William Henry Lee was born in Brutus, New York, on August 23, 1840. He was the grandson of Abner Lee (1759-1843), who had served as a private in the 5th Connecticut Regiment in the Revolutionary War. After Lee’s father died in 1855, William worked doing odd jobs and attended Jordan Academy in Jordan, New York, and Monroe Collegiate Institute in Elbridge, New York. In 1857 and 1858, he taught district school, and by 1860, he had moved to Newton County, Arkansas, and was growing corn, oats, and wheat on 100 acres of land rented from a cousin, Nathan Clements.
In May 1862, Lee was ordered to report for muster into the Confederate army, but his sympathies were with the Union, and he hastily traveled to the Union line at Cassville, Missouri, via “woods and byways” (“Life of Wm. H. Lee Written by Himself”). On June 23, 1862, he was mustered into Company F, 8th Missouri Cavalry. He participated in the Battle of Prairie Grove and the capture of Little Rock, and wrote about the large number of Union casualties in the former. Lured by a substantial pay raise, Lee joined the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry when it was organized in February 1864, and was honorably discharged as 1st lieutenant on February 4, 1865. He spent several additional months working as a citizen clerk for the Post Commissary in Lewisburg, Arkansas.
On April 18, 1865, he married Mary A. (Mollie) Welborne, and the pair soon left Arkansas for Harbor Springs, Michigan, where they would reside for the rest of their lives, except for a few years spent farming in New York, Tennessee, and Minnesota. William pursued a number of occupations, including teaching, clerical work, and running an abstract business. The Lees had three children that survived to adulthood: Russell, Sarah, and Mabel. William Lee died on August 19, 1935 at the age of 94.