By Mike Scruggs –
Part 1 of a series
January 19 will mark the birthday of one of the most revered military leaders in American history. In fact, Robert E. Lee remains one of the most studied and respected military commanders in world history, though he was ultimately on the losing side.
Robert Edward Lee was born on Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1807. He was the youngest son of Revolutionary War hero, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and Anne Hill Carter. Henry Lee III was a close military confident of fellow Virginian, George Washington. He was a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress form 1786 to 1788 and later became the 9th Governor of Virginia from1791 to1794. However, he lost most of his fortune in the financial panic of 1795-6. Nevertheless, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1799. During his one two-year term he wrote the Congressional tribute to Washington on his death in 1799: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” Continued financial difficulties resulted in a year in debtors prison in 1809. He spent most of the rest of his life in the West Indies trying to recover his wealth and from injuries received while rescuing a friend from mob violence in 1812. He died in 1818 on his way back to Virginia, when young Robert was only 11-years-old.
In growing up, the young Lee was influenced by his father’s military and political legacy including his financial humiliation and struggles. He was also strongly influenced by his mother’ s Biblical teachings and the character of his father’s friend, George Washington. It was not surprising that he decided upon a military career and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lee graduated second of the 46 cadets who graduated in June 1829 and began his career as a Second Lieutenant assigned to the Engineer Corps. Lee distinguished himself in combat reconnaissance assignments under General Winfield Scot in the Mexican War from 1832 to 1834, but his emerging leadership style and effectiveness became most apparent during his tenure as Superintendent the U.S Military Academy from 1852 to 1855.
Lee immediately saw the need for tighter academic and discipline standards at the Academy and undertook a careful study of needed changes. Then he began to implement them without fanfare. Although Lee’s outstanding academic performance and strict military bearing had gained him the nickname “the Marble Man” with his classmates as a cadet, his leadership style was anything but stiff and overbearing. The Cadet Corps was only about 200 at the time, and he took a personal interest in every cadet, especially those who struggled with the strenuous academic and strict military discipline of the school. Lee had high standards, but his style was not to push, drive, or threaten. According to his most celebrated biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman,
“He carried them [the cadets] on his heart, and spent many an anxious hour debating how he could best train them to be servants of their country by making them masters of themselves.”
Lee kept a close eye on class reports, and when he perceived that a cadet was in danger of failing, he watched his standing week by week, consulted his instructors, and sometimes brought the young man in for a personal talk. He sometimes wrote letters to parents encouraging them to encourage disheartened students. When a cadet’s failure seemed inevitable, he would write the parents encouraging them to let him resign and thereby save him the humiliation of dismissal.
Later as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies, one of the reasons for Lee’s spectacular success in motivating Confederate soldiers, who were often badly outnumbered, out-gunned, and coping with inadequate supplies and clothing, was that they knew his orders were not given to gain himself promotion, praise, or personal glory. He had the highest standards of duty and honor and that included responsibilities to his troops as well as cause and country.
Here are some quotes from Lee and others that illustrate the general’s “shepherding” style of leadership.
On discipline Lee remarked, “A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”
“As a general principle, you should not force young men to do their duty, but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters…. Make no needless rules.”—Lee to faculty of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) while president of the institution after the war.
“His soldiers reverenced him and had unbounded confidence in him, for he shared all their privations.”—Recollection of a Confederate officer.
“It was remarkable what confidence the men reposed in General Lee; they were ready to follow him wherever he might lead, or order them to go.”—a private in the Army of Northern Virginia.
“When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.”—Lee, advising a subordinate officer.[After Lee took command]…”the troops improved in appearance…The discipline became better; they went into battles with shouts and without being urged, and when in, fought like tigers….A more marked change for better never was made in any body of men than wrought in his army…”—A Northern newspaper reporter, 1862.
When told that his chaplains were praying for him daily Lee responded:
“I can only say that I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”
Responding to public praise, Lee said:
“I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”