- Review of Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, Viking, 2007.
In national memory Robert E. Lee won by losing. In Lost Cause tradition, the general who led the largest insurgency (treason by any legal definition) against the United States government in American history, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, became an icon of noble, Christian, infallible heroism, and humble reconciliation. Even some northern spokesmen eager to give the South control over race relations, such as Bostonian Charles Francis Adams II in 1907, cherished Lee as a "great man great in defeat, well-nigh the highest type of human development."
Elizabeth Pryor, a trained historian and former diplomat, delivers an unorthodox, critical, and engaging biography of Lee. Pryor selects some of Lee’s thousands of letters around which she writes a topical, roughly chronological, biography. She impressively captures Lee’s character and personality, and seeks to understand "what constitutes heroism" (xiii). Beyond battlefield bravery, the heroism remains illusive, but Pryor writes with a sure hand, informed by strong research, about Lee "the man."
Pryor demures the "debunking of mythology," although in the end she does just that. She exposes some of Lee’s fateful mistakes as a general, especially at Gettysburg. She carves the mysticism away from Lee’s "decision" to join his state and therefore the Confederacy in 1861, rather than fulfill his oath to the United States government. Pryor pulls the protective curtain away from Lee’s views about slavery and race, revealing a conventional white supremacist who was a beleaguered slavemaster. The old creed in the Lost Cause catechism that Lee "never fought for slavery" crumbles in this book. And even Lee’s vaunted post-war reconciliationist spirit, quite real in public ways, had a private, opposite underside. Pryor judiciously chips away at the marble encasements around the real Lee.
Lee was born into an unhappy marriage with a famous and notorious father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero, but also a fool for indebtedness and women. Robert remained devoted to his mother, a Carter, in her abandonment. Lee had an even more notorious older half-brother, Henry IV, who left a taint of scandal on the family worse than the father. One can hardly count the number of cousins and other relatives Lee had in Virginia, since he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, wife of the first president. Lee grew up with this cousin he would marry near or at Arlington House, the mansion now surrounded by the nation’s most famous cemetery, begun during the Civil War after the Union forces confiscated the property. Lee’s in-laws were the custodians of Mount Vernon treasures and relics of the nation’s founder. Pryor adroitly weaves these deep family ties into her story, although at times she seems to have wanted to write a Jane Austen novel.
Lee married into ownership of nearly 200 slaves at Arlington and adjoining properties. Pryor forthrightly confronts this side of Lee’s life; he disliked slavery and found it a burden, but he was no "good" master, communicated badly with his slaves, and considered them naturally indolent and incapable of freedom. He confronted an "epidemic of runaways" (264) in the late 1850s and oversaw one brutal beating of a returned fugitive, including brine sewn into the wounds. Modern day Lee lovers will cringe at some of Pryor’s conclusions, rooted in strong evidence: Lee broke up families and "denied the slaves’ humanity" (275).
Lee was a career soldier in the fullest sense West Point graduate nearly at the top of his class, a talented engineer who excelled at logistics and topography. As a young officer Lee spent many years on duty from Savannah to St. Louis, New York to the remote frontier of west Texas where he learned to detest the Comanche and other Indians. Pryor humanizes Lee as she effectively portrays the guilt and pain of all these separations from his family, especially during his distinguished service in the Mexican War. Many of the letters written from these distant settings contain beautiful, descriptive detail, and demonstrate how lonely and depressed a soldier could be while advancing America’s manifest destiny.
Lee disliked his three year stint as Superintendent of West Point in the mid-1850s. His very sense of purpose had been shaped by the academy devotion to duty, personal moderation, disdain for politics, and belief in moral absolutes. But he hated the administrative and social diimensions of the job. Secession, of course, challenged Lee, according to Pryor, like the "nightmare of a divided soul" (293). Lee chose the South’s cause, argues Pryor, from "convoluted" (286) logic and pride: he thought secession wrong, but supported the secessionists on virtually all issues.
Pryor leaves no doubt that Lee was a fierce Confederate nationalist, an aggressive warrior whose personal reticence transformed in the "pulse- raising thrill" (347) of battle. Lee and his wife were radicalized by the seizure and partial destruction of Arlington House and other property by the Yankees. And as for generalship, Pryor follows other Lee scholars in concluding that some of the Virginian’s daring maneuvers were stunning achievements against the odds. Lee’s two offensive invasions of the North, however, resulting in massive casualties and failure at Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863) contributed mightily to Confederate defeat. Even as a general, Pryor judges Lee "bright but not brilliant" (192). She tries to write dispassionately about Lee’s famous "presence," his good looks, and the adoration of his troops. But here Lee the man and legend remain mixed. Lee possessed enormous charisma, courage, and stamina. But Pryor may over-reach when she claims that much of the spirit of Lee’s army "was injected by Lee personally" (420). And her analysis falters into vagueness when she claims that the "greatest calamity" of fratridical war is not the level of death and suffering, but a "gaping fissure in confidence… the collapse of old understandings" (428).
In the five years Lee lived after the war, he argued publicly for healing and took on the presidency of Washington College in Virginia. Always a voracioius reader, education animated Lee until his health declined. Lee largely shunned the public spotlight, but Pryor shows persuasively that Lee maintained a "private advocacy" (449) against Reconstruction and the new constitutional amendments, while he began to write essays on state rights as the sole cause for which Southerners had fought. Lee and his family had lost everything and some of his seven children were all but overwhelmed by the war. Lee’s waning years are often portrayed with heroic pathos the defeated but unbowed warrior who extended his hand to his conquerors. Pryor writes about this period with a genuine sense of tragedy. But on close examination the story is not so tidy. In some of Lee’s letters he seems almost unaware of who or what cause had won the war. He wrote that he would never choose exile because he was "aware of having done nothing wrong" (433). And he was utterly unprepared to accept the war’s racial changes. Pryor pulls a few punches in an otherwise well-argued book. But her final judgments will continue to fuel fires of debate over Lee. His legacy, writes Pryor, is "local" and not "universal" (472), and he was "fabulous" in his "fallibility" (474).
- David W. Blight is Class of ’54 Professor of American history at Yale, author of the Bancroft-prize winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and the forthcoming A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation.