The Leadership of Robert E. Lee

There is no greater challenge than to lead men and now, women in combat. No situation, no office will call on a leader’s abilities more than combat. It is the supreme leadership test. A general can understand the squares and hash marks on a military map perfectly. Yet, if his men do not follow him, then he is not a combat leader. Leadership is the test. It is the crucible. One masterful leader was Robert E. Lee. How did he do it?

Lee was a modest man. Even at the height of his fame, he eschewed pomp and ceremony. One contemporary Southern newspaper noted at the time that Lee slept in an ambulance when he traveled. When he stayed in a tent in the field, it was never the “largest and best house in the neighborhood, as is the custom of some officers.” One contemporary Southern soldier noticed that when Gen. Lee rode about the battlefield, he made no notice of himself. He rode as quietly as a farmer would ride about his farm. He wore a generally modest uniform, lacking some of the indicia of his rank. He disdained the usual decorative gold braid on his sleeves.

This soldier was saying that Lee did not do what some senior officers would do, even today. Lee did not stop and correct a soldier’s uniform. He did not stop and fuss at men at work. He did not ride about with a retinue trailing behind him.

George S. Patton

Gen. George S. Patton’s leadership style was very different. Patton wore the three stars of a Lieutenant-General before he was entitled to the rank. As a newly appointed Corps Commander in North Africa, he installed a metal flag on his car with the three stars. Every other Corps Commander used the simple, government-issue cloth flag that would unfurl when the wind blew. But, government-issue was not good enough for Gorge Patton. He wanted a flag that would be visible even when the wind did not blow. So, he had a metal flag with the three stars fabricated for his scout car.  

Indeed, even in this author’s experience, I have known a few officers over the years who could not resist the urge to pin on early. Promotion orders are always issued a few months prior to the effective date. That means an officer will know a few months prior that he will be promoted. A few, perhaps very few, officers could not resist pinning on the new rank before that effective date.

In choosing a smaller tent, Lee knew what that meant for the Headquarters soldiers. No general would erect his own tent. Like today, most officers in the 1860’s did not erect their own tent. That chore fell to some harried enlisted men. That Lee eschewed the larger roomier tent reflects some consideration for the soldiers’ welfare. It is hot work erecting those darn tents. Soldiers notice those small things.


Gen. Lee understood a modern component of morale: appealing to the family. Whenever an officer brought his wife near enough for a visit, Lee insisted on being so informed. He would call on the wife of any officer who was in the area. This would usually occur in winter quarters or during a lull between campaigns. Lee made it known that he was to be informed when a wife was nearby for a visit.

Lee also gave pincushions to soldiers who were mentioned in battle dispatches. The highest honor the Confederate army could bestow was to be mentioned. The Confederate army did not award medals. The general would give a pincushion to the mentioned officer or soldier. In a time when all women sewed, Lee knew the pincushion was of little value to the husband. But, the wife would appreciate it. It was a small gesture, but doubtless one appreciated by many spouses.

Manual Labor

There is perhaps no more sensitive issue in any army than whether and to what extent officers perform manual labor. Generally, the more traditional the army, the less likely officers perform manual labor. Even today, many officers believe it beneath them to perform manual labor, even for a few minutes.

Soon after taking command of Confederate forces, Lee told his men they have to start digging entrenchments. Like the Duke of Wellington, he saw the value in hard labor. Lee said that to keep up with the Federal forces, who were working like beavers, the Confederate officers would also have to help dig. Lee, the student of Roman and French military history, knew that trenches were essential to protect Richmond. The army, which he would name the Army of Northern Virginia, had suffered from loose discipline. It was not uncommon for officers to make unannounced trips to Richmond for social reasons. Gen. Lee sought to impose discipline in part by focusing on digging. His men awarded him with the nicknames, “King of Spades” and “Granny Lee” for his efforts. But, his focus was on building an army. He knew the value of simple manual labor.


Emory E. Thomas, Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330

Stanley P. Hirshson, General Patton, a Soldier’s Life (New York: Harper Collins 2002), p. 317-319

Scott Bowden, Robert E. Lee at War (Grapevine, Texas: Legion of Honor Publ. 2017), p. 68-69, 71-72.

2 thoughts on “The Leadership of Robert E. Lee

  1. The Myth of the Lost Cause starts with Robert E Lee, and his elevation to a deity. Lee is not a god nor was he even the best general in the Civil War nor even for the Southern cause.

    One first must wonder, was Lee fighting for the Confederacy or only for Virginia? Facts say the latter, he was fighting for Virginia. So, let’s examine that.

    As commander of all Confederate forces and chief advisor to Jefferson Davis, Lee refused to look West. As General Ulysses Grant approached Vicksburg Lee continued to advance his plans for his first disastrous attack on the north. What Lee needed to do as Commander in Chief of all Confederate forces was to look west and save this valuable post on the Mississippi River which did three things, it prevented Union Movements into the Deep South, it commanded, and controlled movement on river and it was the lynchpin that held together to two parts of Lee’s “country”. The loss of Vicksburg was a fatal blow to the Confederacy as it opened the river to the Union, but more importantly it cut off the Trans-Mississippi from the rest of the Confederacy. As the Union Armies advanced across the south Lee steadfastly refused to send additional men and supplies to his western Armies and kept everything he could for Virginia, until he reluctantly sent the south’s best General James Longstreet to the Battle of Chickamauga, and only after Longstreet pleaded with Southern leadership to go west. You see Longstreet realized the importance of the west. Longstreet arrived at Chickamauga in time to turn the tide of a battle that Braxton Bragg was losing.

