Book Review: ‘Robert E. Lee,’ by Allen C. Guelzo


The historian Allen C. Guelzo is a self-described Yankee partisan. In a dozen books on the Civil War and Reconstruction, he has portrayed the Union cause as a righteous enterprise. In the very first sentence of his newest work, he charges Robert E. Lee with treason. This is not a warm recounting of Lee’s life. Still, if Guelzo is critical of Lee, he does not withhold praise when the circumstances justify it. By the end of the book, Guelzo chooses not to pursue the case against Lee for his treasonous choice to make war on the United States.
While the tenor of “Robert E. Lee” is far from that of the 1935 Pulitzer Prize-winning four-volume paean to Lee written by the journalist Douglas Southall Freeman, it is also not a biographical takedown in the style of Thomas L. Connelly’s “The Marble Man” (1977). Nor is Guelzo’s work the evenhanded portrait offered by Emory Thomas in “Robert E. Lee: A Biography” (1995), the best Lee biography currently in print.
This is a deeply researched character study, and Guelzo finds Lee’s character problematic. He argues that the key to understanding the trajectory of Lee’s life is the troubled relationship he had with his father, the Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Light Horse Harry squandered the family patrimony and eventually abandoned his wife and children.
This early trauma, Guelzo argues, caused young Robert to value stability, security and self-control. The fear of what might happen if his private demons were unleashed compelled Lee to hold ever tighter to a life of probity.
Lee’s decision to enroll at West Point in 1825 guaranteed the security that came with government service, despite the low pay. After graduating second in his class, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers and, with great organizational and technical skills, built and renovated forts along the Atlantic coast, from Savannah to Brooklyn. He married Mary Anna Randolph Custis in June 1831, a union that resulted in both a home and a modicum of financial stability. But it was not a great love match.
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During the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, Lee provided crucial topographical services for Gen. Winfield Scott. But he recoiled from the carnage he witnessed. As he wrote to one of his sons after the Battle of Cerro Gordo, “You have no idea what a horrible sight a battlefield is.”
Lee left the Corps of Engineers in 1855 and was posted to San Antonio, but it was not until 1859, at the age of 52, that he first commanded soldiers on a military campaign. He ended John Brown’s occupation of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, seized to foment a slave rebellion that never materialized.
Guelzo argues that Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army in April 1861 was motivated more by the desire to protect his family and their property, which lay directly across the Potomac River from Washington, than from any fealty to the Confederacy or the preservation of slavery. Yet a few days later, he agreed to take command of Virginia troops, though the state had not yet seceded from the Union. The move contradicted his professed desire to just go home and plant corn.
Guelzo’s analysis of Lee’s leadership during the Civil War is crisp and sound. The early Confederate successes owed as much to Union incompetence as to Lee’s strategic brilliance. Lee’s military setbacks resulted from occasional overconfidence, poor coordination among corps commanders and his reliance on field officers to execute his strategy — a plan that worked well when Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was alive and Gen. James Longstreet present, but not so much when he relied on less competent subordinates, as at Gettysburg, Pa.
Lee believed, correctly, that a drawn-out war would doom the Confederacy. The best strategy, he believed, was to invade the North and demoralize the population to the point of demanding that President Abraham Lincoln seek a peaceful resolution. He almost succeeded at Antietam in Maryland in September 1862, and at Gettysburg in early July 1863.
The relentless Union campaign of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia during the spring of 1864 stymied a third planned Northern invasion. By early April 1865, Richmond had fallen, and Grant eventually caught up with Lee’s diminishing army near Appomattox Court House, Va. Lee surrendered his army on April 9, a scene Guelzo renders poignantly.
Robert E. Lee did not fade away. With the threat of a treason conviction hanging over him, supporters, including former abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher, pleaded the case for clemency. On Christmas Day, 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Lee.
By then, Lee was president of Washington College in Lexington, Va. He could have turned the post into a restful sinecure, but instead threw himself into upgrading the curriculum, enlarging the endowment (with contributions from some wealthy Northerners) and attracting a national enrollment. But his health was failing him. Guelzo calculates that Lee may have had as many as four heart attacks before the one that caused his death on Oct. 12, 1870.
Robert E. Lee opposed erecting statues to himself and his brothers-in-arms. His wish is now being fulfilled. As Guelzo reports, since the violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, the removal of the representations of Confederate heroes, and of Lee in particular, has accelerated. Their names are also vanishing from schools, public parks and thoroughfares. It is belated recognition that between 1890 (the year Lee’s equestrian statue was dedicated on Richmond’s Monument Avenue) and the present, these memorials represented less historical tributes to the Lost Cause than contemporary exclamation points to Jim Crow and white supremacy. Their presence distorted the past and, therefore, poisoned the present. Allen C. Guelzo’s fine biography is an important contribution to reconciling the myths with the facts.
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