‘Robert E. Lee’ Book Review


Robert E. Lee: A Biography, by Allen C. Guelzo, Knopf, New York, 2021, $35

Cancel tradition politics apart, Robert E. Lee stays a beloved and revered determine amongst American army historians. Reverential biographies, led by Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume Pulitzer Prize–profitable 1934–35 work, have poured out since his demise. Princeton historian Allen Guelzo’s newest providing brings issues updated by emphasizing Lee’s racial views with out detracting from his actual achievements.

Lee’s father, Virginia planter and Revolutionary Warfare hero Henry “Mild Horse Harry” Lee III, went bankrupt in his retirement, was severely injured within the Baltimore riots of 1812 and deserted his household when Robert was a baby. Though by no means poor, concern about cash preoccupied the youthful Lee, and Guelzo means that insecurity drove him search appointment to West Level, which he was granted in 1825. The pre–Civil Warfare military had no retirement system; officers acquired a wage till the day they died.

The outbreak of the battle discovered him a well-respected, conscientious, middle-aged colonel with no blemishes on his file, so it was no shock he was provided the command of Union forces defending Washington, D.C., in April 1861. No secessionist, however inextricably connected to his function as a member of the Southern aristocracy, he opted as a substitute to command the forces of Virginia, which had simply voted to secede. He spent a 12 months establishing defenses and combating minor actions with out distinguishing himself, however issues modified in June 1862 when he assumed command of the military opposing Union forces headed towards Richmond. Routing them in aggressive assaults, he grew to become a Southern icon.

His insecure opponent, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, believed his forces had been vastly outnumbered. Historians hardly ever speculate what would have occurred had Lee as a substitute confronted a extra resolute normal—as occurred within the Wilderness in 1864, when he once more attacked a superior Union pressure, solely this time below Ulysses S. Grant, who fended him off with an final result that introduced glory to neither commander.

Guelzo delivers a largely admiring account of Lee’s actions over the course of the battle. That stated, the Accomplice commander was a deeply unoriginal thinker who believed battlefield victories would win the battle. When that proved clearly not possible, he however continued the struggle, believing such resistance would discourage his opponents, who, in any case, lacked Southern fortitude.

In recent times Accomplice generals, Lee maybe foremost, have suffered unhealthy press. Apologists insist he opposed slavery. In actual fact, like many educated Southerners (together with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) he believed that proudly owning slaves broken a gentleman’s character, like ingesting an excessive amount of or having a mistress. That slaves suffered was of little consequence. To him the larger hurt was to 1’s personal popularity. Within the wake of the battle he opposed Reconstruction and publicly testified that efforts to assist freed slaves would show fruitless. Regardless of such unedifying warts, Guelzo’s Lee stays within the mainstream.

—Mike Oppenheim

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