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.