General Robert E. Lee: American Hero Or Slavery Apologist?
The above book is arguably the most thorough biography written of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Even though it’s the abridged edition, it still clocks in at 650 pages.
Lee was the son of a military man who fought in George Washington’s army. He had the privilege of obtaining a classical military education at West Point Academy. His goal was to be first in his class, which he was able to accomplish while reading voraciously on the side.
Between January 27 and May 24, [Lee] drew fifty-two books from the library. They covered a wide field—navigation, travel, strategy, biography, and history.
By the time he was 33 (the age that I am currently), he was married with four children and held a high position in the Army’s engineering corps, tasked with solving logistical problems of a growing nation.
Soon after the Mexican War, where Lee was commended with his action on the field, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Many other States followed and Lee was courted to fight by both sides. He chose the South because that is what Virginia chose—his loyalties lay with the state before the nation. The author paints a picture that Lee was fighting more for Virginia’s independence than for the continuance of slavery, a question that remains open to historical debate. He did believe in the eventual emancipation of the slaves, but will gain no favor from black people with quotes like this:
The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
Once the Civil War was under way, Lee received nonstop criticism from both Confederate politicians and the press for his lack of leadership ability. He was actually called “Granny Lee” for being too timid on the field.
…no enthusiasm attended the announcement of the selection of Lee as commander of the army. In some quarters, “disparagement, sarcasm and ridicule” were the lot of Lee.
This is a man who has come to be seen as one of the more brilliant Generals of the Civil War and who singlehandedly extended it by over a year against the much superior Union army. It’s interesting that even historical figures before the age of the internet had committed haters.
As the battle raged beyond the furnace, men were carried beyond themselves and fought as if the fumes of gunpowder were a mysterious hashish that gave them the strength of madness.
Regardless of how well the South fought with their hearts and souls, the North could easily replace what they lost in battle while the South could not. Victory for the Union was only a matter of time, and looking back it’s clear that Lee merely delayed the inevitable.
In the book we learn that his success as a general came from taking the initiative and continuously re-adjusting his plans based on what was happening on the ground. He would enter situations with a sound plan, but once conditions changed, which they always seemed to do in war, he changed the plans accordingly. It was that simple. He never lamented bad conditions or dwelled on defeat, and he remained “undisturbed by the adverse conditions in which he found himself.” He was a master of playing the cards he was dealt, leading men to more victory than their paper strength would suggest, no doubt helped by the surprising incompetency of the Union generals.
The writing of this biography is graceful and dignified, but the battle action was far from suspenseful. The author makes a common mistake of trying to deliver too many facts, preventing you from being drawn into the prose and visualizing the battle. Therefore I can’t say it’s a page turner. Instead, it offers the development of a man who prided himself on being a gentleman during the most critical period in American history, with a vivid telling of his death and how it affected so many who saw him as an American hero.
The author obviously worshiped Lee so make no mistake that this is a glowing account, but it still reviewed his flaws and mistakes in what I think is a fair assessment of the man (I never got the feeling that I was reading propaganda). Overall it was an important but surreal book that describes a horrible war that took place on American soil between Americans.
The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly—the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
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