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On Bobby Lee

Poor Robert E. Lee. Once celebrated as a nearly flawless commander and human being, he has come under a great deal of scrutiny over the past several decades. Perhaps Thomas Connelly’s The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and his Image in American Society (1977) initiated the process of reevaluation along two related lines: that of Lee’s life story and of how Lee was treated by certain biographers and spokesmen for Confederate memory. It’s been hard to separate the two ever since: I’ve always viewed Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered (1991) as a book more interested in attacking certain Lee biographers and memorialists rather than a full-scale assessment of Lee (I also think it is more effective in the former than the latter task).

In turn, other scholars have gone searching for the real Robert E. Lee, notably Gary Gallagher, who has written a great deal on Lee’s Civil War military career. Emory Thomas’s biography offered a largely sympathetic portrait of the man, although one might argue that his treatment of military actions left much to be desired. There have been lesser books that offer vigorous criticisms of Lee’s generalship, a few different efforts to assess his character (Richard McCaslin and Michael Fellman), and the usual round of celebratory studies. One can see evidence that Lee worship is still as strong as ever in this report of a recent conference, prepared by Robert Stacy McCain, who has long been fond of the Confederacy himself. I was interested to see that two real Lee scholars, both of whom are fond of Lee, participated in this conference, which was organized by Brag Bowling, whose hatred of Lincoln is a matter of record: also appearing were Lincoln basher Thomas DiLorenzo and Lew Rockwell fan Clyde Wilson (who is an actual academic historian) and scattered other Lee fans. There were no Lee critics (for more on Bowling and DiLorenzo, see here).

Robert E. Lee and George H. Thomas share two things in common: they were both native Virginians and both have been badly served by their fans. At the same time, I don’t happen to think that there’s been a really good single-volume biography of Lee. That, frankly, is something I’ve thought about doing myself. Sure, I want to get some outstanding obligations out of the way (note to various publishers and editors of mine who may be reading this … I’m working at it), but I’m finding Lee more and more compelling as a biographical topic. Part of the reason is that I don’t come to Lee with anything approaching a rooting interest. Oh, I’m sure some people may say that as I’ve worked on Grant, I have some anti-Lee bias, but that’s simply not true: I have a bias against uncritical Lee worshippers, that’s all. If I don’t think Lee was perfect, I also think he was a great general and a fascinating man, but a man who was human in both his virtues and his vices. Moreover, I think that makes him even more interesting to me as a biographical topic.

Let me offer two examples. First, there’s the famed first “Lee to the Rear” incident at the Tapp farm on May 6, 1864. A Union attack had smashed the Confederate right, and Lee rode forward to rally his men while he awaited the arrival of advance elements of James Longstreet’s corps. A few minutes either way here or there and Lee might have been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Why did he do this? Part of it, no doubt, was his awareness of how his men would be inspired by his presence. Part of it, however, might have been an almost fatalistic approach to life and death … and some have even suggested that Lee went forward perfectly resigned to the notion that if this was it for him, well, that was God’s will. Lee would repeat the performance again later; I don’t see earlier instances of it. Nevertheless, I think it a telling incident, although I’m still trying to figure out exactly why.

My second example comes from after the war, when Lee contemplated assembling a history of the Army of Northern Virginia that in its themes sounded as if it was simply a prolonged elaboration of the themes sounded in his farewell order at Appomattox. Eventually he abandoned the effort: instead, his thoughts about the war are contained in part in several conversations that have come down to us. In some of these transcripts Lee showed himself perfectly willing to point fingers when necessary and to offer critical observations about the performance of several of his generals. One senses that if Lee had ever written the book he planned to write that it would have been hard to sustain an image of Lee as a long-suffering man who kept his feelings to himself and who manfully refrained from critical comments. Yet I find the Lee who appears in those interviews to be wonderfully human, even as the interviews themselves offer evidence with which to raise questions about Lee’s own generalship.

In short, I find Lee an attractive subject, and I have to give the idea of writing a biography some serious thought.

