In 1859, when US Army Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee captured John Brown and his band of abolitionists at Harpers Ferry, Lee was 52; his military career, while respectable, had not been what he had hoped. His only previous combat experience had been more than a decade earlier, in the Mexican War, and it had come 21 years after he had enrolled at West Point.
An accomplished combat engineer, Lee had battled the migrating Mississippi River to a draw. He chased the Comanche about Texas without catching them. He served as superintendent of his alma mater.
In many ways, the gentlemanly and intensely patriotic Robert E. Lee was an unlikely champion of the Confederacy. He found the notion of secession “silly” and dangerous, while fervently hoping that the union could be saved short of a war that he correctly believed would prove ruinous. Although he owned several slaves and in 1857 inherited dozens more from his father-in-law, he was not fond of the institution and was committed to freeing his human property in good time – which he did in 1862, beating Lincoln to the punch. Later, when the war was going badly for the South, he urged, in vain, that slaves be given the opportunity to fight for their freedom, in the Confederate States Army.
In Clouds of Glory, the Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda ably documents his subject’s journey from obscurity to quasi-deification in the South and beyond. However, Korda, who is the bestselling biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, T.E. Lawrence, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, breaks no new ground and doesn’t pretend to. The former top editor at Simon & Schuster is content to mine the work of his predecessors like Douglas Southall Freeman while periodically injecting his own analysis on contested matters, such as whether Lee ordered three runaway slaves, including a woman, to be whipped severely.
Korda clearly has command of the life and times of his subject. All three of Lee’s sons fought for the Confederacy and the General would run into them periodically on and off the battlefield, including his son Rooney as he was being carried from the field with a serious leg wound. Korda’s mastery of such details adds texture to his account. The reader learns that that none of Lee’s four daughters married and that his sister sided with the Union, for which his nephew fought bravely. The war’s devastation did not spare Lee’s family.
The author dutifully re-fights every battle of the Army of Northern Virginia in vivid detail, and his analysis of what Lee meant to the Lost Cause, both during and after the Civil War, is well-considered and amply documented. Military buffs will find much to feast on, while general readers may suffer battle fatigue.
For all of his familiarity with the Lee literature, the author’s grasp of history sometimes slips. For example, he writes that when Lee journeyed north in 1825 to enroll at West Point, he was entering a region “where slavery did not exist.” In fact, slavery was still legal in New York and elsewhere in the North; it would remain so in New Jersey and New Hampshire until 1865. Later on, he has the Kansas-Nebraska Act passing in 1845, not 1854.
On another front, it must be noted that this is a very long book, 832 pages, and it suffers on occasion from redundancy and inadequate organization. The reader is reminded repeatedly of Lee’s height (5 feet 10 inches or nearly six feet, take your pick), that slaves were bought and sold like chattel, that Lee was quite the flirt, and that Confederate currency was nigh unto worthless, particularly in the North.
On the plus side, Korda conscientiously addresses larger issues that deserve attention such as his subject’s racial attitudes and his views on slavery, although he does so piecemeal rather than tackling it in one coherent chapter. A bit more analysis on this intriguing topic would have been welcome as well.
Lee believed that slavery was pernicious, albeit, curiously enough, more so for whites than for blacks; that slaves were better off for having been brought to America; and that slavery was a legitimate approach to preparing the black race for better days to come. He also believed that slavery had to come to an end at some point, although not at the point of a Union sword.
Despite the preceding, Lee stated after the war that he thought it best for the former slaves to return to Africa. Earlier, in a letter to his wife in 1856, Lee wrote, “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope it will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” This would have been a good spot for Korda to note, as he does elsewhere in the book, that the “instruction” of blacks (slaves and freedmen alike) did not include education in Virginia, where teaching blacks to read was illegal.
For all that has been written about him, Lee remains an enigma. He fought for a cause to which he didn’t fully subscribe. A patriot whose father fought alongside George Washington, he placed state ahead of nation: as Virginia went, so went Lee. A devout Christian who was kind and decent in his personal relations, including with blacks in many documented instances, Lee fought to the bitter end – arguably beyond it. Yet afterward, other than wearing his old uniform, he was a model of submission to Federal authority.
One is left wondering, at the end of the book whether Lee was too good a general. If he hadn’t saved Richmond, the Confederate capital, in 1862, or kept the Confederacy alive on life support after Gettysburg in 1863, perhaps it would have been for the best. Almost half of all the war’s casualties and more than half of civilian deaths occurred in the two years leading up to Appomattox. Two-thirds of the wealth of Confederate states had disappeared by 1865; the 20th century would dawn well before they got back to where they were in 1860.
David Holahan is a regular Monitor contributor.