A Biography.

Emory M. Thomas

Robert E. Lee was the personification of the Confederacy at its best: he was the proof that good men could defend a cause that many considered evil, one that made God-fearing men--like Lee himself--uncomfortable, and that only few fanatics considered an absolute good; proof that courage and valor can triumph over greater numbers and superior material, and that eventual defeat is less painful when measured against the suffering and glory of the struggle; more than all that, proof that self-control and dignity--the preeminent Southern virtues--had not died with the Lost Cause. Lee was the one prominent public figure not tarnished by the petty quarrels of the generals and politicians, not stained by post-war corruption and politics. Lee represented something more: a noble, selfless, quietly suffering figure that men and women of the North as well as the South could point to and say, "there was a man!"

Such was the central myth of the Confederacy in the decades following Appomattox. No other Confederate came close to enjoying the adulation afforded this essentially modest, morally decent, politely restrained yet straight-forward aristocrat. Jackson, though worshipped as God's chosen warrior and Lee's right arm, was too much a religious fanatic and too strange a personality to be imagined in any setting other than war. Davis, the humorless, querulous president, failed even in his effort to flee the scene and was captured while disguised in women's clothes. Longstreet and Mosby became Republicans. Others lent their names to less than savory efforts to keep the former slaves "in their place." Lee may not have been a perfect model--after all, he had made mistakes and he must bear his share of the blame for the South losing the war--but for Confederates eager to rescue at least honor from a miserably bungled effort to secede from the Union, Lee was the most perfectly balanced public figure to appear since the death of Washington. Moreover, Lee had the advantage of being related to Washington through his marriage to Mary Custis.

In retrospect, it seems that Lee had spent a lifetime preparing to be a model for a Southern nation and for an era which valued the martial arts, the leisure of wealth, and the relaxed yet demanding credo of the aristocrat. Lee was the "marble model" at West Point--no demerits in his four years as a cadet; he had a successful career as military engineer; he was a hero of the Mexican War, superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, and Winfield Scott's first choice for command of the United States Army in its task of restoring the Union after Fort Sumter.

Thomas' beautifully written volume is, in its essence, a psychological study of the man who became this myth. Thomas, Regent's Professor of History at the University of Georgia, does not dispute the myth, does not change it in any of its essentials; but he does give it nuances and more polished facets than even his most skilled predecessors. Rather than detracting from the subject's fame, as is usually the case in our age of deconstruction, Thomas makes Lee an even more appealing personality.

Lee's most prominent personal characteristic, according to the author, was his life-long obsession with somehow balancing the demands of self-control and freedom. Self-control was paramount in his devotion to duty--to his family, his state, his soldiers, his students. Freedom can be seen in his efforts to avoid unpleasant situations--his marriage to a rather plain, basically dull, and an increasing arthritic woman was not happy; a shy man, he did not enjoy public events; a modest man, he did not like dealing with men who were ambitious, scheming, conniving, and quarrelsome. Lee was not a man of words. A man who wrote much or orated memorably would not have remained an enigma long, nor could historians have used him as outrageously as worshippers and the rare, more recent detractor. Lee was a man of deeds.

The irony is that Lee was, ultimately, a failure in the most important task he undertook. The saving grace is that he undertook command in the Confederacy reluctantly; at least, reluctantly compared to the rest of the Southern high command. His failure, nevertheless, was a heroic one, a failure of mythic proportions.

Thomas explains away Lee's military disasters as audacious gambles in desperate situations; not even the best gambler can win every hand, and Lee had to trust others to play the cards for him: that group known forevermore as Lee's Lieutenants. Of these, only Jackson had that combination of daring, judgment and good luck to carry out Lee's wishes instinctively, and even he had his lapses. Of the others, Lee had to work with what he had, and when criticism arose, he could only reply that the Confederacy had made a fundamental error at its very beginning, in assigning the worst generals to command the army and the very best to be newspaper editors.

Thomas makes a fundamental revision of our traditional view of the war's first year: he describes it as an almost uninterrupted series of Union victories--in Kentucky, West Virginia, the Atlantic Coast, New Orleans--with the one victory, Manassas, being incomplete in every way. When Lee took command, he inherited an army which was outnumbered, poorly equipped, led by quarreling officers, and in a desperate strategic situation. Lee calmly pulled his forces together and went on the offensive. Thomas' description of the Peninsula campaign is the least satisfactory of his many capsule battlepieces, but he improves as he tries a variety of narrative forms to enliven what could have been a repetitious vocabulary and style.

Thomas relies more heavily on Lee's personal correspondence than on official records. Fortunately, Lee wrote lively, colorful letters to a wide variety of friends and family. We learn of Lee's irrepressible wit, his delight in the company of pretty, amusing women, and his deep love and respect for family and friends. Lee's many frustrations are laid out for all to see: his wife's poor health, his children's inability to make a go of it on their own, the difficulty of managing the family estates, even the near impossibility of emancipating his father-in-law's slaves according to the terms of the will; the deteriorating military situation which caused Lee to gamble on a decisive battle at Gettysburg (another somewhat revisionist chapter); the loss of all the family property; declining health; and the likelihood of being hanged ignominiously as a traitor to his oath and native land.

