Finding the Real Robert E. Lee

Today is the 205th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee.

As I’ve said before, I find Lee to be a very interesting figure, and I plan to write a one-volume biography of him (after I address certain outstanding obligations).   At the same time, I’m well aware that Mary Chesnut once asked whether anyone could truly say they knew Lee, a man who often labored to conceal his inner thoughts and feelings from others.  Maybe part of the problem is that people are so eager to explore the inner Lee and discover the nature of his character that they don’t spend quite as much time on the outer Lee … as well as the intersection between the two.

But there’s another challenge worth pondering.  In writing about Lee, one is aware of the vast literature already available on the man and the general, with Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography continuing to hold pride of place, despite its flaws.  I suspect that one challenge facing a Lee biographer is to write about Lee and not his biographers.  I found this to be the case in spots with Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered (1991) as well as Thomas Connelly’s The Marble Man  (1977).  Both these books were as much about the Lee myth as anything else, and the image of Lee each historian fashioned was framed in contrast to the image being discredited.

If anything, what I’ve seen so far about Lee is how his views were more typical than one might assume.  I don’t find much exceptional about his views on slavery or the sectional crisis, for example.  He was no extremist, but it is evident that he placed primary blame for the debate over slavery upon northern abolitionist agitators, and that his views on the peculiar institution were a mixture of the necessary evil and positive good arguments used by many white Americans.  I also think he had a keen sense of the role of popular sentiment and support in waging war, and there’s something to suggest that Lee on the field of battle was a different person than Lee setting forth his strategic vision or mapping out plans of battle.  I don’t think he was as accepting of the verdict of arms as some might have it — to my mind he was making the best of a bad situation, but he still harbored resentments and opposed Reconstruction — and I think that on the whole his reputation benefited from his decision not to write either an autobiography or an account of the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia, because it is clear that he had decided opinions on the latter that would have thrust him into the middle of debates on the conduct of Confederate military operations.

Finally, I am not terribly interested in engaging in an evaluation of Lee against Ulysses S. Grant.  I’m not sure what purpose that would serve.  If anything, I think the two men had more in common than one might expect.  But I’ll leave that for another time.