Robert E. Lee: A Life

Out of all the books written to tell the life story of former US Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, few have actually been good. Among the best written are the hagiographic four volumes from Douglas Southall Freeman, the more balanced biography from Professor Emory Thomas, and the excellent view of Lee through his personal letters from Dr. Elizabeth Brown Pryor. Joining that august group is this wonderful biography from Professor Allen C. Guelzo. Professor Guelzo tells us, “This book began in 2014 … with a single question: How do you write the biography of someone who commits treason?” [p. 3] Professor Guelzo then tells us why he felt hesitant at first to begin this work. “The question is complicated, because (as Paul Murray Kendall wrote in The Art of Biography) the usual task of the biographer ‘is to perpetuate a man as he was in the days he lived–a spring task of bringing to life again, constantly threatened by unseasonable freezes.’ What my question suggests is that there may be some lives that we hesitate to perpetuate, and among the reasons for that hesitation must surely be treason.” [p. 3] Professor Guelzo identifies another reason for his hesitation. “In the case of Robert Edward Lee, this turns out to be an even more serious hesitation. Being a Yankee from Yankeeland, it has always seemed to me that the treason Lee committed was aggravated by the nature of the cause for which he committed it–the protection of legalized human slavery–and that rankles me to the sole of my abolitionist boots.” [p. 3]

Professor Guelzo’s purpose is to understand what he calls “the mystery of Robert E. Lee.” [p. 3] He tells us, “No one who met Robert Edward 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. From his earliest days as a cadet at West Point, through twenty-five years as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers and six more as a senior cavalry officer, and then as the supreme commander of the armies of the Confederacy, Lee was the model of gentility and propriety.” [pp. 3-4] He says, “These impressions appear so consistent, and over so many year, that it has been easy to conclude that dignity, manners, and composure simply were the man, that there was (as Douglas Southall Freeman insisted at the end of his four-volume biography of Lee) ‘no mystery’ at all to Robert E. Lee. Or, as Burton Hendrick wrote (in The Lees of Virginia), that ‘Lee’s character’ was ruled by a ‘great simplicity,’ or that (in the words of an even-more-worshipful biographer, Clifford Dowdey) Lee ‘could rest totally … in very simple things.’ Even those close to Lee (like his staffer Armistead Lindsay Long) were convinced that ‘his character was perfectly simple; there were in it no folds or sinuosities.’ However, this picture of straightforward, well-nigh angelic serenity sits uneasily beside moments when cracks and inconsistencies in that fabled serenity appeared.” [p. 4] Professor Guelzo then goes to detail a few instances where Lee’s calm left him.

According to Professor Guelzo, “To begin to understand the mystery of Robert E. Lee is to begin with three large-scale factors, lodged deep in the man’s personality, all three rooted in the early trauma inflicted by one of the more remarkably dysfunctional families of the early republic.” [pp. 5-6] The first factor Professor Guelzo identifies is, “something in the succeeding generation of Lees snapped, and nowhere was the snap louder than in the case of Henry Lee, Robert’s father.” [p. 6] “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s disastrous turn is well documented. “Until he achieved fame in his own right in 1862, people invariably referred to Robert as the son of the famous Light Horse Harry. But he never did, except in hi application letter to West Point, when he needed the glamour of Light Horse Harry’s name to secure an at-large appointment. He did not visit his father’s grave until the winter of 1861-62, even though his first posting out of West Point, at Cockspur Island, was only a few miles away. He was, instead, his mother’s son, becoming the de facto head of household in Alexandria. He would, in other words, fulfill the role his father had abandoned; he would sacrifice himself in order to perfect the imperfections Light Horse Harry had visited on the Lees.” [p. 6] He says, “The pursuit of redemptive perfection lies behind much of the ‘marble model’ that met so many people’s eyes, and it was Lee’s determination to not be Light Horse Harry that fired his impatience and, in later years, his ferociuos outbursts of temper at his own and others’ imperfections.” [p. 7]

