MIGHTY HISTORY

Why Robert E. Lee wore a colonel's rank during the Civil War

When Robert E. Lee left the Union Army to command the Army of Northern Virginia, he was just a colonel – a far cry from being the military leader the Confederate forces needed him to be. Despite his promotion in the army of the Confederacy and his rise to prominence as the most able leader the southern states had, he still wore the rank conferred upon him by his former country.


Even as he negotiated the surrender of his new country.

Judging just by ranks, the guy holding Robert E. Lee's chair almost matches his rank.

Every time we see the leader of the Confederate army in photos or paintings, he's wearing the rank we've come to know as Lieutenant General, a design of three gold stars in the Union Army. But when the Confederacy broke away from the Union, they didn't just adapt every American military custom and design. Much of the Confederate leadership, especially in the military, were men from West Point who had devoted their lives to military customs and courtesies. Of course, they're going to change things up.

That was especially true for military uniforms. They took on the color gray for their uniforms in general and did keep a lot of customs held by the Union Army, but they completely revamped the officers' rank symbols.

A general of Robert E. Lee's stature in the Confederate Army would still be wearing gold stars, but his gold stars would have a golden wreath around them and would have a different sleeve design. Instead, the three gold stars he wore every day in Confederate uniform were the equivalent of his last rank in the Union Army, a colonel, despite being named one of the Confederacy's first five general officers. But Lee didn't just want to be conferred to a General's rank.

Instead, Lee had hoped that he could be properly promoted after the Civil War, assuming the Confederacy won its independence. He wanted to be promoted to full General during peacetime, presumably so he could celebrate his new promotion properly, instead of having to push McClellan back from within six miles of Richmond, Va. though some speculate at first it was the highest rank he felt qualified to wear.

Strange reasoning for the man who would essentially take command of the entire war for the South. It's more likely the man just preferred the simple design of the colonel's uniform and chose to wear that because he could. Who's going to argue with Robert E. Lee?