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Getting Right With Robert E. Lee
How to know the unknowable man
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
While Lincoln remains unchallenged as the Civil War’s most written-about figure, the volume of words expended on Lee, especially when Lee-related accounts of Gettysburg are included, holds second place. Heading the vast Lee literature is Douglas Southall Freeman’s monumental four-volume biography, published in 1934 and 1935. With literary mastery and eminent scholarship Freeman firmly fixed greatness on Lee. In his hands Lee the general was certainly not above criticism, but it was never diminishing criticism. Freeman saw Lee’s military failings as both few and proper. In Lee the man, Freeman found no contradictions, no secret self that was proof against the picklocks of biographers. “Robert Lee,” he wrote, “was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was—a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.”
Thomas Connelly sees considerable irony in the hagiographical efforts of the Lee cult. The general’s “military greatness alone would have assured his niche as a major national figure,” he writes, without all the manipulation that went into creating the marble man. Perhaps in reaction to the image of the marble man, and certainly in challenge to it, historians in recent years (including especially Connelly) have sifted through everything Lee wrote and was quoted as saying to uncover the real man behind the improbable mask of the demigod. At the same time, Lee’s military thought, his wartime strategy and tactics, have been plumbed anew in efforts to reinterpret his role in Confederate history. These efforts constitute one more attempt to get right with Robert E. Lee.
The Lee who emerges from these investigations is marked by more humanity and affected by more normal emotions than the demigod Lee. There can be little doubt, for example, that his youthful ambition to succeed and his awesome sense of duty were goaded by the cautionary tale of his father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, the Revolutionary War hero but a ne’er-do-well who deserted his family when Lee was just six years old. No doubt, too, the slack pace of promotion in the antebellum Army caused Lee frequently to question the worth of a career that brought him a colonelcy only after thirty-two years of service. Whether his marriage was less than a success, as has been argued, is not something that can be clearly settled at this distance, but it is clear that Lee complained about the seemingly endless separations from wife and family during his service in the old Army. And it is hardly surprising that amid the uncertainties of war he would fall back increasingly on the rationalization that God ruled all human affairs, the outcome of which were beyond earthly control.
In reaction to the image of the “marble man,” historians have been struggling to see what lies behind the mask of the demigod.
At the same time, it must be said that Lee was hardly singular in his musings about the unfairness of life and in questioning his choice of the Army as a career. There cannot have been a single officer in the 1850s who expressed himself satisfied with his lot in that bureaucracy-ridden, glacier-paced antebellum army. The only surprise is that Lee did not resign to pursue a civilian career, as many others did. As for his religious fatalism, that too was common enough among Civil War generals. It was, after all, the duty of a field commander in wartime to organize and make efficient the mass killing of human beings, and anyone at all sensitive to the paradox of that was likely to seek reassurance that what he was doing was God’s will.
Connelly offers the speculation that these various background pressures on Lee’s psyche produced in him a repressed personality, turning him overly audacious and aggressive when in command on the battlefield. Lee’s penchant for attack was in the end more than the Confederacy could afford, he writes; the Army of Northern Virginia “was bled to death by Lee’s offensive tactics.”
Such an explanation for Lee’s military persona seems unduly complicated. In December 1862, watching a series of doomed Yankee attacks smash against his line at Fredericksburg, Lee remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.” That thought lends weight to an observation by Paul C. Nagel, the biographer of the Lees of Virginia. “At two points in his life,” Nagel writes of the general, “he showed daring and imagination. These were on the battlefields of the Mexican War and the Civil War. But across the longer stretches of time, he seemed lethargic and inclined to stick with what was familiar and at hand.” It was the opportunity for leadership and command in battle that raised Lee’s consciousness and energized him; possibly his trust in himself did wane at other times, but never in war. It was this supreme confidence in his own generalship that enabled Lee to face down every general he met in the war but the last one, U. S. Grant, who possessed equal confidence in himself as a commander.