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The Leadership of
Robert E. Lee
A Virginian by birth, Robert E. Lee led the Confederate forces during the Civil War after
turning down an offer to lead the U.S. Army. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April 1865.
Although Lee was charged with treason, he was never tried. After the war, he served as
the president of what is now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He
spent the last years of his life urging his fellow Southerners toward reconciliation with
the North. H. W. Crocker III, author of Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons
in Character, Courage, and Vision, published in 1999 by Forum/Prima Publishing,
appeared on Booknotes on July 14, 1999. Mr. Crocker is the Executive Editor for
Regnery Publishing. Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications
Industry Association, talked about his book, Leadership Lessons from the Civil War,
published in 1999 by Doubleday, on Booknotes on December I, 1999. Both authors
discussed Robert E. Lee's capacity for leadership.
One of the things that ... initially attracted me to Robert E. Lee was here was this man
who combined the most daring battlefield maneuvers, who was an audacious and
aggressive military commander, taking huge risks and always seeking to take the
offensive whenever he could. But in his personal conduct with people he was incredibly
gentle. He operated by suggestion rather than direct order if he could.
Lee's cause was the cause of constitutional government and the cause of people being
allowed to determine their own destiny. When the Confederacy's distinguishing feature is
identified as slavery, that's unjust because that's only true if America's distinguishing
feature was slavery before the war. The South, at the outbreak of hostilities in the Civil
War, was only upholding the status quo and upholding rulings of the Supreme Court on
the issue of slavery.
ROBERT E. LEE was born in Virginia in 1807 at a place called Stratford Hall, which is
down in the northern neck of Virginia. Stratford Hall was actually lost to the Lee family
shortly after he was born.
Robert E. Lee was born into a world of grace—they were very gentle people. His
mother's side was very well-to-do, from a famous Virginia family, the Carters—but ... his
father squandered the family fortunes [and] left the family when Lee was six years old. It
was the last time Lee saw his father.
They moved to Alexandria, Virginia, in his boyhood. He went to West Point in the I820s.
He went back and became superintendent of West Point in the I850s.
ROBERT E. LEE himself believed in the power of emulation. He believed you could
study the lives of great men and learn something from them, not in the academic way but
in a way that you would actually apply to your own life.... I cannot think personally of a
better exemplar of mature leadership, of someone who showed us not only how to
advocate useful principles, but somebody who actually lived them. Robert E. Lee lived it
and even paid the price for it in some of the sadder parts of his life.
The price of having sided with Virginia during the war was that he lost everything. He
lost his home; he lost his investments. One of his children died during the war, [along]
with two grandchildren. He lost countless friends and saw the state that he valued
[highest] among all other loyalties devastated by the war. His region, the South, was
completely destroyed. A quarter of the draft-age men, white males in the South, perished
in the war, either from combat or from disease related to combat. The industry of the
South was famously destroyed. General Philip Sheridan said he'd so destroyed the
Shenandoah Valley that a crow could fly over it and not find anything to eat.
He also paid the price in his career. He was a stellar officer during the Mexican War.
Winfield Scott, then commander of all U.S. forces, thought that Robert E. Lee was the
finest officer he had ever seen in the field, and he worked Lee practically to death. Scott
kept him on horseback doing everything for days at a time, until Lee at one point actually
received a flesh wound and collapsed, he was so exhausted.
At the outbreak of the War Between the States, Lee was offered command of the Union
army. He was offered every professional ambition he could ever have wanted, and he
turned it down. He turned it down saying, though opposed to secession, he could not
consent to raise his hand against his family, his friends, or his native state. He would
return to Virginia and share whatever Virginia was going to suffer and, save in defense of
Virginia, he would raise his sword against no one.
Winfield Scott greeted him right after he made the offer [to lead the Union army] and
when Lee told him of what he'd decided, Scott said, "Lee, you've made the worst decision
of your life, but I feared it would be so." Then he turned around and told his colleagues in
Federal service that the addition of Robert E. Lee to the Confederacy was going to be
worth at least 50,000 men to the Southern cause. The job eventually fell to George
McClellan, who was the first Union general Lee faced head-on in Virginia.
