04 January 2011

Better Than American Experience's Robert E. Lee

As I promised, and as a follow up to yesterday's post, I wanted to recommend a few of my favorite titles on Robert E. Lee. This is by no means my complete library on Lee but, again, some of my favorite titles. They are all older biographies, but very good. I do not accept the silly premise that "more recent" scholarship is necessarily "better" or more "accurate" scholarship. To suggest that is the epitome of arrogance and ignorance. But I digress. Here are the books I would recommend for understanding Lee and his perspective after the WBTS:

Lee - The Last Years by Charles Bracelen Flood This excellent book follows Lee's life from Appomattox until his death and funeral. It is one of my favorites and is not only an accurate, but also a fascinating look at Lee's life after the war. Here are a couple of choice excerpts:

Although the Northern and Midwestern states had sent their sons to shed blood to preserve the Union and end slavery, many of them had their own state laws that prohibited blacks from voting or severely qualified their right to do so. These were not old laws that Northern state legislatures had forgotten to repeal; on the same day that Lee was sworn in as president of Washington College, Connecticut's voters cast their ballots to reject a measure that would have given the vote to the two thousand blacks living within their state. A month later, Michigan and Wisconsin did the same thing.

On Lee declining Lincoln's offer of command and why he fought:

Lee explained his decision simply. "After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me, to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field; stating, as candidly and courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.
Lee After the War - The Greatest Period in the Life of a Great Man by Marshall W. Fishwick (and my personal favorite) This is another delightful biography of Lee's life in Lexington and was written by a native Virginian and highly respected historian who earned his Ph.D from Yale and later taught at Washington & Lee University. Fishwick makes no attempt to hide his admiration of Lee in this book, but that fact does not diminish the book's value. You can still pick a used copy up at Amazon for around $10. An excerpt, as I noted in yesterday's post, reveals why Lee is still the most popular single figure of the WBTS:

    Lee's appeal, like his strength, exists on multiple levels. To those who only catch a glance of him riding across the pages of American history, he is the general on the beautiful horse, fighting bravely as did the knights of old. To Southerners, he is the chief patriot, defending his homeland with the last ounce of his strength. To the historian, he is a pivotal figure of the nineteenth century, a symbol of the revolt that almost wrecked the Ship of State. To the philosopher, he is the last major spokesman of the agrarian way of life which made the eighteenth century physiocrats the founding fathers of the nation. To the sociologist, he is the flower of the semi-feudalistic society built on caste and class.
   To the poet, he is the silent enigma, the peerless Cavalier who made poetry out of action. To the educator, he is an early advocate of pragmatism and technical training in American universities. To the churchman, he is the fully committed Christian who put trust in God above all earthly things. To the genealogist, he is the epitome of one of the greatest American families, and the best proof that blood will tell. To the soldier, he is the man without a demerit who said that duty is the sublimest word in the English languge. To the tourist, he is the man whose name seems to be on every road, every battlefield, and every victory south of the Potomac.
Genearl Robert E. Lee After Appomattox by Franklin L. Riley This too, is a delightful and interesting book and was recently republished by Washington & Lee. The book is a collection of personal anecdotes and stories contributed by W & L professors, alumni, and contemporaries of Lee. It also includes a chapter entitled What General Lee Read After The War. This compilation provides some great insight into what Lee was thinking and what his intersests were after the war. One excerpt from this book should put to rest the ridiculous notion that Lee was bitter over--or regretted--his service in the Confederate Army or that he would have made a different choice--given the same options (a notion that was suggested in the American Experience film). The following is from a former student at Washington College and soldier in Lee's army:

Just once it was my lot to receive a severe rebuke from General Lee. While I was an undergraduate my health seemed to become impaired, and he had a conversation with me about it, in which he expressed the opinion that I was working too hard. I replied: "I am so impatient to make up for the time I lost in the army--" I got no further. Lee flushed and exclaimed in an almost angry tone: "Mr. Humphreys! However long you live and whatever you accomplish, you will find that the time you spent in the Confederate army was the most profitably spent portion of your life. Never again speak of having lost time in the army." And I never did again.

And for understanding Lee's Christiain faith:

And One Was a Soldier: The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Robert E. Lee by Bishop Robert R. Brown This concise biography of Lee focuses on Lee's Christian faith and spiritual journey. I believe it is indispensable in understanding the genesis of Lee's faith:

But it was from his mother that Robert learned of God. The Carters had a tradition--instill into each child a loyalty, not only to family, but also to church and Creator. Family worship became a daily order, as was scripture reading. Sunday found the family pew fully occupied at nearby Westover Church, with the younger children often sitting out of sight on the floor. Those were duties every Carter owed the Creator, and Ann Lee was a Carter. As a consequence, she brought these principles into the Lee household, making family prayer a custom, instilling the basic elements of Christianity, and seeing that each young Lee attended Christ Church in Alexandria every Sunday.

Bishop Brown also discusses other early influential persons in young Robert's life--all which pushed him toward what would ultimately become an all-encompassing faith in Christ. But this faith was evident in his youth and as a young man. The notion that it did not become central to Lee's character until "late in life" is more ridiculous fiction. 

These lesser known titles, off the beaten path of "more recent scholarship", will provide the reader with some great insight into the character and beliefs of Robert E. Lee as they were all written prior to academia's obsession with politically correct orthodoxy and hero-bashing. Of course, there are a number of other titles one could mention-- J. W. Jones's "Life & Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee" and Douglas Southall Freeman's definitive, R.E. Lee. I would assume most readers of this blog are familiar with those titles. If not, put them on your list as well.


msimons said...

Thanks Richard!

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this list. The book by Charles Bracelen Flood I know but the others are new to me. I look forward to checking them out.