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Robert E. Lee: A Life


Robert E. Lee: A Life

Distinguished and scholarly author Allen C. Guelzo has written several works centered on the American Civil War and its aftermath, including RECONSTRUCTION: A Very Short Introduction, GETTYSBURG: The Last Invasion, and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Redeemer President. This time, he focuses on the controversial figure of General Robert E. Lee, who recently has come under the spotlight as someone whose statues should be removed, perhaps along with our memories of the man himself.

Throughout this lengthy treatise, Guelzo seems not to miss a significant moment in the life of this tall, handsome, well-groomed man who led armies and ran a university that still bears his name. Lee grew up with an errant wastrel father whom he last saw at age six. Major-General Henry Lee II later spent time in a debtor’s prison but nonetheless had inspired an earlier generation with his wartime exploits, gaining the sobriquet “Lighthorse Harry.”

"Throughout this lengthy treatise, Guelzo seems not to miss a significant moment in the life of this tall, handsome, well-groomed man who led armies and ran a university that still bears his name."

Lee was perhaps more motivated than most children to prove himself and excelled in his studies at the United States Military Academy, where he concentrated on his fascination with, and talent for, engineering. He worked as an engineer for the army until the rumblings of Southern secession began to be heard. He followed the leanings of his home state of Virginia and was soon embroiled in the fray, taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee’s military accomplishments and some of his failures are well known, and Guelzo describes them in deep detail. Much of this notable chronicle explores the inner character of the man who claimed to despise the institution of slavery but fought with and for those who wished to maintain it, freed some of his family’s slaves while encouraging them to repatriate to Africa, and did nothing to aid in the initiatives of Reconstruction. After his early military experience, Lee did not believe that the South could win an outright war against the Union forces. However, he hoped that a conditional surrender, which he accepted at Appomattox from a rather admiring General Grant (who noted his former foe’s impeccable uniform and undeniable dignity), would provide the satisfaction sought on both sides.

Lee was glad that his troops would go home “to farm,” and many were grateful to him for just that reason. And when invited in his postwar years to give his name and face to what would become Washington and Lee University, he surprised those who had selected him as a figurehead by acting the role of president in all regards. Perhaps not surprisingly, the former engineer spurned the classics in favor of practical, career-oriented studies. Lee and his Confederate cohort were never tried for treason, though the idea was sounded and set aside by the postwar US government on the legal grounds that he, like others, had simply obeyed the laws of his state.

In his astute epilogue, Guelzo gives fair voice to those who now would gladly see all images and reminders of Lee and his Southern comrades unceremoniously obliterated. At the same time, though, he questions the practicality of such measures --- his crypt must surely remain in the chapel of Washington and Lee, and other efforts to merely change the name of an institution have proven too costly to be completely carried through.

Guelzo also reminds readers that Lee ironically was always opposed to the crude tactics of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and “would have been the first to have condemned the rioters, having punished lesser outrages by students at Washington College…”

Still, the specter of treason will necessarily mar Lee’s image. Guelzo opines that mercy may be the only remedy for that perception.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 1, 2021

Robert E. Lee: A Life
by Allen C. Guelzo

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2022
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101912227
  • ISBN-13: 9781101912225