On the long bookshelf of American history the best summary of the life of Robert E. Lee comes in one sentence written by his great rival Ulysses Grant. The meeting of the two at Appomattox Court Houseis one of the most sacred moments in our national narrative. Later the victorious general would write of his vanquished counterpart: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who has fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there is the least excuse.’’
After that you might think there would be little more to say about Lee. Yet he remains one of the most riveting figures in our history, a losing commander whose command over our imagination has never lost its sway. That’s why the appearance of Michael Korda’s “Clouds of Glory,’’ his massive new biography of Lee, will win a warm welcome. Like its subject, it is lively, approachable, and captivating.
And like Lee himself, everything about this book is on a grand scale. It takes its readers from the age of Cromwell to the first breaths of America’s Gilded Age. Its narrative recounts the life and times of perhaps America’s greatest military figure, or at least the equal of George Washington, Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower. Its length and range is matched by the depth of its examination of the important moral issues — loyalty and redemption, among others — wrapped inside the moral issues of slavery and the Civil War. It opens with perhaps the longest preface (27 pages) of the season.
Lee is a subject for the ages, and for ours — in Korda’s estimation, he is “the iconic figure of southern rebellion, and of southern manhood, in the North as well as the South.’’ Lee graduated from West Point without a single demerit, was assigned to the most elite branch of the army of the time (the corps of engineers), fought bravely in the Mexican War, and was dispatched by President James Buchanan to suppress the insurrection of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry — all before his real star turn on history’s stage.
Cosmopolitan in outlook, opposed to secession, convinced slavery was a cause unworthy of the great war it prompted, Lee was possessed of none of the rebel instinct of his civilian leaders. Stirred by patriotic feelings toward the United States, he nonetheless, in what Korda calls “the great moral decision of his life,’’ felt the tug of his native Virginia and became the chief commander of the Confederate forces.
“This simple, old-fashioned point of view was to guide Lee through the next four years, during which he would become the foremost general, and indeed the figurehead, of a cause in which he did not completely believe,’’ Korda writes.
Shaped by two men he never met, Washington and Napoleon, and by his outlook as a civil engineer, he was able to divert the Mississippi River but was helpless as the main currents of American civic life led to the Civil War. For more than a century he has been the subject of worship and study, not least by the Douglas Southall Freeman, the Richmond historian and editor. The Korda volume is absorbing and mostly admiring without being hagiographic or, worse,melodramatic.
Korda disparages what he calls the “post-Civil War effort to turn Lee into a kind of secular saint’’ and points out that Lee considered slavery more advantageous a circumstance for blacks than life in Africa, and thought little of Mexicans and Native Americans.
In 1861 Lee and his mentor Winfield Scott would simultaneously assemble armies, Lee’s being much the more difficult task, involving shortages of weapons, uniforms, tents, hoses, mules, and wagons. Lee’s style was, in Korda’s characterization, “methodical, detailed, practical, and containing not a hint of ambiguity.’’ He combined, in Korda’s view, the roles of George C. Marshall and Eisenhower, but he possessed the attitudes and temperaments of the two World War II generals as well. That rarest strain of military mind, he was a master of both offense and defense.
In these pages are long, detailed battle accounts. The story of the Seven Days (1862) is particularly well drawn, though for some readers that may seem tiresome. Korda examines Lee’s tactical vision — keep the Union armies separated and advance between them — but is not sparing in his criticism, arguing that Lee was often too courtly a commander, sometimes too indulgent of James Longstreet’s insubordination, and occasionally given to setting out contradictory orders, as at Gettysburg.
The book’s greatest blemish is its repetitiveness. Korda employs Frederick the Great’s famous military maxim (“He who attempts to defend everything, defends nothing’’) four times; uses another quote about the leading Confederate generals (“It is impossible to please Longstreet more than by praising Lee’’) twice; and sets out the notion that Lee prized being a gentleman more than being a victorious general two times within 17 pages.
However the book has many moments of lyricism, such as this one involving the run-up to Gettysburg:
“His very presence was an assurance that this was no skirmish, that a great event would take place here in the gently rolling countryside, with its neat farms, green fields, and carefully tended fencing, under a bright, hot mid-day summer sky.’’
In defeat rather than in victory the Lee mythology grew. “A nation besieged needs a powerful national myth to keep it fighting, and Lee became, however unwillingly, the personification of that myth. Jefferson Davis might have his people’s respect, but Lee held their trust and affection — he was, and would remain, what they most wanted to see in themselves.’’
The key to understanding Robert E. Lee — and the oxygen that keeps this book alive — is the recognition that Lee continues to play that role, not only in the South but also beyond the borders of the doomed Old Confederacy, not only in the 19th century but also in our own.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.