Professor Guelzo tells us Lee “longed to be free and unencumbered of her [his mother, Ann Carter Lee] as much as of his father.” [p. 7] But independence, as Dr. Guelzo writes, “does not guarantee security, and security was precisely the most damaging subtraction Light Horse Harry made in Robert’s life.” [p. 7] An Army career would provide security. “One of the major attractions of a career in the U.S. Army was its guarantee of lifetime employment security; for the tiny cadre of officers who commanded the pre-Civil War Army, there was no retirement system, and … many stayed in, and at paid rank, until their last breath. The Army was not generous ,and promotion was agonizingly slow, but it was one of the few professions in the pre-Civil War republic that was secure.” [p. 7] There was a second way to get security. “Matrimony was yet another path to security, and by marrying Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the sole surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, he won himself a permanent home at Arlington for the next thirty years. The difficulty was that the security represented by the Custis marriage and Arlington did not sit very easily beside Lee’s yearning for independence.” [p. 7] His pursuit of perfection, his longing for independence, and his need for security all combined in Lee’s personality.

Unlike many historians, Professor Guelzo understands what was behind Lee’s strategy. “Robert E. Lee was not a profound thinker: his compulsive letter writing betrays little evidence of reading beyond the demands of his profession. But he was a clear thinker, and much of that thinking oscillated within the poles he had set up for himself of perfection, independence, and security. That was particularly true as the Confederacy’s most successful and influential soldier. Although Lee spent almost all of his prewar career in the U.S. Army constructing fortifications, dredging harbors, and managing civilian laborers, and only commanded troops under fire for the first time when he took charge of the company of Marines that captured John Brown in 1859, Lee saw more clearly than any other Confederate leader that the South could not survive a long-drawn bout with the North. Southern armies must move across the Potomac and there persuade Northerners, either by battle or by simple occupation, to agree to peace and Southern independence. He would attempt this twice, in 1862 and 1863, and was ready for a third attempt in 1864 when Grant’s Overland Campaign struck that option away. This strategy which some admirers characterized as ‘audacity,’ was for Lee merely logic. Lee’s modern critics have railed against what they decry as his obsession with Virginia at the expense of the rest of the Confederacy. But Lee understood that in the pursuit of both independence and security the Confederacy could lose Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, even Georgia, and still win; losing Virginia meant losing almost all the resources that kept the Confederacy going. And he dreaded nothing more than being forced into a siege of Richmond, because Richmond was itself the key to Virginia. With Richmond would go Virginia and then the Confederacy–which, in 1865, is exactly what happened. Lee had foreseen it all and understood the war’s denouement as a failure to meet the standard of perfect commitment that independence an security required.” [p. 8]

Professor Guelzo gives us a compellingly written account of Lee’s life, and even takes Lee’s story to current times, and the controversy over confederate iconography and honors given to Lee himself. “The controversy over the Charlottesville statue [of Lee] stands as something of a marker for Lee’s ambiguous place in American history. Because the Charlottesville statue went up in 1924, at the apex of white supremacy in the South, it was easy to suppose that it was put there to teach black people to mind their place in a Virginia that took white supremacy for granted. But the dedication ceremonies in 1924 featured high school bands, the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, the university faculty, and the American Legion–not the Ku Klux Klan. And the dedication speeches were about the Lee whose decision to surrender at Appomattox averted ‘scattered guerrilla warfare for many years,’ who ‘in the shadows of the defeat of war’ pointed Southerners to ‘the star of hope with its radiant promise and prophecy of the triumphs of peace.’ These words came from M. Ashby Jones, the son of John William Jones and himself a Baptist pastor who had denounced segregation and antiblack violence and had been likewise targeted by the Klan. The pedestal read only ROBERT EDWARD LEE, and the statue itself was completed by an Italian-born sculptor, Leo Lentelli, and cast in Broolyn. If the statue had criminal intent, there was little historical evidence for it.” [p. 428] Here Professor Guelzo is leaning on what was specifically stated in the historical record of the monument’s dedication.

