This site was dedicated to the purpose of writing about both fiction and history; yet, neither my partner nor I have posted anything of a purely historical interest. (Though, this article mentions a historical movement at least.) And so, I am resisting the inclination to post this on Aquilon’s Eyrie, a blog specializing in American culture. This is despite the fact that I mention this particular biography on that site first.
One of Emory M. Thomas’s goals when writing about Lee was to delineate the man himself. He wished to avoid the extremes of hagiography or smearing his good name, which he felt had been the goals of his past biographers. (Though, Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume biography offers an example of rigid adherence to facts and is considered R. E. Lee’s greatest biography.) I have to agree that Thomas offers us a very human portrait of Lee. At the same time, he cannot think of Lee as anything less than a Hero. (He capitalizes the H.) Lee had his faults: he struggled to suppress a short temper, his work style was rather OCD, and he possessed such a predilection for female society that he had few male friends. Yet, Thomas praises Lee for his perseverance in suppressing his temper and the excellence Lee’s character achieved through modelling his actions on the Master, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps, I found myself most edified by Thomas’ portrayal of Lee’s emotive side and the clarification of Lee’s views on blacks. Robert E. Lee on Leadership by H. W. Crocker had convinced me that Lee ran ahead of his time in his views on slavery and blacks. During the Civil War, he did recommend to Jefferson Davis that slavery be abolished so that France and England would not be embarrassed to aid southern arms. However, Crocker led me to believe that Lee had emancipated all his slaves (inherited from his father-in-law) prior to the Civil War. The case seems rather to be that he liberated some until the rest were freed perforce due to the Northern invasion. It is true that Lee came to hate slavery, but he held a Jeffersonian understanding of emancipation: blacks are intellectually inferior to whites and cannot function in a republic. He wished them free, but not in the same country. Before anyone looks down on Lee for that, consider that people’s minds are restricted by the customs and opinions of their times–whether in the 19th or 21st century–and that many a Northern abolitionist felt no differently on the matter.
More so than Crocker, Thomas makes the reader understand how warmhearted Lee was and the degree to which he cared about people. Crocker does write about how Lee was a concerned father and cared for his troops, but this Lee comes across as more stoic than Thomas’s Lee. In regard to his parenting, Thomas writes that not only did Lee give good moral instruction and set a good example, but Lee also loved his children most affectionately and enjoyed playing with them. In regard to the affection which he held for his troops, when a certain general lamented the slaughter of Pickett’s charge and the loss of the battle, Thomas records Lee’s loud outburst: “Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!” In this singular outburst, one can feel his anguish and pity for all the Confederates who lost their lives in the bloodiest battle of the war. Lee may have been called the “marble man,” but his exactitude and polished manners concealed a heart full of compassion. Perhaps, it can even more be said of Lee than of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain that “he has the heart of a woman and the courage of a lion.”
I have seen the remark that this work is as hard to trudge through as a textbook. I submit that the beginning of Lee’s life makes for difficult reading, alleviated by the excitement of the Mexican War; yet, the sections from the strife leading up to the Civil War to the end read very quickly. The greater information about Lee at this time makes the author feel less compelled to intrude his personal views into the work. Certain points of the work are marked by excessive fixation on Lee’s faults. (To make him seem more human, I suppose?) I could have also done without some of his political comments. Yet, this cannot take away from the truth that this is a well written biography, and perhaps the best one available as a single volume.