 16th North Carolina Troops but chose to command the later regiment. Taking command on June 17, 1861, Lee led his regiment in the western Virginia campaigns of the summer and fall of 1861 against Union forces led by George McClellan. In the winter 1861-1862, the 16th was assigned to a brigade of Georgians and South Carolinians stationed at Dumfries, Virginia. On February 13, 1862, sixty-one year old Lee resigned due to his age, and he returned to Buncombe County to re-open his school.
In 1864 Lee organized many of his students and local elderly men into a reserve unit called the Silvery Greys. Officially they became known as Captain Lee’s Local Defense Company. On April 3, 1865, Lee and forty-four of his Silver Greys aided Colonel George W. Clayton and the 62nd North Carolina Troops in defeating a Union brigade at the skirmish now known as the Battle of Asheville.
After the war, Lee resumed teaching, and in 1869 began farming “bright yellow” leaf tobacco. Prior to the war Lee had married his first cousin, Caroline Lee, with whom he had fifteen children. After Caroline’s death in 1856, Lee married Sara Rosanne Patton Morrison, with whom he had one child. Nine of Lee’s sons fought in the Civil War. Lee died of heart failure on August 2, 1879, and was buried in Riverside Cemetery. With its founder and main benefactor dead, Lee’s school closed its doors shortly thereafter.
Winborn Lawton, a student during the 1840s from South Carolina wrote in 1875:
"Boys were thoroughly prepared for College, or for West Point, and after thirty years, his scholars, who have distinguished themselves for their ability, character, etc., will compare with any institution of the size in this country."
Forster Sondley wrote of Lee’s School: "Probably no local school ever had a greater fame, a wider patronage, or a better teacher than Colonel Lee's. Men from all parts of the south sent their boys here to school, and it was nothing unusual to meet in any of the Southern States with a man whose education was begun at Colonel Lee's school near Asheville."
Weymouth T. Jordan, ed., North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, VI (1977)
Official Register of the Officers and Cadets of the U. S. Military Academy (1884)
F. A. Sondley, A History of Buncombe County, North Carolina (1930)
George W. McCoy, The Battle of Asheville (1964)
Clipping file for Col. Stephen Lee at the Pack Memorial Library, Asheville
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 44-45
Betty Boykin, “Stephen Lee, Founder of Boys School, and Family Are Part of Area History,” Asheville Citizen Times, Dec. 9, 1962.