Through it all, Lee responded to frustration better than any of his peers. He made self-control and sacrifice into a high art. We could call it character. Whatever it was, Lee had in spades. Criticized early in the war as the "King of Spades," he could not be swayed by public opinion or his peers' censure; adulated by the public after the war, he could not be tempted to exploit the opportunity for personal gain or prestige; threatened with Northern retaliation, he refused to cower or curry favor with the victors. Steady, honest, dignified, Lee told a congressional committee that he did not believe the former slaves were capably of voting intelligently; yet in church, when a Black man came down to the rail to be the first to take communion, it was Lee who finally rose from among the stunned congregation to kneel next to the former slave and share the communion cup.

Thomas explains these apparent contradictions as the outward manifestations of the inner paradoxes in Lee's personality, contrasting ideals and drives which could be kept in order only by manly self-control. Lee was a soldier who never strank from battle, but he disliked personal conflict; he was a man's man, yet his best friends were women; he was not happy in his marriage, but he never went beyond flirtation with any of the vast throng of admiring women who would gladly have enlivened the pages of this biography. He resolved many problems by ignoring them--his wife, his family, the problems of supply--and by concentrating on whatever important task was at hand. But once any important task was accomplished, at least to the degree he could do it at the moment, Lee had his pen in hand, discussing each correspondent's concerns as though they were the only care he had (though they were generally the most inconsequential matters imaginable). In his faithful reports to Jefferson Davis, Lee was frank and honest about the conditions of the army and his plans for upcoming operations; he was fortunate that his correspondence and its contents never found their way into Union hands, in the manner that Federal intelligence often ended up being reported in Richmond, because this solicitude for Davis' belief that he was still an expert in military affairs (as he had been at the time of the Mexican War) allowed him to avoid the personality conflicts with the Confederate president that bedeviled other commanders. What most frustrated Lee in the second half of the war and at the end of his life was his inability to impose his will on his body as he had done before. Always Lee had been the most handsome man of any gathering he attended. Now he had put on weight, incurred injuries from minor mishaps, could not shake severe colds, and had aged noticeably.

In the closing campaigns of the war, with the Army of Northern Virginia being pressed to the earth by Grant's Army of the Potomac, the cry repeatedly arose among his men, "Lee to the rear!" Lee's repeated risking his life in leading troops forward was not a death wish by a man who could see no hope of victory in the field, no plausible alternative strategy to digging in, marching on as the enemy moved around the flank, and digging in again--it was a desperate attempt to impose order personally on the chaos of battle. Previously, he had been able to rely on his "lieutenants" to implement his wishes; whereas once they seemed to intuit what his wishes were, as the war approached its end, that was no longer so--many had died; he was not able to find replacements among the lower ranks, and he was unwilling to risk bringing in experienced men from other armies because their egos and their ambitions would be more trouble than their skills could offset. Lee had all the pride any one army needed.

Pride is a necessary virtue for a personality centered upon the performance of duty. It can also become a vice. Pride caused less damage to Lee's command than to most of his contemporaries, but it came to the fore very strongly in his last days of command--at Appomattox. Lee had to summon all his formidable self-control to do what was best for his men and his nation--to surrender in a manner which would bring an honorable end to the conflict, to accept the outcome as final, and to make the best of life in the reunited federal republic.

Lee seemingly had no prospects for making a living. His home at Arlington had been confiscated for non-payment of taxes, his investments in Confederate bonds were worthless, his pension was forfeit, and it was unlikely that he would be able to resume his career as an engineer or become a gentleman farmer. His wife was an invalid, his children still dependent on his aid and advice. The invitation to become president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, was the most welcome surprise that an August day in 1865 could have brought. Lee, as always, cautious, did not answer for two weeks while he pondered the situation and consulted with friends and family; his answer was modestly stated, but positive.

Lee's reputation transformed Washington College from a traditional classically-oriented and financially-strapped small school in a rural backwater into a vibrant forward-looking institution with a national reputation. Enrollment quadrupled, the faculty tripled in size, the curriculum modernized by introducing departments with elective courses, and the buildings and grounds improved. Lee, of course, did more than simply preside: he took the same diligent care of every aspect of the college operation that he had given to every enterprise he had ever undertaken. He knew every boy by name, participated in oral examinations, travelled widely to raise money, lobbied in Richmond and Washington, and in such little spare time as he had, he produced a new edition of his father's Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States and sought in vain to collect sufficient materials to write his own memoirs of the late war.

Lee the university president was perhaps Lee at his very best: there is but one rule here, he said, to be a gentleman. From that came everything else--devotion to family, respect for one's fellow men, courtesy and gallantry toward women, and duty toward country. Becoming a gentleman was not a product of birth, unless that meant that one luckily came into a family which lived the virtues that society at it best preached. Lee was not a vocally religious man, but he valued very highly the Christianity of his time. He saw in it all the attributes which went toward making men into gentlemen, women into ladies, and society into a community where individuals could flourish and everyone received the love and care that all human beings require.

This was the essence of that enduring South that Southerners believed Lee personified and justified.