Books

06.22.14

How I Learned to Hate Robert E. Lee

Michael Korda’s superb new biography of the Confederate general, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, chisels away at the myth. You may not like what’s underneath.

All the time I was growing up in Atlanta, the face of Robert E. Lee was taking shape on the side of an enormous granite mountain just outside town. He loomed like a god above us, as much a presence as any deity, and God knows he was accepted as such. It was only much later that I began to question his sanctity, and then to hate what he stood for.

When I was in elementary school, the face of Lee on Stone Mountain was a rough-cut thing, weathering and wasting as the generation that began it in 1912—a generation that still included veterans of the Civil War 50 years before—gave way to generations with other wars to focus their attention.

Then the carving began again in 1964 in a centennial haze of romantic memories about the Old South and frenzy of fear and defiance provoked by the civil-rights movement. As Martin Luther King Jr. was marching on Washington, Confederate battle flags floated above state houses and sculptors using torches began again to carve the granite features of Lee, along with Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, taking up three vertical acres on the mountain’s face.

It is this sort of image—the bas-relief nobility of memorial sculpture—that Michael Korda chisels through in his massive and highly readable new one-volume biography: Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee. But, as Korda clearly recognizes, Lee himself could be almost as impenetrable as stone.

He was not cold. He was very loving with his wife and many children. He enjoyed flirting (harmlessly, it seems) with young women. He had the self-assurance of a Virginia aristocrat, albeit an impecunious one, and the bearing of a man born not only to be a soldier, but to command. He was tall for his time—at least 5’10”—and as a young man he was strikingly handsome, broad-shouldered, and Byronic.

But perhaps Lee’s most memorable feature, even in the worst of times, was his phenomenal self-control, whether in the face of triumphs or disasters. His belief in God’s will lent “a certain opaque quality” to Lee’s character, as Korda writes. Perhaps the general did not cultivate his fame as “The Marble Man,” but he earned it.

What cannot and should not be forgiven about Lee, despite his many virtues, is the cause that he defended.

Lee was so much the model of a Virginia gentleman that he came to seem a hero not only of the Lost Cause in the South, but of a restored peace for the Union in the aftermath of the war. He believed in reason, good manners, and moderation in all things except battle, when his skill in defense and audacity in offense managed to keep the Confederacy’s hopes for independence alive years longer than would have—or should have—been the case.

And that is part of the problem. While the dream of the Confederacy was kept alive, the men on the battlefield on both sides perished by the tens of thousands. In his desperate effort to triumph at Gettysburg in 1863, deep in northern territory, he waged a battle that wrought more than 50,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and disappeared). By contrast, fewer than 60,000 soldiers died in all of the Vietnam War.

Lee put the blame for Gettysburg on himself, which was a rare and noble thing to do, then retreated, and kept on fighting. Almost a year later at Spotsylvania Court House, where there were 32,000 casualties, a Union officer described a scene in which the Confederate dead “were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment.”

It may be unfair to criticize a general for wanting to fight on against all odds. That is what we assume generals will try to do, and Lee often put himself in as much personal danger and daily discomfort as his faithful soldiers. But it’s a plain fact that by prolonging a conflict he could not win, Lee’s brilliance and the loyalty he inspired helped destroy what was left of the South.

Korda writes that by late 1864 the Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (the subject of another Korda biography) and Lee had “created dreadful, static sieges that would postpone the end of the war by 10 painful months,” during which time Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman “would march through Georgia, taking Atlanta, marching from there ‘to the sea,’ and destroying everything along his way: towns, railway lines, telegraph lines, homes, farms, crops, and livestock.”

What cannot and should not be forgiven about Lee, despite his many virtues, is the cause that he defended.

Korda argues convincingly that Lee was ambivalent about slavery. His wife’s family owned more than 100 Negroes, but when her father died, Lee took pains to see that the old man’s will emancipating them after five years was executed. (That this finally took effect in 1862 does not diminish the fact that he had set the wheels in motion to free these servants and laborers years before.) Lee and his wife set up a school for the slaves, which was actually illegal in Virginia at the time. And he proposed, toward the end of the war, when the white South was bled dry, that slaves should be enlisted as soldiers and granted their freedom in the process. But that bold suggestion went nowhere with the politicians, who stalled until the idea, along with the Confederacy, was dead.

Korda is especially good at explaining why Lee, who had performed heroically in the Mexican War and served as the superintendent of West Point, turned down the command of the Union armies offered to him by the Lincoln administration in the first days of the conflict. He saw himself as a Virginian, deeply rooted in the state’s genteel culture. And while he did not support secession and thought it dangerous and revolutionary (thus anathema to his aristocratic values), he could not bring himself to lead an army that would force Virginia or any other state to remain in the Union. Once Virginia reluctantly seceded, so, also reluctantly, did Lee.

But after that decision was made, Lee’s nobility and charisma, and the carnage that he commanded, gave cover to all those incendiary Southern politicians who did not, in fact, feel ambivalent about slavery. These “fire-eaters,” as they were called, not only wanted to perpetuate their peculiar institution, they wanted to reopen the slave trade with Africa, which was recognized even at the time as a terrible holocaust banned for half a century, but rationalized by them because African slaves were just so cheap and profitable and could be so useful to those Southerners who wanted to spread their voracious cotton economy to the west and south.

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‘Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee’ by Michael Korda. 832 p. Harper. $18.99. ()

The fire-eaters were a minority then, as the Tea Partiers (their spiritual descendants) are today, but like today’s Tea Party they promoted extremist agendas and pounded down on wedge issues that sundered the nation and very nearly destroyed it.

Lee had no time for these men, and he opposed their ideas, but he fought for them year after year, battle after battle, slaughter after slaughter. Maybe that makes him in his way a fascinating and tragic leader, but readers of Korda’s balanced and detailed book will have to decide for themselves if he was a heroic one. For my part, I think not.