[When the Civil War began in 1861] the differentials between the North and South were
on the basis of 2:I. The South was taking a much larger section of its draft-age population
and putting them under arms. The North really had endless supplies of men. During the
1864 campaign, when Grant took command against Lee, Grant was losing casualties at
the rate of 2:I; for every Confederate he killed of Robert E. Lee's, he lost two men. But he
was able to win this endless war of attrition because Lee's resources were, more or less,
static. When Lee's men were gone, they were not replaceable. It would have been an
entirely different game if Robert E. Lee had had the same number of men that the North
ROBERT E. LEE was a man who believed in self-control. One of his famous dictums
about leadership was, "I cannot consent to place in the control of others one who cannot
control himself." He believed men's passions blinded their logic. They blinded their
ability to make the proper decision. Robert E. Lee was very respectful, both of his
superiors and of his subordinates.
Lee was a very humble man.... People noticed that ego was absent from his character.
Fame didn't spoil him.... He embodied many Christian paradoxes. Among them was [the
idea that] to lead is to serve. He never thought being a leader meant he had any claims
over other people. He thought being a leader meant he was there to serve other people, to
make them succeed.
LEE DISCOVERED THE GENIUS of Stonewall Jackson [when] Lee was still a desk
officer, as he was at the beginning of the war. He was Jefferson Davis's troubleshooter in
Richmond. And Lee saw this man in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Stonewall
Jackson, who was conducting all these independent operations that were stunning and
befuddling Union forces [that were] much his superior in numbers, and was doing this
largely on his own hook.
And Lee liked men like that. He liked men who could take the initiative.
[Lee and Jackson] had the greatest partnership of any two generals of the war. Stonewall
Jackson was, in many ways, an odd man. He was known for being very dour, but there
were actually many winsome, sweet things about him. He'd been a professor at Virginia
Military Institute. He'd been a soldier before that; he'd gone to West Point. He served
bravely in the Mexican War.
Lee joyously endorsed [Jackson's strategy at Chancellorsville]. That calm trusting to a
daring subordinate was a hallmark of Lee for a couple of reasons:
one is that he very much trusted Jackson. He believed in people; he didn't believe in
numbers. When Lee first took battlefield command, which was during the Seven Days
Campaign [east] of Richmond early in the war, the Confederate troops up to that point
had been continually retreating, trying to find a good defensive position. They'd finally
stopped within sight of Richmond, the capital of Virginia and the capital of the
When Lee called his first staff meeting, he wanted to know what the generals thought
they should do, and they thought that they should retreat further. They were doing all
these calculations, and he said, "Stop figuring. If you keep ciphering—we're beat before
we even get started." He didn't believe in numbers. He didn't believe in textbook strategy.
He believed to find the right man for the right job, you wanted him to be audacious and
daring and you turned him loose. That's what he did with Jackson, and Jackson responded
well to that sort of independent command.
Stonewall Jackson was killed, unfortunately, by friendly fire ... at the battle at
Chancellorsville.... One of Jackson's stratagems was that once you have your enemy
flustered and on the run, don't let up, keep after them. He wanted to keep after them, even
as darkness was falling, and he was looking out on a scouting expedition to find ways to
keep the offensive rolling. As he was riding back, Jackson was actually shot down
because he was mistaken for Federal cavalry. [As a result of the wounds] his arm was
amputated and he died later of pneumonia.
This was a devastating blow for Lee. There was a famous quote where Lee said, "Jackson
has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right." It was recorded by some that Lee—he was
known as a religious man—never prayed harder than when he prayed that Stonewall
Jackson might recover.
Lee [was rumored to have] said, "If Stonewall Jackson had been with me at Gettysburg,
that battle might have gone another way." Lee wanted the same sort of independent
operations he saw at Chancellorsville and couldn't get them done.
TOWARD THE END of the war Lee was always worried about his loss of officers The
casualty rate among Confederate officers was extremely high. And Lee, at a couple
points ... during the Battle of the Wilderness in particular, was riding forward unarmed as
the Union forces were pouring out, charging the Confederate line, as though he was going
to stop them himself. He had to be grabbed and forcibly removed from charging the
Federal forces. And he said, "All right, I'll go back if you men will charge in there and
stop them." And they did.
Lee injured himself in a horse accident in the war. He developed heart problems.... It's
hard to trace these things back, but the symptoms start hitting him during the war. During
the battle of Gettysburg, he was famously not feeling up to par. As the war dragged on, it
was obviously becoming more and more painful. It became hard for him to move. His
breath was leaving him. He aged rapidly during the war.
SHORTLY BEFORE LEE rode into Appomattox Court House to surrender to Grant, he
was talking to one of his young artillery officers, a man named Edward Porter Alexander,
about what they should do. Lee always liked to talk. He generally knew what he wanted
to do. He would talk it through with his officers to go through the different scenarios.
