At a time when obtuse mobs pull down or vandalize historic statues and politicians placate the vandals by removing public monuments, serious scholars continue studying great men, illustrating their value in understanding ourselves and our nation. They realize, as William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (New York: Harper, c. 2012; Kindle), Michael Korda provides a well-written, admiring account of the general. As a young man Korda took part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, then graduated from Oxford University and now writes histories. He begins his book not with details of Lee’s early life but with his role in suppressing John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859—an incendiary incident helping provoke the Civil War. Brown was revered by Northern abolitionists because of his guerrilla activities in “bleeding” Kansas and helping slaves escape to Canada. Dispatched to quash the insurrection, Lee and a small army detachment did so, treating the captured survivors “with kindliness and consideration,” but overseeing Brown’s hanging. Present with him were a number of soldiers who would serve with him during the Civil War—most notably J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Considering the event Herman Melville “described Brown prophetically as the ‘meteor of the war’” and his phrase rang true, for it would “be only seventeen months between John Brown’s execution and the firing on Fort Sumter that brought about the war.”
As a veteran U.S. Army officer, Robert E. Lee had served in various parts of the nation. “He was a cosmopolitan, who felt as much at home in New York as he did anywhere in the South; he was opposed to secession; he did not think that preserving slavery was a goal worth fighting for; and his loyalty to his country was intense, sincere, and deeply felt. He was careful, amid the vociferous enthusiasm for secession in Texas once Lincoln was elected, to keep his opinions to himself, but in one instance, when asked ‘whether a man’s first allegiance was due his state or the nation,’ he ‘spoke out, and unequivocally. He had been taught to believe, and he did believe, he said, that his first obligations were due Virginia’” (#520). A singular commitment to one’s state was not at all unusual in those days. Lee’s first ancestor had settled in Virginia in 1639, two of his descendants signed the Declaration of Independence; two others would be-come generals and one, Zachary Taylor, would become a president. To John Adams, when the American Revolution began, the Lees had “more men of merit . . . than any other family.” They were all loyal Americans, but above all they were Virginians!
During the War for Independence, Robert E. Lee’s father, “Light Horse” Harry, became a celebrated military officer. Like his father, “Robert was tall, physically strong, a born horseman and soldier, and so courageous that even his own soldiers often begged him to get back out of range, in vain of course. He had his father’s gift for the sudden and unexpected flank attack that would throw the enemy off balance, and also his father’s ability to inspire loyalty—and in Robert’s case, virtual worship—in his men.” But neither man worked well with politicians. The father was “voluble, imprudent, fond of gossip, hot-tempered, and quick to attack anybody who offended or disagreed with him.” But the son “kept the firmest possible rein on his temper,” disliked confronting or arguing with others. “These characteristics, normally thought of as virtues, ultimately became Robert E. Lee’s Achilles’ heel, the one weak point in his otherwise admirable personality, and a dangerous flaw for a commander, perhaps even a flaw that would, in the end, prove fatal for the Confederacy. Some of the most mistaken military decisions in the short history of the Confederacy can be attributed to Lee’s reluctance to confront a subordinate and have it out with him on the spot, face-to-face” (pp. 30-31).
Lee’s mother, wanting her son to eschew her husband’s example, sought to instill in Robert a strong Christian faith. “For this task she was extraordinarily well suited; her few surviving letters reveal formidable theological knowledge, as well as a precise sense of right and wrong and a deep spiritual belief. ‘Self-denial, self-control, and the strictest economy in all financial matters were part of the code of honor she taught [him] from infancy,’ and in his later years Robert E. Lee frequently said that he ‘owed everything’ to his mother.” Though an Anglican, “Ann Carter Lee was in many ways a child of the Second Great Awakening that swept through America in the early nineteenth century, creating sometimes startling new religious denominations and laying greater emphasis on the need to be saved and on personal piety rather than simply attending traditional religious services. Her beliefs were what we would now call evangelical, and she had the strength of mind and purpose to impress them on her son Robert for life—indeed the most striking thing about his letters is his lifelong, simple, unshakable belief in the need to accept God’s will uncomplainingly, and his deep faith. ‘It is all in God’s hands’ is a phrase he used often, not in a spirit of fatalism, but in one of confidence. The intensity of Lee’s religious convictions was one of the elements that would make him a formidable warrior, and also one of the reasons why he remains so widely respected not just in the South, but in the North as well—not only as a hero, but as a kind of secular saint and martyr” (pp. 35-36).
