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.

8 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.


  3. We will have to agree to disagree on whether Robert E Lee and the “myth” are connected. Brigadier General Ty Seidule (U.S. Army ret.) writes in his book Robert E Lee and Me (A Southerners Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause) “One of the foundations of the Myth is the deification of Robert E Lee”. The war for the south was all about slavery, maintaining and the expansion of into new territories. Robert E Lee swore to God to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, yet lead an Army who killed more Americans in a war against our Government then any other in history, for his “country’s” right to enslave other human beings. As I stated before Robert E Lee was a good general but not a great one. He was a traitor to his country. He should have never been glorified as he was, and much ….no all of this glorification came through the narrative of the Myth.
    Ty Seidule is Professor Emeritus of History at the United States Military Academy and the Presidential Advisor to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and he is a Virginian.

    Source: Robert E Lee and Me: Ty Seidule; St. Martin’s Press 2020, p 8-9


  4. Well, Rick, I had my doubts that “veneration” of Robert E. Lee was part of the Lost Cause narrative. But, other sources, such as the battlefield trust says so. See their website here:

    But, that does not make a lot of sense to me. The whole point of the Lost Cause critique is to point to historical inaccuracies. I do not see how respecting Robert E Lee, or “venerating” him leads to historical inaccuracy. That sounds more like stereotype than actual historical analysis.

    Yea, BG Seidule’s book is flawed in many respects. 1) For one, simply accusing Lee of treason without more is way over-simplistic. As Seidule, more than other folks, should know, resigning your commission, declaring citizenship in another country state and renouncing your US citizenship is not treason in the legal sense. I was a military officer for 28 years. If I resigned my commission, moved to Canada, obtained Canadian citizenship and renounced US citizenship, and then joined the Canadian army against the US, I could not possibly be accused of treason. Lee more than anyone else, made his allegiance well known. He spoke with Gen. Winfield Scott before joining – at the time – the Virginia Militia. Heck, Gen. Scott was Lee’s mentor. They were good friends. Lee told him what he would be doing. The Federal government knew what Lee did before he did it. There was no mystery or surprise involved.

    Lee had a small fortune before the war. He inherited none of it. What he had acquired came from wise investments. His wife inherited her father’s plantation – her father was George Washington Park Custis. GWPC was the step-grandson of George Washington. Lee knew he would lose all that when he accepted the forlorn cause with the South. Seidule mentions none of this. His account is simply not balanced.

    Prior to 1861, the leading book on the US Constitution said secession was a reasonable alternative. It even laid out the process by which a state could secede from the Union. Seidule mentions none of this.

    2) Accusing Lee of abusing his slaves is based on a dubious source. Seidule accepts without discussion, the finding of Pryor’s book about Lee. In Pryor’s book, she accepted at face value the account of Wesley Norris, published in a questionable source in 1866. Seidule,explains the dubious nature of Pryor’s book in his own book.

    3) The book suggests – without out right saying – that Lee allowed violence against blacks during his time as President of Washington College. The book “Religious Life of Robert E. Lee” says just the opposite that Lee prevented the lynching of a white man and later of a black man while President.

    4) Seidule claims Lee did little or nothing to reconcile the North and South after the war. There is just too much evidence to the contrary. This is really a silly claim to make.

    Boolker T. Washington once said: There were two men in the South who first showed interest in the Negro and savig his soul: Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.



