Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The life of Lee

The United States has a few secular saints, and some of them (Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King) died at the hands of an assassin. Not so Robert E. Lee, who lived a full life. He is revered today as much in northern states as southern states, despite the fact that Lee, after spending most of his life as an officer in the U.S. Army, fought against that army when the Civil War broke out. Yet he is remembered today as more of another George Washington than another Benedict Arnold.

Michael Korda explores this remarkable man in his fine 2014 biography Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.

Lee, like so many great individuals, was a study in contradictions. He was excited by combat (Korda calls war "his one intoxication"), yet he hated personal confrontation (Korda calls this Lee's Achilles heel). He opposed secession and disliked slavery, but when Virginia seceded, he chose his state over his country. He did not regard blacks as equal to whites, and said so publicly even after the war, yet he often treated blacks as equals. He may have been a strait-laced Southern gentleman, but that didn't stop him from flirting with young, pretty women at every opportunity. As a general, he respected his men and sacrificed for them, yet his treatment of deserters was as harsh as that of any other general.

To some Civil War scholars, especially those of the South, Lee could do no wrong. When a battle was lost, it was always somebody else's fault, usually James Longstreet's. But Korda, while usually praising Lee, also doesn't hesitate to point out his errors, both military and personal. The author, who has written several other military books, including biographies of Grant and Eisenhower, neatly compares and contrasts Lee with other generals down through the centuries, including Napoleon. By reading Clouds of Glory, you know more not just about the Civil War but about military history in general.

Yet Korda, like Lee, is hardly perfect. He tends to repeat himself. Once he says something in a footnote, then repeats the same information in the text on the next page. He also contradicts himself. On the very same page he writes about Lee: "his orders were often unclear" and "his written orders are as detailed and clear as anybody could wish."

Korda writes, near the end of his book, "Lee lost nothing by being portrayed as a fallible human being." True enough. And Clouds of Glory loses nothing by being an imperfect biography of an imperfect man.

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