In May, the city of New Orleans removed the last of its Civil War monuments, a statue of General Robert E. Lee. There has been great outcry by both sides of the political spectrum over the removal of these monuments. The left is pleased to see them go, decrying them as continual reminders of the national sin of slavery and a debunking of the “lost cause” Civil War mythos. The right, while agreeing with the evils of slavery, wondered out loud about forgetting our history as a nation and wondered whether the founders of our country, many of them slave-holders as well, would also soon be “removed” from public view.
In the midst of this discussion, I had the privilege of reading Michael Korda’s biography of Robert E. Lee entitled Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee. I have read and heard much in recent months about this man from many sources, from media reports to Facebook memes. Who was this man and how much of our perception of him, 150 years later, is accurate?
Korda’s book is massive – almost 700 pages of text, not counting footnotes – and his story is told well. Except for a few instances of irritating repetition and a few factual errors, such as errors in dates that a good editor should have caught, Korda’s portrait of Lee is well painted. Beginning with his early life in a prestigious but impoverished Virginia family, Korda follows Lee through West Point, marriage and the Mexican-American War, where Lee first made his mark on the national stage. Many of Lee’s years in the Army, either as an engineer or cavalry commander, were years of boredom, drudgery and a lack of promotion. That said, as a result of Mexican War heroics, he entered the Civil War with a rank of Colonel. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, both sides, Union and Confederate, sought Lee’s services as a commander of their armies in the field. Only when Virginia seceded from the Union did Lee make up his mind, following his home state into the arms of the rebellion.
The bulk of Korda’s book focuses on Lee’s years as a Civil War commander. He was, without a doubt, the most brilliant of all the commanders on both sides of the war. He took risks no other commander would take, and often he pulled them off. Korda does a good job analyzing Lee’s strategical and tactical choices, marveling at his willingness to divine his forces in the face of the enemy. At the same time, Clouds of Glory is not hagiography. Korda criticizes Lee for the risks he took that did not turn out well. He especially is concerned about Lee’s unwillingness to be forceful with his sub-commanders, all too often trusting them too much and leaving too much in their hands, which at times led to movement and attacks that were made too late to garner even greater victories.
Throughout the book, Korda addresses the glorification of Lee that is the product of historians like Douglas Southall Freeman and others of the “Lost Cause” persuasion. While Korda considers Lee to be a brilliant general, he has little time of day for Lee’s most zealous apologists. One area where those apologists focus their interest is on Lee and his slavery views. While Lee did hate slavery, he also considered, as many Americans on both sides of the rebellion did in those day, that black Americans were inferior. While Lee did not participate in the slave trade, he did own 200 slaves, all inherited through his wife’s family at the death of his father-in-law. Despite his revulsion of slavery, Lee was unable to free his slaves prior to the Civil War due to the stipulations of his father-in-law’s will.
One of the things I appreciated most about Korda’s book was its emphasis on Lee’s religious faith. While he does not make it a major part of the book, he does not shy away from matters of faith like many modern biographers do. He is very clear that Lee is what he calls an evangelical Christian and that his faith in God’s will guided and directed his life to the end. His mentions of Lee’s faith in God are woven throughout the book, as I believe they should be.
The book, while excellent, produced mixed feelings in me. While I share Robert E. Lee’s faith, I cannot relate to his views of African Americans or his tolerance of slavery. I don’t know how he mixed those views; that concept is foreign to me. Like a number of Civil War icons, Lee is an enigma to those of us who see the world in a different way. At the same time, Korda’s portrait is still eminently worth reading. We cannot forget our history, especially the parts that make us uncomfortable, even while we forge ahead, committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past.