Korda takes the reader through Lee’s education, military service in Mexico, and work in various army posts (usually devoted to supervising engineering projects). In most ways it was a rather prosaic career, with little possibility of attaining distinction until he captured the attention of Winfield Scott, who found him a fine field officer during the Mexican War. As “Scott’s protégé, prized particularly for his uncanny eye for terrain,” Lee helped win the war and was made a “brevet lieutenant colonel. No other officer in the Mexican War received such universal praise, or won such widespread admiration” (p. 255). Indeed, General Scott declared Lee “’the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field’” (p. 266). Following the war Lee returned to working in army posts (including an assignment dealing with Comanche raiders on the Texas frontier), serving a stint as superintendent of West Point, and caring for his family (seven children), struggling with finances, serving as executor for his father-in-law’s estate, and wondering if he’d made the right vocational choice.
But everything changed when Abraham Lincoln was elected President and southern states began seceding. Though Lee personally opposed slavery he also opposed abolitionism. Generally abstaining from politics, he was something of a Whig. As the war began President Lincoln made Lee a colonel and ultimately offered him the rank of a “major general in command of the largest army in American history” (p. 391). But when Virginia seceded Lee felt obliged to serve his beloved state and soon headed the Confederate military forces therein. “Lee amazed everyone by his energy and professional skill, putting together in a matter of weeks an army of 40,000 troops” (p. 410). He led them in various battles in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, ultimately surrendering to Federal forces led by Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. Korda describes and analyzes the various battles, though he is less concerned with military details than with the person, General Lee, who always “set his men an example of resilience, confidence, and devotion to duty” (p. 1054).
Following the war, Lee enjoyed what Korda calls an “apotheosis.” Rarely has a man come “not only to embody but to glorify a defeated cause.” Amazingly, Lee became “a national, not just a southern hero,” with a U.S. Navy submarine named for him, a postage stamp carrying his picture, a U.S. Army tank named after him, and President Gerald Ford posthumously restored his citizenship in 1975. “It is hard to think of any other general who had fought against his own country being so completely reintegrated into national life, or becoming so universally admired even by those who have little or no sympathy toward the cause for which he fought” (p. 1141). Rather than accept more prestigious and remunerative positions Lee became the president of Washington College, a tiny school with almost no students in Lexington, Virginia. Under his guidance, the college flourished, and its new president sought to provide Southerners an example for adjusting to post-war realities. To Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent New York minister, “Lee ‘was entitled to all honor,’ and praised him for devoting himself ‘to the sacred cause of education’” (p. 1170).
Korda’s portrait of Lee is consistently positive, if not quite as admiring as Douglas Southall Freeman’s famed four-volume biography. He does show that a Hungarian emigrant, rather free from the many biases of native-born Americans, can carefully study and find worth celebrating the life of Robert E. Lee.
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Notably more critical of the general, Allen C. Guelzo’s Robert E. Lee: A Life (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Kindle Edition. Vintage Books, c. 2021) seeks to appreciate Lee’s strengths without glossing over his faults. To the author Lee remains very much a “mystery” inasmuch as he was both upright and errant. Everyone who met Lee, “no matter what the circumstances of the meeting—ever seemed to fail to be impressed by the man. His dignity, his manners, his composure, all seemed to create a peculiar sense of awe in the minds of observers” (p. 18). And yet he fought for a rebellious confederacy committed to preserving slavery. A Princeton professor who has published a number of historical works, Guelzo’s stance is nicely summed up by Lee himself after the Civil War when he wrote a letter, saying: “My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them or indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge; or of the present aspect of affairs; do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope” (p. 13).
