Idolatry surrenders to humanity in Lee’s new biography



“Robert E. Lee: A Life” by Allen C. Guelzo (Knopf)

Controversy over the Robert E. Lee equestrian memorial on majestic Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia was once limited to removing the blue-green oxidation from his bronze statue. Following the banishment of the Confederate Capital’s last major totem pole to the “Lost Cause”, Allen C. Guelzo’s timely biography expertly cleans up 150 years of political and cultural patina accumulated since the famous general’s death to reveal a humanity tragic.

Guelzo establishes the pre-war character of Lee with a series of portraits beginning with the importance of his family in Virginia and the eventful career of his father, a hero of the War of Independence who then spent time in a prison for debt. Fame and shame proved to be a double burden for Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) even after his appointment to the US Military Academy and a series of infrastructure missions with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Lee’s associates were struck early on by his seemingly flawless character, with a look to match. Despite his perfectionism – he never got a demerit at West Point – young Lee was very approachable. Guelzo quotes several contemporaries who noted Lee’s “dignity and friendliness” and “a cordial courtesy and cheerful humor which made him such a charming companion.” His southern cuteness and decorum would be described today as simply “cool.”

Lee was almost 40 years old before he took action, in the Mexican War, and distinguished himself as an engineer capable of fighting. In return for a regular army salary and a stable family, he tolerated the snail’s pace of promotion and agreed to never be the true master of his home, the Arlington estate of his wife, Mary Custis Lee (later turned into a military cemetery). But these compromises became meaningless in 1861, when Lee had to make one of the greatest personal decisions in American history – to command either Union or Confederate forces in the Civil War.

How did a man whose life was defined by service and duty defied his oath “to pledge allegiance to the United States of America … against all their enemies and opponents whoever they are … and to obey at the orders of the President of the United States ”? Guelzo’s analysis indicates that Lee had little interest in politics, especially secession, let alone the “particular institution” of slavery. However, he resented the dictates of the abolitionists in the North and was very concerned that they would unleash a “servile war” of avenging slaves. The ultimate impetus for rebellion came from allegiance to Virginia, less as a political entity than the home of properties inherited from her sons.

Lee’s portrait of Guelzo in his fifties shows his rise from eerie to warrior to legend. Following the lead of Lee’s first method of command, his book travels the battlefields as through the general’s binoculars, sets the order of combat, then leaves the gory details to the piles of cap-and-ball tomes. Familiar Civil War figures come and go, from “Little Mac” to Merrimac, from Stonewall to Sherman.

With a broader strategic perspective than the Confederate politicians he served, the engineer-turned-battlefield commander viewed Union power as inexorable as the Mississippi River, which Lee redirected in an early waterway project. He could try to hijack that power – and almost succeeded in Antietam and Gettysburg – but knew he could never contain it. After Appomattox’s surrender, Lee lived only five more years, but achieved near-universal devotion among white Southerners and even reluctant respect in the North. The idolatry that has lasted three centuries – and conveniently overlooks its post-war antagonism to black Americans – is only receding.

Guelzo’s formal yet pleasant writing style evokes the era without getting lost in it. His presentation becomes relevant as America is once again torn by regional, cultural and political hostility. Is there a more appropriate time to consider Robert E. Lee’s fateful decision?

After siding with the ethics of not treading on me from the South, Lee predicted and then witnessed how a Resolute Union will defeat a cranky Confederacy. When modern contempt for central government threatens to overwhelm public confidence in elections, vaccinations, and even the concept of democracy itself, it is essential to remember that Lee’s choice of righteousness in his opinions rather than fidelity to his oath drove him and his homeland to ruin. .


Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).


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