ROBERT E. LEE by Emory M. Thomas


A Biography
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A comprehensive new biography that seeks to give a balanced portrait of the famed Confederate general.

Thomas (History/Univ. of Georgia; The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, not reviewed) undertakes a daunting task here, seeking to recover the real, living human from the mythology surrounding Lee since his death in 1870. In this effort he hews a middle ground between early 20th century hagiographies and revisionist contemporary interpretations. Born in 1807, Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero Light Horse Harry Lee; but he never knew his father, who was sent to debtor's prison when the boy was only 2 years old and died when he was 11. Attending West Point, the younger Lee was second in his class and graduated without accruing a single demerit. After fighting valorously and decisively during the Mexican War, and suppressing abolitionist John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Lee became military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and later a field commander as the Civil War broke out. After the Confederate defeat, he was named president of Washington College (today Washington and Lee) and sought to transform it into a first-rate liberal arts school. As presented by Thomas, Lee was possessed of very human flaws. He considered himself a failure and was disappointed in his children. Although he viewed slavery as evil, he nonetheless owned slaves and believed in whites' innate superiority to blacks. His extreme inability to confront either superiors or subordinates often resulted in tragedy, as at the disatrous Battle of the Wilderness, which Lee knew he couldn't win but undertook because he didn't want to argue with Jefferson Davis. Lee considered restraint, discipline, and self-mastery the greatest virtues; Thomas candidly shows their negative aspects as well.

Well written and based largely on primary documentation, a good effort at understanding a complex personality.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-393-03730-4
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1995


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