As is expected of a scholarly biographer, Guelzo digs into Lee’s ancestry, family, education, and career. Though he doesn’t consider Lee a first-rate intellectual, he was certainly a well-tutored youngster, reading Caesar, Sallust, Virgil, Cicero, Horace, and Tacitus in Latin, plus Xenophon and Homer in Greek. Most importantly, since he sought admission to West Point, he mastered arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. After doing well at the academy he joined the Corps of Engineers—“a small cadre of brainy technicians who prided themselves on their superiority to lesser graduates who ended up in” other branches of the army (p. 69). His academic work was exemplary, but it was “his almost unbearable gentility” that most impressed his classmates. Lee was, Joseph E. Johnston remembered “full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions” (p. 73). When he returned to West Point to serve as superintendent in the 1850s, he similarly impressed cadets as “‘the personification of dignity, justice, and kindness . . . the ideal of a commanding officer’” (p. 201).
Following the Compromise of 1850, slavery became a smoldering issue. Lee favored neither slavery nor its abolition, saying: “‘In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any country’” (p. 227). Yet he apparently saw no way to actually end it. As southern states began severing their ties with the Union, many observers wondered if he would retain his position as an officer in the federal army. He had served with distinction in the Mexican War and enjoyed the favor of General Winfield Scott, who “did not hesitate to endorse him in the most dramatic terms: ‘If I were on my death-bed tomorrow, and the President of the United States should tell me that a great battle was to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country, and asked my judgment as to the ability of a commander, I would say with my dying breath, Let it be Robert E. Lee’” (p. 211).
President Lincoln apparently considered giving Lee command of the Union army and might have done so if Virginia had not joined the Confederacy. He could not “draw his sword” against native State and devoted himself to serving her. Thus he made “a decision in which he irrevocably, finally, publicly turned his back on his service, his flag, and, ultimately, his country. All of this was done for the sake of a political regime whose acknowledged purpose was the preservation of a system of chattel slavery that he knew to be an evil and for which he felt little affection and whose constitutional basis he dismissed as a fiction” (p. 306). In time he became the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia and for four years fought to win the war. Guelzo carefully describes the various battles and evaluates Lee’s effectiveness as a strategist, noting that Lee’s triumphs were often due to his opponents’ failures and he relied too much on his subordinate generals to implement his general orders. He did, however, inspire his men to fight courageously and merits commendation for his leadership during the war. “Only Grant emerged in the war with military gifts on a par with Lee,” and there is a rightful “glory for Lee in that achievement” (p. 655).
Lincoln, Lee and Grant all deeply desired peace and reconciliation. (An interesting illustration of this was the fact that Ulysses Grant’s widow ultimately became good friends with Varina Davis, the widow of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis!). Ulysses S. Grant believed the officers and men who had received parole at Appomattox should not be prosecuted, asserting: “‘I should have resigned the command of the army rather than have carried out any order directing me to arrest Lee or any of his commanders who obeyed the laws’” (p. 567). When Lincoln was slain Lee considered it “‘not only a crime against our Christian civilization’ but ‘a terrible blow to the vanquished.’” And he praised Grant, whose treatment of Southern soldiers was “‘without parallel in the history of the civilized world’” (p. 574). Though granted a parole when he surrendered at Appomattox—and though President Lincoln, in his last cabinet meeting had spoken “very kindly” of him—some Northerners wanted Lee to be indicted and imprisoned. The he was, in fact indicted by a prosecutor, he was never brought to trial or imprisoned.
When he died, Lee was mourned throughout the South and rather admired in many sections of the North. Thus Philadelphia’s Evening Telegraph declared that “‘the passionate feelings engendered by the conflict have so far died away that there is a general disposition to dwell upon his personal virtues rather than to follow him to the grave with denunciations’” (p. 630). At the end of his presentation Guelzo—admiring the man but perplexed by his service for the Confederacy—concludes: “Mercy—or at least a nolle prosequi—may, perhaps, be the most appropriate conclusion to the crime—and the glory—of Robert E. Lee after all” (p. 662). His footnotes and bibliography show Guelzo’s diligence in thoroughly researching his subject, and his portrait of Lee merits serious consideration.
