- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

GRAY CAVALIER:

THE LIFE AND WARS

OF GENERAL W.H.F. "ROONEY" LEE

By Mary Bandy Daughtry

Da Capo Press. 376 pages. $27.50


Mary Bandy Daughtry's biography of William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, the third child of Robert Edward and Mary Custis Lee, focuses on his military life. Her portrait of him is uncomfortably reminiscent of those beau sabeurs of another gray-clad army, in which the undoubted tactical ability and personal charm of a Wehrmacht officer was divorced from the society for which he fought and the consequences of his combat.

This is unfortunate.

Rooney Lee was a very active child at 8, he inadvertently took off the tips of two fingers while attempting to cut hay with a patent straw cutter who early on wanted to be a soldier like his father. When he did not receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, he attended his distant second choice, Harvard University. Although it was the best university in America, its abstract liberal-arts education did not suit Rooney, who, despite his financial carelessness as a young man, had a practical mind.

In the spring of Rooney's junior year at Harvard, Gen. Winfield Scott offered him a commission as a second lieutenant in the 6th Infantry. The commission was dated May 31, 1857, Rooney's 20th birthday. As an expert horseman, he would have preferred a commission to the 2nd Cavalry, while his father, an infantryman at heart, preferred to see his son in the infantry. Rooney accepted the infantry commission; his chance as a cavalryman would come.

Married on March 23, 1859, to Charlotte Wickham, Rooney Lee was the father of a year-old boy when Virginia seceded from the Union. He organized a company of cavalry that came to be known as Lee's Rangers and was commissioned a captain on May 6, 1861. He spent nine months as a prisoner of war, during which time his wife died, then was made a major general of cavalry in April 1864 upon his release after a prisoner exchange, commanding a division of two brigades.

He was 26, "a veteran cavalry commander who would never be called a 'boy general' due to rashness, inexperience, or impulsive action. His rise in rank was a steady climb based upon merit and achievement, as compared with some who jumped from staff captain to brigadier by currying favor," the author writes.

One can accept the personal goodness of Rooney Lee and his more famous father, Robert E. Lee, without denying that they committed treason. To evade this harsh judgment, much less to deny it, is to fail to understand the Civil War and why the North brought the war home to Southern civilians.

It was the South that seceded rather than accept that slavery was an institution deserving of death or even that the slave trade should not be renewed and that the North could not be relied upon to guarantee it through enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. It was the South, not the North, that chose Civil War, and it was the North that had no choice but to fight to a decisive victory if the republic was to exist except on paper. This may not excuse Gen. William T. Sherman's March to the Sea, but it explains it.

The author gives no space to this larger context of the war, resorting instead to the standard narrative of valiant Southern cavaliers overwhelmed by Yankee manpower and industry. A horsewoman herself, she contrasts Southern cavalrymen who risked their lives to rescue abandoned Union cavalry horses with Union cavalrymen who killed even temporarily lame or exhausted horses rather than leaving them to recover in Southern hands. Brutally unfair as this is to good horses, it also embodies the difference between fighting and waging war. Had the North been unwilling to outfight the South, its industrial and numerical superiority would have availed it little.

Rooney Lee's attempt to move beyond the Civil War is affecting. He rebuilt his home, destroyed in the war, putting up a shanty and farming with a cavalry horse he had trained to pull a plow. He eventually remarried and became a congressman who, although a Democrat, said he held public office as a public trust from all his constituents, regardless of race, color or party affiliation. In 1890, he helped a black Republican with a pension claim, telling the white Republican who had brought his case to Lee, "I represent all of the people of my district, and will help them all alike."

These are not cheap words, and one hopes they were meant. If Rooney Lee did not mean them, he deserves the dignity of being shown by his acts to be false, and if he did, the grace of his context, the extraordinary oppression of black people by whites. The author, however, avoids the ugliness of slavery that underlay the Civil War, fueled its ferocity and defeated a thoroughgoing Reconstruction, and so her biography never rises above the level of hagiography.

Erin Solar is a Washington-based writer. She is at work on a master's thesis, "Casualties, Cohesion, and Combat Effectiveness," and a book of essays, "The Woman Soldier."

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