Alexander, being a high‐ strung young man, said, "You know what we should do? We
should become bushwhackers. We should wage a guerrilla campaign. We shouldn't give
up." Lee said, "That might be very well for you and for me, for whom surrender is
hateful. And it might be something we'd like to do for our own personal honor. But we
can't think of ourselves first. We've already seen reprisals against civilians. We've already
seen Sherman burning down Southern cities and destroying Southern property. This will
only get worse. If we launch a partisan campaign, there'll be reprisals against civilians.
We have to think first of the women and the children of the South."
[Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.] Lee was so
taken by the generosity of spirit of Grant at the surrender that after the war he would not
allow a harsh word about Grant to be said in his presence. This shows the spirit of Lee as
being a kind, generous, forgiving man who bore no personal animosity, even against
those he thought had been fighting against his native soil and countrymen.
HE DIED [AT AGE SIXTY-THREE] after coming back from a vestry meeting. It was a
cold, drizzly day. He came home and suddenly just couldn't speak. He actually had sat
down at the table to say grace, and no words would come out. He just sat there ramrod
straight and was frozen. He didn't die immediately. There was a period where he was
feverish. He actually did get his voice back a little bit. He spoke in monosyllables, and he
did cry out a couple times. He called out for one of his officers,
A. P. Hill, ... who was dead already. [Some say] that his last words were, "Strike the
tent," which is a fitting epitaph for him.
[His funeral] was a very big deal. He was obviously a hero to Virginia and to the South,
but interestingly enough, Lee, before his death—and he died only five years after the
war—became a national hero.... It is usually said that if you add up [the casualties in] all
of America's wars put together, it's less than everybody who perished in the War Between
the States. Yet before he died, a big New York newspaper, the New York Herald, was
recommending that the Democratic Party nominate Robert E. Lee for president. This was
when Robert E. Lee didn't even have his citizenship back yet. He couldn't vote. I really
think that it's very few people who come to blows, come to warfare, who regard one of
their former opponents as a hero.
The word "audacity" [means] taking the bull by the horns, doing the unexpected.
Audacity is a force multiplier. Robert E. Lee is a great example. He was always
audacious. He was always on the offensive. It's hard to win if you're sitting back and
playing defense. You need to make the other person respond to you. Lee was great at
Robert E. Lee [took risks] all the time. His biggest risk was probably Chancellorsville.
He had a situation in 1863 where the Federal troops were on one side of the
Rappahannock River, he was on the other, down by Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Union
troops commanded by General Joseph Hooker were about 3 to I Lee's size. Hooker came
up with a really brilliant plan where he brought about two-thirds of his force and flanked
them around [Lee's troops]. The next thing you know, without Lee knowing it, Hooker
was in the rear. Hooker had left men in Fredericksburg, so he had a vise that he could just
squeeze Lee's army with. You would think that a commanding general would skedaddle.
"How fast can I get out of this vise?" Lee left a handful of men to confront the guys at
Fredericksburg and turned around and marched against Hooker, split his troops. You're
never supposed to split your forces in the face of a superior adversary.
Lee got back to fighting Hooker, and what did he do? He split his forces again. He sent
Stonewall Jackson on a flanking march with about two‐ thirds of Lee's force. That
turned out to be very successful and proved to be decisive. But [there remained] the small
force that Lee left down at Fredericksburg; suddenly the Union started advancing against
that and the other half of the vise came back. What did Lee do then? He split this force
again and went back down to deal with them and whipped them. And when he whipped
them, he turned around and split again to go back. It was the most audacious military
leadership. It was one of the great examples in all of history.
ONE OF THE THINGS that makes the leadership lessons of the Civil War so real to us
today is that these were not professional soldiers, for the most part. At the beginning of
the Civil War, the United States Army consisted of I5,000 men, most of whom were out
fighting Indians, and four generals. At the end of the war, four years later, 1,000 men had
worn general's stars. You look at even the great names: Ulysses Grant was a tannery clerk
before the war. William Tecumseh Sherman was the president of the St. Louis Streetcar
Company; Stonewall Jackson was a professor; even Robert E. Lee, who was in the U.S.
Army at the start of the war, had never commanded men on such a scale.
So this was the last war fought by ordinary people, common people, people like you and
me, who were placed into these kinds of situations and had to use their own best
judgment, had to make their own leadership decisions. That's one of the most exciting
things about the study of the war, and it's one of the things that we, today, can take the
most solace in or learn from, because they were just like us. They weren't supermen; they
were men who were placed in challenging circumstances.