Robert E. Lee’s Slouch Hats

In 1977, Stratford Hall Plantation acquired a slouch hat worn by one of its famous occupants. Loaned long-term by the Comte de Grasse chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution from the historic Yorktown Customhouse, the Robert E. Lee campaign slouch hat (1981.080) was worn during the Civil War by General Lee. The decision to send the hat to Stratford was not a sudden one. In 1967, Regent Isabel Hall of the Comte de Grasse chapter contacted a Mrs. J.W. Dorsey Cooke of Stratford, explaining that the hat had the name of Robert E. Lee inscribed on the inside of the band.

Figure 1 Library of Congress

Figure 1 Library of Congress

In ensuing letters from that year, the topic of the hat and its possible loan came before various individuals involved in Stratford. No progress seems to have been made until ten years later, when Virginia Pharr, the Vice-Chairman Board of Trustees for York Customhouse wrote Executive Director Admiral Thomas Bass that the chapter would like to present the hat to Stratford. It seems that the approval went through and the hat came to Stratford via the DAR State Conference on March 15, 1977.

The hat’s history before the Customhouse received it remains somewhat vague. The Customhouse received the hat from the family of Thomas Nelson. Nelson (1738-1789) married Lucy Grymes, whose first cousin once removed (also named Lucy Grymes) married Henry Lee II and was the mother of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. The customhouse believed that the relatedness between the families was the reason the Nelsons received the hat. The dates of when General Lee gave the hat to the Nelsons and when the Customhouse received the hat from the Nelsons may be lost to history.

Slouch hat history in general sheds some light on the propensity for officers to use these kinds of hats. Also called a “beehive hat,” it was common in all of the theaters of war. Made of wool felt, it has a wide floppy brim with traces of brown grosgrain (textured with parallel ridges) ribbon to stiffen the edge so it could be worn flat or slightly turned up.”1 General Lee wore slouch hats like many officers did, but interestingly, he chose to wear the insignia of a colonel (collar with three stars) and not of a general (collar with three stars and a wreath) as his uniform. The hat could protect the wearer from inclement weather or the burning sun. It could also have been adorned with insignia, although decoration does not appear in images of General Lee when his slouch hat can be seen. While some Confederate and Union generals such as C.S. Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and U.S. Major General John Reynolds preferred the lighter kepi to the slouch hat1, the prevalence of the slouch hat in images of General Lee and the number of Lee slouch hats currently known of may suggest that General Lee preferred to wear the slouch hat over the kepi.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Lee and Traveller

In The Face of Robert E. Lee: In Life and In Legend (1947), author Roy Meredith searched to provide a full range of photographic and artistic studies of General Lee.1 During a time that the use of photography greatly expanded, many images of Lee exist with the slouch hat near him, in his hand, or on his head. One he sits while holding his on the arm of the chair. (Figure 1). Some of them portray Lee with his famous horse Traveller. (Figure 2). In another, he sits with old generals only fourteen months before his death. After that, he also sat for a portrait, done by Swiss Frank Buchser. Buchser noted that Lee’s intimates wanted him painted in his full military attire, but Lee refused, saying “I am a soldier no longer.” In concession though, on a table beside him his uniform, dress sword and sword belt, sash, hat, and field glasses lay. While the hat in the portrait does not “look” like the slouch hat in the Stratford Hall collection, Buchser may have taken liberties with how the hat was portrayed and how the image came across. It could also be a different style of slouch hat.

Figure 3

Figure 3

After his death in October 1870, images of General Lee also appear with this hat. In an oil painting by P. P. Carter, Lee holds his slouch hat in hand when looking over the field of Fredericksburg. In two oil paintings by J.A. Elder, Lee holds his hat in his hand while in another by the same artist, the hat sits behind him on a table in the background. Many other stylized images, including lithographs, sketches, and paintings, illustrate Lee and the hat on the battlefield and at the surrender. Finally, statues in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia show Lee in dress uniform. (Figure 3). His arm dangles with the hat in his hand. Prominent in life as well as death, the slouch hat seems to have become a part of Lee’s military identity and therefore portrayed in many images of him.
Another mention of a slouch hat exists in poetry. The poem “Lee to the Rear” by John Reuben Thompson described battles around Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Wilderness in May 1864. As General Lee approached troops towards the front, they shouted at him to “go back” and “go to the rear.” Thompson later published a poem about those battles. One verse says,

“Not far off, in the saddle there sat
A gray-bearded man in a black slouched hat;
Not much moved by the fire was he,
Calm and resolute Robert Lee.”1

The slouch hat, represented in poetry, later inserted itself into a description about one of the most famous scenes in American history. On April 9, 1865, Generals Lee and Grant met in the town of Appomattox Court House to sign the terms of surrender.

Figure 5 Stratford Hall's slouch hat.

Figure 5 Stratford Hall’s slouch hat.