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Mark Perry wrote a fascinating account in Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America (New York: Random House Publishing Group, c. 2004; Kindle Edition). Following his presidency Ulysses S. Grant settled in New York and engaged in various business ventures. Thing the advice of a man he trusted, he invested in (and lent his name to) an endeavor that failed in 1884. Rather than file for bankruptcy, “Grant vowed that he would repay every penny of the debt he owed and pledged that before his death, he would find a way to provide for his wife and children” (p. 20). Then Mark Twain—a “Grant intoxicated man”—determined to help out by encouraging him to write his life story. The two men met, and in 15 months “Ulysses S. ‘Sam’ Grant and Mark Twain—Samuel Clemens—became the best of friends. Seemingly so different and yet with so much in common, Grant and Twain would, in that short time, transform the world of American writing. For as Grant was struggling to write the story of his life, he was helped in his final battle by a man who had just completed the story of his. Within that single fifteen-month period—perhaps the most creative in American literary history—Grant would not only write his Personal Memoirs, Twain would reach the peak of his career with the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Those two books, perhaps the finest work of American nonfiction ever written and the greatest of all American novels, defined their legacy. In the end, the struggle of both men—Grant’s struggle to retrieve his fortune and Twain’s to make his—was not about wars or books or even money. Over a period of fifteen months, Grant and Twain wrote the story of their country and ours.” (p. 23).
After sketching biographies of the two men Perry describes their interactions. Robert Underwood Johnson, hoping to make the Century Publishing Company successful, had earlier talked with Grant about writing an article covering some aspect of the Civil War. Grant had been uninterested, but now he told Johnson he needed money and might do some writing. Johnson said his magazine would publish whatever he wrote and “suggested that Grant write four articles, one each on the Battle of Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, the Battle of the Wilderness, and the surrender of Lee. Johnson said the magazine would pay him $500 for each article. It was an extraordinary sum for the time. Grant agreed to this arrangement” (p. 82). He would be the first Civil War commander to write a memoir, and when he submitted his first article it was obvious he had a gift for writing, for he could recall “small incidents that gave color to the larger theme—and he had a prodigious memory. At times his prose was almost electrifying” (p. 84). A century later the literary critic Edmund Wilson said: “‘The thick pair of volumes of the Personal Memoirs used to stand, like a solid attestation of the victory of the Union forces, on the shelves of every pro-Union home.” Indeed: “‘It may well be the most powerful military memoir in print, vying with Julius Caesar’s commentaries as (in Wilson’s words) ‘the most remarkable work of its kind’” (p. 278).
In 1884 Grant discovered he had throat cancer with little hope of recovery. His physician prescribed pain killers but sometimes refused “to treat his patient, hoping that it would more quickly bring about his death, thereby putting an end to his suffering” (p. 95). Facing his demise, financially broke “and now mortally ill, he viewed the publication of his memoirs not only as a fitting coda for his life, but as the sole means at his disposal to retrieve his reputation and leave his family financially secure” (p. 97). At the same time Twain was a celebrated writer and humorist but had yet to write truly fine fiction. Off and on, over the years, he had worked in a manuscript that would become Huckleberry Finn, but it was not yet finished. In it he explored the nation’s “original sin” and its devastating impact on the South. He sensed, deep within, “that the central and singular fact that had shaped his time and shaped him was the question of slavery—that ‘bald, grotesque and unwarrantable usurpation’ of human freedom that ‘stupefied humanity.’ And at the heart of slavery was the question of race, of racism—which is what made slavery possible’” (p. 261). And as Twain devoted himself to the story he “realized that Huck Finn might be the one book for which he would always be remembered” (p. 147).
Encouraged by Twain’s promise to help him publish the manuscript, Grant worked hard. Some weeks he was “particularly prolific, writing upward of ten thousand words on some days, while spending others editing and correcting what had already been written. Twain, who saw Grant nearly every day during this period, was stunned by Grant’s abilities. ‘It kills me these days to write half of that,” he commented” (p. 197). He was also struck by the general’s “gentleness, goodness, sweetness.’” Volume one his Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant was published on December 10, 1885, and within two months “Twain presented Julia Grant with a check for $200,000. To that time it was the largest royalty payment ever made in U.S. publishing history” (p. 277). Ultimately she received nearly $450,000 and Twain’s publishing firm turned a nice profit in the process. Millions of people rejoiced when reading Grant’s autobiography, and the final words of Grant’s Memoirs came to symbolize the lesson of a war that divided a nation and cost six hundred thousand lives. ‘Let us have peace,’ Grant wrote. They were the last words of his book” (p. 277). Amen!