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.