    Lee no doubt was a great tactician as he consistently won battles over larger Armies, or was he?

    Before Grant came east Lee fought against some timid generals especially George McClellan, a great organizer but terribly weak field general, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, who was a bit of a fighter but always slow to move. So, was Lee a great tactician or was he operating against some astonishingly inept opposing generals? I think a bit of each.

    In U.S. Grant, Lee met his match. Once Grant came to Virginia Lee never won another major battle. And with the pressure on, Lee retreated to the safety of his Richmond fortifications. There, Grant continually outfoxed Lee by extending his lines always to the left until Grant controlled all the railroads supplying Richmond save the Danville line. Yes, now Lee had finally met his match! Grant had the troops to extend, Lee did not. Lee had squandered his limited manpower on aggressive attacks the netted him nothing.

    Many people considered Grant to be “the butcher”, thinking he didn’t care how many Northern Soldiers were killed in battle. Not true, in fact Grant hated war but he came to Virginia and set out to do what he was sent there to do, remove the Army of Northern Virginia from the war, which he succeeded in doing at Appomattox.
    In fact, Lee was no more concerned with the death of his soldiers as Grant was. Over the course of the war Lee’s Armies incurred 55,000 more casualties then Grant’s Armies.

    It was the Union’s (Grant’s) objective to attack the south, defeat it and bring it back into the Union. It was Lee’s objective to defend the south, the whole south, (he was also the commander of all southern Armies), which he failed to do miserably. Lee’s aggressive tactics cost him troops and supplies that he could ill afford to lose. He failed the south in his refusal to see the whole and concentrate only on Virginia. He failed the South in his disastrous and costly (men and supplies) attack on the north culminating in his horrendously bad decision at Gettysburg, again made over the objection of his “War Horse” James Longstreet.

    James Longstreet begged him many times to go on the defensive and was very much against many of Lee’s tactics. Longstreet saw the big picture. Longstreet saw the picture for the southern cause as Washington did for the American Revolution, As long as a viable Army remained in the field, the war could not be lost. Southerners (“The Myth”), want to discount Longstreet because when the war was over, for him it was over. He didn’t buy into the Myth of the Lost Cause, nor did he continue the narrative of southern supremacy. Longstreet settled back into life and became a leading citizen of the United States. For this he was never forgiven in the narrative of “the Myth”. But he was the best General the south had.

    Lee was very unimposing as a general officer I agree. He was a soldier’s soldier. His men loved him, and he was fair but firm with them. He seemed to keep politics out of his army as much as possible. Lee only wore the rank of Colonel, his last rank in the Army of the United States, but fully intended to wear full General insignia once he had won the war. Lee did not ride around without a retinue, at least not always. Lee was accompanied by the same group of staff officers, couriers etc as any other general of his stature. It was a necessity of war at the time. It was called in those days, communication. Without his retinue he could not of managed a battlefield in the early 1860’s. Granted Lee did ride among his troops at times alone to check on them, but so did many other generals on both sides.

    But even more humble was U.S. Grant. Grant rarely worn any insignia at all. Usually dressed no better than his soldiers in the field, Grant slept in the mud with his troops if that was the situation. I know I know; Grant was a drunk. This perception comes from times that Grant did imbibe excessively, of course this has even been amplified in the narrative of “the Myth”, but when it came to battle, Grant was sober and clear headed and carried out his battle plans magnificently.

    Before the war Grant was a nobody, quitting the army after years in California away from his family where most of his reputation as a drinker occurred. He had a small, unproductive farm in Missouri called Hard Scrabble and he sold firewood on the streets of St. Louis to support his family. He then took a job in his father’s tannery in Galena Illinois, a job which he had earlier refused because his father desired that his “wife stay in Missouri”, as he was a staunch abolitionist and her father owned slaves. Grant was given a slave by his father in law, and although not an abolitionist, refused to make his slave work for no pay. He eventually freed him.
    Grant entered the war through the Illinois volunteers as Capt., a rank he refused hoping for a higher rank, and finally commissioned a Colonel in the 21st Illinois Volunteers. But he rarely wore any rank on his uniform.
    At Appomattox Lee did dress in all his splendor. Grant entered the meeting looking to be any soldier with a muddy uniform and boots.
    The country and especially the south need to lose the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the canonization of Robert E Lee. He was just a man, a good General yes, but not a great one. We would all be the better for it.


  2. Good point, Rick. Grant and Lee had similar leadership styles. In today’s Army, we would call their style “egalitarian.” They were Omar Bradley types, soldiers’ generals. I think we can respect or praise Robert E. Lee without investing in the Lost Cause narrative. One does not require the other.


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