    1. Irish, No, no ,no. The point of the Myth is to create historical inaccuracies. Seidule’s book like most has some inaccuracies but I am not talking only about Lee here. The foundations of the Myth are:
      1. General Lee was a perfect soldier and leader who always did right. Eventually canonizing him. Well that is wrong he wasn’t even the best General the south had that falls to Johnston or Longstreet because they saw the whole picture where Lee couldn’t see outside of Virginia. Lee rejected the advice of Longstreet to fight a defensive war and wasted his meager resources on attacks that netted him nothing of value. That is not the definition of a great General or the best general. Lee was a traitor to his country. The Confederate States of America could not become a legitimate country until they won the war or enough battles to earn international recognition. Lee knew this. It carried him to Pennsylvania. Otherwise they were a rebel band fighting against their own country. Commonly known as traitors. Lee had only to defend the south for it to achieve state hood: he failed. In your analogy you are going to a sovereign country (Canada), renouncing your citizenship to the US becoming a Canadian citizen and then joining the Canadian Army in a war against your previous country. No you would not be a traitor. you would be doing your duty as a citizen of your new country. Where did Lee ever say I am no longer an American? He didn’t. He never even pledged allegiance to the confederacy. I believe both he and Stonewall Jackson said, “I go with Virginia”. That’s why he never concerned himself with the western war although he was the commander in chief of all Confederate forces. He fought for Virginia.
      2. the south fought for states rights and against high tariffs. No Irish the south fought for the states right to continue slavery. Read the succession declarations. Almost all state in some form the preservation of slavery. Lincoln never ever said he would end slavery during his campaign for president. He only wanted to prevent it from spreading to the new territories the US had or might acquire. That was a moot point as most of the west outside of Kansas and Nebraska were not prime cropland anyway. Keeping slaves in the west would have been a poor financial decision by any landowner.
      3. The Negro was happy go lucky and saw huge benefits from being enslaved. The Masters treated them well; as their children. That whipping them was the same as disciplining your child. That the south “Christianized” an otherwise uncivilized people. That again is a falsehood. I am sure there were some who were happy with their lot but most were not. If this is true why did the southern whites live in fear of a slave revolt especially after John Brown’s raid. The slave masters and their sons thought nothing of violating the females who became pregnant with the masters child. That child was not treated as family. Hell they may just sell them when they were old enough to work the fields. Imagine Irish, they sold their own children.
      4; The south only lost because they were overpowered by the resources of the north. To this there is some truth. But the other part of this leg of the myth is that the southern soldier could whip 12 Yankees each. That is also probably not true although the southern soldier fought with a vengeance to protect his way of life. What is true is that although out numbered and out supplied, Lee squandered his meager resources on unneeded attacks in which he gained nothing.
      5. The south was more moral then the north. There were atrocities committed by both sides. We know more of the ones of the north exactly because of the myth.
      6. It is known as the War of Northern Aggression. I remind you, the south fired the first shot and seized the property of the US government. It was a Civil War. A war in which one side doesn’t agree with the government so they revolt and attack that government, which the south did at Fort Sumter.
      Jubal Early was the first to write down and share with the Southern Historical Society the tenets of the Myth of the Lost Cause. The Myth then exploded into the building of statutes, the naming of southern Army bases etc, for supposed Confederate war heroes and losing Generals.
      No Irish, the Myth is not to correct historical inaccuracies, it creates them, hence the name MYTH of the Lost Cause.
      The Webster’s definition of the word myth:

      a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.


    2. Irish, do you think that maybe just maybe that you find any source that venerizes Lee to be accurate and any that demonize any aspect of his life are automatically suspect. Robert E Lee was a man of his time. Of course he supported slavery and white supremacy. All southern and most northern men had the same thoughts and attitudes against blacks. Robert E Lee was no different. It was the way it was throughout his life.
      In Siedule’s book this is what stands out to me, of 8 colonels in the United States Army in 1860 only one, only one went with the confederacy, Robert E Lee. To stay with the union would have been easy for Lee. He was the patriarch of the family and Fitzhugh and Rooney would have served their father without regard to which army they were with. Look at a guy like Phillip St. George Cooke. He stayed loyal to his country although his entire family sided with the confederacy. Lee had no such contradictions.
      As I have asked before, did Lee really fight for the confederacy or did he fight only for Virginia?


  5. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday. It’s always useful to read content from other writers and use a little something from other sites.


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