Comments (10) to “On Bobby Lee”

  1. Brooks, — I would love to see you take on a biography of Lee and I agree that we need a well rounded study that does justice to both his personal side as well as his military career. Don’t think, however, for a moment that you won’t be labeled by the Lee apologists as anything other than a revisionist, academic, or worse. And the reason is because they are not interested in debate since there is nothing to debate. Part of the Lost Cause assumptions re: Lee are based on the belief that Lee wore his emotions on his sleeve: he is what he is (whatever that means). I’ve always found it curious that these people are never able to distinguish between criticisms of historians of the Civil War and Lee as opposed to Lee himself.

  2. Brooks,

    Please do!!!!


  3. I am a native Virginian. We worshipped God, Jesus and Robert E. Lee in that order, and, as a Southerner, I’ll not apologize. As an historian, of course I realize that Lee was human. But this is where his genius lies: I believe it was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in writing about Jackie Kennedy that commented she understood what she meant to people. That was Lee. He understood what he represented and felt an obligation to that image. It’s a tremendous insight to comprehend your place so clearly. It takes many of us a lifetime, if ever, to see our roles in relation to others. It is also an incredible burden. This seems to be something Lee grasped at an early age and accepted. Do write the biography.

  4. Fascinating to read how some people are so comfortable assuming the most personal of assumptions about people they’ve never met.

  5. Brooks:
    I like Thomas’s biography a lot, but agree with you that a new one-volume full biography of Lee could be as useful as, say . . . a new study of Grant’s life after 1865. But it seems that a more important contribution to the literature would be a good single, complete compilation of Lee’s writings. The Dowdey and Manarin collection is valuable but far from complete and someone working on a study of Lee still needs to spend a lot of time going through the OR, the old Lee’s Dispatches, and other sources to avoid missing anything. Something along the lines of what Simon did with Grant’s, Basler did with Lincoln’s, or you did with Sherman’s writings strikes me as a terrific project for someone to take up. It sure would save the future Lee biographer a lot of time and hassle.

  6. Well, I’m still at work on volume 2 of Grant, so I take your hint. :)

    As for Lee’s letters, there’s been talk of a collection for some time, but there’s supposed to be some sort of snag that keeps complicating the effort. As for me, Sherman was enough: I find the multivolume projects don’t get sufficient funding and are too consuming. Someone who was quite Lee-centered would be a better candidate.

  7. Brooks,

    I was just in the local Barnes and Noble the other day, and saw this new book on Lee and his letters just out. The title is “Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters”. The book’s author is Elizabeth Brown Pryor. The thing is huge page wise…688 pages and is published by Viking Press.

    Hope all is well.

    Regards from the Garden State,

    Steve Basic

  8. My take on Nolan’s “Lee Considered” is slightly different. Read his comments about Lee and his thinly veiled attack on all things Confederate in his preface to “Rally, Once Again!,” which clearly marks him as far less than unbiased in what he has written about Lee and other Confederates. In a review of “Lee Considered” (the publication data of which I cannot now remember), Bob Krick effectively eviscertated Nolan’s criticism of Lee. The latter had his faults, as did all other Civil War generals. Those faults should not, however, remove him from his place as one of the three great commanders produced by the conflict.

  9. Krick’s review of Nolan’s _Lee Considered_ can be found in his _The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy_ (LSU Press). It originally appeared in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

  10. I enjoy reading primarily American History and I am interested in several periods of the US including the Civil War. While I have an undergrad degree in History, I’m by no means an authority. Here’s what I’d look for in a one volume work.
    Lee’s early life put in the context of his times. How were his values and character shaped. When did he first display leadership skills? What were those skills?
    How did West Point shape him for his future roles? Who were his contemporaries? I’d like to know what you think about his tactics. Was he one of those generals doomed to fight the Civil War by the rules of prior wars? How do his tactics compare to the teachings of Napoleon, Clauswitz, and Sun Tzu? How crucial, if at all, was his decision not to retreat south of Richmond and engage in guerrilla war? What roles did he play after the Civil War in healing the wounds created by the war? What future leaders and generals did he influence?

    Finally, I’d like to see complete documentation of your sources and a darn good index.

    Start a list of potential customers. Put me on the list.