The last time I read a book about Robert E. Lee, I was in middle school. I don’t remember the book, but I wrote a book report on it and didn’t get a very good grade. I’ve always suspected it didn’t have anything to do with my report, but rather it was because I choose to read about a Confederate General, all the way up here in the North.
Lee is an integral part of any book on the Civil War; but Clouds of Glory, by Michael Korda is a true biography of Lee. It begins with his birth in 1807, progressing through his childhood, his early days as an Army Engineer and more.
It goes into significant detail on his service during the Mexican War, outlining major successes with placing troops and artillery at specific, strategic points before and during various battles. Lee distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist, frequently risking his own safety to ensure that troops and artillery were placed to best advantage, scouting terrain in enemy territory, engaging in night missions to find artillery placements and routes, and occasionally supervising troops during battle.
Most folks know that Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. But did you know that he was quietly offered the United States Army’s top post before his resignation? Lee was torn on many levels about the war because he did not want to take up arms against the United States, but felt his first loyalty was to his home state of Virginia. He did not believe that secession was the right decision. He urged his family to hoard U.S. money, as he knew the Confederate scrip would be worthless.
He also freed his father-in-law’s slaves in 1862, in accordance with his will, and set up an illegal school to teach them to read and write, so they would be able to survive as free people. However, at the same time that he considered slavery a “moral and political evil”, he considered abolitionists troublemakers and did nothing to promote the end of slavery in the south.
He was an honorable man, refusing to accept privileges he could not grant to his men. He slept in tents even when citizens offered their homes, and gave away replacement socks and underwear and fancy foods that were delivered to him. He did not take leave to visit his family when they were only 10 miles away. He was polite to a fault, with one of his biggest weakness his inability to be directive and firm with orders to his senior commanders.
He had some colossal battle failures during the war, to be sure, like his assault on the third day of Gettysburg and the Battle of Malvern Hill. But he also made some brilliant decisions that led to an under-provisioned, out-manned Army of Northern Virginia being able to survive and fight for four long years, against all odds.
Lee lost his home and his citizenship during the war; neither were restored in his lifetime. Several of his senior officers openly criticized him after the war, publishing scathing critiques of his command in their memoirs. Yet he steadfastly refused to defend his own record of achievement, instead choosing to work on defending his father’s tarnished reputation.
He died only 5 years after the end of the war, a massive stroke causing the pneumonia that took his life. He was still working at the time of his death, having built a successful second career as the President of Washington College. They renamed it Washington and Lee College (now University) in his honor.
Lee wasn’t perfect, and for the most part, Korda’s book candidly discusses the mistakes he made in battle and in life. He is not made out to be a saint; simply a flawed man like the rest of us, who had to work through some significant conflicts during the war in order to reconcile what he felt was his duty and what he felt was best for his state and the nation.
It is hard to reconcile the inconsistencies of his life, but we also must consider how many of us have expressed our disagreement or outrage on a topic to our friends and family, while doing nothing of substance to right the wrong. Is it fair to judge Lee by a different standard?
There is no doubt that Lee will continue to be debated for years to come, but this was a generally well written, balanced account of his life. There are some irritating factual/editing errors, mostly incorrect dates and statistics, but it is still a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to explore the life of this complex man. Of course, I’m sure my middle school teacher would disagree.