Who was Robert E. Lee? Of all the questions arising from a study of the Civil War, this is, perhaps, one of the most intriguing to historians. One of the reasons students of the war continue to ponder this question is the wide and varying views of Lee presented in Civil War historiography. Therefore, to a great extent, Lee remains something of an enigma. From the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, Lee was primarily presented in varying shades of perfection. The early writings of former Confederates depicted him as a Christ-like figure–noble, suffering, and symbolic of the Lost Cause. Even Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental 1934 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “R. E. Lee: A Biography,” painted a picture of him as the saintly, perfect model of a military commander. Freeman’s epic was long considered the definitive work on Lee, and it would dominate historiography for over thirty years. Of course, any serious modern-day student of the war can tell you that these simplistic, one-dimensional portraits offered of Lee are largely a product of the carefully crafted and manufactured campaign orchestrated following the war by Jubal Early and the other leaders of the Lost Cause movement. That movement, in and of itself, will be discussed in a future essay, so I won’t spend any time on it here.
In recent decades, however, there has been renewed interest in examining Lee from a more contemporary viewpoint, which has produced many revisionist studies. Of course, I realize that the word “revisionist” can conjure up visions of “politically correct” but historically inaccurate character assassination, and, at times, that image of revisionist history has been all too appropriate. However, in Lee’s case, a little aggressive revisionism was probably required because we truly knew and understood so little about him.
This recent revisionist work has run the gamut from Emory Thomas’ even-handed study, “Robert E. Lee: A Biography,” to Thomas Connelly's works, most notably “The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society,” Alan Nolan's more radical work, “Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History,” and Roy Blount's psychological biography, “Robert E. Lee.” While the specific characterizations of Lee expressed in these works have differed in tone and hue, all have shared the common thread that Lee was far more fallible and "human" than depicted in earlier studies. All of these modern analysts take a much more detailed look at Lee and closely examine heretofore unexplored aspects of his life such as the impact of his childhood and adolescent experiences, as well as the resulting motivations that drove him and influenced his performance as a leader and commander.
If one reads both the early and modern biographies of Lee, the differences are overwhelming. In the early biographies, Lee seems to have sprung virtually from the womb as a perfect, noble, and honorable man, as well as a brilliant soldier. On the personal level, his childhood is either depicted as carefree or escapes almost any discussion whatsoever; his opposition to slavery is described as heartfelt and intense; and his marriage to Mary Custis is portrayed as virtually idyllic. Professionally, his relationship with his wartime staff is viewed as harmonious, and his military judgment not just sound, but utterly and infallibly brilliant–if there was defeat, it was only because others on his staff caused it or because he was overwhelmed by forces beyond his control. Simply put, he was perfection manifested in a human form.
Clearly, this is utter nonsense. Actually, Robert E. Lee was very human, imperfect, and, frankly, a far more interesting man than Freeman and his predecessors realized. Like all of us, Lee was a product of his environment, especially his childhood, family relationships, and the society around him. In Lee’s case, many of these influences were very negative. Lee's father, "Light Horse" Harry Lee, was a hero of the Revolutionary War, a dashing, dynamic, and audacious soldier, and one who Lee probably tried to emulate in some ways as a commander. But, the elder Lee went bankrupt when was Robert was a child, fled to the West Indies to escape his creditors, and left his wife and children in desperate straights. He would die when Robert was only eleven, leaving nothing behind but heartbreak and shame, which stained the Lee reputation as one of the first families of Virginia.
As a result, young Robert was forced to grow up with this stigma and the charge given by his mother to restore the family name. His adolescent years were spent acting not only as his mother's nurse, but also as her closest confidant and what virtually amounts to a role as a surrogate parent. Using a contemporary understanding of human psychology, we can see Lee as a man who grew up in an atmosphere marked by insecurity and shame, and who, under his mother's influence, became excessively self-controlled and prone to accept discomfort to a point where any sense of joy or pleasure was perceived as improper. Lee's childhood also contributed to an intense desire as an adult to avoid any type of personal confrontation, a trait that would later adversely influence his ability to manage his wartime staff.
Then, there is the subject of his marriage to Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Lee’s relationship with his wife is remarkable in many ways because of what it was not: passionate. Robert E. Lee was, in his own way, a humorous and engaging man who enjoyed the company of women and seems to have been “passionate,” albeit in an utterly honorable and nonsexual way, about every woman he ever knew, except his wife. Robert and Mary’s union was a strategic marriage, one designed to bring wealth, property, and position back to the Lee name, restoring them in Virginia society. There was no passion and no romance involved. In fact, Mary Custis was dowdy, nagging, frail, spoiled, habitual complainer who made a poor choice as the wife of a professional soldier. While it would seem Lee genuinely missed his children when apart from his family, there is every indication that he still seemed happiest when away from his wife.
One of the other myths about Lee that permeates conventional histories is his supposed opposition to slavery and, tied to it, his reasons for forsaking his oath as an officer in taking up arms against the United States. Often, we hear it said that this noble man fought to preserve slavery, which he despised, only because he so loved his native state. As one might expect, the actual picture is not so simple. Lee’s position on slavery was, for the most part, that common with some Virginians and other Southerners in that, while he believed the institution was essentially evil, blacks were still better off as slaves. Lee considered the relationship of master and slave as being enlightened and humane, and the best that could be hoped for at that point in history. He saw immediate emancipation as being impractical and once wrote his son, "wherever you find the Negro, everything is going down around him" and admonishing him, "You will never prosper with the blacks."
