Robert E. Lee: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies)

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9780143038665: Robert E. Lee: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies)

A “witty, lively and wholly fascinating” (The New York Times) portrait of an iconic Southern hero

With lively storytelling and full-hearted Southern directness, Roy Blount, Jr., presents a unique portrait of Robert E. Lee. Fascinated by the qualities that made Lee such a charismatic, though reluctant, leader, Blount vividly conveys Lee’s audacity and uncanny successes in battle, as well as his humility, his quirky sense of humor, and the sorrowful sense of responsibility he felt for his outnumbered, half-starved army. The first concise biography of this American legend, Robert E. Lee will appeal to history and military buffs, students of Southern culture, and every reader curious about the makeup of a man who has become an American icon.

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About the Author:

Roy Blount, Jr., grew up in Georgia and served in the army before becoming a celebrated humorist and cultural journalist. He has written for magazines as diverse as Sports Illustrated and The New York Review of Books and is the author of numerous books that include his recent memoir Be Sweet.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it. -Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg

Shut up, Bobby Lee. It's no real pleasure in life. -The Misfit, in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

In his dashing (if sometimes depressive) antebellum prime, he may have been the most beautiful person in America, a sort of precursor-cross between England's Cary Grant and Virginia's Randolph Scott. He was in his element gossiping with belles about their beaux at balls. In theaters of grinding, hellish human carnage he kept a pet hen for company. He had tiny feet that he loved his children to tickle. None of these things seems to fit, for if ever there was a grave American icon, it is Robert Edward Lee-hero of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, a unifying national figure for a century or so thereafter, and currently a symbol of nobility to some, of slavery to others.

After Lee's death in 1870, Frederick Douglass, the former fugitive slave who had become the nation's most prominent African American, wrote, "We can scarcely take up a newspaper...that is not filled with nauseating flatteries" of Lee, from which "it would seem...that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven." Two years later one of Lee's ex-generals, Jubal A. Early, apotheosized his late commander as follows: "Our beloved Chief stands, like some lofty column which rears its head among the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and sublime."

In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt expressed mainstream American sentiment in a letter to the Committee of Arrangement for the Celebration of the Hundredth Anniversary of Lee's birth: General Lee has left us the memory, not merely of his extraordinary skill as a General, his dauntless courage and high leadership... but also of that serene greatness of soul characteristic of those who most readily recognize the obligations of civic duty....He stood that hardest of all strains, the strain of bearing himself well through the gray evening of failure; and therefore out of what seemed failure he helped to build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, north and south, share.

Teddy Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and President Harry S. Truman had at least three things in common with Lee: They were all brave soldiers, staunch leaders of men, and, in no pejorative sense, mama's boys. Both Truman and MacArthur were adjured by their strong-minded mothers to grow up just like Robert E. Lee, and they never stopped taking that charge to heart.

When a white mob tried to prevent the integration of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Robert Penn Warren wrote, "Can the man howling in the mob imagine General R. E. Lee, CSA, shaking hands with Orval Faubus, governor of Arkansas?" Certainly not-Lee was too fine. But at the turn of the twenty-first century, a portrait of Lee on the James River floodwall in Richmond, Virginia, was defaced, restored, denounced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and defended by white supremacist David Duke. U.S. Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft was widely disparaged for having called Lee a "patriot." "We've got to stand up and speak in this respect," Ashcroft had written, "or else we'll be taught that [Lee and other Confederate leaders] were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

One thing that can be said for Lee is that he would have welcomed none of these pronouncements. If the self-effacing patrician could have known that his face would live on for so long as a quasi-religious, recurrently divisive symbol, it might have made him moan, as he did after sending thousands of men to be cut to ribbons at Gettysburg, "Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!" He was one of the few great men of whom it can be said that his sense of honor was rooted in genuine-if in fact far from simple or serene-humility. The most sublime word, Lee said, was "duty." In 1860 he wrote to Robert E. Lee Jr., who was starting college:

You must be frank in the world, frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right....Never do anything wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so, is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly, but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all do not appear to others what you are not.

Did he speak in such tones to himself? He was the last avatar, wrote Edmund Wilson approvingly, of "classical antique virtue, at once aristocratic and republican." But he was also a man. And isn't it true, as Montgomery Clift said in the role of Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, "Ain't nothin the matter with a soldier that ain't the matter with everybody else"?

