For An Emotional Understanding

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Yet there was a limitation in the man—a singular inability to see and feel the main currents of his time. Disbelieving in secession and in slavery, he went to war to support both; he could never quite understand how Lincoln could turn slavery (in Mr. Miers’ phrase) into “a weapon of moral fission” and maneuver the South into the position of opposing one of humanity’s most basic aspirations. His Gettysburg campaign was doomed, not because the military cards were stacked against him, but because he understood in 1863 no better than he had understood in 1861 why the people of the North were really supporting Lincoln and the Union cause. In 1864 he and his army were brought to stalemate not so much by the superior resources of the North as by the fact that Lincoln had a vision which Lee never had—“a superb wholeness,” as Mr. Miers puts it, “a broad, sweeping vision that had grasped the military, political, psychological and philosophical necessities of the great American conflict.”

Here was the real tragedy of Lee. One of the great upward thrusts of the American spirit took place, and he never sensed it. The virtue of this little gem of a book is that it fully presents Lee’s greatness but also brings this tragic shortcoming into high relief.