- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

In “John Brown’s Body,” Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem about the Civil War, Robert E. Lee is portrayed as “A figure lost to flesh and blood and bones,” the “idol-image and “a legend out of life.” The poet mused upon how to humanize this person but found that “nothing helps us yet to read the man” because “he kept his heart a secret to the end.”

Despite the poet’s misgivings, Lee’s biographers over the years have captured aspects of Lee’s humanity as well as his accomplishments, but they were able to penetrate his psyche only to a limited extent. The views of these biographers have tended to be either complimentary or critical of the man.

Douglas Southall Freeman, Clifford Dowdey and Burke Davis, for example, helped place Lee on a pedestal in the American mind, while Alan T. Nolan, Bevin Alexander and Edward H. Bonekemper III believe Lee’s reputation to be inflated. Alan Nolan lamented that Freeman as “Lee’s great advocate is always anxious to rationalize Lee’s failures at the expense of his lieutenants.”

Freeman and Dowdey especially spent a good portion of their lives researching Lee the man and soldier and, as biographers often do, became enamored with their subject. On the other hand, Nolan, Alexander and Bonekemper found that Lee’s inflexibility at times and his aggressive combat strategy hampered the South during the Civil War. Bonekemper pointedly claimed, “Lee’s own specific strategic and tactical failures cost the Confederates their opportunity to [defeat] the Union.”

Initially it was the “Lost Cause” authors following the war who fostered the image of Lee as a faultless and saintly hero of the South. Many of these men had fought with Lee and salved their own wounded pride by absolving their leader of blame for the South’s defeat.

Thomas L. Connelly placed this phenomenon into context by labeling Lee “The Marble Man” in his trenchant study of Lee’s image in American society. To Connelly, Lee had become more like the marble figure that Edward Alexander carved for Lee’s tomb at Lexington, Va., while the “real nature of Robert Lee has remained an enigma.” Perhaps more representative of the heroic icon he had become is the majestic equestrian statue that serves as the Lee monument in Richmond.

Now along comes Elizabeth Brown Pryor, with no apparent ax to grind about the Lee mystique, who employed “unpublished documents in scores of archives and attics and trunks” in an endeavor to fill this vacuum with her insightful study, “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters.” Ms. Pryor received support for her project from Lee’s descendants, who generously shared previously unused material about their ancestor.

Surprisingly, Lee’s papers have never been collected or published, except for selected material, and some were lost and only recently rediscovered. Consequently, the author had a unique opportunity to mine this windfall for a better understanding of an American hero. With an artist’s skill, she paints a portrait of a multidimensional personality that could at times be emotional and vulnerable, while aloof and resolute on other occasions. Not to mention “witty, bourgeois, self-justifying, scientific, lusty, and disappointed.”

As the bibliography for “Reading the Man” suggests, Ms. Pryor extensively researched existing documents and literature related to Lee and his lifetime experiences. Given this knowledge as a point of departure, she introduces each chapter with one or more letters that illustrate her perception of Lee as a person.

This approach has the cumulative effect of sketching Lee’s character as it was formed in reaction to varying events and as he responded to challenges that arose. This was made possible because of the voluminous letters Lee exchanged or that were written about him and his family during this era of prolific personal correspondence.

Ironically, this intense scrutiny of Robert E. Lee revealed a more favorable portrait of his wife, Mary, than has previously been given. While afflicted with debilitating physical ailments, she soldiered on with dignity and determination mirroring her husband’s vaunted integrity. It was Mary who served as the stable partner when Lee struggled to maintain his bearings during stressful times.

Unlike many Lee biographies that dwell primarily on his military service, “Reading the Man” focuses on his entire life cycle. This includes the traumatic effect Lee’s profligate father, Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, had on the family when he misappropriated their fortune and abandoned his wife and children. Letters from this period reflect Robert E. Lee’s troubled childhood.

In nearly 500 pages of text, Ms. Pryor assesses Lee as a son, cadet, husband, father, officer, engineer, frontier commander, Civil War general and college president. The insights into Lee’s personality and demeanor are at times startling and always incisive. The author does not refrain from praise or criticism. She cites Lee’s engineering education and experience as having “a pronounced imprint on his personal thought as well as his approach to soldiering.”

Engineering, she says, led Lee to appreciate innovation, and this “would significantly influence his success in battle.” However, whenever he “neglected these scientific lessons” in family life or as a military commander, he ran into trouble. “Whether in overzealous admonitions to his children or on the battlefield at Gettysburg, his disappointments would stem from miscalculation, overextension, and unstable buttressing, all violations of engineering’s most fundamental principles.”

This is an example of the thematic process Ms. Pryor uses in this study of Lee to explain how he endeavored to establish a reputation as a caring, competent and reliable individual. On the one hand, he is depicted as a romantic who especially enjoys the company of ladies of all ages, and on the other, he is an overly demanding superintendent at West Point whose administration is labeled “the reign of Nero.”

A frequent focus of attention in the story is Arlington, the beautiful home of George Washington Parke Custis, the father of Lee’s wife. It was built on a hill overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., and the grounds have served as a national cemetery since the height of the Civil War. This was a turn of events that caused Mary considerable heartache and lifelong resentment, not to mention “open hatred for those who had robbed her” of her ancestral home (meaning the Union Army and Northern people).

When Mary inherited this property, including its slaves, Lee assumed responsibility for its management. It is through the author’s examination of these experiences that we discover that Lee’s attitude toward the institution of slavery was not as antagonistic, and his treatment of Arlington’s slaves was not as benign, as earlier commentators have asserted.

History records that Robert E. Lee was a great military commander. Most everyone also agreed he looked the part and had a “majestic presence.” In an attempt to capture Lee’s persona, an Army colonel once said, “The manly grandeur of his appearance is beyond my powers of portraiture.”

After Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 in the midst of Civil War, his aggressive campaigning raised the morale of a demoralized South. These tactics, however, also bled the army of its manpower, its most precious resource, which was in short supply.

Casualties and death were the constant companions of Lee’s army. While Lee felt sorrow for the anguish this caused his young soldiers and their families, his own family was not exempt from calamity. His daughter, grandson and daughter-in-law all died from various causes within a year, and his son “Rooney,” a cavalry officer, was seriously wounded and captured. Lee, himself not in the best of health, admitted, “In the quiet hours of the night, when there is nothing to lighten the full weight of my grief, I feel as if I should be overwhelmed.”

Lee’s letters reflect his spiritual awakening. Mary prayed fervently for his conversion, which came about as he matured. He adopted a fatalistic approach to the war and in 1863 expressed to his brother Carter in biblical overtones that “if we do our duty I trust we shall not be crushed. Through God we shall do great acts & it is He that shall tread down our enemies.”

Whatever God’s will was in this case, not long after, the Union army intervened and handed Lee a crushing defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, from which he and his forces would never regain the initiative.

Ms. Pryor compiled the semblance of a “memoir” from Lee’s random, unpublished thoughts on various subjects during the postwar years. She finds that Lee was “anxious to state his opinion on the war’s outcome, and do a little revisionist history on the reasons for his participation in it.” He privately vented his anger about the downtrodden status of his family, Virginia and the South in general. In the author’s opinion, Lee adopted a distinctly negative position about ex-slaves and their absorption into society.

If you are interested in the life of Robert E. Lee but always believed there must be more to the story, this biography will fill in many of the blanks. While military historians will find considerable grist for the discussion mill pro and con, this book fulfills a long-awaited need for better understanding of what made Lee tick. There is no better source for “Reading the Man” than the letters of the man himself.

Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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