To Lee, slavery while evil, was an institution of God's willing, and one whose future course should only be determined by Southern slave owners. While he would write his wife a letter stating that slavery was a moral and political evil, he would go on to say that the slaves' current state was "necessary for their instruction as a race." Interestingly, while Lee did free many of the Custis family slaves, he also had no problem renting them out to other men and reaping a profit from this supposed evil. Essentially, Lee's entire disapproval of slavery seems derived from viewing slavery as a management issue, not a moral one. In other words, while Lee might disapprove of slavery in the abstract, in the theoretical, he approved of slavery as both necessary and benevolent in practice, decrying the impractical management issues involved in any idea of emancipation.
As for Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, this was a question that always held a fascination for me. Lee was an outstanding soldier during his army career, and the sort of man who would not easily turn his back on the oath he swore at West Point. The traditional legend tells us that, as I indicated earlier, his decision was based on his intense love for his home state. As with most legends, there is a kernel of truth involved, and there is little doubt that Lee was a loyal Virginian. However, for Lee, there was more to it than simple loyalty. First, as Emory Thomas describes in his biography, Mary Custis Lee was an ardent Confederate who supported Virginia’s secession long before it became popular to do so. To have remained in the service of the United States would have led to a confrontation with his wife that Lee could not and would not undertake. Second, however, and most importantly, the opportunity to serve Virginia in the Confederacy offered a chance to seal the Lee name forever in the pantheon of Virginia’s leading families. As a man obsessed since childhood with restoring the family name, what other course could he take, especially when fighting against Virginia would surely have had the opposite effect?
As for Lee the general and strategist, that subject could fill a book and I will not try to address it in detail here. Suffice to say, Lee was audacious and bold, always seeking to seize the initiative and keep his opponent off balance. Whereas Grant was the master of the calculated risk, Lee might be characterized as the master of the uncalculated risk. Lee almost certainly saw an aggressive strategy as the only way to counter the North’s resources. Bloody the Union forces badly enough, often enough, and the people of the North might grow weary of war. At times, however, his brinksmanship went almost too far, especially when he divided his already outnumbered forces, as he did both times the Army of Northern Virginia ventured north of the Potomac. In one case, at Antietam, only good fortune and a few minutes saved his battered army from almost certain destruction. Even then, after he had retreated to the Virginia side of the river, he still had his cavalry probing for locations where the army could re-cross the river into Maryland and continue the campaign. Only the urgent pleas of his commanders made him see that the army was in too bad a condition to survive another fight.
That example points out one of Lee’s other issues as a commander: his total believe in the capabilities of his army. Lee believed his men were capable of almost anything and, frankly, they often gave him good reason. With fewer provisions and often without even proper boots, his army could move faster, farther, and fight harder than any Union counterpart. Under Lee’s charismatic leadership, his men would go anywhere he told them to go and try to do anything he asked. But, in the end, they were only human and, often, Lee expected too much. At Gettysburg, he refused to move around the Army of the Potomac and decided to fight a superior force in strong defensive positions on ground of their choosing. Then, he attempted to execute complex, timed attacks across a wide front, which ultimately could not be adequately coordinated. Finally, in perhaps the best example of his faith in his soldiers, he attempted a brute force, frontal assault against the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge, which had little chance of success.
Finally, there is the interesting subject of Lee as a “grand strategist.” This is one of the more puzzling aspects of Lee’s military performance. Given his education and experience, Lee should have been a valuable asset to Jefferson Davis in developing and executing a viable strategy for the defense of the Confederacy. However, whenever Davis would ask for his views regarding military matters west of the Appalachians, Lee’s advice was not only less than cogent, it often demonstrated true ignorance of the military situation and even the military geography. Further, his counsel often appeared designed to shift the Confederate president’s focus away from the Western Theater and back to matters in Virginia.
Many historians have actually theorized that this was a product of Lee’s obsession with Virginia. Did he see defense of his home state as the only thing that mattered? If not, his actions effectively made that a fact, even if it was not his intention. Therefore, while the South was losing the war in the Western Theater, Lee was ensuring that Confederate strategy and resources were firmly focused on the front in Virginia. The result was a stalemate for most of the war on one side of the Appalachian Mountains and utter disaster on the other-a disaster that almost certainly sealed the Confederacy’s eventual fate.
On a personal level, my feelings about Lee crystallized during a visit to Appomattox a few years ago. On the day of my visit, there were few people wandering the site, and it gave me a chance to really gain a feeling for the place and the momentous event that occurred there. I stood alone in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, where Lee and Grant met to conclude the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, and looked back and forth at the tables where the two generals sat across the room from one another. I imagined the conversation I have read about so many times and, after a while, I walked out the front door and onto the porch, just as Lee had that April day. As I paused there, I suddenly asked myself to imagine what he felt as he stood there, this proud, honorable soldier. All I could think of was, “I have failed–failed my country, failed my family, failed my army.” The pain of that moment must have been incredible. That he would go forward from that moment to promote peace and urge his fellow Southerners to be good citizens says much about the man.
The early Lee historians often told their readers that they loved Lee and were greatly influenced by him. But, for them, that love was one felt for a Lee who was possessed of a saintly perfection and an almost divine nature. Their view seems to be that it is Lee's perfection we must admire and be inspired by, no matter how unattainable for mere mortal beings such as us. This may be a view that is simply a product of their era. On the other hand, more recent histories show us a Lee who was possessed by his own personal demons, as are all of us. Further, and, again, as with all of us, these demons defined him and probably determined to a great extent who he became as a man. But, this Lee survived his demons, he overcame them to some degree, as we all hope to do, and led a great army, holding it together through terrible adversity as perhaps no other man could. In the final analysis, the modern Lee is human, flawed, and, perhaps, far more admirable for being so.