Robert E. Lee: A Life
Allen C. Guelzo
(Knopf, 608 pages, $35)
“Who’s that man on the horse?” I asked my father at a young age. “That’s Lee — he led the South in the Civil War.” He gave me a book I still have, Illustrated Minute Biographies, by William DeWitt. Published in 1953, it is utterly nonjudgmental. Opposite the page on Lee (“Leader of a Lost Cause”) is a page on Lenin (“Father of the Russian Revolution”).
Among DeWitt’s 150 personalities, Lee fascinated me. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs. The vast moral injustice that the Civil War ended didn’t initially register. Nor did the enormity of Lee’s decision to fight for the wrong side. Civil War themes were popular at the time. We kids wore replica Union and Confederate soldier’s caps, not really knowing much about why they fought.
But the New York City public school system taught serious history in those days, and it soon corrected our ignorance. Our teachers introduced us to the great wrongs of slavery and secession. They showed us the genius of Lincoln; the skill of Grant; the valiant, brilliant resistance of Lee. As a child of that time I was saddened over the recent rush to pull down memorials to him — “less about understanding the past than a contest to divide us,” as Dan McLaughlin wrote. A better response is to erect more statues, as Hillsdale College did for Frederick Douglass — replying to history with more history.
Allen Guelzo’s new Lee biography is unmatched as an example of history taught with balance and understanding, as it was when I went to school. George Will thinks its timing couldn’t be better: “In today’s blizzard of facile, overheated, and grandstanding judgments about the past, this unsentimental biography illustrates the intellectual responsibility that the present owes to the past.”
Of course the first question one asks is: Why Lee, of all people — especially now, when he’s a leading villain of the woke movement? As Guelzo explained in an illuminating podcast with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, he began the book in 2014, before the advent of national distemper. He had just published a bestseller on Gettysburg, and he was fired up. He focused on Lee because, compared to giants like Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman, he was relatively underwritten. True, there were early hagiographies, and a staggering four volumes by Douglas Southall Freeman in the 1930s. But otherwise the field was relatively open.
Admittedly, it’s a challenge to write about someone many consider a traitor. Guelzo, a “northern Yankee,” defines the job as “difficult biography, like writing about Neville Chamberlain.” That is part of the fascination of his book — amplified by his skill in exposing Lee’s true character, the great impulses that drove him, and the three decisions that placed him athwart the nation he loved and had sworn to protect and defend.
It takes 200 pages to get to those topics, and the build-up is anything but dull. Lee last saw his father at the age of six. Washington’s famous cavalry general, Light-Horse Harry Lee, onetime Virginia governor, went through several fortunes and ruined himself, spending his last years in the West Indies. That left Robert with two powerful compulsions: perfection, to make up for his father’s shortcomings; and security, which his father’s profligacy had denied him. Only in his last five years, as the unlikely president of a small college in Lexington, did Lee achieve those goals; remarkably, he was as effective a fundraiser as a military strategist. He raised what became Washington and Lee University from bankruptcy to prominence.
Lee commanded no troops in the field until he served under Winfield Scott in the Mexican War (1846–48). He was educated at West Point, America’s premier engineering school before the Civil War. He returned later as superintendent (1852–55), hating every minute of it, for he despised paperwork and interfering politicians. The work he most enjoyed was building things: Savannah’s Fort Pulaski and improvements at other Army installations. In 1839, he changed the course of the Mississippi River and rebuilt the St. Louis waterfront.
Ironically, between West Point and Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton, Lee spent more early adult years in New York than in Virginia. Arlington House in Alexandria County, the Lee home for 30 years, was part of the District of Columbia until 1846, and Lee never even owned it. Yet it was Virginia that commanded his loyalty in 1861.
Allen Guelzo explains that Lee’s fateful decisions that year were threefold, but they were made in rapid-fire succession. In February 1861, seven southern states seceded to form the Confederacy. On April 18, Lee turned down Lincoln’s offer to command, under Scott, the Union Army. Lee replied that secession was anarchy: “If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union: but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?”
Scott and Lincoln assured him there was no chance of this, but the next day Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy. Tearfully Scott begged, “For God’s sake, don’t resign.” “I am compelled to,” Lee cried. “I can’t consult my feelings in this matter.”
Slavery was not part of his dilemma. “There is no glimpse of Lee thinking his way through the contradiction slavery posed to the American founding or the natural rights of the enslaved,” Guelzo writes. Though he freed all Arlington’s slaves in absentia in 1862, to Lee they were “personally invisible, despite their presence all around.” Late in the war, he favored offering freedom to slaves who would fight with his army, and some did. The reaction of the army was “at best ambivalent.”
