Southern humorist Blount (Be Sweet, 1998, etc.) turns somber in this portrait of the troubled, tragic Confederate general.
Not that Robert E. Lee didn’t have a sense of humor, Blount writes by way of opening this brief but worthy biography. “He had tiny feet that he loved his children to tickle,” he told funny but generally clean stories around the bivouac fire, and he was highly regarded, as fellow soldier Joseph Johnston recalled, “as the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect and sense of his superiority.” But Lee was also careworn and depressive, the scion of an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times, and he was so absorbed by worries about personal honor that he missed out on much of the fun of life, instead preferring to pay meticulous attention to his studies at West Point, his comportment, and his personal appearance, widely lauded in his day as a model of manly beauty. As a general, Lee was hailed as well for his attention to his men’s well-being, though Blount does turn up a report or two complaining about his Virginia army’s lack of discipline when it wasn’t busily shooting at Yankees. Blount honors Lee without slipping into hagiography, a problem in much of the available literature—for, as he notes, most of the historiography devoted to the Civil War is the product of southerners who have accorded Lee demi-divine status. Even so, he lets Lee off rather lightly for some noteworthy errors, including the charge at Gettysburg that cost George Pickett half his division, which he explains thus: “When the usually repressed Lee felt an overpowering need for emotional release, and had an army at his disposal and another one in front of him, he couldn’t hold back.”
Not the most powerful of explanations. But there’s been worse, and stranger, and Blount’s version will be of value to students of the Civil War all the same.