- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006


By James I. Robertson Jr.

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $21.95, illustrated, 159 pages

“Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing of good to show for mine that

is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and to the honour of God.”

Thus wrote defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife, explaining his dilemma as he faced the future after surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. He had followed his conscience to the end.

With his shrunken army surrounded, Lee had said, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Why would a man expressing his personal sentiments in these two quotes be remembered and honored today as one of “history’s greatest generals”? That assessment comes from a 2004 book for young readers, “Civil War Battles and Leaders,” from DK Publishing Inc.

James I. Robertson’s new book on Lee explains why he is so revered and why assessments of the general are so laudatory. This book describes the events that marked the man and his place in history.

During Lee’s boyhood at Stratford Hall Plantation in Stratford, Va., and in Alexandria, his mother compensated for an absent father. Mr. Robertson explains that Lee was raised in “genteel poverty” and never forgot the financial condition of his early family life. He chose the military as a career and was so talented academically that he graduated second in the West Point class of 1829.

In 1831, Lee’s life bonded with that of George Washington when the young army lieutenant married Mary Anne Randolph Custis. His wife was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Washington’s wife, Martha, whom the Washingtons raised as their adopted son after his father died. Lee and his wife lived at Arlington, a home Mary inherited from her father.

Lee spent the next 30 years in the U.S. Army. On April 18, 1861, Lee learned that President Lincoln had authorized Francis P. Blair Jr. to offer him command of the Federal army. Mr. Robertson is at his best as he explains Lee’s dilemma. Young readers (as well as older ones) learn about the forces affecting Lee’s decision and the consequences he faced when he chose Virginia over the Union.

Throughout the book, the author explains Lee’s relationships with the notable figures of the period, and he uses an intriguing play on words in regard to one of them. Chapter 6 is titled “Loss of an Arm.” Most probably the young reader will conclude that Lee lost an arm. He did, but only in a manner of speaking, and the event is presented in a way that is sure to be instructive and unforgettable to the reader.

Mr. Robertson explains strategy and tactics as well describing the army leaders involved in Lee’s career. The two sides of the conflict are given equal treatment: Abraham Lincoln rates 22 listings in the index. (Stonewall Jackson receives 15, Ulysses S. Grant nine.) Lincoln’s mentions are second only to those to Lee himself.

The author explains what influenced Lee during his lifetime (his mother, faith and army training) and describes their effect on Lee’s personality. This allows the reader to know both the soldier and the citizen.

The many strengths of this biography reach their zenith in the chapter called “National Symbol.” Here Mr. Robertson addresses Lee’s determination to work toward reconciliation after the war. His efforts “to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and to the honour of God” is described in detail and will be an example and encouragement to all who read this biography.

Written by a college professor who has taught the largest Civil War class in the country for more than 30 years, this book contains many lessons. Foremost among them is that even though Robert E. Lee was a great leader and orchestrated many victories, he was the first American general to lose a war. With this biography, he has won.

Vicki Heilig is a co-founder of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table.

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