In a description that detailed the images of the two drastically different dressed Generals, a felt hat, which in color closely matched his (General Lee’s) uniform, lay beside him on the table.1 The hat may not have been a slouch hat; however, it seems most likely that it would have been, as slouch hats were made of felt and it would have been the most likely hat worn by Lee.

Figure 4 Stratford Hall's  slouch hat.

Figure 4 Stratford Hall’s slouch hat.

Demonstrated by the popularity of the campaign slouch hat in images of General Lee and descriptions involving him, the acquisition of this hat known to be worn by General Lee was incredibly important. It remained on display for years, until in 2009 necessity demanded that it be placed in storage in order to conserve it. The year 2011 brought conservator Claudia Walpole to examine the hat in order to see what kind of work needed to be completed in order to ensure the hat’s continued existence. Walpole described the hat,

“Has rep weave silk ribbon. On PR [proper right] side, ribbon is tied into a small bow, measuring app. 3.5” in width. Over ribbon is gold bullion round cord wrapped around twice and held in place with small band of gold metal-thread trim. Tassels at end of each cord, measuring ¾” long. Around edge of brim is taupe silk ribbon, which matches the ribbon encircling the crown.” (Figure 4) and (Figure 5)

Then, Walpole described what work the hat would need, including cleaning the surface to remove the fiber ends, particulate soils, moth casings, and dirt. Stabilizing the silk ribbon and metal bullion fringe also became requirements, while Walpole also suggested adding a mount and a custom-made box for the mount in order to allow for less handling of the hat itself. Funding for the hat came during late 2013, as an application to the Society of the Order of the Southern Cross, an organization whose purpose is to preserve Southern heritage and history, earned a grant for $1,000 and a donation from Mr. and Mrs. S. Taylor Ware, Jr. of Mechanicsville, VA covered the rest of the cost. The slouch hat that Robert E. Lee wore during the various campaigns of the Civil War now sits in a conservation studio, waiting to be preserved for future generations.

Figure Six Museum of the Confederacy Slouch Hats moc.org

Figure Six Museum of the Confederacy Slouch Hats moc.org

One of the most interesting pieces of information about slouch hats and General Lee is not about the Stratford slouch hat, but about other slouch hats of General Lee’s! Believing that my research would only describe slouch hats themselves and some of the history of the Stratford slouch hat, I discovered that not one, but multiple slouch hats of General Lee’s exist! The known two others reside at the Museum of the Confederacy. Curator Cathy Wright graciously responded to my enquiry about the slouch hat originally found on a page about the Museum’s exhibits. The Museum of Confederacy owns two slouch hats. One is believed to have been worn by Lee, with a description stating, “Brownish gray wool felt slouch hat with upturned brim, brown ribbon band and edging, silk lining, leather sweatband. Label sewn into crown lining reads ‘Confederate Museum/R.E. Lee.” (Figure 6). Lee gave the hat to a Reverend Joseph C. Stiles, who passed down the hat to his son and daughter, Major Robert Stiles and Josephine C. Stiles. Major Stiles would go on to wear the hat to several Confederate reunions, and then would donate it to the Museum of the Confederacy. The second slouch hat is a “light brown quilted hat of wool twill cloth and cotton canvas inner-lining.” (Figure 7). It also had a brim bound in dark brown ribbon. This hat was believed by the previous owner, My Beverley Codwise of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, to have never been wore by Lee. It was given to Mr. Codwise near Orange Court House, Virginia in February or March 1864.

Figure Seven Museum of the Confederacy Slouch Hats moc.org

Figure Seven Museum of the Confederacy Slouch Hats moc.org

Whether or not the slouch hat owned by Stratford Hall is the slouch hat in the many depictions of General Lee defeats the meaning and lessons that can be learned from studying a “simple” hat. Through research, I realized a simple slouch hat General Lee wore during the Civil War enlarged its identity to become part of the lore surrounding this famous general. The hat, along with the two other slouch hats from the Museum of the Confederacy and the others that may exist, became a part of Lee’s identity as much as the other accoutrements of his attire became a part of him. Why would a sculptor or the other artists purposefully include a slouch hat in Lee sculptures or images, unless the hat became a part of his identity? Many questions, some of which may never be answered, remain about Lee and his slouch hats. However, this hat became a part of Lee’s experience and inserted itself into a small section of my experience and time during my summer at Stratford Hall.

-Abby Rolland, Collections Intern, Undergraduate student at Gettysburg College majoring in History and minoring in Political Science and Anthropology


1. http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-civil-war-hat/10382.

2. http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org/137/special-exhibits.

3. Roy Meredith, The Face of Robert E. Lee: In Life and In Legend 2nd ed. (New York: Fairfax Press, 1981).

4. http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/confederate/lee/rear.html.]

5. “Surrender at Appomattox, 1865,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1997).