Nonfiction briefly . . .; Lee: The Last Years, by Charles Bracelen Flood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 308 pp. $14.95.

This biography of Robert E. Lee unearths the ''great forgotten chapter of his life'' - the years after Appomattox in which he achieved a new reputation in both North and South for ''doing more than any other American to heal the wounds of war.''

As a symbol of the Confederacy Lee was always the object of popular attention , and he strove to set a constructive example for his old compatriots, tirelessly encouraging them to set aside regional bitterness and work to reforge the Republic. His efforts ranged from dancing with a snubbed Yankee belle at a Southern ball to publicly urging rebel soldiers to take a loyalty oath and restore their citizenship as soon as possible. In consequence, his image among former enemies in the Union changed so dramatically that within 38 months after the war, a prominent New York newspaper even suggested Lee be nominated for president of the United States.

Charles Bracelen Flood brings to his treatment of Lee the same eye for telling detail and dramatic scene that earlier won him an American Revolution Round Table Award. He does not gloss over the negative: Lee opposed allowing blacks to vote; he had a violent temper; he was so possessive of his daughters that none of them ever married. Still, the reader comes to understand and respect a man who once wrote, ''True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them - the desire to do right -- is precisely the same.'' Spencer Punnett

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