He continues, “An even larger irony of the rash of de-namings, renamings, and statue removals is that Lee would likely have been the first to have condemned the [“Unite the Right” pro-confederate monument] rioters, having punished lesser outrages by students at Washington College during his presidency. That does not necessarily absolve him from the taint of white supremacist thinking, because Lee’s attitudes and ideas on race were clearly on the side of white hierarchy, and cannot even be massaged into mere acquiescence with the post-Civil War Southern order. There were certainly many Southern whites in those years who recognized the evils of both slavery and race and who bravely linked themselves with the freedmen’s cause–and Lee was not one of them. But there were also substantially many more Southern whites, teeming with sneering and subversive hatred of the black people they had used and abused in bondage, whose ideas and behavior were infinitely more malevolent and destructive (and that does not begin to account for many Northern whites who were no improvement). If there is at least one favorable way to speak of Robert E. Lee, it is that his garments were cleaner in the postwar years than many of his contemporaries.” [pp. 428-429]

In evaluating Lee as a military commander, Dr. Guelzo writes, “Only Grant emerged in the war with military gifts on a par with Lee, and even then it took Grant almost a year to force Lee’s Confederates to their knees at Appomattox. There is glory for Lee in that achievement. But it is a glory in technique, to be acknowledged with a decent reluctance, as Winston Churchill did when he spoke in 1942 of the genius of Erwin Rommel: ‘We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.’ More to the point is the question of what made Lee so effective on active campaign. Thomas Connelly’s principal complaint against Lee was that whatever tactical skill he showed on the battlefield, he was defective in his overall strategic vision, by over-privileging the defense of Virginia. But the truth lies in exactly the opposite direction: Lee’s glory as a strategist lay precisely in his perception that the South could not sustain a drawn-out war with the North, that it must strike aggressively and score victories early, not so much in expectation of conquering or destroying the Northern armies as in spreading enough political discouragement through the Northern public that Northerners would themselves demand an end to the war. Those blows could only be struck in the east, in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where the failure of public support fo the Lincoln administration would certainly doom Lincoln’s prosecution of the war. Lee showed how clearly he understood this as early as April 1862, if not earlier; his disappointment that more Southerners did not see this fueled his frequent predictions of Southern defeat.” [p. 430]

According to Dr. Guelzo, “Much of what Lee practiced in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in 1862 through 1865 was learned from Winfield Scott in Mexico, and that remained more strategic than tactical. Lee was not exaggerating when he told Justus Scheibert that he preferred to leave tactical details on the battlefield to his subordinates, trying to steer a middle path between total Napoleonic control on the one hand, and deferring to useless councils of war on the other. That worked well when he had subordinates equal to such responsibilities, especially Stonewall Jackson. Too often, however, Lee was forced to reach for tactical control himself, and his distaste for doing so showed in the management of Gettysburg and the Wilderness. Lee at Fredericksburg might have seemed to Francis Charles Lawley to be the epitome of battlefield dignity. But he could afford dignity at Fredericksburg because he had Longstreet and Jackson to carry out his overall plans; all of that would change a year and a half later, when both Jackson and Longstreet were gone. At the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, he had to abandon dignity to take immediate tactical charge. If Lee had a tactical trademark at all, it was a weakness for repetition. If a particular maneuver worked once (as with Longstreet’s crushing flank attack at Second Bull Run), he would try it again and again (as at Chancellorsville, the second day at Gettysburg, and the first day of the Wilderness; even Pickett’s Charge was, technically, a repetition of Longstreet’s flank attack the day before) until it was apparent it had outlived its usefulness. … That weakness was complicated by another weakness: too often he protected pets, like Powell Hill and William Pendleton and his bland chief of staff, Robert Chilton. The same Lee whom Beauregard complained would lop off the heads of commanders he disliked went miles out of his way to overlook the faults of those he favored.” [p. 431]