We may think we know Lee because we have a mental image: gray. Not only the uniform, the mythic horse, the hair and beard, but the resignation with which he accepted dreary burdens that offered "neither pleasure nor advantage": in particular, the Confederacy, a cause of which he took a dim view until he went to war for it. He did not see right and wrong in tones of gray, and yet his moralizing could generate a fog, as in a letter from the front to his invalid wife: "You must endeavour to enjoy the pleasure of doing good. That is all that makes life valuable." All right. But then he adds: "When I measure my own by that standard I am filled with confusion and despair."

His own hand probably never drew human blood nor fired a shot in anger, and his only Civil War wound was a faint scratch on the cheek from a sharpshooter's bullet, but many thousands of men died quite horribly in battles where he was the dominant-fiery-spirit, and most of the casualties were on the other side. If we take as a given Lee's granitic conviction that everything is God's will, however, he was born to lose.

He was usually kinder than most great men. But in even the most sympathetic versions of his life story he comes across as a bit of a stick-certainly compared with his scruffy nemesis, Ulysses S. Grant; his zany, ferocious "right arm," Stonewall Jackson; and the dashing "eyes" of his army, Jeb Stuart. For these men, the Civil War was just the ticket. Lee, however, has come down in history as too fine for the bloodbath of 1861-65. As an icon he has enabled Americans of the South and also of the North to feel that somehow the American family was too decent to have brought upon itself four years of domestic carnage. To efface the squalor and horror of the war we have the image of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, and we have the image of Robert E. Lee nobly putting down his sword and standing selflessly for reconciliation. Both of those images have undergone reassessment-for many contemporary Americans, Lee is at best the moral equivalent of Hitler's brilliant field marshal Erwin Rommel (who, however, turned against Hitler, as Lee never did against Jefferson Davis, who, to be sure, was no Hitler)-but they haven't gone away.

Can we recast Lee in terms more edifying in this century?

One problem is that Lee's life didn't fit him. He appears to have been too fine for his childhood, for his education, for his profession, for his marriage, and for the Confederacy. Not according to him. According to him, he was not fine enough. For all his audacity on the battlefield, he accepted rather passively one raw deal after another, bending over backward for everyone from Jefferson Davis to James McNeill Whistler's mother.

By what can we know him? The works of a general are battles, campaigns, and usually memoirs. The engagements of the Civil War shape up more as bloody muddles than as commanders' chess games. For a long time during the war "Old Bobbie Lee," as he was referred to worshipfully by his troops and nervously by the foe, had the greatly superior Union forces spooked, but a century and a third of analysis and counteranalysis has resulted in no core consensus as to the genius or the folly of his generalship. And he wrote no memoir. He wrote personal letters-a discordant mix of flirtation, joshing, lyrical touches, and stern religious adjuration-and he wrote official dispatches that are so impersonal and (generally) unself-serving as to seem above the fray. He also wrote one strange parable, which had come to him in a dream.

Grant finally wore down Lee's ingenious military defenses, but he didn't crack his facade: There at the end stood Lee at Appomattox, too fine to represent defeat. In 1959, two years after citing Lee as a touchstone, Robert Penn Warren-who had written a biography of John Brown and a novel whose central character was inspired by Huey Long-grumbled, "Who cares about Robert E. Lee? Now, there's a man who's smooth as an egg. Turn him around, this primordial perfection: you see, he has no story. You can't just say what a wonderful man he was, and that you know he had some chaotic something inside because he's human but you can't get at it."

Maybe in this century, after monumentalism has given way to chaos theory and obsession with the self, we can at last figure out how to care humanly about the self that Robert E. Lee was at such pains to deny. The only way to get inside him, perhaps, is by edging fractally around the record of his life to find spots where he comes through; by holding up next to him some of the fully realized characters-Grant, Jackson, Stuart, his father (Light-Horse Harry Lee), John Brown-with whom he interacted; and by subjecting to contemporary skepticism certain concepts-honor, "gradual emancipation," divine will-upon which he unreflectively founded his identity.

Then there are minor but provocative matters like his feet, a peculiar instance of misspelling, his pet hen, his enigmatic "Pussyism" joke. For all that he tends to bring out a certain solemnity, even in discussions of his humor, he was capable of larky jocularity in the oddest connections and the darkest of times. If in considering his sad life we strive for too consistent a tone, we miss some of its jangly resonance. As he would say to his children when he was at his most intimate with them, "No tickling, no story."

