Robert E. Lee

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Robert E. Lee was the personification of the Confederacy at its best. He was the proof that good men could defend a cause that many considered evil, one that made God-fearing men—such as Lee himself—uncomfortable and that only few fanatics considered an absolute good; proof that courage and valor can triumph over greater numbers and superior material, and that eventual defeat is less painful when measured against the suffering and glory of the struggle; more than all that, proof that self-control and dignity—the preeminent southern virtues—had not died with the Lost Cause. Lee was the one prominent public figure not tarnished by the petty quarrels of the generals and politicians, not stained by postwar corruption and politics. Lee represented something more: a noble, selfless, quietly suffering figure to whom men and women of the North as well as the South could point and say, “There was a man!”

Such was the central myth of the Confederacy in the decades following Appomattox. No other Confederate came close to enjoying the adulation afforded this essentially modest, morally decent, politely restrained, yet straightforward aristocrat. “Stonewall” Jackson, though worshiped as God’s chosen warrior and Lee’s right arm, was too much a religious fanatic and too strange a personality to be imagined in any setting other than war. Jefferson Davis, the humorless, querulous president, failed even in fleeing the scene and was captured disguised in women’s clothes. James Longstreet and John Singleton Mosby became Republicans. Others lent their names to efforts to keep former slaves “in their place.”

Lee may not have been a perfect model—after all, he had made mistakes and must bear his share of the blame for the South’s losing the war—but for Confederates eager to rescue honor from a miserably bungled effort to secede from the Union, Lee was the most perfectly balanced public figure to appear since the death of George Washington. Lee even had the advantage of being related to Washington through his marriage to Mary Custis.

In retrospect, it seems that Lee had spent a lifetime preparing to be a model for a southern nation and for an era that valued the martial arts, the leisure of wealth, and the credo of the aristocrat. Lee was the “marble model” at West Point—no demerits in his four years as a cadet; he had a successful career as military engineer; he was a hero of the Mexican War, superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, and Winfield Scott’s first choice for command of the U.S. Army in its task of restoring the Union after Fort Sumter.

Emory Thomas’ beautifully written volume is, in its essence, a psychological study of the man who became this myth. Thomas, Regent’s Professor of History at the University of Georgia, does not dispute the myth or change it in any of its essentials, but he does give it nuances and more polished facets than even his most skilled predecessors. Rather than detracting from Lee’s fame, as is usually the case in an age of deconstruction, Thomas makes him an even more appealing personality.

Lee’s most prominent personal characteristic, according to the author, was his lifelong obsession with balancing the demands of self-control and freedom. Self- control was paramount in his devotion to duty—to his family, state, soldiers, and students. Duty compelled him to remain in a marriage to a rather plain, basically dull, and increasingly arthritic woman. Freedom can be seen in his efforts to avoid unpleasant situations. A shy man, he did not enjoy public events; a modest man, he did not like dealing with men who were ambitious, scheming, conniving, and quarrelsome. Lee was not a man of words. A man who wrote much or orated memorably would not have remained an enigma long, nor could historians have used him as outrageously. Lee was a man of deeds.

The irony is that Lee was, ultimately, a failure in the most important task he undertook. The saving grace is that he undertook command in the Confederacy reluctantly—at least compared to the rest of the southern high command. His failure, nevertheless, was a heroic one, a failure of mythic proportions.

Thomas explains away Lee’s military disasters as audacious gambles in desperate situations; not even the best gambler can win every hand, and Lee had to trust others to play the cards for him. Of the group known forevermore as “Lee’s Lieutenants,” only Jackson had the combination of daring, judgment, and good luck to carry out Lee’s wishes instinctively, and even he had his lapses. Lee had to work with what he had, and when criticism arose, he could reply only that the Confederacy had made a fundamental error at its beginning, in assigning the worst generals to command the army and the best to be newspaper editors.

Thomas fundamentally revises the traditional view of the war’s first year. He describes it as an almost uninterrupted series of Union victories—in Kentucky, West Virginia, the Atlantic coast, New Orleans—with the one Confederate victory, Manassas, being incomplete in every way. When Lee took command, he inherited an army that was outnumbered and poorly equipped, led by quarreling officers, and in a desperate strategic situation. Lee calmly pulled his forces together and went on the offensive. Thomas’ description of the Peninsula campaign is the least satisfactory of his many capsule battlepieces, but he...

(The entire section is 2220 words.)