As Professor Guelzo writes, “There are lesser marks to be given, too, for Lee’s grasp of logistics and his abhorrence of intrusions in politics and by politicians. The fatal under-resourcing of the Army of Northern Virginia was a source of incessant lamentation from Lee during the war, and the cramped dimensions of his staff, as dictated by the parsimony of the Confederate Congress, repeatedly handicapped his oversight of the Army of Northern Virginia and produced its most disastrous mishap, the Lost Orders of the Maryland campaign. What is surprising is how little Lee tried to force on Jefferson Davis the administrative changes necessary to correct many of these shortfalls, starting with the Army of Northern Virginia’s supply deficiencies. … Unhappily, the other major lesson Lee had learned from Scott (and earlier from Gratiot) was precisely that overabundance of caution in dealing with politics, a caution that made him passive where passivity was fatal. … And hidden within these lamentations was a fatal habit of shifting blame. The impulse to assure subordinates that ‘this is all my fault’ tended to dissipate in the weeks and months after a failure, and he never qualified or regretted the blame he spewed over the Confederate leadership and even the Confederate public for sacrificing less than he thought they ought to sacrifice. If there is glory to be found in Lee as a general, it is to be found in Lee the strategist more than the tactician, and certainly more than Lee the manager.” [pp. 431-432]

Professor Guelzo gives us a beautifully written book. He’s tried very hard to give us a balanced view of Lee. Neoconfederates will not like the fact that he forthrightly shows if anyone met the Constitution’s definition of treason it was Robert E. Lee, and he shows clearly Lee’s racist world view. However, in my judgment Dr. Guelzo, in his quest to be fair to Lee by taking into account his own background, was a bit too soft on Lee. His Lee is a frustrated abolitionist whose personal view was slavery should be abolished and who hated slavery. Lee, in fact, supported slavery. His sourcing, as usual, is impeccable. My disagreement with him is in his interpretation, which I think is fair. The picture of Lee we get from this biography is of a Robert E. Lee who conformed to his sense of honor, who sought to do right, who nevertheless committed treason against the United States, not caring about the argument over slavery but because of his belief that his wife and children, and Arlington, depended on his going with the confederacy. I can agree with much of that interpretation, though not all of it. I also have to disagree with his interpretation of Richard S. Ewell’s performance at Gettysburg. Professor Guelzo takes Ewell to task for not taking Cemetery Hill on the first day, but Lee is the one who gave Ewell discretionary orders, Lee was the one who denied Ewell support from A. P. Hill’s corps, and Ewell was right to not make the attempt.

This excellent book should be on the bookshelf of every serious student of the war. It’s deeply researched. Professor Guelzo seems to have left no stone unturned in his quest to find primary sources and especially Lee letters with which to tell this story. He’s also read all the major Lee biographies and reminiscences of Lee. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s read every biography of Lee ever written. He seeks neither to worship Lee like Freeman nor excoriate Lee like Alan Nolan, but rather to understand Lee in all his complexities, good qualities, and weaknesses. If I have a real substantive criticism it’s in his use of “North” and South” in some cases instead of “United States” and “Confederacy” in all cases. I predict yet another Lincoln Prize for Dr. Guelzo with this book. I can highly recommend it.


  1. Robert F. Davenport Jr · · Reply

    Thanks for a meaty review

    It is interesting to consider the youthful experiences of the famed and extrapolate the effects on their adult life. I wonder how many of them consciously go through the same exercise and make adjustments?

  2. I was thrilled when I found the book at my local library and checked it out last week. I enjoyed the book very much, but I agree with you that Guelzo’s interpretation of Lee’s attitudes to slavery was a little off. I believe his former slaves described him as a harsh slave master, and I think he split many slave families under his control. It is an excellent biography and worth the time to read though.

    1. I think we get a better view of Lee and slavery from Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book, Reading the Man.

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