Authors Remove Tarnish Heaped on Lee

October 23, 1999 • Commentary

The guns fell silent in the Civil War more than 134 years ago, but the conflict continues in American hearts and minds. The display of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina has ignited a bitter political battle; a recent plan to include a portrait of Robert E. Lee in a Richmond historical display generated a war of words.

The victors write the history books, which is why most official texts laud President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to plunge the nation into a great civil war that killed some 620,000 people and spread mass destruction across the South. Few texts even acknowledge peaceful separation as a reasonable alternative to maintaining the political union “by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness,” as Lee wrote in a letter to his son in early 1861.

Yet most histories treat Lee kindly. Once the antagonisms of the conflict receded, even Northerners came to admire his character and generalship. That this respect persists irritates a handful of revisionists, whose fondest hope is to chip away at the “marble man.”

In “Lee Considered,” for example, Alan Nolan wrote that Lee should have surrendered his army after Gettysburg, thereby rendering his nation defenseless against outside invasion and supplanting the duly elected political authorities.

Thankfully, rebuttals are being written. Gary Gallagher’s “Lee the Soldier and the Confederate War” and Emory Thomas’ “Robert E. Lee” present thoughtful, admiring portraits of the South’s premier general.

Similar is John M. Taylor’s “Duty Faithfully Performed.” He acknowledges, “The discovery of the ‘real’ Robert E. Lee remains a challenge.” As he perceptively points out, however, much of the argument about Lee surrounds the attempt by those who outlived him to turn him into a secular icon. Lee himself, Mr. Taylor writes, “would have been appalled at his canonization in the decades after the war.”

More important, it is only because so many people believed that there was much about Lee to esteem that such canonization was possible.

In “Duty Faithfully Performed,” Mr. Taylor, whose previous books include biographies of his father, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and William Seward, provides a readable summary of Lee’s life. A student of the war will not find a lot that is new, though the volume provides a useful reminder that Lee’s original admirers largely were right. Mr. Taylor performs his greatest service in educating those less familiar with the conflict and its greatest soldier.

The author covers the highlights of Lee’s life in respectful but not idolatrous terms. Along the way, Mr. Taylor confronts some of the revisionists’ claims about Lee — though without offering as much detail as might be appropriate. For instance, Lee’s views toward slavery might not seem particularly praiseworthy today, but Lee fell “among a broad spectrum of enlightened Americans who deplored slavery but who could see no immediate solution,” Mr. Taylor writes.

He also dismisses Mr. Nolan’s charge of near treason by Lee when he decided to leave Union military service. “The record indicates that Lee acted with scrupulous correctness” at a time when he clearly agonized between his opposition to secession and refusal to support a Northern invasion of the Southern states.

As for Lee’s battlefield prowess, the record tells all. Despite mistakes — and what commander did not make them? — he defeated a succession of opponents, always fighting at a decided manpower and materiel disadvantage. Give him the advantages held by Gens. McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade and Grant, and on whom would one bet? Observes Mr. Taylor: “If Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth several divisions, how many was Lee’s presence worth?”

Finally, Lee’s character, though more complex than that embodied by the “marble man” image, remains about as fine as one can find in a public figure, then or now. It is this character that forms much of the reflection in “Robert E. Lee on Leadership” by H.W. Crocker III, executive editor of Regnery Publishing.

Mr. Crocker seeks to draw leadership lessons from Lee’s life, on and off the battlefield. Although presented as a manual for businessmen, it is more a summary of Lee’s career — a shorter version of Mr. Taylor’s work, if you will. As such, the book is written for the same sort of readers as “Duty Faithfully Performed” — those who have a passing acquaintance with the Civil War but desire to know more.

Still, Mr. Crocker captures the essential Lee and his sacrifice to fulfill what he believed to be his duty. “One should never underestimate what the War Between the States cost Robert E. Lee … his home, his career, and virtually all his worldly goods,” Mr. Crocker writes.

The South may have succumbed to overwhelming military force, but it triumphed in at least one sense. It produced perhaps the greatest symbol to come out of America’s most disastrous conflict, someone who combined combat and moral excellence and who, once defeated, worked to heal the wounds of war. It is a record that deserves to be retold constantly.

About the Author