He wasn't always gray. Until war aged him dramatically his sharp dark brown eyes were complemented by black hair ("ebon and abundant," as his doting biographer Douglas Southall Freeman puts it, "with a wave that a woman might have envied"), a robust black mustache, a strong full mouth and chin unobscured by any beard, and dark mercurial brows. He was not one to hide his looks under a bushel. His heart, on the other hand..."The heart, he kept locked away," as Stephen Vincent BenTt proclaimed in John Brown's Body, "from all the picklocks of biographers." Accounts by people who knew him give the impression that no one knew his whole heart, even before it was broken by the war. Perhaps it broke many years before the war. "You know she is like her papa, always wanting something," he wrote about one of his daughters. The great Southern diarist of his day, Mary Chesnut, tells us that when a lady teased him about his ambitions, "[h]e remonstrated-said his tastes were of the simplest. He only wanted a Virginia farm-no end of cream and fresh butter-and fried chicken. Not one fried chicken or two-but unlimited fried chicken." Just before Lee's surrender at Appomattox, one of his nephews found him in the field, "very grave and tired," carrying around a fried chicken leg wrapped in a piece of bread, which a Virginia countrywoman had pressed upon him but for which he couldn't muster any hunger.

In 1960 Robert Penn Warren was trying, unsuccessfully, to write an essay about Lee's decision to side with the Confederacy. "I do hope you can manage [it]," Warren's friend Cleanth Brooks wrote to him. Brooks was a fellow Southerner and a prime mover along with Warren in the so-called New Criticism, which concentrated on literature's intrinsic texture rather than its political and biographical ramifications, and he seemed to want Lee's texture to be enough. "You are right: that shouldn't fall into the wrong hands," Brooks went on. "I don't want to see a Lee throwing in his lot with the Confederacy because of an Oedipus complex, for instance." Well, why not? What is so fine about Lee that he is exempt from whatever sifter a given age may employ to sort out personality? It is too late for Freud now, but not for psychologizing. Item: A recent study found boys brought up in "mother-only households" to be disproportionately at risk for major depressive disorders. (See Appendix I.)

A boy who grows up with no father but one who is absent and discredited may lack certain tones of voice, may develop alternative modes of authority. Of the precious few memories Robert E. Lee can have had of his prodigal father coming home, the most vivid, we may assume, was of a broken, grotesquely swollen figure hobbling up the front walk, head swathed in bandages. A mob of patriots, as they saw themselves, had beaten Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, hero of the Revolution, very nearly to death. They had jabbed him with pocketknives and dripped candle wax into his eyes in attempts to make sure he was dead. They had slashed his face wide open in trying to cut off his nose. He had been defending a newspaper's right to oppose a war.

It was 1812. Robert was five years old.

On his father's side, Lee's family was among Virginia's and therefore the nation's most distinguished. Four of his father's cousins had been prominent members of the Continental Congress-so prominent, indeed, that other first families expressed resentment that the Lees were hogging the Revolution.

Henry, the scion who was to become Light-Horse Harry, was born in 1756. As a young a man he was always cheerful, ever gallant toward the ladies, a hell of a fellow among the fellows, given to flights of wild and biting humor, fiercely opinionated, and able to quote Alexander Pope at length from memory. He graduated from Princeton at nineteen, joined the Continental Army at twenty as a captain of dragoons, and impressed Gen. Charles Lee, no very direct relation, as having "come out of his mother's womb a soldier."

Though physically rather slight and facially rather plump, Harry looked fine on a horse and rode like the cavalier he was by birth. As he rose in rank and independence to command Lee's light cavalry and then Lee's legion of cavalry and infantry, he held the intense loyalty of his troops by combining strict discipline, bold stratagems, constant readiness to ride, and prudent preparation, including attention to hygiene: "I never saw one of his men in the general hospital," said an army surgeon. Every one of his cavalrymen eventually carried a sword taken personally from an enemy. When one of his men went over to the British, Harry captured him, hanged him, beheaded him, and proudly sent the head and neck with the rope still around it to his commander and hero, George Washington, who, however, was appalled.

Primarily Harry was no major-engagement man but a gadfly, a leader of freelance forays...

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