With abundant sourcework, our author examines Lee’s thinking, which began with family: All his children’s possessions lay in Virginia. “They will be ruined if they do not go with their State. I cannot raise my hand against my children.” If he had, the state militia might have seized Arlington (in the event, the Union did). But remaining neutral would have made Lee a traitor in the eyes of both sides.
So Lee could only hope that Virginia would not secede. The “selfish and dictatorial bearing” of “the cotton states” would make Virginia life miserable, he lamented: “Save in her defense there will be one soldier less in the world than now.”
Save in her defense … The next day found Lee in Richmond, where he hoped to mediate a peaceful settlement. There was none, and on April 22 he placed himself “at the service of my native state.”
Guelzo’s accounts of Lee’s campaigns are brisk and revelatory without dunning us with detail. (Unfortunately, detail is sometimes lacking in the accompanying maps.) Twice taking the war to Union territory was the right strategy, Guelzo says. We see the agate points at which, had things gone otherwise, Lee might have forced an armistice. Guelzo discounts the rumor that Lee and George McClellan, at a standstill after Antietam, considered marching jointly on Washington, confronting Lincoln and compelling peace. McClellan didn’t have that much imagination. He failed to press Lee at Antietam, as Lee knew he wouldn’t. “Some day,” Lee cracked, “they’re going to have a general I don’t understand.” (Some day they did.)
Lee was overly romanticized after the war, but, contrary to recent criticisms, we see an audacious strategist whose attacks when he was expected to retreat won battle after battle. Tactics he usually left to subordinates, who were not always of the first caliber. When they were, the results were astonishing. Norman Schwarzkopf, says Guelzo, overwhelmed Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in the 1991 Gulf War with the same sweeping flanking movement used in Chancellorsville, where Lee allowed Stonewall Jackson to attack with his whole corps, risking everything — and ultimately losing Jackson himself.
Even at Gettysburg, Guelzo suggests, Lee’s strategy on day three was not all wrong. Union General George Meade, broadly beaten the first two days, was actually preparing to retreat when George Pickett charged Cemetery Ridge. The rebels were stopped through the valor of Union troops who, though badly mauled, were determined not to yield. Pickett was asked later why he failed. “The Yankees fought,” he drawled.
At Hampton Roads in January 1865 Lincoln met with Confederate plenipotentiaries inquiring about an armistice. There would be none, he declared, short of reestablishing “our one common country” and abolishing slavery. One asked whether that meant “we of the South have committed treason.” Lincoln replied, “You have stated the proposition better than I did.”
Guelzo is thoughtful on this question as applied to Lee. Certainly he adheres to the constitutional definition: “levying war against [the United States] or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” At the same time the author cites serious constitutional obstacles to convicting Lee (he was indicted, but never tried). First, Grant had paroled Lee and his top officers at Appomattox, and a paroled prisoner-of-war cannot be classified legally as a traitor. Even Lincoln insisted that the Confederacy had no standing as a nation. It was an enemy, but not a foreign enemy. America’s greatest convulsion was a family affair — a war not only between states, but between households, kinsmen, brethren.
Conscious of his parole, Lee gave no encouragement to his indictors. He discouraged Jubal Early from a guerrilla movement, which would “prolong bitter feeling and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway.” He opposed a monument to Confederate war dead, which “would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating,” peaceful recovery.
Well, Guelzo says, he didn’t say that monument might not be deserved, and he took “no positive steps to cooperate with Reconstruction.” Given Lee’s devotion to his troops, for him to say no monument was deserved was inconceivable. And his last five years at Washington College were reconstructive. He never spoke at die-hard rallies or gave encouragement to bitter-enders. But perhaps doing nothing is not enough.
Guelzo concludes that the nation-state, with all its faults, provides “a frail but workable insurance against the kinds of incessant dynastic, ethnic and religious warfare that used to be the common lot of the human race…. To wave away treason as a crime is to put in jeopardy many of the benefits the nation-state has conferred.”
That is a valid observation, but, the author continues, “perhaps the reluctance to pin [treason on Lee] is a token of an instinct, running back to the Constitutional Convention, to err on the side of absorbing society’s defaulters, rather than arching them to the scaffold.” He quotes the abolitionist Wendell Phillips: “We cannot cover the continent with gibbets. We cannot sicken the 19th century with such a sight.”
No, and the 21st century likewise.
Lee owned slaves, as most of his class did, and he told Confederate President Jefferson Davis that slavery was a curse that must go. But he didn’t think about when and how — nor did quite a few people, North and South. A century hence, if there are still historians, will they marvel over some of our slipshod thinking today?
Modern scolds may be outraged that Allen Guelzo has written this majestic biography. He should be prepared to be called names for his trouble. But Guelzo quotes the literary critic John Gardner: “No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion.” The two have to meet, he says: “Malice toward none; charity for all.” In their interview, Gingrich observes that Lincoln has affected him. “Yes,” our author agrees, “I believe so.”